Dealing with the religious divide when traveling overseas

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ June 7th, 2009. Updated on February 9th, 2011. Published in: Travel blog » How to live overseas » Philippines.
Mosque in Brooke's Point, Palawan

Islam in mainly Catholic country, will either affect your travel plans?

Dealing with Religion when traveling

As I have traveled & lived through countries with the  main religions throughout the world I’ve notice little written about the two subjects. Travel & religion.

Is there a need? Or is it one of those subjects that people really don’t like to ask, nor talk about? It is after all one of those sworn rules when in travel:

“Don’t talk about politics, money, and … religion”

That’s fine for when you travel, but it doesn’t mean we won’t get asked …

Religion in The Philippines

The Philippines has a multi religious and ethnically diverse mix of people. Christianity, Islam and a host of other religions make up the mainstay. In the North and central areas it’s mainly Christian (catholic). So it came as a little surprise to me to stumble upon a mosque in Brooke’s Point, Palawan.

Then again it just went to show me how big the Philippines really is. 90 million or so. So having a Mosque in Palawan is actually not all that surprising.

Religious tension and travel

However there is religious tension in the Philippines, as there seems to be in most parts of the world, when it comes to the subject of religion. When traveling I stay out of these discussions. Which is not always easy. In the Philippines the second most popular question after where are you from is –

“What religion are you?”

Hand painted advertising in the Philippines

Hand painted advertising in the Philippines

Having lived and traveled in 50/50 religious split West Africa for over two years and traveled to many multi “everything” religious countries my common answer is.

“I am mixed, a little bit of everything.”

This generally works quite well. Most people with good English give me a wry smile and realize it’s an answer meaning I respect everyone’s beliefs – but am not getting into deep discussion about it.

Others ponder over it for a while, then smile and nod with a fair enough attitude to it all.

Dealing with people trying to convert you to their religion

In West Africa and some other places I found many, many people trying to convert me one way or the other. If not to a religion, then at least to a single particular religious house of worship. Hence my steely grip on the “mixed” approach.

In this case I still stick to my “I believe in a little bit of everything” approach. And, if necessary, rinse, repeat, restart and smile a lot. The latter is very important. Not as a joke, but as a friendly gesture. When I travel, I bring humor with me, even if I’m not smiling in the inside.

The darker side to religion when you travel

Not everything is about faith when you are invited into a house of worship either. In many countries religion is money, and power. To a local community a church is often times the local bank. Donations are expected.

National Mosque and Church in Nigeria

Travel & Religion are they complete opposites?

This might not be apparent at first, but it will come in time. As a travel guest in any house of religion I certainly don’t like to have a box of notes and coin passed around to me if I visit. Much like being invited to dinner, and then being asked to donate.

I’ve also noticed travelers of the same faith when visiting a religious place of the same order being oblivious to many of these things. Or if not oblivious, turning a proverbial blind eye. Even to the point of outright rudeness to fellow travelers.

Why this occurs, I do not know. Other than kinsman-ship perhaps.

Religious surprises when you travel

While there are people such as those in West Africa who will persistently ask you to some to their church. There are some surprising joys as a traveler in the Philippines when it comes to this subject.

In the Philippines people are very religious and; respectful. But they also will not pressure you to join anything.

It’s a practical joy to have your own wishes respected and not be given a lecture on being of a certain faith or another.

This is something I’ve not come across too often. And, although there are exceptions; I appreciate the Philippines that bit more because of this.

Perhaps religious orders should take note of what travel can bring to them, or take aways from them.  Those that travel bring with them a degree of their own faith. Listen, don’t convert.

As, in doing the opposite the person that travels will take with them your overbearing need to convert them rather than speak of it’s history, merits or values. Therein, in my view, lie the true value of religion & travel.

A little bit of everything.

Coming Soon:

Leaving Brooke’s Point and ending up in Prison

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14 Great responses to Dealing with the religious divide when traveling overseas

  1. I’m very glad that you’re writing this, since we’re planning to go to the Philippines some day. I take it as a great tip: from now on I’ll also say: “I am mixed, a little bit of everything.“ – just because I want to avoid discussions about it :-)

    We booked tickets to Philippines already in 2005, but never got there because we both (what’s the odds for that happening????!!!) got pneumonia – and that was not even on a trip, it was at home here in Sweden! It took us half a year to recover and then in the autumn we went to South America instead.

    Funny enough, we’ve never managed to get to the Philippines after that either, something always comes in between…. But one day….

