Religion and spirituality have played a significant role in humanity's history. Many cultural sights from buildings to festivals and traditions are of a religious nature. Most populated places have at least one place of worship; at least one such place is usually a prominent building, often with more elaborate architecture than secular buildings.
All travellers, religious or not, should learn something about the dominant religions in the countries they visit. Even in communities that seem secular and modern, such as Europe or East Asia, religion has played an important role in customs and values in the past, and often continues to do so to this day, even among people who are no longer religious. Even religions that have now virtually disappeared have left architectural remains, and sometimes a certain influence on other religions. Good examples of this are the old Eastern Christian churches in the Middle East, and the Precolumbian religions and rituals that are still visible under a thin Catholic façade in much of Latin America.
A religious congregation can be the base of an ethnic diaspora, and provide expats and travellers a connection with their people. For example, the Anglican Communion is a communion with the Church of England, with churches in most of the world's countries, with services held in English.
Religion and politics
Many countries have a state religion, while others, such as most communist countries, are officially atheist. Countries that are neither officially atheist nor have a state religion are called secular, and some of these have laws in place restricting religious worship or observance in public spaces. For instance, it is illegal to promote any sort of religion in publicly-owned buildings in France; this extends to the wearing of religious clothing accessories such as the crucifix or hijab. However, the official status of religion in a country does not necessarily correspond to religiosity of the general population. For instance, the United States is officially a secular country, but strongly Christian in practice, with nearly half of the population attending church regularly, and politicians often citing the Bible to justify policy positions. Conversely, Iceland is officially a Lutheran country, but rather secular in practice, with only a minority of the population actively practising the faith, and religion rarely if ever featuring in the political discourse.
Before the advent of rail travel and steamships in the 19th century, long-distance travel was hardly a pleasure, and many of those who ventured far from home were motivated by faith. A pilgrimage was, and still remains, a way to find physical fitness, redemption, wisdom, or the meaning of life. Though modern pilgrims can travel fast and comfortably to sacred places, some might, literally and figuratively, choose the narrow path. Some pilgrimage routes have become destinations in their own right as has the "travel infrastructure" of yesteryear - whether it is still in use as such or not. Many pilgrimage routes are also open - and indeed often traveled on - by those of a different faith or no faith at all. Do keep in mind that some pilgrimage routes and destinations are off-limits to non-believers (or different believers) either year round or during special occasions.
Religions of the world
Judaism was the first one established, and Christianity and Islam are the largest in terms of number of followers. All three religions have much history and many beliefs in common. Another smaller and more recent one is the Baha'i Faith. They originate from the Holy Land in the Middle East.
There are also a number of what are sometimes called post-Christian religions — so called because they hold a post-Biblical text sacred, in addition to the Bible. Most were founded in the United States, notably including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, all of which have sent out many missionaries and now have quite a few adherents worldwide.
- Holy Land for religious destinations in the Middle East
- Fátima, a Marian city known as "the altar of the World"
- Way of Saint James (to Santiago de Compostela)
- Painted Monasteries in northern Romania
- Protestant Reformation
- Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca
- Travelling during Ramadan
- Kashrut, Jewish dietary laws
- The Crusades; religious wars in the High Middle Ages
Hinduism and Buddhism have their origins in India, together with some associated religions with much smaller numbers of adherents, such as Jainism and Sikhism. While Hinduism also flourished in much of Southeast Asia for hundreds of years, it was ultimately replaced by other religions there, with a few exceptions such as Bali. Hinduism has largely remained local to South Asia ever since, except for proselytic movements such as Hare Krishna and migrants of South Asian descent. However, Buddhist values have influenced a wide range of Asian lands, and because Buddhism does not demand exclusivity, it is often practised alongside local religions. Sikhism is still largely concentrated in the Indian state of Punjab, though there are Sikh diasporas in many parts of the world, most notably the United Kingdom, Canada and Malaysia.
You will notice the mention of yoga and meditation below. That's because both disciplines were highly developed in ancient times by Hindu and Buddhist masters, so that while many types of meditation exist and yoga nowadays is often practiced outside of Hindu and Buddhist countries in a non-religious manner, the origins of yoga and at least the most influential styles of meditation are in these dharmic religions.
- Sacred sites of the Indian sub-continent
- Meditation in Japan
- Meditation in Thailand
- Meditation retreat centers
- 88 Temple Pilgrimage
East and North Asian religions
While much of East Asia is Buddhist, there are many Muslims in China and Mongolia and many Christians in South Korea, and there are also some religions which developed within the region.
