Many readers of this weblog are familiar with Robert Putnam’s research showing that communitarianism may be inversely correlated with diversity. In the American context we’re likely to view this through the prism of race and ethnicity. But Peter Turchin in his work tends to focus on religion and other ideologies as the group identities around which humans coalesce. Humans obviously have a need for conformity and solidarity; I recall as a child a Steelers fan getting into a fight with a Browns fan. So it should not be hard to observe the problems which ideological diversity produce even in an ethnically and racially homogeneous nation such as South Korea.
Last week there were mass demonstrations of Buddhists in South Korea against the religious parochialism of the current president, a Presbyterian elder. The president is already unpopular for other reasons, so I don’t personally believe that this unrest is a necessary outcome of religious tension. Rather, as documented in books such as The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, a social context where individuals feel under stress and insecure will often produce intergroup conflict. In an age of plenty there is elbow room between factions because of the growing pie, but when we smell the Malthusian trap in the air group level affinities come to the fore as you don’t want to become isolated as an individual without communal capital which you can leverage.
South Korea is I suspect a case where these dynamics might become more important in the coming years because of its religious diversity. Additionally, religious tension is not a new feature of the culture. It isn’t too hard to find instances of fundamentalist Christians attacking Buddhism. This is similar to cases in Brazil where evangelicals have destroyed statues of the Virgin Mary. There several recent incidents associated with the current head of state which precipitated the present crisis, but note this:
But tension has been building up since December, when newly elected president Lee began filling his first cabinet with Christians. At least a half of his new ministers were people professing to be Christians, with the prime minister, Han Seung Soo, said to be a Roman Catholic. Not a single cabinet minister professed to be Buddhist.
Of the 15 members of Lee’s Cabinet, 12 are Christian and one is Buddhist while the affiliation of two others was not immediately available.
So obviously there’s some disagreement, but one can assume here that though Christians are 1/3 of the population they are the substantial majority of the cabinet. Is this prejudice? Discrimination? Do Buddhists have grounds to be angry? As I have noted before in South Korea Christianity has a strong correlation with higher socioeconomic status. If one assumes that cabinet level positions sample from the social and educational elites, then they will naturally tend to preponderantly be Christians! Of course since the president is a zealous Christian one can always be suspicious of his motive and method, so as a precautionary principle one could argue that there should have been an affirmative action to reach out to Buddhists so that the cabinet “looked like the nation.”
In the United States we’re so hung up on racial and ethnic factions that we often don’t notice that the disparate representations of different religious groups in government. Check the religious affiliations of Congress and Governors. Thank God we live well below the Malthusian limit!