Religion and Spiritual Life Off-Campus

Whether or not one identifies with religious or spiritual beliefs or practices, religion plays an important role in shaping cultures and societies, both in the United States and abroad. In most study abroad locations, there will typically be a dominant or mainstream religion and one or more minority religions, as well as individuals who identify as atheist/agnostic/non-practicing. Seeking to understand the interplay between culture, religion, society, and individual practice or beliefs of the dominant and minority religions in your host country is a fascinating aspect of the study abroad experience, and some of the most interesting cultural sites to visit in your host location may be places of worship.

However, your personal religious beliefs and practices—or lack thereof—may be perceived and understood differently in your host culture, depending on their relationship to the majority and minority faiths in the region, than they are perceived at home. There may be cultural expectations related to religious faith and practice in your location that run counter to your personal values and beliefs.

Even if you do identify with the dominant religion in your host country, it is beneficial to research how it is practiced in your host location.  There is always a chance that you may practice differently than your host country.  It may also be helpful to speak with your program provider’s on-site staff or a religious leader in the area to be sure of what you may or may not be allowed to participate in as an outsider to that particular place of worship.  Whether you follow a religion or not, it is always polite to be sure your participation is allowed and respectful as a person who does not regularly practice in that location. 

Navigating the subtle terrain of faith, spirituality, and practice can be difficult in a foreign environment. It can also be difficult to understand how your own religious identity fits into your host culture. Each person’s experience of this aspect of their identity abroad will differ, but you are encouraged to think about potential challenges for cultural adjustment ahead of departure.

Questions you should consider for further research:

• What is the dominant religion in my host country? How is it manifested in everyday life?
• Will I be part of the religious majority or minority abroad?
• Are there any laws regarding religion? Is there a separation between religion and government?
• How tolerant of other religions is the host society? Is there tolerance for atheists and agnostics?
• Is it safe for me to wear religious symbols or clothing?
• How should I respectfully visit religious places of worship to learn about my host culture?
• Is it respectful to participate in a religious ceremony or festival as an outsider to that religion or that particular place of worship?
• Are there differences in practices upon entering a place of worship based on gender?
• How will it feel to me when I participate in course-related excursions to sites of worship?
• Is it realistic for me to continue to practice my religion abroad in the same way I practice it at home or on campus? Are there any adjustments I am able or willing to make? Do I want to find a place of worship, seek out a community of other practitioners, follow specific dietary guidelines, or worship according to a specific schedule? What aspects of my religious practice am I able or not able to be flexible about?
• Depending on your religious identity and your location, you may want to communicate any concerns or specific information about accommodations (such as dietary restrictions) to program staff ahead of departure.