Carving Out a Pilgrimage for an Earnest Atheist


Jessica Reed has a curious piece in The Guardian, the paper of record for all things leftist, secular, and anti-Israel. Ms. Reed wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago, one of the oldest and most popular Christian pilgrimage trails. But she’s an atheist and so found herself on the horns of a dilemma.

I listened to one of my favourite French radio programmes, in which the host interviews a range of guests about their greatest love story. In this episode, the interviewee recounted her pilgrimage – a three-month affair started in eastern France, all the way to Santiago. She had met her partner in a village bar along the way, and they decided to keep on walking together. The story, while being a blindingly obvious metaphor for life’s mysterious ways, was brilliant, and I found myself thinking about it often. A few months later, I stumbled upon the movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen. While it’s certainly not award-winning material, the landscapes, coupled with the gruelling hiking effort shown on screen, appealed to me. I started to think the Camino was something I wanted to attempt.

At this point it’s not quite clear what the problem is. Until you get to this.

This is where my ethical problem arises. While the Camino is frequented by people of all faiths and none, it is generally accepted that the credencial should be signed by a representative of the Catholic church – usually your local priest, who can send the pilgrim on her way, vouching for her character. But being not only an atheist, and one who is not even baptised, I don’t feel comfortable asking for a Catholic priest (in London, no less – which one would I even choose?) to sign my credencial. This would be a selfish and hypocritical gesture: should I be asking for someone’s blessing when I don’t share any of his religious tenets? Surely priests have better use of their time than setting up atheists’ bureaucratic paper trail.


Now I’m not snarking on Ms. Reed. This is a respectful little column, and I’m sure she has come to her state of unbelief honestly. (She acknowledges that she has never been baptized.) What caught my attention was the continuing appeal of the pilgrimage itself, even among the unjustified.

Cards on the table: as a Reformation Christian, I feel about pilgrimages the way I do about prostate exams for women: The discomfort far outweighs any possible benefit.

The history of the pilgrimage as thing is not interesting in the least, so I won’t recount it here. But consider this about the Camino de Santiago, cut-and-pasted from Wiki: “The Way of St. James has existed for over a thousand years. It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times, together with Rome and Jerusalem, and a pilgrimage route on which a plenary indulgence could be earned.” (I’m sure the Catholic Encyclopedia offers a slightly more compelling précis.)

Ah, the indulgence—what happened to Christianity when the Cross was reduced to a self-help talisman. As everyone knows who knows anything about the Reformation, it was the indulgence that induced Luther’s initial gas pains, and until it was expelled from the Body of Christ, the “Way” was one interminable climb up the ladder of sanctification until you reached…purgatory.

Luther went on a pilgrimage once. Once. It was to Rome. And it was about as spiritually edifying as an examination of Leo X’s books (or, for that matter, his prostate).

Luther’s take on the pilgrimage devolved from a critique of its abuse as a misguided superstition to a final repudiation as one more man-made substitute for what only faith could apprehend: the favor of God, which is by definition unmerited.

Which is not to say that Lutherans do not enjoy a pilgrimage of a kind. In fact, we walk it every single Sunday: the procession that is part of the liturgy, which mirrors the journey from our baptism to the sacrament of Holy Communion and the real presence (not merely the remembrance) of Christ.

Perhaps my favorite take on the subject comes from an unlikely source: Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, in his For the Life of the World. He situates Christianity over and against “religions” with their “sacred geography”:

Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. . . . Nowhere in the New testament, in fact, is Christianity presented as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. …

Christians had no concern for any sacred geography, no temples, no cult that could be recognized as such by the generations fed with the solemnities of the mystery cults. There was no specific religious interest in the places where Jesus had lived. There were no pilgrimages. The old religion had its thousand sacred places and temples; for the Christians all this was past and gone. There was no need for temples built of stone. Christ’s Body, the Church itself, the new people gathered in Him, was the only real temples. …

The fact that Christ comes and is present was far more significant than where He had been. (emphasis emphasized)

The only legacy of the pilgrimage that is of any value is Chaucer’s masterwork The Canterbury Tales, the conceit of which is a storytelling contest engaged in by pilgrims traveling from Southwark to the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral, where he was murdered by Peter O’Toole but I may be mistaken about that.

Lest I be thought a total grouch, I will grant that following such trails as a matter of historical interest can be fun. Old churches can be strikingly beautiful. Walking where Jesus walked can lift the Incarnation off the pages of theological texts and embed it in history for the individual believer, I guess. One must simply be careful to ward off the idea that there is any vertical spiritual merit involved. Your cardiologist may be impressed by your trek, but I assure you—God is not.

This blog post has become a bit of a pilgrimage, I must say, and I have traveled far afield from my original goal: to carve out a pilgrimage for the earnest atheist. Since traditional pilgrimages are very much worldly endeavors, despite the patina of spirituality, I don’t see why atheists should be denied whatever internal fortification they provide. And designing a trail that hits all the unholy places of unbelief shouldn’t be that difficult.

One could start with the birthplace of Lucretius, except all we really know about him is that he was Roman. So let’s say Rome for the heck of it. And what better way to flip the bird to Pilgrimage Central than to have one’s fellow faithless gather right in its backyard. One could head north and west to Diderot’s Paris, where you could then imitate his travels to St. Petersburg, stopping off in Germany to visit the homes of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. Continuing east, you could visit Siberia, home to the labor camps, atheism’s answer to full employment. Or you could just stay in France a while and  pay homage to the Goddess Reason and her sidekick, the guillotine. One could then head north to Britain and visit shrines associated with Lord Russell and Herbert Spencer, and of course, Darwin. (The eugenics exhibit at the Science Museum in Kensington has wonky hours, so call ahead.)

An entirely separate course could be charted in the Far East. You could start with an overnight at Dao County, where Mao Zedong enjoyed some of his most successful massacres. You could then move on to Cambodia and see Pol Pot’s personal collection of smashed eyeglasses. Finally, you could dine in North Korea, but that’s assuming food and an exit strategy.

I call upon you amateur cartographers to mapify something non-tortuous for our atheist friends. This blog is a big tent. I would turn away no one from its benefits. Assuming, of course, I’m not on some kind of kill list.


5 thoughts on “Carving Out a Pilgrimage for an Earnest Atheist

  1. Being a missionary and therefore always on a way of some kind I believe I have a method for her obtaining a pilgrimage pass. Since she is only an atheist and not an anti-theist, she can say she may perhaps become a believer on the pilgrimage just as Paul was on the road and was suddenly stopped by a new reality. Most priests will buy that and she will be indulged..


  2. How can you forget Cuba? Stroll the beautiful sunlit Caribbean paradise where Che engaged in mass murder on his way to becoming a chic icon of the cultural left.

    “What caught my attention was the continuing appeal of the pilgrimage itself, even among the unjustified.” What caught my attention was the continuing appeal to ethics by a person who denies ethics have any ultimate meaning.

    “One must simply be careful to ward off the idea that there is any vertical spiritual merit involved.” Agreed. Scholars agree that we can be certain that when we are on the southern steps of the Temple Mount we are literally standing where Jesus stood. When I was there I felt nothing special. Well, it was hot that day, but you know what I mean.

    “Luther went on a pilgrimage once. Once.”

    Love it. Johnny Dangerously is one of my favorite flicks and I use this allusion all the time. Surprisingly, I meet very few people who catch the allusion. I think this was Joe Piscopo’s best role.


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