    • Hi there,

      Glad you like the article. Yea the “little bit of everything,” has helped me out of more than one ‘intense’ situation in various places around the world. I’ve never had anything too intense here so far.

      Pneumonia x 2, now that’s hard to top. Glad to hear you fully recovered though.

      The very best on someday soon getting to the Philippines!!

  2. Graham says:

    As a world traveler I think it’s always important to respect and understand other people’s religion. And in turn hopefully those people will respect yours. I am in the same boat as you; I always try to avoid discussions of religion. Especially for me as I have no religion, sometimes people try to convert me or goad me into a discussion about it. It’s always important to keep a level head and think through whatever you’re going to say. If you do not you may end up insulting the person, which can be a very, very bad thing in some countries. Just be polite, smile a lot, and back out as politely as possible.

    • Hi Graham,

      Yes I agree with you. Respect is a two way street. In India I met a few travelers who announced something quote derogatory during a religious ceremony as they thought the swastika emblazoned depictions was a form of Nazi worship.

      Unfortunately they made a big fuss and were quite vocal about their opinions. History and truth aside, even if they did think that. It would still have been better to leave quietly. Instead not only were they wrong in their assumptions, they embarrassed themselves, and could have ended up causing serious problems for themselves.

      Like you said, keeping a level head and being polite is stalwart advice!

      P.S. For anyone unsure about the 卐 symbol I referred to, here’s a wikipedia link to information about the swastika symbol

  3. Oh, and I love our photos! Fantastic!

  4. Caitlin says:

    Funny you would say that about West Africa. In Burkina, I found that people were quite tolerant of any religion… as long as you didn’t say you were an atheist.

    • Hi Caitlin,

      Was not in Burkina so can’t say about there. Though I do concur about the atheist stand causing issues. I’ve met several travelers and expats who say this and it seems to cause more problems than anything else!

  5. pra says:

    Yes dear… living some time in a muslim country i find islam & christianity is very very similar … almost 90% … i think the muslims believe they are the true monotheists … if you focus on that no problem

  6. Steeb says:

    Hey, love the blog, came across it when getting extra info for the Flag Ceremony that I got to see in Pakistan. You are lucky to be able to sustain such travel indefinitely, that is also my dream.

    I must say I completely understand your approach to the religion question, it makes for an easy life and conflict avoidance. However, what I find quite disturbing here in the comments is the commont thread of “everything is grand.. except saying athiest”, like its taboo. Now I am well travelled and I am not a babe in the woods, I realise in a stongly opinionated religious country this standing can open a can of worms. However for some of us it is the truth, and I think its somewhat hypocritical for people to say in the same breath “We must be tolerant of all people religions” yet feel its best to hide the fact that your beliefs are athiest.

    I myself have never shied away from telling people the truth when posed this question, as I think its important to recognise the differences between us, and open discussion is the antidote to religious dogma. Just to illustrate, I have openly admitted and discussed my athism in places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan, Nigeria, all strongly religious. Without ever an issue and it sparked interesting not heated discussion when posed in the correct light. Just felt I needed to play devils advocate here.

    Good luck in all your travels and keep the great shots coming.

    • -Steeb-Hi there,

      I don’t have any issues with someone being an atheist. However as you mentioned; it can “open a can of worms”. And, to many long term expats, or even some travelers that I’ve come across the can of worms is not what they want.

      In many places where someone mentions they are an atheist it can bring the “converters” out. Or, bring about too many questions that people simply aren’t interested in answering. As I’m sure you know from your travels, religion aside, many people just don’t want a debate of any kind when traveling!

      And, yes there are also people that do like and enjoy this conversation when traveling, I personally, do not.

      Hence when asked, I say “a little bit of everything”.

  7. Claire says:

    I am a Filipina who lived in Indonesia for seven months. Travel and religion are interesting. You can’t avoid mixing both. Most tourist spots, historical landmarks, and cultural centers are religious places as well. It’s a way of understanding the local culture and appreciating the beauty of diversity while respecting the differences.

    • -Claire- Thanks for the comment Claire. Yes, travel & religion can’t help but get intertwined in some aspects. The problems occur when others start to impose their beliefs on the traveler or visa versa. Separate this, and a lot more people will take an interest in theology & travel.

  8. Bianca says:

    I’ve never really thought about it before but so many of the places that I visit when I travel have religious meaning – the amazing churches in Europe, temples in Asia, the sacred places of the indigenous people of Australia – but I’m not at all religious myself.