Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
For an atheist, I sure visit a lot of churches.
And mosques, and temples, and synagogues, and monasteries of all stripes, places of worship of all creeds.
In light of the disastrous fire at the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral this week, I have been pondering my love of houses of worship despite my negative attitude toward religion.
As an atheist, all religions are vaguely offensive to my sensibilities. As far as I’m concerned, the primary function that organized religion serves is to insist on obvious falsehoods and to make the populace more gullible to even further falsehoods. Witness the bizarre belief among a great many Americans that, like Cyrus the Great, the current president occupies the White House because God specifically put him there.
And as a traveler, I have heard a great many outlandish tales about religious places and relics. I tried very hard not to laugh in Sri Lanka, for example, when a local pointed to the spot where the Buddha supposed landed after flying down from India, Superman style. In Jerusalem, I visited the house where they claimed the Last Supper had occurred, only to learn promptly that the house wasn’t built until about a thousand years after the Crucifixion. In Ethiopia, I visited the church that, according to Ethiopian tradition, held the Ark of the Covenant, only they wouldn’t let any outsider actually see it. In Armenia, I visited the monastery that allegedly kept the Holy Lance, or the Spear of Destiny, the spear with which the Roman centurion Longinus pierced the side of Christ upon the cross. Except there were also alleged Holy Lances in Rome, Vienna, and ancient Antioch. In Istanbul, the Topkapi Museum proudly displayed the “Staff of Moses” and the “Turban of Joseph,” both looking suspiciously new.
From Paris we heard the cries of relief that the Crown of Thorns, which Jesus supposedly wore on his head on the cross, was saved from the fire. In reality, the crown in Notre Dame had been given to St. Louis in 1238 by Baldwin II, the ruler of Constantinople during the Frankish occupation of Byzantium. Before Constantinople, the Crown probably spent a few centuries in Jerusalem. But the truth is that there was no mention of any Crown of Thorns being saved from the Crucifixion until the 5th century, some 400 years later. In my estimation, then, there is almost no chance that Notre Dame crown is genuine.
And St. Louis? St. Louis was King Louis IX of France, and in real life he was a terrible king. A religious fanatic, he wasted France’s blood and treasure on the Crusades, punished blasphemy by cutting off the offender’s tongue and lips, and burned the Talmud and other Jewish texts. His canonization was based on these awful policies. It was no surprise that he would be the one to bring back the alleged Crown: it would have been well known to medieval hucksters that good King Louis paid a fortune for supposed relics.
And yet I loved Notre Dame when I visited it. Had I been there when the fire broke out, and had it been up to me, I certainly would have tried to save as many of the relics as I could, even as I believed that they were fakes. I can say the same for all the other houses of worship that I have visited.
I cannot buy into any religion. But at the same time, religion holds great interest for me. I pride myself on having read the Bible from cover to cover and on knowing at least a few things about the doctrines of major world religions.
And I see clearly enough that, God or no God, there is in the makeup of humanity a sense of the profound, a sense of the sacred, a sense of the mystical — which is all to say a sense of the divine. It is this instinct for the divine that is our natural faculty for contemplating the most important things in our existence: life and death, good and evil, where do all things come from, how ought we to live, and does anything we do actually matter?
For almost the entirety of human history, religion in one form or another has been the vehicle for expressing that instinct. And for about as long, we have built places of worship in which to invest possessions most precious to us. Precious not because they are made of gold or silver or bedazzled with precious jewels, although they often are. Precious because in them we endow our greatest hopes and deepest fears. It was why Michelangelo painted the ceiling of a chapel, not a town hall. It was why countless, and nameless, artisans across Asia devoted entire lifetimes to carving images of gods and bodhisattvas. It was why settlers building a new home in the New World usually started by erecting a church.
I am an atheist. But for as long as I travel, I will always take the time to visit houses of worship.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."