The 5 Best Countries to Study Religion Abroad

by Isabelle Rizo

Religion is integral to culture, politics, healing, dress, and even the food of many countries, and we’re not just talking about turning water into wine. Studying religion abroad may be the most effective means, beyond gaining fluency in the local language, for truly understanding the development and history of any given culture (and for strengthening your individual life philosophies, too). Students who choose to study religion abroad will have the perfect outlet for understanding past and contemporary issues around the world right in front of them.

Taj Mahal, India

Taj Mahal, India

Just think: you can visit the Bohdi tree where Buddha found enlightenment during your semester study abroad in India. You could examine the religions of ancient Rome in the ornate rooms of the Palazzo Maffei-Marescotti in the Vatican. You might contemplate Shintoism while gazing upon the Itsukushima Shrine during your summer abroad in Japan. 

For any spiritually curious traveler, the roots of a religion are ripe for discovery in the countries of their origins. Religions come alive as you can see them practiced by locals in everyday life.

For students interested in world history, philosophy, the humanities, or any combination of the above, it is time to take yourself to one of the following five countries, the best places to study religion abroad (or you could always try all five for a world tour!).

1. India

You can’t study religion abroad without visiting India. From Hinduism to Buddhism to Jainism to the early roots of some Christianity and Shinto beliefs, some academics argue that India is the birthplace of many of the world’s modern religions. Full of myth, folklore, and superstitions, you will experience the true roots of religious ceremony and belief amongst the people that live it everyday. 

Approximately 80 percent of Indians practice Hinduism. In fact, the vast majority of Indians engage in religious rituals on a daily basis, from prayers to bathing to worshiping puja. Whether you are drawn to study abroad in India because it’s the birthplace of yoga, appreciate the number of cows wandering the streets, or find Krishna to be an inspirational deity, there’s a study abroad program in India with your name on it.

Don’t Miss! Plan on studying abroad in India when the religious ceremonies like Diwali, Holi, and Maha Shivratri! Not only will you learn about the religion, but you will learn about the Ayurvedic system of healing that is also encompassed in the Hindu religion.

St. Peters Basilica, Vatican City

St. Peters Basilica, Vatican City

2. Italy

If you are looking to dive deeper into the Catholic faith, you should go straight to the source: Italy (or more accurately, Vatican City). Italy is home to Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, a Catholic cornerstone in the Western world. Both The Vatican and Rome sit at the cradle of Western civilization, philosophically and religiously.

Between the Roman Empire’s influence and huge technological advancements, the Christian faith has spread like wildfire across centuries and borders. Since the Roman Empire’s rapid growth, the Christian faith is a big part of what has shaped our world today. We still have “forums,” we discuss and use “politics,” and the “republic?” All of these philosophies and ways of thinking originated from the Romans, and studying abroad in Italy is the perfect opportunity to gain firsthand insight into this modern wonder.

There are approximately 1.1 billion people in the world that practice Catholicism as their faith, and we wouldn’t be surprised if you have a friend (or two) who attended CCD or gained an extra name at confirmation while you were kids. 

Don’t Miss! Ferragosto happens on the 15th of August. It is one of Italy’s most beloved holidays, similar to Christmas and Easter, and all of Italy shuts down. It’s literally like a second New Year’s celebration. The streets are filled with prayers and and tokens to honor Mary’s assumption into heaven according to the Catholic Faith.

Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

3. Japan 

Art, history, and oneness with nature are simultaneously experienced in the Shinto tradition in Japan. The Shinto belief, which does not have any religious texts, is heavily embedded in Japanese culture. Different elements, like fire, water, and air, are taken seamlessly into the rhythm of life, and it focuses on diligent ritual practices that establish a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient past. 

Beyond Shintoism, Japan has a rich presence of Buddhist beliefs. In Buddhism, Siddhartha Guatama was the founder and brought together a philosophy of meditation, avoiding harm, and following a right livelihood. Buddhism has been practiced in Japan since at least 552 AD, and Japan's most popular schools of Buddhism are Pure Land Buddhism and Zen. 

If you choose to study abroad in Japan you could live with monks in the monasteries, learn about the art of feng shui, visit a rock garden, and even experience how energy flows throughout your life in Japan; there’s something in Japan for any Eastern philosophy geek!

Don’t Miss! Aoi Matsuri is a historical and religious festival in the heart of Kyoto. Over 500 aristocrats from the Heian Period dress up on horseback, carriage, and other regal embellishments walk from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to the Kamo Shrines. 

Sihastria Putnei Monastery, Romania

Sihastria Putnei Monastery, Romania

4. Romania

Romania is a crossroads of Eastern and Western religious traditions and cultures. Though officially a secular state, it is known as the most religious country (in percentage) in the European Union, with over 80 percent of its population identifying as Eastern Orthodox. 

Whether you decide to wander up in the Carpathian Mountains or study abroad in the capital city of Bucharest, you will find a monastery or church peak-a-boo’ing on every boulevard. Nestled between several western European countries and the Black Sea, the culture of Romania is unique. The people are Romanized descendants of ancient Balkan people, and their strong folk traditions have survived to this day (due largely in part to the rural character of many Romanian communities). 

In recent years, many formerly Eastern Orthodox Romanians have been drawn to the Protestant Christian faith. Protestantism is growing by around 6 percent annually, with Roman Catholicism and Greek Catholicism not far behind. For students of religion, witnessing a country in a metaphysical transition is not to be missed. 

Dont’ Miss! The hora de Prislop in August is a wonderful traditional celebration that involves all three regions of Romania: Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldova. The church is intertwined with the traditional folk festivals throughout the year, but this is one of the biggest (and the best and you gotta go!). 

Chinese Temple

Chinese Temple

5. China

Want to see how religion is influenced by politics, people, and cultural differences? Studying abroad in China (and especially the greater Tibetan region of China, such as Gansu, Sichuan, or Yunnan provinces) will give you a whole new perspective of the term “religious freedom.” Surrounded by the Himalayan mountains, you can even hear the stories of the ethnic minority Buddhists that fled from religious persecution, and those who continue to flee to this day. 

Tibet is where Tenzin Gyatso (aka the Dalai Lama) was born, and where the majority of the ethnic minorities who practice Buddhism with their own separate culture lived, worked, and prayed. However, due to cultural and religious differences, many Tibetans (including the Dalai Lama himself) currently live in nearby Dharamsala, India. Even so, there are still remnants of their culture and various religious relics still to be enjoyed in Lhasa and surrounding mountain cities.

Religion and politics are inherently complicated, but there is no where else on the planet where you can witness the atrocities and complexities of their nature so candidly.

Don’t Miss! Every student must visit the Potala Palace, where The Dalai Lamas would winter and where the Tibetan government was held. He even provides a public schedule of events that students should check out, from meditation to mindfulness to following your breath. Mysticism surrounds Tibet. 

The time to study religion abroad is now.

Let’s face it. Religion is a major force of the human experience, one that has been around as long as humans themselves.

Across the globe and across millennia, religious agendas have fueled both conflict and community. From acts of terrorism to ethnic cleansing and displacing mass populations to establishing the foundation for human rights and international peace to bringing a sense of purpose and unity to people, religion is undoubtedly hyper-relevant to today’s world and an incredibly important subject to tackle (and one that is made all the more powerful through study abroad). Any student can gain an elevated understanding of the cultural and religious influence in a region while studying religions, dogmas, creeds, and theologies abroad.