Being an atheist traveller

I don’t believe in God. This news probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the “rational” part of my blogging handle TheRationalOptimist.

In the 2006 Australian census, 64 per cent of the population stated that they were Christian, which sounds like a hefty proportion, although how many of these are actively practicing is certainly less than this. Regardless, Australia is a migrant country with people from all different cultural and religious backgrounds, and you wouldn’t be surprised to be sitting on a train next to a Sikh in a turban or a Muslim in a hijab. More significantly, nobody bats an eyelid if you tell them that you are not religious.

This is quite different in many other parts of the world, where a country’s population can be strongly religious. A few years ago, I undertook a home stay with a family in Guatemala while learning Spanish. My host mother could often be found sitting in her arm chair after dinner, reading the Bible.

One night she asked me, “are you Catholic?”. My response was that I didn’t believe in God.

She was rather shocked.

Her first question was, “…but why?”. As someone whose religion is so closely tied to her existence and being, she couldn’t understand how someone could live without it. I tried to explain to her in my terribly elementary Spanish that I didn’t believe that God existed and, despite that, I didn’t feel like my life was empty nor did I think that I was a bad person.

My explanations didn’t bring her closer to where I was though, and she tried to elucidate to me the sense of comfort that she had knowing that God was looking over her.

Unlike many other Richard Dawkins-adoring non-believers, for the most part, I am respectful of other peoples’ beliefs as long as they don’t hurt other people and infringe on other peoples’ ways of life. People look to religion as a guide on how to live their lives spiritually and something that provides like-minded followers a tangible support network and a sense of community. For some, religion dictates their day-to-day life and it is ingrained into their culture, for example, Islamic prayer, or the abstinence of pork or shellfish, or the segregation of males and females.

Blue Mosque Istanbul at night

Travelling around the world, it is inevitable that you will encounter people of different religious backgrounds and places of worship in every shape and size. You could find yourself discovering the grand mosques of the Middle East, the synagogues of Israel, temples of Thailand, and the thousands of historic churches across Europe and South America. You could be awoken by the call to prayer, see widows all dressed solemnly in black, or watch traffic crawl to a stop as a cow decides to rest in the middle of the road. You may even have locals asking you about your beliefs and express curiosity at the differences between them and that of their own, particularly if you don’t believe in a God at all.

As a traveller visiting countries around the world, whether you are atheist or not, the contrast between the ways of life and the different beliefs that we encounter has to be respected. This potentially means that we need to act and behave in a slightly different manner to how we would normally back in our home countries, whether this be dressing modestly as appropriate (including women covering their hair if required), or refraining from consuming alcohol and acting like a complete buffoon, or avoiding being overly affectionate with the opposite sex in public.

Opening up your mind and being a observer is of course one of the biggest reasons why we travel. We want to experience different cultures, see how people live, and learn about their ways of life so that we can together promote greater understanding, tolerance and respect for each other. We may even find out that we’re not so different after all.


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