An atheist in the Holy Land

atheist in the holy land

Each year, millions of people travel to holy sites around the world to get closer to their chosen deities. One of the most important cities for religious pilgrimages is Jerusalem. The religious and spiritual significance of visiting Israel is largely lost on someone like me who believes that organized religion is a whole lot of bullshit. Being in the walled up Old City of Jerusalem was particularly impactful, mostly for its lack of impact. What you see at the different religious sites in Jerusalem represents the most exaggerated form of devotion – people in hysterics having pilgrimaged for hundreds or thousands of miles to get there. So why is this place so important to people?

The religious significance of Jerusalem

Jerusalem is significant for being the center of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian beliefs. Frankly, I couldn’t get into the Bible, because I don’t like complicated fantasy novels with too many characters. But I will try my best to summarize the biblical significance of the Holy Land to each of the aforementioned faiths.

Jewish people have a special connection to Jerusalem because, according to the Hebrew Bible, this is where King Solomon built the first temple, at the site visitors now know as Temple Mount. Sadly, Jewish people are not allowed to enter Temple Mount to pray, because the area is under Islamic control, which is why Jewish people pray at the Western Wall.

For Christians, along with its presence in the Old Testament (which is key to both the Jewish and Christian faiths), Jerusalem is where Jesus lived and was crucified. Christians can visit the church built over the location where Jesus was crucified, buried, and later resurrected. In Jerusalem, you can also visit the location of the Last Supper, though I personally prefer da Vinci’s depiction of events.

atheist in the holy land

For Muslims, Jerusalem is considered sacred because it’s where the prophet Muhammad, messenger for God, ascended into heaven and received the second of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. At this site is where the Dome of the Rock was built. For Muslims, biblical characters like Abraham, Solomon, David, and Jesus are also considered key figures, though in their version of events, they’re prophets of Islam.

For me, Jerusalem is a holy shitshow

Everything I know about religion, I learned from the movie Dogma. I think war in the name of God (basically all of them) is one of the greatest failures of mankind. Taking up arms to fight your fellow man for the sake of a God you’ve never seen (and who frankly treats everyone like shit most of the time) is ludicrous. So being in the center of this contentious religious land is equal parts enlightening, amusing, and sad.

Trying to learn about the places you visit in the Holy Land, everything is qualified. “This is the site where Jesus is believed to be buried, though archeological evidence of this doesn’t exist.” The entirety of the area is hotly contested, rarely proven to be any of the things each of the three religions claim it is and yet steadfastly believed by millions, not just in Israel but all over the world. And many of these people are willing to die on the hill of that belief, which were told is all the proof we need that God exists. It’s a system that defies logic, which makes it absurd to me.

Without the deep emotional impact of being at the center of basically all organized religion in the Western world, what I found most striking was the coexistence. Thousands of people live in the Old City, sharing neighborhoods and market spaces with people whose beliefs are at odds with what their holy book told them is true. Muslims, Jews, and Christians exist in a tenuous peace under the threat of total violent annihilation, none willing to budge an inch on sites and relics they believe are their own God-given right. All of them believing they are God’s chosen people with nothing but their own conviction to show as evidence of it. It’s a strange sight to behold.

On the day we were leaving Bethlehem and traveling back to Jerusalem, we happened to get caught up in the exodus of Palestinians going to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque inside the Temple Mount. They’re only allowed to visit the Israeli-occupied Jerusalem without a permit during Ramadan. Palestinians were walking for miles across the checkpoint in a horrid Middle Eastern sun herded like cattle by Israeli military dressed for war just for the chance to pray. Some of these people hardly looked fit to go to the market without a wheelchair, but here they were pushing their bags and sweating profusely, unwilling to miss the opportunity to be as close as possible to Allah.

Naturally, as tourists, we wouldn’t be allowed at the site. But just the day before, we did stop by the little church in Bethlehem that sits on the place where Jesus was born (allegedly). A woman bent down over the nativity alcove was weeping in prayer for what seemed like ages. It was a kind of visceral and raw moment that you don’t see every day. I can appreciate how meaningful that moment must have been in her life to be in the presence of such a significant place in the history of her religion.

Seeing poignant moments like this, it also reinforced my religious beliefs – the lack of them.