With Passover beginning today and with Easter taking place this Sunday, I spent some time recently thinking about religion. On my travels, I’ve traveled to majority-Protestant countries such as Anglican Great Britain, and to majority-Catholic countries like Mexico. I have had the good fortune to visit majority-Muslim countries such as Turkey, heavily-Buddhist countries like Thailand, mixed-religion countries such as India and the United States, and Communist countries like China, where Atheism is officially encouraged but where most locals actually worship the State.
Of course, those descriptions are broad and somewhat simplistic. As such, I hope you don’t get too wrapped up in the semantics. Allow me to continue.
Some of my greatest travel memories lie in absorbing the history of the 70 countries that I’ve set foot in. So much of that history is religious history. Countries come and go, empires rise and fall, often because of religion. Hundreds – thousands – of wars have been waged in the name of religion. The U.S. became a country under the guise of religious freedom. Many Latin American countries had their ethnicities forever changed because of European conquistadors who brought their religion to the New World, quickly dominating the local populace through slavery, through sexual conquest, and through a little something known as the Spanish Inquisition.
I have observed Semana Santa (Easter Week) processions in Spain, Guatemala, and El Salvador, at which devout, costumed locals parade through the streets on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. These are not half-baked, elementary school parades, but elaborate, solemn affairs in which everyone in town participates. I attended a Passion Play reenactment in Mexico City and a Good Friday service in Antigua, Guatemala.
While living in Mexico City, I also attended 2012’s Feast Day for the Virgin of Guadalupe, at the Basilica complex built in her honor. If you’re not familiar with the legend of the Virgin of Guadalupe, know that in December of 1531, monk Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (now the first indigenous saint from Latin America, beatified in 1990) sighted an apparition of the Virgin atop Cerro de Tepeyac, a small hilltop in northern Mexico City. After three more sightings, she emblazoned her image on his cloak. Several miracles soon occurred on the grounds, and the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe (as she is known throughout the Spanish-speaking Americas) was born! The grounds today consists of five separate churches, and a spiritual air surrounds the place. Saint Diego’s cloak is displayed in the largest basilica, which seats thousands. Pilgrims travel from around the world to visit la basilica, and often travel the last few kilometers on their knees! The days leading up to the Feast Day of December 12th see more and more visitors, and I promise to one day write a longer post about my Feast Day experience.
A similar pilgrimage site in Europe is Međjugorje, a small Catholic town in the majority Muslim country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was here that, on multiple occasions beginning in 1981 and continuing to the present, six local children claim to have seen an apparation of the Virgin Mary, known locally Our Lady of Međjugorje, from the slopes of Podbrdo Hill near the edge of town. The Vatican authenticated the site and today, Međjugorje is firmly on the world map. Although Međjugorje remains a poor town, modern St. James Church – built to house the influx of religious tourists – is packed to the gills each day. It was raining heavily when I visited in 2009, but I still managed to be humbled – not by the miracle, persay, but by the messages left by hundreds of pilgrims who scrambled to the top of the rocky hill to leave printed sentiments of help and love. I am not a religious person (more on that later), but perhaps the world can use more of these kinds of places?
In 2008, I visited Egypt. My arrival there coincided with the conclusion of Ramadan, when locals celebrate the end of their weeks-long daytime fast by literally partying in the streets all night long. During that trip, I visited pharaohs’ tombs, Islamic mosques, a Jewish synagogue, and an entire neighborhood – Coptic Cairo – where Christianity, not Islam, is practiced. Coptic Cairo is home to nearly one dozen churches and shrines to various branches of Christianity. I consider the neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from the metro, an oasis of calm in the Middle East’s largest city. The Coptic Museum, with its collection of rare Egyptian Christian art, is a gem, although most visitors make a beeline for the suspended Hanging Church or for the Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, built over a cave inside which the Holy Family is believed to have once stayed. As spiritual as these churches are, they pale in physical size to the Al-Hussein Mosque in Islamic Cairo, or to the nearby tombs of Saqqara, Dashur, Memphis, and Giza. Astonishing man-made wonders, all of them. I hope one day to return.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, I once attended Orthodox Mass – conducted in Arabic (!) – held inside a tiny, mountaintop chapel in Syria. Just two days earlier, I visited the fourth-holiest mosque in all of Islam – the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. It is here that the Prophet Mohammed once read scripture. It is here that the head of John the Baptist is said to be interred. It is here that many Muslims believe Jesus will return at the End of Days. It is important for me to mention that despite the many documented cases of Islam being used to justify acts of violence towards both genders, I felt at peace here. Men and women were invited to enter the mosque – not just the main courtyard, as is sometimes the case for women and non-Muslims, but the proper temple itself. How can the Syria that I visited be the same country that is hopelessly mired in both civil war and genocidal terrorism? I shudder at the thought, and I weep for the Syria of 2011-present.