- Confucianism is more a code of conduct than what Westerners would consider a religion, though literary temples (文庙 wénmiào), also known as Confucius temples (孔庙 kǒngmiào or 夫子庙 fūzǐmiào), dedicated to the worship of Confucius exist both in China, and in Chinese-influenced civilisations such as Vietnam (Văn Miếu in Vietnamese), Korea (문묘 munmyo in Korean) and Japan (孔子廟 kōshi-byō in Japanese). Confucianism emphasizes respect for one's ancestors and willingness to play one's role in society, and also places a strong emphasis on education and study. One of the most noticeable influences from Confucianism you may notice in East Asian religious practices is ancestor worship. It has had considerable influence in various nations near China; see Imperial China for discussion. Both Confucius's birthplace in Qufu, and that of the second most famous exponent of the religion, Mencius in Zoucheng, draw pilgrims and tourists.
- Taoism is based on meditation and the notion of wu wei (无为／無為) (non-action, going with the flow). It provides a mystical counterpoint to Confucianism and has had a large influence on some schools of Buddhism, notably Zen. There are famous statues of the founder, Lao-tzu, on San Shan Island in Lake Tai and Qingyuan Mountain in Quanzhou. While in its narrowest sense it refers only to the philosophy based on teachings of Lao-tzu, the term is often used in a broader sense to refer to the worship of traditional Chinese deities. The Wudang Mountains are widely regarded to be the holiest site in Taoism.
- Shinto is a Japanese tradition emphasizing mysticism, nature and patriotism.
- Muism, or Korean Shamanism was the traditional religion of the Korean people. Though Buddhism and Confucianism eventually became more popular after their introduction from China, many Shamanistic practices continue to survive in Korean culture. A Shamanistic ritual called a gut (굿) is often performed on the site before the construction of a new building.
- Various forms of Shamanism are practiced in Siberia and Mongolia. However, the context is different for each people, so the "-ism" part of the word is questioned as misleadingly implying some unified religion or ideology.
Unlike Western religions, these tend not to demand exclusivity. It is fairly common in East Asian countries for someone to adopt some practices from more than one of these, and often from Buddhism as well, and there are many Chinese temples devoted to deities from more than one of these religions. Similarly, in Japan, prior to their forced separation following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the distinction between Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples was often blurry, with temple complexes often being dedicated to deities from both religions. Even today, despite their separation, most Japanese continue to offer prayers at both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples for different festivals.
African and African Diaspora religions
By far most Africans today are Muslims or Christians, and there are also very ancient Jewish communities in several African countries and newer ones in others, as well as many Hindus among its Indian diaspora communities. However, there are also religions of African origin, some of which have spread to the African Diaspora in the Americas.
- Yoruba religion, Santeria and Candomblé are essentially different names for the religion of the Yoruba, the second most populous tribe in Nigeria, whose homeland is now also part of Benin and Togo in West Africa. There is a large diaspora of Yoruba in the Americas, chiefly as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and therefore, Yoruba religion was spread to Cuba (Santeria) and Brazil (Candomblé). Most Yoruba today are Christians or Muslims, but many aspects of their traditional religion are still practiced in their homeland. Yoruba traditional religion is polytheist, with many orishas (deities) venerated and represented as statues. In the African Diaspora, the religion was syncretized with Catholicism for safety, as so-called "witchcraft" has been persecuted a lot of the time in Catholic countries in the Americas, so each orisha was associated with a particular saint. Therefore, when you look at items for sale in a botánica (Santeria religious items store) in any number of communities with large Hispano-Caribbean populations, including U.S. cities such as New York and Miami, you will see many things that look like Catholic religious icons, but they are really intended to represent Yoruba deities. Practitioners of Yoruba religion are known for making animal sacrifices and performing magic, and indeed there are those who do both, but magic can be white (positive) or black (destructive), and the idea that all the millions of people practicing this religion are doing black magic is unfounded. The Afro-Cuban music associated with Santeria uses a lot of African percussion and is quite polyrhythmic and exciting, designed to alter the listener's mental state.
- West African Vodun is the traditional religion of the Fon people of Benin, Togo and Nigeria and Ewe people of Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. A large number of Fon people were enslaved and transported across the Atlantic, and their religion came, too, and is now also known as Cuban Vodú, Brazilian Vodum, Puerto Rican Vudú (Sanse) and Louisiana Voodoo. Haitian Vodou has aspects of both West African Vodun and Yoruba religion, while Dominican Vudú is of mixed West African, South African and indigenous Taino origins. Vodun can be interpreted as polytheistic or monotheistic, in that it has a single creator goddess, Mawu, and Voduns of the Earth, thunder and justice, the sea, iron and war, agriculture and forests, air, and that which is unpredictable. In the Catholic colonies and countries the enslaved descendants of the Fon and Ewe found themselves in, they syncretized Vodun with Catholic beliefs in a single creator God and various saints who can be called upon to pray for you. In Africa, although most Fon and Ewe people are now Christians, many of them continue to practise the traditional Vodun religion alongside Christianity. Like Yoruba religion, Vodun and its outgrowths in the African Diaspora are known for magic, and like Yoruba religion, the bad reputation Vodun has as solely a practice of black magic is inaccurate. If you visit Lomé, Togo, or any number of cities in Benin and other countries where Vodun or traditions originating from it are practiced, look for fetish markets where you can see various items related to its practice including animal bones and dolls.
