By Meredith Hauser, Manager of Social Impact Journeys and Events Coordinator
Imagine you are a tourist in the fictional country of Nacirema (Miner, 1956). You have done no prior research before visiting this country, but as your trip goes on, you start to notice that an unspoken belief system dictates certain aspects of everyday life. On certain days of the week, stores are not allowed to sell alcohol for religious reasons. Proclamations of the country’s faith are inscribed on its currency, and most schools begin the day by having the children recite an oath that references their religion. Curious, you begin to research Nacirema’s history further and find that much of its history, from its foundation to modern day conflicts revolves closely around religion.
In case you haven’t guessed it yet, the country to which I am alluding is the United States. Now, is this anecdote a little on-the-nose, and overused by 8th Grade Political Science teachers? Maybe. However, it still helps to demonstrate my point.
Since the dawn of time, human beings have formed groups and social networks around belief systems and faiths. Without getting deep into the anthropological studies around religion, it’s safe to say that said belief systems and faiths have largely informed the way that most nations have developed. Much like in our fictional country of Nacirema (and our real-life country of the United States), large parts of our society are formed around belief systems.
Our usual pre-trip checklist as tourists tends to include vaccinations, visas, and perhaps some prior research on must-know phrases in the local language. It is equally as important to do your research to understand the religious background of any place to which you travel. This practice should apply to all travel, not just for religious-oriented trips such as pilgrimages. Any traveler should understand the spirituality of any destination to which they are traveling, if for no other reason, to not appear ignorant.
Imagine traveling to the United States without any prior knowledge of its Judeo-Christian background. While we practice separation of church and state, there are many aspects of our day to day lives that are dictated by our country’s religious origins, to the point of which they have essentially become secular practices. That being said, the U.S. is one of the most secular countries in the world. While religion is not deeply ingrained in our society, pieces of it are still relatively ubiquitous. In many other countries, religion heavily influences the day to day life, economics, and politics.
According to three WIN/Gallup International polls, taken in 2008, 2009, and 2015, the most religious countries in the world are in Africa and the Middle East. In countries like Ethiopia, Malawi, and Sri Lanka, 99% of surveyed people described themselves as deeply religious. It is easy to disregard the profound influence of religion on culture, especially if you don’t practice religion yourself. However, cultures, beliefs, and customs can change drastically from place to place with quite severe consequences should they be disrespected publicly, even if done unintentionally. Dress code, certain signs of respect, and greetings are often informed by religion. For example, if you are woman traveling in a predominately in Muslim countries, it’s best to allow men to first extend their hand to you upon meeting them for the first time. In certain sects of Islam and Judaism, unmarried men and women are discouraged from touching of any sort. Thus, it is essential to understand the history and significance of various religious traditions of your destination before you travel to avoid committing social faux pas that make you or others feel uncomfortable or disrespected.
That’s not to say the learning should stop before your travel commences. Remember that it’s ok to ask questions while in-country, especially if you’re with a trusted guide or local friend/acquaintance. People often appreciate a traveler’s willingness to learn, so long as questions are asked respectfully.
The next time you’re about to embark on a journey, take some time to understand the religious traditions of your destination before you travel!
Have an antidote about a time you encountered religion in an unexpected way while traveling? We’d love to hear your story! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meredith Hauser is a Manager of Social Impact Journeys and Events Coordinator at Elevate Destinations. Visit www.elevatedestinations.com/donor-travel to learn more about our Social Impact Journeys.