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Spiritual travel for atheists: Do pilgrimages have a place in modern society?

Their ideals should be applied to journeys today too, says Alain de Botton.

Few activities are nowadays more venerated or form the subject of more involved daydreams than travelling. Alongside love, travel lies at the heart of secular notions of happiness, though, unlike love, it is is generally assumed to be a straightforward process entailing few conceptual or philosophical conundrums.The travel pages of newspapers and magazines present the chief hurdles as identifying good hotels, finding things to do after dark, and locating small, authentic restaurants.

Religions have shown a surprising degree of sympathy for our impulse to travel. They have accepted that we cannot achieve everything by staying at home. Nevertheless, unlike secularists, the religious have singularly failed to see the business of travelling as in any way straightforward or effortless. They have insisted, with alien vigour, on the profound gravity of going on a trip, and have channelled the raw impulse to take off into a myriad of traditions and rituals whose examination could prompt us to reflect and sharply alter where, and how, we decide to travel next.

The differences between religious and secular attitudes to travel begin with their contrasting methods of choosing a destination. Here modern man is encouraged not to over-complicate matters. Travel agents see themselves as responsible for finding the cheapest transatlantic flights or arranging rooms with sea views in Rimini, rather than fathoming the souls of their customers. The desire to journey is meant to bubble up of its own accord, like the appetites of the stomach. The travel industry asserts, rather than explains, the importance of its destinations, implying that we would be bizarre for deviating from its lists, for remaining indifferent to the call of the temples of Angkor Wat or the trails of Machu Picchu.

The media presents us with a revolving array of images of foreign lands. We are expected to make swift and untroubled choices, concluding, for example, that the time has now come for us to see Norway's fjords or the Terracotta Army of Xian, the Day of the Dead in Mexico or the Sheraton Full Moon Resort & Spa in the Maldives – for reasons that we might struggle to account for in any detail.

Religions have felt unable to take such a light-hearted or hazy view. In so far as they have blessed the idea of travel, it is because travel is meant to heal us.

In Christianity, the idea was to go to the shrines of long-dead saints and, while making bodily contact with these, beg for a cure for a variety of physical and mental ailments. We no longer believe in the divine power of shrines and relics to cure toothache or gall stones, and most of the conditions that once motivated pilgrimages are now more appropriately addressed by a local clinic. Yet we can still hang on to the idea that certain parts of the world possess a power to address our ills. There are places that, by virtue of their remoteness, vastness, climate, chaotic energy, haunting melancholy or sheer difference from our homelands exert a capacity to salve the wounded parts of us. These sites, valuable rather than holy, help us to recover perspective, re-order our ambitions, quell our paranoias, and remind us of the interest and obliging unexpectedness of life.

Though we intuit this at one level, we lack, as yet, a tradition of approaching travel from a properly therapeutic perspective and so of analys-ing landscapes according to their benefits to our souls. We lack atlases of destinations with which to treat our neuroses. There are, as yet, no psychotherapeutic travel agencies – no experts in both neurotic disorders and tourism, in the psyche and in the hotels, nature trails, museums, hot springs and bird sanctuaries of the world.

The medieval church kept a tight grip both on where pilgrims went, and what they did and thought about each day as they made their way. It sought to buttress otherwise fleeting and forgettable sensations by giving its pilgrims prayers and songs. It urged them, regularly and publicly, to rehearse their motives for travelling. And it equipped them with distinctive garments to help them mentally separate themselves from their ordinary lives.

Medieval travel was slow at the best of times, but committed pilgrims went out of their way to make it even slower, foregoing the use of river barges or horses in favour of their own feet. A pilgrimage from northern Europe to the remains of St James the Apostle in Santiago could take eight months, pilgrims leaving in the spring and not making it back before the onset of winter.

Pilgrims were not being perverse in their insistence on slowness and difficulty. They were aware that one of our central motives for travelling is a desire to put the regrettable aspects of the past behind us. This desire is explicitly recognised in the Catholic notion of the pilgrimage as a penance. Furthermore, they knew that one of the most effective ways of achieving a feeling of distance from follies, vanity and sinfulness is to introduce something very large – like the experience of a month-long journey across a desert or a mountain range – between our past and our desired future. Our attempts at inner transition can be cemented by a protracted and hazardous progress. If inner change is difficult, then we may need a commensurately difficult outer journey to inspire and goad us.

Whatever the advantages of plentiful, swift and relatively convenient air travel, we may curse it for being, in the end, not painful or slow enough – and so for subverting our attempts to draw a convincing line under the past.

The travel industry should not be allowed to escape the underlying seriousness of the area of life it has been assigned to oversee. We must equip ourselves with agencies and pilgrimage routes that could consciously marry-up our complaints with locations that might attenuate them. We need to re-learn how to use travel as a way of being existentially healed rather than merely entertained or tanned.

Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) is out this week

Sacred sites: British pilgrimages

Bardsey Island, Wales

For medieval pilgrims, three trips to Bardsey, off the far end of the Llyn Peninsula, was equal to one to Rome, and Christians who died on the island secured a place in heaven. At one end of this lonely, hump-backed hulk is a jetty and lighthouse, at the other stands a church and the ruins of a medieval abbey. Day trips are possible from Pwllheli and Porth Meudwy in summer (enllicharter.co.uk).

Pilgrim's Way, Hampshire to Kent

This Roman track links Winchester and Canterbury cathedrals. Originally, it led travellers from the shrine of Saint Swithun, through the North Downs, to the final resting place of Thomas Becket, whose grave became a prominent pilgrim site after his canonisation in 1173. Much of the 120-mile path is intact, though the parallel North Downs Way National Trail is more scenic. (nationaltrail. co.uk/Northdowns)

Walsingham, Norfolk

In 1061, a rich widow named Richeldis de Faverches was said to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary in the Norfolk village of Walsingham. She converted the site into a Marian Shrine, which was later torn down during the Reformation. Only the east window remains now, but a new building dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham has a guest house, restaurant and gardens. (walsingham.org.uk)

Lindisfarne Island, Northumberland

Lindisfarne was dubbed "Holy Island" after Saint Aidan of Iona founded a monastery there in AD635. The imposing abbey ruins remain a lure to travellers, along with the island's intoxicating scenery, solitude and fortified mead – which was first produced by medieval monks and today comes from the St Aidan's Winery. (lindisfarne-mead.co.uk)

Iona Island, Scotland

This island in the Inner Hebrides has been a symbolic centre of spirituality since Saint Columba established a monastery there in AD563. Tiny Iona, just three miles long, still draws admirers. Attractions include its well preserved medieval abbey and a nunnery with a tranquil cloister garden. The Bishop's House offers doubles from £110, half-board. (island-retreats.org)