Throughout the world, some of the most culturally relevant and beautiful places to visit will be the churches, temples, cathedrals, mosques, shrines and religious edifices. But you don’t have to be religious to admire the beauty, impact and significance of these places. In my travels, I have seen and enjoyed many of these cultural landmarks, as an agnostic who believes in a simple rule - one I used to tell my guys and later my employees: Don’t be a douche.
After going all the way around the world, these are some simple rules I found to make the exploration of religious sites easier and more enjoyable.
You are a guest in this house of worship, be respectful of its customs.
If you go over to your buddy’s house and they ask you to take off your shoes are you going to flip them the bird and keep them on?
Of course you don’t.
So what makes you think you can wear whatever you want, take pictures where the signs say not to, talk loudly when asked to be quiet or keep your hat/shoes/whatever on when it’s requested you take them off at the site?
You are there to see culture and beauty and to maximize that experience you need to be a good guest.
Following basic customs is not only polite, but it’s also the same thing we have all been taught do since we were kids. Follow the golden rule of life. Don’t be a douche.
Do some basic research and dress appropriately for the place you are visiting.
This picture was taken at the Pura Lempuyang Temple in Bali, aka “The Gates of Heaven,” one of the most sacred and popular tourist destinations on the island. In Balinese culture, to enter such a sacred place you are required to wear a sarong or native lower body covering that goes all the way to the ground.
All the Cathedrals in major European cities (and most in smaller ones too) will force you to buy a cover for your shoulders if they are bare or for your legs if your shorts don’t go down to at least your knees.
Open toed shoes/flip flops are extremely frowned upon in most Christian and Western houses of worship. However, the Mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist temples and most shrines in Asia make you take your footwear off, so wearing flip flops to these sites is advantageous.
In Israel, if you want to enter a temple or David’s tomb, they’ll want you to have a head covering, unlike almost all Christian houses of worship which want you to remove them.
These easiest ways to learn how to observe these customs is to fire up Ye Olde Google before heading out and making sure you know what the ground rules are. It’ll save you some stress, possibly some money and maximize your experiences.
If you don’t want to follow the site rules, follow the golden rule and don’t go.
At most sites, people are actively practicing their religion as you are looking around.
One of the reasons it’s free to get into the vast majority of holy sites around the world is because they are active holy sites. Many people are there to pray, meditate or reflect on their God. Not to engage in tourism. Many of them are also locals.
They come to that site dozens, maybe hundreds of times a year. You are just the latest in an endless stream of nameless faceless interlopers and all they want to do is worship.
Again, you are a guest. Keep your flash off when taking pictures and try to keep your voice to a dull roar.
Remember. Don’t be a douche.
Visit enough of these places and you’ll eventually be shushed or corrected on a custom. Don’t make it a big deal.
I am a loud person by nature. My voice projects and I love to talk. I’ll never forget being in a church in Normandy, France. I was calling a friend over to see a monument to the American GI’s that fought in the region.
“SHUUUUUUSSSSSSSHHHH!!!!” I sharply heard from the back of the small chapel. I quickly put my hands up to acknowledge I was wrong and moved on, lowering my voice as I did so.
In Israel, I forgot that I should leave my hat on when entering the tomb of David. A Rabbi got up from his desk, eyes blazing, to correct me. I saw the body language, had an “oh shit” moment, and put my hat on, with a small bow in his direction. As I did, his face softened as he realized I had probably been raised Christian and meant respect in my actions.
He returned the bow, also opening his hands towards me as if to apologize as well. We never spoke, but it was clear that we were both simply trying to be respectful. No harm, no foul.
People have a right to worship in their house of faith and a right to let you know if you are messing with that.
(Stomps Foot Three Times)
Again, you’re a guest in their house of worship. What’s the golden rule?
Don’t argue with the clerk about any fees if there is one and consider a small donation in the donation box anyway.
Again, since they are active houses of worship, the vast majority of religious houses I visited were free. There were some Cathedrals that had “treasure rooms” or some museum-type areas that required pay or suggested donation.
Getting mad at some poor clerk because you don’t want to pay a couple bucks to see the Bishop’s robes and other artifacts is just silly, yet I saw it happen over and over again. If you don’t think it’s worth paying, just don’t into that section or that building.
Also, especially in a smaller or regional building, the donation money is used for day to day upkeep and repairs. If you can spare it, throw a few coins in to say thank you for allowing you to see the culture and history of the area through their holy place.
And above all, don’t forget the golden rule.
Don’t be a douche.