How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
Thus says the Lord: I have returned to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts, the holy mountain.
Ah, Jerusalem. Mount Zion. The Holy City. The Bible is full of passages singing its praises: The Lord has chosen it (Ps. 132:13); he loves it more than all the dwelling places of Jacob (Ps. 87:2); it was firmly founded (Ps. 122:3) and shall be called the throne of the Lord (Jer. 3:17). All of the world may be the Lord’s, but the Bible is pretty clear that God chose one city above all others. No wonder it’s a top destination for pilgrimages for no less than three religions, with three-and-a-half million people visiting every year, hoping for a small taste of the holiness.
And, of course, a not-insignificant portion of those visitors walk away crazier than loons.
I’m referring, of course, to the dreaded “Jerusalem syndrome,” one of a small handful of quasi-recognized mental disorders you can come down with by simply visiting a famous city. Others include “Paris syndrome“—a psychotic break that occurs mainly in Japanese tourists, evidently when they realize that the “City of Love” smells like pee—and “Stendhal syndrome,” which occurs (obviously) in Florence and apparently consists mainly of LSD-trip–like hallucinations brought on by the city’s sheer beauty. (Thanks to the Florence Board of Tourism for sponsoring this post.) Jerusalem syndrome, however, is by far the most common—and the strangest.
A lot of dumb things have happened in Church history and in the Bible—and it’s through the dumb stuff that God is at work.
Actually, the symptoms of Jerusalem syndrome—which affects as many as 100 people a year—are almost shockingly specific in their progression. First, the individual will become nervous and agitated and express a desire to leave the tour group and explore the city alone. (Tour guides in Jerusalem are actually familiar enough with the syndrome that many of them will try to step in here and put the kibosh on things.) After wandering the city alone for a while, the individual will become obsessed with cleanliness, bathing compulsively and often cutting his or her fingernails down to the quick.
The next step—and I am not making this up—is stealing a hotel bed sheet to make a toga. (The toga, of course, is a garment more associated with ancient Roman fashion, or frat parties, than with ancient Israelite dress, but the Jerusalem syndrome sufferer has more on his or her mind than historical accuracy.) Those who have studied Jerusalem syndrome note that the toga is always white, which they tie into the obsession with purity; I’d guess it probably has more to do with the fact that hotel sheets are pretty much always white, but then, I’m not the expert.
Once garbed in blinding white, our short-fingernailed friend will wander out into the street and shout Bible verses at random passersby. If they don’t know any Bible verses (because, who actually reads the Bible, amirite folks), they’ll shout lines from hymns, or Stryper lyrics, or whatever. Usually by now they’ll have developed a delusion that they’re a biblical figure—Jesus and the Virgin Mary are the most common, but it can be almost any scriptural character—and they’ll proceed to one of the city’s holiest places, such as the Wailing Wall or the Church of the Holy Sephulcre, from which they’ll deliver a sermon, which is usually about the need to denounce earthly possessions and live a more spiritual life. These sermons rarely have any real structure or make much sense, but I’d still rather sit through one of them than spend a few minutes on Evangelical Twitter.
And while all that might sound pretty harmless, the “peaceful sermon” climax is really the best-case scenario of the syndrome. Other people with the disorder have been known to act out violently, such as one guy who tried to break into the Church of the Holy Sephulcre after hours, believing himself predestined to fight an epic battle with Satan inside its walls, which might be the most metal thing I’ve ever heard, or another who attempted to tear down the Wailing Wall with his bare hands, because he believed himself to be Samson, obviously. Occasionally, two people with the same delusion—that they’re both Jesus, for instance—encounter one another, and the results are rarely pretty. Of the 100-ish annual cases, about 40 of these people require hospitalization.
Of course, as with any other strange and rare phenomenon, attempts to explain it are myriad, and none of them amount to much more than armchair speculation. Some have theorized that tourists are simply overcome by the sheer number of holy sites in the city, while others have postulated that tourists are profoundly disappointed that the “holy” city is just another place where normal people go about their daily business. You may notice these two explanations are more or less mutually contradictory.
Probably the most interesting hypothesis is that something about Jerusalem just makes people go mad with religious fervor—and that this has always been the case. Under this theory, even the Old Testament prophets, along with John the Baptist and Jesus himself, were all just sufferers of Jerusalem syndrome. Of course, the problem with this theory is that it answers zero questions while raising countless more—it’s functionally no different from saying that Jerusalem syndrome is caused by Bigfoot, which, I dunno, maybe it is.
If you want my real hot take, though—and, I mean, I’m assuming you do, since you’re reading this column—I’d guess that it’s somewhere in between those first two explanations, and that the key lies in the demographic breakdown of syndrome sufferers. While Jerusalem syndrome has been known to afflict both Jews and Christians (pretty much never Muslims, curiously enough), the Christians affected tend to be almost exclusively Protestants. And Protestants, as a group, tend to be the least informed about Church history. We talk about Jesus’ life as if it were something that happened, back in the day, and then not much has happened since. Maybe a Reformation. Maybe a Billy Graham crusade, or a dcTalk cruise, but not much else. The realization that Jesus was a real man, who lived and ate and slept and pooped (in a culture shockingly different from that of whitebread, American Protestantism), and whose actions sent shockwaves through the world that are still being felt in all of its corners, can be a bit much for people who have lived their whole lives thinking of the Gospels as, y’know, true-ish, but more of a personal guide to life than a real, actual thing that served as the basis for the last 2,000 years of messy, bloody history.
My intent with this column has always been, in part, to offer a corrective to that. A lot has happened in Church history. Sure, a lot of it was dumb, but there’s also a lot of dumb stuff that happened in the Bible—and it’s through the dumb stuff that God is at work. Jerusalem may be a holy city, but it’s not a squeaky-clean city—it’s full of dirt, and grime, and—well—sin, just like everything else. It’s not holy because everyone there keeps their noses clean, or because they’re all really good at making togas and cutting their fingernails.
It’s holy because God has chosen it, despite everything. Just like the Church.
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