TO THE MODERN MIND, pilgrimages are relics of the superstitious past, as decrepit an idea as the blood and bones once venerated in medieval shrines. The hagiographies of saints have been demystified, their healing powers from beyond the grave debunked. With travel now valued for its own sake, globetrotters can venture well beyond the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury. In Chaucer’s time, according to the Canterbury Tales, folk would “longen to goon on pilgrimage.” But how many, today, still have that longing?

Really much more than you would think, as Victoria Preston informs us in her valuable new book, We Are Pilgrims. At least 200 million people embark on pilgrimages every year to the same sites the faithful have been visiting, in many instances, since prehistoric times. That enormous figure reflects the greater religious consciousness of much of the non-Western world, but it also includes vast numbers from lands we think of as profoundly secularized — 30 million from Europe alone, not least Preston herself, an adept of pilgrimages who apparently has no religious beliefs of her own.

Her aim is to understand “why so many of us are drawn to this timeless human activity,” which she defines as “a ritual journey to a place of shared spiritual meaning.” Her account consists of anecdotal narratives from her life as a seasoned pilgrim, beefed up with historical background, ethnographic observation, and literary references. From this eclectic range of sources, she deduces the primary motives of the pilgrim, which provide her book with its structure. Survival, kinship, faith, wonder, solace, redemption, hope, gratitude, liberation, and enlightenment each get a chapter, but the unfocused content of one could just as easily have ended up in another. There is nevertheless a single, predominant idea, namely that pilgrimages are — as summed up in the book’s subtitle — “journeys in search of ourselves.”

This, essentially, is in the spirit of the Oracle of Delphi, who implored to pilgrims at the Temple of Apollo: “Know thyself!” That commandment, at least since the time of the Romantics, has pretty much been elevated into the supreme ethic of Western life, and without a doubt, so much of spiritual life in the West does revolve around this idea of finding oneself.

However, this doesn’t seem the real objective of most pilgrims, and certainly not of those from outside the West. Their intentions would be much better captured by an altogether different classical imperative, that of St. Augustine, “to know God.” The Hebrew Bible, among the oldest literary testimonies to the institution of pilgrimage, enshrines an obligation to appear before God at Jerusalem’s Holy of Holies. Likewise, the Hajj sees two million Muslims visit Mecca every year with the ritual declamation: “Here I come, God, here I come!” In the words of the theologian al-Ghazali, they are “answering the summons of God.” Not the summons of our selves.

This deference to divine fiat seems bewildering to Preston, as it does to so many of us who have been educated in the secular traditions of social science, in her case, at the London School of Economics and King’s College London, where Preston teaches strategic communications. She is less comfortable with God than she ought to be as the author of a book about pilgrimage. Poorly read in theology (she prefers poetry), she devotes a single, solitary chapter to “faith,” in which Preston herself confesses a gulf between “secular pilgrims like myself” and “what pilgrimage means to those with faith.” She then proceeds to demonstrate this gulf by resorting — even in this chapter on faith — to discussions of various utilitarian by-products of pilgrimage, presumably because it seems absurd to kowtow to God without getting something in return.

These discussions are nevertheless worthwhile. For example, research from Harvard shows that Hajj participants tend “to extend notions of equality and harmony to adherents of other religions.” They are also “more likely to support girls’ education.” Preston connects this with the commingling of the sexes around the Meccan sanctuary, by contrast with strictly segregated mosques. The Hajj embodies racial equality too, and is so powerful an egalitarian spectacle it converted Malcolm X from his animus against the “white devil” to the multiracial vision that got him assassinated. 

The same is true of the shrines of Sikhism, whose founder Guru Nanak had, according to Sikh legend, also completed the Hajj. The Sikh (and Muslim) shrines of the Punjab, for example, have a langar, a dining hall for people of all castes and creeds to break bread together. Preston might have added that, in fact, shrines worldwide have a tendency toward popular syncretism. The graves of Muslim Sufis have always been frequented by Hindus in India and by Orthodox Christians in the Balkans. The latter were so influenced by Islam that they adopted the Arabic title “Hajji” for those who had completed Christian pilgrimages (hence the Romanian soccer legend Gheorghe Hagi). 

Notions of equality and fraternity make the idea of pilgrimage palatable to contemporary tastes. But they neglect the God-centered quintessence of pilgrimage, which is mainly only hinted at in Preston’s book. There is a telling quotation from Lord Jim (though only in an epigraph) that captures the truth I am referring to. “At the call of an idea,” Conrad writes of Mecca-bound pilgrims on the doomed SS Patna, “they had left their forests, their clearings, the protection of their rulers, their prosperity, their poverty, the surroundings of their youth and the graves of their fathers.” But what is this extraordinary “idea” that is calling them? It isn’t (alas!) some woolly vision of equality. As Conrad explains elsewhere in his novel, what moves these pilgrims — almost to the point of dying in the Indian Ocean — was an “exacting belief.” It is religious faith that gives pilgrimage its power.

