An Atheist’s Guide to the Holy Land
An Atheist’s Guide to the Holy Land
Exploring the foundation of modern religion
You may spot something of a contradiction in this article’s title. Why would an atheist knowingly visit a culture defined entirely by religion? At its simplest, there’s the Holy Land’s unrivalled human history; over 3000 years of it. You can be as spiritual as a Big Mac and still appreciate the splendour of the Dome of the Rock mosque.
What can prove trying for atheists is the apparent expectation of you to believe in the authenticity of such sites and relics. There is a trinket in every church of the Holy Land brazenly claimed to be central to some biblical incident. This is despite the fact that such items were discovered centuries after the fact, seem completely innocuous, and have somehow survived Israel’s long and violent past. Disbelief is difficult to suspend.
While many religious visitors recognise such identifications as hopeful guesses, many others are willing to believe all they are told, however unlikely. For an atheist, this can be particularly galling.
This tradition of questionable authenticity makes writing about the Holy Land something of a balancing act; every fact must be qualified with a ‘thought to be’ or ‘some think.’ The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, for instance, claims to be built on the spot of Jesus’ crucifixion and boasts, amongst other treasures, the very hole in which the cross was erected. The church itself is decorated splendidly with lamps, mosaics, and iconography, and there’s a sense that this is to distract from the altogether non-descript hole that makes such a grand claim.
So, as an atheist, it should be easy to dismiss these sites; except they are thronged with people who believe in it absolutely. The queue to enter the Holy Sepulchre can be hours long. And rather than scoff at those who fall to their knees and cry, there is instead a profound vicarious thrill.
Soon you experience it everywhere. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is built above a grotto called the Holy Crypt. You duck under an uncompromisingly low doorway and descend a steep flight of stairs underground. In the cloying air of the cavern a metal star is set into the floor. It frames a small area of bare stone; the exact spot on which Jesus was born.
Many critics disclaim this. Numerous other places stake similar claims. Some debate if the Bible means a different Bethlehem entirely. Ultimately, it seems unlikely the exact spot would survive for 2000 years.
Yet as you watch people put their hands to the stone, press their crosses against it and slump into the corner to mutter prayers, the significance dawns. Whether you believe in it or not, this is a cornerstone of a faith that has persisted for millennia and is adhered to by millions. When your fingers brush the cold stone, it feels important. It feels big. This is the beginning of a story that has shaped human civilisation as we know it.
Soon, concerns of authenticity seem merely pedantic.
The Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias) and its surrounds are a great place to exercise this newfound appreciation. Firstly, there are some bonafide authentic sites here. South is Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, which features the Church of the Annunciation, built on the site of Mary’s house. North is Capernaum, a fishing village where Jesus frequently stayed, the particular house foundations and those of an early church still preserved there. These sites date back to the 1st century; having been built when Jesus was a recent memory is a fair indication of veracity.
The real power is not in such specifics. The lake forms the centrepiece of many famous biblical tales, such as Jesus’ walk on water and the loaves and fishes. Standing with the stones beneath your feet, the sun rising over the placid water, is the most authentic feeling of all. Fishermen scud along in tiny crafts casting nets into the water like their ancestors before them. Replicas of 1st century boats take visitors out onto the water. In Capernaum, Peter-fish is served for lunch, not only direct from a bible story but the same catch eaten by locals for millennia. Even as an atheist, the history and tradition that permeates the area is deeply arresting.
North from here a lone tank slouches in the Golan Heights, turning to rust as the solitary reminder of the battle between the Syrians and Israelis that kicked off the Yom Kippur war. A shell hole is punched through its front, the interior burned out. It’s a sombre reminder of the turbulent history that has shaped the Holy Land, and the damage that faith can enact. Faith is an abstract notion; it’s from here that questions of authenticity arise. The Holy Land has a knack for realising the physical manifestations of faith, whether that be for better or worse. It’s not a case of being converted. It’s a chance to visit the foundation of modern religion, and see for yourself how its importance persists in the modern day.
You can be as spiritual as a Big Mac and still appreciate the splendour of the Dome of the Rock
By Themes (All Destinations)
- Central America
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
"If God had really intended men to fly, he'd make it easier to get to the airport" - George Winters