After a few days of wild, slovenian countryside I reached the Croatian capital of Zagreb, arriving at the cosy Hobo Bear hostel. The rains came in for a week and I ended up staying for five nights. It was a milestone city for me. Grey stoned and grand, with low but vast buildings from museums to government houses. The place seemed to be filled with cathedrals and churches and cobbled, winding market streets. I loved it.
I learnt that Croatia was massively geared for travellers. There were so many things to do, so many cities to see, from national parks to coastal fortresses and hostels were everywhere. I knew, in the back of my mind, that I couldn’t really be a part of this, but it was so hard not to get excited by all the classic backpacker chatter. Ahead of me, the Karst mountains of Plitvice National Park and, further on, the Mediterranean coast. The road was only going to get tougher and so I rested.
Many would passed through my mind, alone on the bicycle for hours on end, in the early days through Europe. For me, one of the most significant observations about this part of the world was how strong a position religion had within society and how strongly it had shaped European culture.
I watched religions shift, architecturally, socially, as I travelled east across France, Italy, Slovenia & Croatia. As I crossed mountains and borders I saw small changes and, when I finally reached Zagreb, a city full of cathedrals, full of street churches, people seemingly forever in prayer, I began to think about how it had all come about.
For starters, in the beginning, as they say, there was nothing and then, a very short while later, there were apes. It went something like that. In the hundreds of millions of years in between other lifeforms existed. Some flourished. Some died. But, with the ape, the difference was consciousness. There was a moment where the simian became self-aware. When the first questions formed in it’s mind about who it was, where it was and why it was. This is the moment it became human. Logically and technically, this is the only history we can possibly know. Every other theory is unfounded. Any other writings, any other teachings you are told of are spurious, until proven. We needn’t invent more than is verified. Within our spectrum of knowledge, this is our understanding of how human’s came into being. But, in that moment, self-importance, the side effect of consciousness, was also born.
In those first days, as we looked to the skies, our minds trying to understand stars, trying to understand the darkness of the night, the colours of the day, questioning our own reflections in the water, we became spiritual beings. Spiritualism came first. Religion followed. This is obvious but, it seems, we have forgotten this fact. Spiritualism was the driving force of human accomplishment, the true core of our being. We asked then who are we and what is this place we live in? and the questions forced us to explore the world, consider the universe, to want to grow, to want to know more, to reach out further and further, both physically and metaphysically.
Religion, a bi-product of spiritualism, a set of codes created to trying provide easier access to spirutalism for all of man, tends to have the opposite evolutionary effect. Whilst it has been a major factor in shaping the modern world, even acting as a catalyst for scientific disscovery, rarely has religion directly benefited us. It’s been something we turn to. Something that allows us to stop asking questions, to stop reallly considering.
But humans are and always have been spiritual, long before these faculties were created. Every living person considers some kind of metaphysical notion at some point in their life, but often their chosen or happened-to-be religions force them to put away such thoughts. A religious person will often claim they are spirutal beings whilst the humanists, the aetheists, are not. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
When I visited the cathedral in Zagreb I felt the power of the place wash over me. Gothic, dark, candle-lit, echoing and eerie. The heads of people in prayer could be seen dotted about the aisles, bowed, some with hands to their foreheads. I was overwhelmed. But of course I would be. I am always, like most people, impressed by and in awe of great architectural feats. I am always, like most people, chilled by flickering shadows, by echoing whispers, by intense silence, by fractured light through vast, ominously designed stain glass windows. Who wouldn’t be. The cathedral was forceful in its attempt to heighten the power of it’s chosen god.
At some point, between those first simian humans and this cathedral in Zagreb, spiritualism had been swamped and caged by brick and glass.
In rural france and other European countries, down every crumbling backroad, in every small farming village I passed, there was a grand church at it’s centre. Often, there would be only one farm house and, towering over it, a vast spire. I was always surprised to see these beautiful buildings appear as I cycled through otherwise empty farmlands. I thought simply of the amount of time, bricks and effort gone into building them, when, instead, they could have just built a better farm. Whatever the reasons for our world, however it was created, even by whatever, it seems to me more logical and sensible to harness it for farming, for art, for science, than for directionless thanking.
Once, in our history, we were so lost as a species that we built all our settlements around such buildings. A building full of all the answers we thought we needed and thought they gave. It’s a shame that the farmhouse wasn’t looked upon as a hub for spiritualism. A farm looked at the world around us, looked at nature, used nature and benefitted from it. The thanks it gave was to give back to the earth itself and its reward was tenfold, it’s reward could be shared with the people. The cathedral in Zagreb had made me feel a little scared. It was so far from a humble farmhouse. So far from what it should have been. I was scared by the fear that emanated from the people in the aisles. They cowered before the alter and I felt so sad for them. When, once, we would look to the sky and smile, or wonder, or just think. Now, because of our own stories and inventions, we fear the sky.
I walked through the streets and came across an outdoor church, where an old lady spent her days lighting candles for passer’s by, for people who wanted to sit for a moment and pray. In many ways, at a glance, there seems a lot of good in providing someone with a place to find spiritualism, to seek answers, to gain a moments calm, but the routines of religion seem strange to me – the lighting of candles, the sitting with hands clasped together, the writings etched into the wall behind them. Take away these and it becomes, apparently, difficult for individuals to be spiritual. All the work is being done through atmospherics, through procedures, by going somewhere, sitting in some place that feels instantly spiritual.
The questions we have for the world should be integrated into everyday life, we should be asking them all the time. Who are we? Why are we? There are hundreds of religions in existence, but, really, there should be seven billion. Take away the cathedrals, the outfits, the books, the procedures and let the human do the work. Let them do what they have done since the first ape looked upwards. Let the questions they have be towards themselves and their own universe become their own religion and, if this happens, we might become as progressive as we once were.
When I reached the coast of Croatia, a few weeks later, I cycled through entire cities that had been fought over and built for religion. Mediterranean citadels, dating back to crusading times. They were incredible places. But they were crumbling ruins. Life had moved on and the old cities had become monuments or backdrops. People flocked to see them, to take pictures of them, knowing that the days of kings and queens and religious rule were over. It seemed strange to me that most of these people had not done the same for their sunday churches. Letting go would be no different.
I am proud of man’s achievements in growing closer to understanding the world and where we come from, but I am not proud of that self-importance that we still retain. We are the most conscious beings on the planet. We unjustly claim the right to decide more than is decidable, know more than is knowable, answer the unanswerable. The cathedrals and all that take place within them are of human design, a creation of man, anyone can work that out, yet a lot of us continue to accept these creations as fact.
There is nothing wrong with not knowing. It was the enjoyment in asking that got us to where we are today, it is the need to know more that stopped me from hiding in England and pushed me to cycle around the world. Had I adopted some religion, I might not have felt the need to step away from my front doorstep. We are no greater and no less than the smallest molecule or the brightest sun. We are all a result of the very first nothingness. All that has changed is that we are aware of it. We should never remain satisfied. We should always question. Always explore further. Always try and see the answers for ourselves. Be always like the first man.