Bordering Syria to the north, Turkey is often considered the “Gateway to the Middle East.” The secular-governed, though majority-Muslim nation is a first world canvas of East-meets-West food, history, and unforgettable hospitality. Istanbul, which straddles two continents, is surely one of the greatest cities in the world. Several hours to the east, the Cappadocia region of Turkey is dotted with cave churches built by Byzantine monks. I remember gazing at their jaw-dropping frescoes, which are on a much smaller scale than those of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, yet which became seared in my memory nonetheless.
Continuing east, travelers eventually reach the Indian subcontinent. In the first paragraph of this blog entry, I referred to India itself as a “mixed-religion” country. What I mean by that is that India is many things – the largest Hindu country on earth, both by population and geography; the vibrant center of Sikhism, especially Amritsar in the north; the homeland of 180 million Muslims – Shia and Sunni both; and the drawcard for thousands of “other” category seekers of spirituality. Yoga masters? Check. Hare Krishnas? Check. Nirvana-seeking, dread-locked potheads? Yep, check.
India deserves more than one paragraph. My 15-day trip there in 2011 barely scratched the surface of such an amazing country. I spent almost a week in Varanasi, the most important holy city for Hindus. Here, Mama Ganga, the holy Ganges River, flows alongside ghats (steps) leading from labyrinthine alleyways down to the water’s edge. I submerged my feet alongside those of hundreds of ritual Hindu bathers. Some cleansed themselves as if they had waited several lifetimes to get there. (Indeed – according to Hindu reincarnation myth, they may have lived several lifetimes.) Others – children, mostly, treated the river as their own swimming pool, diving from embankments and from row boats that ply the river. A few were bottling up the water or drinking it. One old woman washed her clothes in the river. I saw farmers bathing their cows in the river, while bodies were cremated at nearby burning ghats. A goat sat impossibly perched on a pylon, staring in my direction as if daring me to try the same pose.
A fast 40 minutes outside Varanasi lies Sarnath, a small town with more Buddhist temples than almost anywhere else in the world. Sarnath is where Buddha received enlightenment and preached his first sermon. An 18-hour train ride from Sarnath and Varanasi is Amritsar, simultaneously a large city of blaring horns and brown air and home to the Golden Temple of Sikhism. This stunning religious site is the pilgrimage center for the Sikh people, although it’s open to everyone. The Golden Temple is a small, two story affair, but it is memorably perched over a man-made pool that is roughly the size of a football field. Volunteers serve food and water to tens of thousands of daily visitors, and the temple closes for just three hours every night before repeating the process the next day. The people I met in Amritsar are among the kindest and most open-minded I have encountered on any of my travels. Forgive the travel writing cliché, but my visit to Amritsar was so magical that I am almost hesitant to return – everything about it was just…perfect.
India does not hold the monopoly on religious wonders in East Asia, however. In 2004, I stood in front of the largest seated Buddha in the world, on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. Four years later, I visited an entire cave system of stone-carved Buddhas, near Datong, China, and saw one of the world’s largest wooden Buddhas, carved from a single sandalwood tree, at Lama Temple in Beijing. The pro-Atheism belief system of the governing Communist Party does not stop the PRC from preserving its centuries-old religious sites – for tourism and posterity, I’m sure. I once witnessed a Christian wedding held in a Western-style Tianjin church, and I likewise observed Chinese people of all ages burning incense and leaving offerings of fruit at the sublime Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai.
