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 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. 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 ask include:
- 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?
- 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 willing to make? Think about whether you may wish 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 your religious practice are you 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.
- The Spiritual Life office of the University of Chicago provides support to members of the campus community of any religious background and also to those who seek spiritual life beyond traditional boundaries.
- Diversity Abroad offers tips, student profiles, and information about diversity and inclusion overseas. See especially their page on religious diversity abroad.
- The Pluralism Project seeks to help Americans engage with the realities of religious diversity.
- US State Department International Religious Freedom Reports