Spirituality for Atheists

by Elana Roth Parker in


A friend of mine went to Israel recently. This isn't unusual for me. I have lots of friends who go to Israel. That's what Jews do, generally--we go to Israel. I've been 10 times. (I might be missing one or two in there, but that's my rough count.) As someone turning 30, that means I average a trip about every 2-3 years. Not bad.

But this friend isn't Jewish. Not even close. So a trip to Israel in this case was totally going to defy what I expect my friends to be doing there, or even how they approach the trip as a whole. I mostly think of it as a family affair--in the obligatory sense. My parents own an apartment in Jerusalem, and ultimately intend to partially retire to. My one sister lived there for a year after college. My youngest sister just made aliyah and is now in the Israeli Army.

For my friend who is entirely outside this context, the trip (for work, no less) could go in a myriad of ways. It's a tense place. A religiously conflicted, but modern place. A place full of more characters and idiosyncrasies than you expect. A place of obscene hypocrisy and contradictions. Possibly the place the war that ends the planet will start. So I didn't really anticipate him telling me that he was expecting/hoping for some kind of spiritual moment in the Old City of Jerusalem. 

"What does a spiritual moment looks like for an atheist?" I asked.

"I have no idea."

Atheism aside, this gets one thinking about whether you can even have a spiritual experience in a place over-hyped for that purpose. If approach a place knowing it's got that association, can you really be open to anything? Can you intellectually pre-empt your own spiritual moment?

I think yes.

There are two cities in the world that tug my heartstrings. I live in one of them. The other is Jerusalem, a city I will never live in. It's too complicated there. I don't fit in religiously. (Maybe I'm too blond.) But still, whenever I'm in Israel, I feel really weird being in any other part of the country. I can't quite put my finger on it. It's a pull. And one that I'm not entirely sure I like. 

But I don't know that I've had a truly spiritual experience there. The Kotel holds nothing for me. It's too rife with conflict and bad feelings. I don't particularly like praying in formal settings in Israel at all. In fact, I think the moments in my life where I've felt something other have been in places I least expected it.

Like Auschwitz. 

Talk about a place that is going to carry emotional weight. Yeah, you expect to be upset. You expect to cry. Do you expect to feel God? Not so much. God was decidedly not there when the place earned its reputation. But 12 years ago, walking out of Birkenau--the place both of my grandparents lost their entire families and pieces of themselves--I saw a rainbow. It was raining. The sky cleared. I believe in weather patterns just as well as anything else. So it was mostly just a fluke. But...there it was at exactly the moment I needed it. 

Since then, I don't try for the spiritual moments. If it comes, it comes. You can want it, but seeking it out can only be anticlimactic and self-defeating. Let the universe do what it's going to do. The best spiritual moment is the one that smacks you upside the head when you're least expecting it. That's how you know it's real.

**Post Script: I don't really consider myself that spiritual of a person. Nor do I really even know what that means most of the time. And I definitely don't want to confuse this with concepts of faith or religion, so we can kindly leave all that out of any comments that might appear below.