Across the Taiwan Strait, Chinese Taiwan is home to a variety of Buddhist sites as well. Taipei’s Longshan Temple is the liveliest urban Buddhist temple that I’ve yet visited, and its entrance is flanked on one side by a waterfall and koi pond. I spent 30 minutes observing a woman at the temple whose job appeared to be lighting fresh candles and removing the wax drippings from the sides of old ones. A few hours to the south, Taroko National Park is not only a Yosemite-esque, glacial-carved natural wonder, but also the home to several Buddhist-themed sites, such as the Bridge of 100 Lions, the Eternal Spring Shrine, and the impressive Xiangde Temple complex, built on a plateau overlooking the Liwu River.
And then there’s Thailand. Among the most peaceful people in the world, Thais live in an amazing, sub-tropical country that is equal parts rice paddies, teeming cities, and offshore islands. The majority are Buddhist, and the only being more “holy” than Thailand’s king and queen is Buddha himself. Hundreds – thousands – of temples dot the islands, cities, and countryside, ranging from the tiny – Bangkok’s so-small-you-can-miss-him Emerald Buddha – to the supersize – the same city’s elegant Reclining Buddha. Buddhism is a religion with multiple gods, and I won’t claim to know who they all are or what they all stand for. Is visiting temples built in their honor considered idol worship? I don’t know. To me, it hardly matters. I remember entering a fortress-like temple site in the northern city of Chiang Mai. A donation box was set out with the specific purpose of buying food to feed the city’s stray dogs. Who can’t get behind something like that?!
What Does it All Mean?
Simply trying to contemplate the construction of these sites – not to mention the reverence of their builders – is mind-boggling. Despite the occasional hassle from opportunistic touts near some of these places, my visits there were spiritual and humbling. And yet, I am an atheist. I have never been moved to convert. Why is that?
I guess the reasons are three-fold. First, I was raised without religion in my life. Although I tried to find faith beginning late in my teenage years, I think that by the time I was 17 – and for better or for worse – that ship had already sailed.
Second, in the debate between science and religion, I choose science. In a perfect world, science and religion could stand side-by-side, complementing each other in issues of medicine, astronomy, and climate research. But alas, with people seeming more and more to choose one side 100% over the other, it has never been clearer that this is not a perfect world.
Third, acts of intolerance, often perpetrated under the guise of religion, leave a sour taste in my mouth. I am referring to terror attacks by ISIS, Boko Haram, and their ilk…and I am also referring to hate-mongering legislation such as Indiana’s strict RFRA bill. On this latter issue, I’ll simply say that any subsequent back-pedaling by Indiana Governor Mark Pence was too little, too late. He is doomed to be a one-term governor.
Each reason can be further explored over several paragraphs, or pages. I will focus on just Reason #1 for this entry. My argument here is the most coherent and, I think, the least likely to polarize readers. Here we go!
A Secular Kid in a Spiritual World
My parents were raised in strict religious environments. My mom attended the strictest of Catholic schools and my dad went to Lutheran school. Despite their parochial upbringings, they slowly grew jaded enough to stop attending service once they reached their mid-twenties. They didn’t so much respect each other’s religious differences as point them out, and came to the realization that the fairest thing to do was to raise their children to make their own religious decisions when they (my sister and I) became old enough. This essentially meant raising us without religion. I was never baptized, and the only time I ever attended church as a child was when I went to a Saturday night slumber party at a friend’s house and his parents took everyone to church the next morning. (Needless to say, I didn’t know what the heck the pastor/priest/minister was talking about, and stifled my boredom by making fart noises in the back pew until the service ended.) Whenever a friend or cousin got married, my family skipped the religious service and only attended the reception. Side note: My parents’ choice to raise us without religion sadly resulted in my mom being disowned by both of her sisters. To this day, they are not on speaking terms, and she hasn’t seen either of them in almost 35 years.
