4 tips for respectfully visiting religious sites

January 14, 2019

As a wise man once told his uncomprehending spider-nephew — more or less — that with great privilege comes great responsibility. Tourism is a great privilege, presuming as it does not only the money to pay for transportation, accommodation, and days if not weeks of restaurant food, but the leisure to take the time to do it all. The fact that more and more of us are able to do it is cause for celebration, but it doesn’t lessen either the privilege, or the responsibility. You still need to behave yourself in the places you visit, remembering that the people around you are mostly working even if you’re not. You need to learn a few basic words and phrases if you’re going to a place where they speak a different language (even if they also speak yours). And you need to know the difference between looking and gawking. The former is one of the great pleasures of travel; the latter is not just rude, but does fundamental injury to the guest-host relationship.

One of the primary places where we tend to get this distinction wrong is at religious sites. Many who travel are either not religious, or are visiting places where people celebrate different religions. It’s a legitimate subject of interest, of course, and visiting temples and cathedrals, as well as religious residences, shrines, and places of pilgrimage, are some of the most understandably popular things for tourists to do. But learning to look without gawking, see without ogling can be the difference between being accepted as a visitor, and being resented as an intruder.

It presents a fine line, going to a place so meaningful to some just to take a look-see, but if you keep these four rules in mind, and follow them to the extent you’re able, you’ll likely find yourself on the right side of the visitor-intruder divide.

Rule #1: Don’t take too many pictures, even if you’re allowed

This is both the toughest, and probably the least intuitive of the rules, and only applies – as all these rues do – to active places of devotion and worship (not churches that have been turned into condos or museums, for instance).

Since the advent of mass tourism, and even more specifically since the arrival of the smart phone, many places that once frowned upon or even forbade photography have simply given up. It’s too difficult to enforce. So just because you don’t see a sign with a red line through a camera or phone doesn’t mean you should be taking pictures.

Yes, I know everyone else will be. And I realize that you, a modern, reasonable human, can see the secular beauty of the architecture, painting, sculpture, lighting, and even poignantly posed worshippers amid the holiness. But the thing is, the very reason all these things work so well together, and the reason you’re there at all, is that the people who designed it, and the people who are praying, meditating, singing, and preaching in it, do not see these as separate things.

If you’re not a professional photographer, taking a picture is the very definition of the distinction between looking and gawking. Seeing the place or worship or devotion through a lens, with you on one side of it, and it — and everyone else — on the other emphasizes the fact that you don’t belong there, that you’re an interloper being tolerated rather than a visitor being welcomed. Believe me, there are pictures of it all online. Look those up later. But while you’re there, try to just look with your eyes.

Rule #2: Pay attention to the people who look like they belong there

Not all places of religious and spiritual significance are the same. Some, like your average Catholic cathedral, are dark and quiet places meant for silent prayer and sanctioned preaching. Others, like certain Buddhist temples, ring with gongs and chants. Some statues and paintings are meant to be touched, others are not. Some are meant to be places of evangelism and conversion, encouraging celebrants to talk to newcomers, others are spots where people have died for their beliefs, and demand heads bowed and mouths closed.

It’s usually not difficult picking out the people who come often. They’ll have their place, whether it’s a pew, a chair, or a place on the floor. They’ll walk with purpose rather than wander as a tourist will, and they may find other people they know there, either talking to them, or sitting, standing, or kneeling very close to them.

Do they have their shoes on? Do you? How about head coverings? What about the rest of their skin? Do they make some form of obeisance at certain spots? Maybe you should, too. Or at least acknowledge those same points. Are there places people like this go, and others they don’t? Even if there are no signs, or no signs you understand, follow their lead and don’t go into empty corners or through unmarked doors. Curiosity is admirable among tourists; trespassing is not.

Rule #3: Spend at least five minutes off to one side looking, listening, smelling

These places are, almost without exception, places of contemplation. You may want to contemplate different things than the worshippers and devotees to, but try to be contemplative in your own way, out of the way. Notice textures, detect aromas, look up, way up, look around, notice what people are doing with their hands, their feet, their lips. How is the light coming in? What’s it resting on? That’s probably not accidental. These are important places culturally and historically because they’re important places spiritually. These spots are often cynosures of their towns, cities, regions, nations, faiths, and you’ll understand those places better if you understand these places better. Maybe even take out that phone you’re not taking pictures with and do some reading while you’re standing there.

Rule #4: If there’s a donation box, use it

These places were never meant for tourists, but the way of the world has made them into attractions. If you’re in an old building, or at an old monument, look at how the years have worn the stone, wood, and metal down, and remember that you and the thousands and millions like you will do as much in a decade as all the other elements combined have done in the previous centuries. And then realize that fixing and cleaning cost money. Some places charge admission for this reason, but most don’t. Look for a box — some are at entrances, some by the candles, others by altars at the front or in little rooms off to the side — and make drop some money in. What’s an appropriate amount? How much was the last drink you bought? That’ll do.

Getting there

Many of our tours visit sacred sites of worship and other significant religious and spiritual locations. Check out our full list of tours here.

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