One thing to keep in mind about the belief in and practice of Yoruba religion, Vodun and their outgrowths in the Americas is that you should never assume that just because someone comes from a country where such beliefs exist, they therefore share or practice them. There are still sometimes violent, even murderous attacks on the adherents of these religions by Christians such as Pentacostalists in Brazil, and it's quite common for the much larger group of non-violent Christians to consider these to be not religions but Satanism. Conversely, you would be wrong to assume that just because someone doesn't look African to you or is even of completely European ancestry, they therefore couldn't believe in or practice these religions. So tread carefully to avoid offense.
Although the vast majority of Polynesians today are Christians, elements of the traditional Polynesian religions survive in the local cultures. The ones foreigners are most likely to come across are the traditional religions of the Maori of New Zealand, and the native Hawaiians.
Native Hawaiian religion is traditionally polytheistic. The Hawaiian deity visitors are most likely to learn about is Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire. The Hawaiian islands are all of volcanic origin and therefore believed by Native Hawaiians to have been created by Pele. Anyone who violates her by taking any volcanic rocks home from Hawaii is believed to be cursed, and respecting Native Hawaiian religion and traditions means leaving all natural objects where they are (except for things like a lei you may be gifted, but no rocks or sand) and leaving no trace of your visits to any of the high places. Reverence for Pele has made the astronomical observatory at the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island and proposals for its renovation controversial.
Likewise, traditional Maori religion is polytheistic, culminating in Rangi the sky father and Papa the earth mother, who are believed to have been the ancestors all living things. Although most Maori today are Christians, elements from their traditional religion have been incorporated into modern funerary rites, and you can also see influences from the traditional Maori religion in the architecture of modern-day Maori churches.
Australian Aboriginal religions
- See also: Indigenous Australian culture
The vast majority of Aboriginal people in Australia today are Christians, but elements of their traditional religions continue to be an important part of their cultures. The ones that visitors are most likely to come across are known as The Dreaming, which refers to traditional Aboriginal myths about the creation of the world.
Indigenous religions of the Americas
The vast majority of Native Americans today are Christians, though you can find elements of the traditional religions in their cultural practices.
- There is also the Native American Church, a religion that combines elements of Native American traditions and Christianity, in that the one Great Spirit is considered the same as Jesus Christ. Having originated in the Oklahoma Territory at the end of the 19th century and using Plains Native American symbols such as a ceremonial tepee, it has about 250,000 adherents in the U.S. (especially the Great Lakes states and further west), Canada and Mexico. Their ceremonial use of peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus, has previously been persecuted under drug laws and is now protected under a 1978 U.S. law.
In Latin America, most of the indigenous people are now Roman Catholic, but various indigenous practices continue to survive. For instance, the Nahua people of Mexico, who are the descendants of the Aztecs, often fuse stories of their traditional deities with those of Christian saints, and continue to conduct some of their pre-Columbian religious rituals, albeit for the celebration of Christian festivals today. Descendants of the Mayans in southern Mexico and Guatemala likewise have fused elements of their traditional religion with Christianity; traditions once associated with the Sun God are now often associated with Jesus Christ instead, while those once associated with the Moon God are now often associated with the Virgin Mary. In Cuzco, Peru, although mostly Roman Catholic today, descendants of the Incas re-enact Inti Raymi'rata, the traditional Inca Festival of the Sun God, on 24th June every year.
While the religions mentioned above are the most prolific, virtually all peoples of the world have some kind of spiritual tradition. For instance, the original pre-Islamic religion of the Persian people, Zoroastrianism, which was moderately important 600BCE-600CE, declined considerably after Islam reached Persia but continues to survive in Iran, India and other parts of the world.
Some religions have gone extinct and been revived, such as Celtic, Old Norse, and even Greco-Roman paganism. Even disappeared ones may have left a mark on subsequent religions or "secular" traditions, but the exact extent is often hard to gauge as many cultures abandoned their former religion before the introduction of writing, and missionaries often tried to hide the fact that "the feast of Saint whatshisface" bears some striking similarities to the former "feast of God whatshername". Hinduism is believed by many modern scholars to share a common origin with many pre-Christian European mythologies, as well as pre-Islamic Persian mythology.
Similarly, many stories in today's religions are believed to have been influenced by stories from now-extinct religions. For instance, the story of Noah's Ark in the Bible has striking similarities with the story of Utnapishtim from the Epic of Gilgamesh in Ancient Mesopotamian mythology.
|“||Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate.
Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
—Inferno, Dante Alighieri
Religion is a sensitive topic, and a component in many international and regional conflicts. A comprehensive guidebook of all religious customs in the world would be very long; as a general principle, travellers should learn about ethics prescribed by the dominant religions at the destination.