Can you imagine what it was like being (seemingly) the only non-religious kid at my school? My parents respect history, and they never asked me to boycott a Christmas choral concert or anything like that, but still…I was the only kid in my neighborhood who didn’t go through Catechism at age 10, or through a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Where were my presents?! It wasn’t all bad, of course; I got to sleep in on Sundays and eat all the pork and unleavened bread that I wanted. 🙂
Eventually, though, I grew curious. Most of my teenage friends were of the slightly-nerdy persuasion. Several of them attended a weekly Christian youth group that met at a non-denominational church in which everyone was welcome and no one was discriminated against. The youth group was called “Life.” Some of the attendees were Catholic, some were Baptist, some were Presbyterian, etc. I didn’t fit into any particular category, but I felt welcome and enjoyed the positive, drug-free atmosphere. (I guess I was slightly nerdy, too.) We sold candy bars for the Salvation Army, we performed amateur karaoke, and we played volleyball in the church basement. Plus, there were cute girls! Mostly, it was a fun way to spend a Wednesday evening.
I never prayed during the quieter sessions, but I listened to the prayers of others and tried to “send positive vibes” wherever they were needed. It wasn’t anything earth-shattering. Someone prayed for an “A” on their biology exam. Another person prayed for their neighbor, who had started drinking again. A third person prayed for an aunt who had a breast cancer scare.
Despite the passage of time, I never found the faith that my friends had. Many of them spoke then – and most still do so today – about how “God is love.” But whenever something terrible would happen, I couldn’t wrap my arms around the concept that a “loving” God would so such a thing. One year, an F5 tornado killed 29 people in that small Illinois town of my childhood. One of my high school teachers perished, as did the neighborhood paperboy. Often, the best explanation I would get from others who sensed my confusion during the aftermath of such tragedy is this old standby: “It was just their time.” What does that even mean?! A beloved, award-winning science teacher is taken in his prime by the tornado because God decides that this teacher has lived long enough?! How can that be the act of a loving God? To me, it sounds like the act of a selfish God. Oh, and “God’s love” may be little comfort to that teacher’s widowed wife and children.
Okay, Gringo, let’s dial back the anger a bit. My point is that by the time I grew genuinely curious about religion, my stubborn consciousness had already checked out. Seeing the pyramids of Egypt and the temples of Thailand and the churches of Mexico, as impressive as these places may be, isn’t enough to convince me otherwise. I am so moved by the displays of spirituality at these world wonders because I don’t have similar faith. I am impressed by the architecture of the religious site and equally impressed by the devotion of that site’s parishioners. I feel comfortable saying this because every time I’ve traveled with friends (most of whom have more religious conviction than I do) and we’ve visited such places, they have never been as impressed as I have. Never.
One more thing: It is endlessly fascinating to me that although I have never read the Bible in any depth, and that I cannot recite many of its Psalms or Beatitudes, I am more moved by visiting its holy sites and cities – or those mentioned in the Torah, in the Qur’an, or in Asian texts – than most of my religious friends. It seems to me that sometimes, they are content enough in the religion that they were raised with to not ask profound questions or to even have much interest in visiting sites that challenge them. I visited a Hindu temple in Singapore with a couple of friends in 2006. This was our first exposure to the art and culture of the Hindu faith, and a docent at the temple was explaining what each god signified. “My God doesn’t tolerate any other gods,” one of my evangelical-leaning friends said, and left the temple, waiting for us outside. He wasn’t angry at me for dragging him here, but he wasn’t impressed, either. Of course, he was under no obligation to be suitably impressed, but I was dismayed to discover that he wasn’t even remotely curious.
I am having difficulty concluding this blog post. I began this entry as a writing exercise of sorts, and I wasn’t sure where my thoughts would take me. I can’t call my musings “profound,” but I hope that if you’ve read every paragraph through this one, you at least found my travel stories interesting, and my greater argument to be fair and balanced. I encourage everyone reading this to leave a comment below – maybe we can foster an interesting discussion, in the name of research-like. I shared my stories; what are yours?
Will I ever find faith? I don’t know. I am not actively searching – and my heart tells me “no” – but I do try to keep an open mind. It can be hard sometimes. The Kenyan-born, Oxford-educated atheist Richard Dawkins once said that there are seven levels of Atheism, level one being that you don’t believe in God but can probably be convinced otherwise, and level seven being that you know without a shred of doubt that God does not exist. He himself admitted to being a level six, saying that while he did not believe at all, he had to admit as a man of logic that you simply cannot be 100% sure. I guess that’s fair. Call me a level four…and thanks for reading.