Europe's cathedrals sublimely evoke the absence of God. They are temples that have decayed into museums. Tourists, not worshippers, fill their naves, driven by curiosity, not faith. One does not pay alms anymore but admission fees. The altar is roped off, not because it is sacred, but fragile. The silence of emptiness has replaced the silence of holiness.
Wandering past vacant pews and pulpits among guidebook-toting spectators, I become briefly nostalgic for the cathedrals' sacred past, until, opening my guidebook, I study that past and find nothing sacred. The glittering walls and shrines are decorated with ill-gotten gold, stolen relics, and war booty. The soaring domes and spires were raised to heaven not from piety but ambition, to outdo nearby cathedrals and show that Florence was better than Pisa, as modern Malaysian and Shanghai architects compete to build the tallest skyscraper. The niches are filled with the tombs of the rich, not because rich men were holy then but because they wanted to buy the best salvation for themselves, as today's rich use their millions to nuzzle up to power and buy the best laws and policies for themselves. In the cathedrals' history as opposed to their aura, I recognize the same political machinations, class inequality, greed, and immorality that rule the world today—the trademark signs of man curiously grafted onto religion. Life has left Europe's cathedrals, but God was never there.
A secular and a religious society are equally profane, for a secular society banishes the sacred, while a religious society defiles it with the human.