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 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.
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 Latter Day Saints (Mormon), Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, which have quite a few adherents worldwide.
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.
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 Asian religions
While much of East Asia is Buddhist and there are many Muslims in China and Mongolia, there are also some religions which developed within the region.
- Confucianism is more a code of conduct than what Westerners would consider a religion. It emphasizes respect for one's ancestors and willingness to play one's role in society. It has had considerable influence in various nations near China; see Chinese Empire for discussion. Both Confucius's birthplace, Qufu, and that of Mencius, Zoucheng, draw both pilgrims and tourists.
- Taoism is based on meditation and the notion of wu wei (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.
- Shinto is a Japanese tradition emphasizing mysticism and patriotism.
Unlike Western religions, these tend not to demand exclusivity. It is fairly common in China or Japan for someone to adopt some practices from more than one of these, and often from Buddhism as well.
While the religions mentioned above are the most prolific, virtually all peoples of the world have some kind of spiritual tradition.
Some have gone extinct and been revived, such as the Old Norse paganism. Even disappeared religions 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 widespread literacy and missionaries often tried to suppress that "the feast of Saint whatshisface" bears some striking similarities to the former "feast of God whatshername".