Only in the West is this “exacting belief” no longer prevalent in many pilgrim hearts. As Preston notes, surveys of the pilgrims on Spain’s Camino de Santiago show that less than a third cite “religious or spiritual” reasons. But how true would that be of, say, the tens of millions of Hindus who bathe naked in the Ganges during the Kumbh Mela? There are no equivalent surveys, because there is no doubt, really, about what they are doing and why: they have been summoned to the sacred river of their faith, a goddess they call Ganga Maa, “mother Ganges.” Eurocentric reasoning has been grafted once again on to a profoundly different order of global experience.

Preston’s anthropocentric, utilitarian account — a catalog of all the ways human beings gain from pilgrimage — forgets the perspective of most pilgrims from around the world. These are people who describe themselves not as setting out in search of themselves but the divine. The self, indeed, is what they are trying to transcend. Shrines are sacred, transcendent spaces in which to reach God, something that is well expressed in the Hindu concept of tirtha, Sanskrit for a ford, or crossing between two realms. Pilgrimages belong, as Durkheim wrote, to a “non-rational, non-utilitarian scheme of sacred values.”

It is of course hard to acknowledge the sacred if one does not believe in it. The strength of We Are Pilgrims, therefore, revolves around the concrete — as Durkheim would say, the profane — realities, the whirrings of the economy and society that surround pilgrimage, and which Preston has observed over many decades as a jet-setting consultant to governments and corporations. She explains how “the pilgrim trade is of value to rural communities” and that “pilgrimage was a very early social networking ‘platform.’” Despite sounding reductive, these claims are justified by archaeological evidence regarding the earliest Neolithic pilgrimages undertaken 10,000 years ago to agricultural festivals that facilitated economic and social exchange.

Pilgrimages open up commercial opportunities, but just as significant, if less tangible, are the social and cultural exchanges spurred on inside the crowds. Muslims and Jews commonly return from Saudi Arabia and Israel, respectively, with a more conservative political and religious outlook. Pilgrimages thereby standardize religions — a word mistakenly thought by St. Augustine to be rooted in the Latin religare, “to bind together.” Pilgrimage is religion’s global binding agent.

Reading this comparative account of pilgrimages, from the folk religion of the Romany to the nature cult of American transcendentalists, highlights how many rituals and symbols are shared across different traditions. From Mount Athos in Greece to Mount Fuji in Japan, mountains are almost universally regarded as celestial places near to God, not just for their loftiness, but for their role in the origination of water. Water, meanwhile, whether from the River Ganges or the spring of Our Lady of Lourdes, has the “cathartic” power of washing away one’s sins.

Preston’s reference to “catharsis,” the purging of emotions so important to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, calls to mind the work of the British anthropologist Victor Turner, who remains the central thinker when it comes to understanding pilgrimage from a secular perspective. He thought of pilgrimage rites as dramatic performances involving role-playing, spectators, action sequences, climaxes, dialogue, rhetorical speech, and, most of all, symbolism. Preston doesn’t acknowledge Turner’s work, but knowingly or otherwise, We Are Pilgrims is indebted to this striking way of looking at rituals. It allows Preston to discern just how important pilgrimage rites remain, even in the West, from obvious examples such as the reverential crowds in galleries to quite original comparisons, such as “our secular faith in foreign hospitals.” The latter are visited, Preston believes, in much the same way as the healing shrines of Lourdes and Mashhad.

We Are Pilgrims strongly implies that no society, however secularized and technologically advanced it may become, could totally outgrow a practice whose roots stretch back to the far origins of human culture. One might have expected pilgrimage, following the Reformation’s suspicion and the Enlightenment’s contempt, to die out in the West. But, even accounting for the various newer, secular forms of motivation, we are seeing pilgrimage flourish in a way no one really predicted; the Camino de Santiago has seen a 300 percent increase in pilgrimages over the past decade, with 500,000 sojourners expected next year.

Why is that? It seems to me that pilgrimage is so irrepressible an element of human behavior because it is central to our understanding of life itself. In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, all of life is envisioned as a pilgrimage, and we cannot give up on this idea. Even diehard atheist Richard Dawkins’s natural history of the origins of life, The Ancestor’s Tale, was subtitled “A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life.”

For all its flaws, We Are Pilgrims reminds us that pilgrimage remains the best metaphor we have for understanding our peregrinations through the stations of life.

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Tanjil Rashid is a writer and producer based in London. He regularly contributes to the BBC, The Times, The Financial Times, The Guardian, and Prospect Magazine.