I am not a religious person. The closest I come to spirituality is throwing my arms in the air at an Iron Maiden concert to catch a bottle of urine. So when my mother – a reverend – press ganged me into her pilgrimage to Israel, the Holy Land, I feared that, at best, its virtues would sail angel-like over my head, and at worst the very air would sear my Dawkins-bothering skin. Instead, although I stopped short of an immaculate conversion, it proved to be one of the most profound experiences of my travelling life.
There’s more to Israel than religion
Undoubtedly religion is inextricably tied to most aspects of life in Israel, from the conflicts that populate the news to elevators conditioned to stop at every floor of a hotel to ensure Jews don’t violate the Shabbat. But there are plenty of other things to do in Israel, be it the high-walled streets of Jerusalem lined with markets selling knock-off antiques and pick ‘n’ mix sweets, gangs of camels that smell like gangrenous feet, or insects the size of household pets that chirrup under your bed at night and crunch like breakfast cereal under your feet. There are even paradisiacal beaches in Israel, where your only worry from on high is the toasty wrath of the sun.
Let the Dead Sea kick your arse
One beach you may have been misled about is the stony shore of the Dead Sea. Sure, you float, but it’s not always as relaxing as you’d hope. Strive for the classic newspaper-reading tourist photo and you’ll likely end up with a papier mâché cast of your hands. If you’re of a certain body shape (and I speak from painful experience) you can become locked in a perpetual roll like a hedgehog falling down an escalator, and the water is so saline that it’s recommended you don’t stay in for more than half an hour lest it slough the flesh from your bones (or something to that effect). A visit to the Dead Sea is simultaneously relaxing, stressful, exciting, and painful, leaving no time at all to ponder your religious abstinence.
Not everyone is a zealot and/or warmonger
It’s a platitude to speak of friendly, welcoming locals, and I would be remiss not to recommend caution when choosing how and where to travel in Israel. But tourist infrastructure is well-established, with many traders expecting you to playfully haggle over goods and restaurateurs who consider it their duty to fill you up with delicious falafel. We met some camel owners so friendly they offered – disingenuously, we feared, to trade a thousand of the beasts for my sister. As prosaic as it is to say, make sure to keep an open mind (and considered the logistics of flying all those camels back home).
The religion might just creep up on you
You know, in a good way. Perhaps the most trying thing about being an atheist in Israel is the apparent expectation of you to believe in the sometimes tenuous authenticity of its sites and relics. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, for example, takes you down a narrow stairway into the Holy Crypt, where a metal star frames a patch of bare stone which is supposedly the exact spot on which Jesus was born.
Many historians refute this. Many other sites make similar claims. Common sense dictates that this simply cannot be the truth. But when I saw a man press his cross to the stone and retreat weeping and praying into the corner, I began to understand the profundity of this place. Whether I believed in it or not, this was a cornerstone of a faith that has spanned millennia and is adhered to by millions worldwide. When my fingers brushed the cold stone I felt its importance, how this story has shaped human civilisation as we know it, for better or worse. That was a truth that couldn’t be denied.
You can feel spirituality without believing
That sounds a bit like it should be chanted while dancing naked under the star-dogged moon, but bear with me. Israel is a country that encompasses modern human history, seen in ruins thousands of years old or in the lone tank from the Yom Kippur war that is fast turning to rust in the hills of the Golan Heights.
When I stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, known for its miraculous loaves and fishes and a walk on water, the ancient stones sticking in the grip of my modern trainers, the sun lifting itself above the placid surface broken only by the casting of fishermen’s nets, or when I walked the streets of Jerusalem that Jesus followed to his death, I realised that my questions of authenticity were mere pedantry. I am not a religious person, but in Israel I felt its weight, its universal significance and, although my atheism remains stout and robust, this country brought me closer to spirituality than Iron Maiden has ever managed.