Religious and Spiritual Diversity
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. In particular, your host country may not observe the religious holidays that you do, so you may need to explain any observance to local program staff or others, such as your host family or friends. There may also be local holidays (that you do not personally observe) that require a departure from your normal routine. 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.
As you prepare for studying abroad, we are here to help and offer the questions and resources below as a starting point. As always, your Education Abroad Advisor is available to assist you with your questions and navigate these resources.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF AND/OR YOUR EDUCATION ABROAD ADVISOR:
- What is the dominant religion in my host country?
Will I be part of the religious majority or minority abroad?
Am I part of the majority/minority religion at home? Will this change when I am abroad?
- Are there any laws regarding religion? Is there a separation between religion and government?
- How tolerant is the host country of other religions? What about atheists and agnostics?
- Is it safe for me to wear religious symbols or clothing?
- What are ways I can respect the religion in my host country and participate in cultural events, even if I don't practice that religion?
- What religious holidays will fall during my time abroad? What will I require to observe my religious holidays abroad?
- What religious holidays of the host community will fall during my time abroad? How will these holidays affect my daily routine?
- 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?
- Stay open minded about religious practices, even if you receive criticism for your beliefs.
- If you have religious dietary restrictions, be sure to let the CGSE and your program director know ahead of time.
- Depending on where you go, religion may have a larger or smaller role than it does in the U.S.
- Use your experience abroad to learn about world religions the role they play in diverse cultures.
- 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.
- Think about the aspects of your religious practice you are able or not able to be flexible about?
Talk to your Education Abroad Advisor
Reach out to a Global Ambassador
- Campus organizations and groups
Connect with the Office of Equity and Inclusivity
- The Pluralism Project: Seeks to help Americans engage with the realities of religious diversity.
- International Religious Freedom Report: The U.S. Department of State's annual report describes the status of religious freedom in every country.
- Northwestern University’s Religion & Spirituality Resource Page - Includes resources for students searching for a particular religious or spiritual group abroad
- IES Abroad Blog: Religion and Spirituality Resources
- IES Abroad Blog: “Keeping the Faith: Religious Differences and Experiences Abroad”
- IES Abroad Blog: What Remains: Discovering the Traces of Jewish Life in Morocco
- Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project