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I plan on doing the St-Jacques-de-Compostelle pilgrimage, but I am also unequivocally atheist. My motivation for undergoing a (mostly) religious pilgrimage is pushing the limits of what I believe I can do, aka a "self-improvement" trip. If possible, I am also interested in experiencing the religious aspects (Out of well-intentioned curiosity)

What should I do and avoid doing during such a pilgrimage?

While I haven't ever practiced Catholicism, I have been baptized as a child, so I am technically catholic (if that matters).

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    Any reason for the downvote? I'd like to know what can be improved. – JS Lavertu Jul 23 '16 at 5:11
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Do you need to be religious active to walk to Santiago or do any other traditional pilgrimage?

Most people I have heard of who have completed a large part of the Santiago route by walking or cycling were not religiously active; and even those who were practicing Roman Catholics (RC) have never made another pilgrimage.
So you will not be an exception, although the closer you get to Santiago the more likely you will meet more people doing the pilgrimage for religious reasons.

What do pilgrims do while walking?

One of the things pilgrims do (if they do a pilgrimage right) is to contemplate. Often based on questions they ask themselves or each other, sometimes based on prayer or things they see during the day.
They do not just contemplate religious things but also things happening in life. Some sample questions are:
How you are in your relation with your relatives and friends.
How you do or could help others in whatever way.
The list is much longer, I guess you get the feel of it now.

Can you do something like that when you are not religiously active?

If you want to give your pilgrimage a theme that is like them, you can do something like that yourself.
It is something you can do while walking.
You do not need to set time aside for this.
Just read one of the points in the morning or when you have started walking, think of a good point to contemplate that day, and you can spend as much or little time on it as walking, company and your mood allows.

Another traditional thing for pilgrimages is the rosary, but as non practicing RC (you say 'unequivocally atheist'), you will likely not be happy spending much time on it.
In your case I might read about it.
I was a practicing RC at the time and found the rosary boring and uninspiring.
If you are into meditation or even yoga, you might like to think about a kind of active meditation or a simple yoga routine that will get you in the same kind of mood.
This is not something for new people to meditation or yoga, it might be a good substitute in your mind.
And that is the only place where it matters.

Do I need to do something to replace religious activities?

For all I know, many people happily walk the whole distance without any thought deeper than the next meal or the next mountain to climb.

Things to do and to avoid?

If you meet people who are religious, respect it and them.
If you pass churches, you might want to go in and spend a few minutes, dress for it, (shorts till below the knee and shoulders covered, or a wrap to cover what needs to be covered.)
I am sure you know how to behave in a church as a tourist, if you happen to be in one during a service, do not take communion (or at least you should not as you have not been introduced into the church, it is your own choice of course), if you happen to walk forward with all others or if the group is small and the priest just comes to you, hold your hands in a closed position and your mouth closed.
If the priests insists, just shake your head slightly.
Most local priests will understand, they will have seen more 'non RC' people in their services but you might meet a priest out of a very religious area who is doing the pilgrimage himself.
Do donate a little if you can spend the money on it. The people who do the Santiago route are very varied and some of them seem to feel less welcome. You can do your bit and be welcoming/friendly to all you meet.

So many churches, should I visit all?

Do not feel obliged to visit every church on your route, you will never make it to Santiago if you do. And if one church for the whole route is enough for you, it is.

I do not want any church but I want a proper end to the route!

These days there is a route beyond Santiago to the coast, so also those who do not want to enter churches at all can have a good closure to their experience. I do not know how 'new' and how 'well known' that last bit is, I have seen it mentioned on television.

More information

In 2018 the BBC have broadcasted a series in which several well known people did parts of the route and the full last 100 km. They did tell a lot about the route in the series. You might be able to find it on Youtube by now. Or it might be broadcasted as well where you live.

  • This is worth reading on the subject of non-Catholics receiving communion. – BobRodes Jul 24 '16 at 4:39
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    Two notes: (1) There is a 2010 American drama film The way about the pilgrimage to Compostella. It nicely shows several aspects of the pilgrimage (staying overnight, activites during walking, sections of the route, theft of one pilgrim's backpack...). Also there, none of the protagonists was religiously active person. (2) By mentioning yoga, I assume you think of it in Western sense (system of exercises), because in tradition where it originated, yoga is important part of religious practices (what can be contrary to what OP stated). – miroxlav Jul 24 '16 at 7:02
  • @RobRodes, that is about Christians of other churches, it is not about people who have not passed into joining their church as full members. I have always learned that if you are considered a full church member of your own Christian church, you can take communion in an RC church. (Whether the pope admits it or not.) – Willeke Jul 24 '16 at 9:06
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    @BobRodes: I think receiving communion as an (open) non-believer would be disrespectful at the very least. Even devout believers should not do that if they have not confessed. Being atheist is (in my mind) very different from being merely of a different Christian denomination (of the not too exotic kind). Then again, I'm simply irreligious and not a non-RC christian, so they may be some subtleties I am not aware of. – tomasz Jul 24 '16 at 15:44
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    I included the polite way to 'not' take communion as I heard of friends who found themselves in the front of the church during communion, not knowing what to do and feeling embarrashed by that, acting (due to that,) in a manner RC people would find disrespectful. So better know what to expect and how to handle if you do not want to join in. I leave it to the person him/her self how to handle though. – Willeke Jul 25 '16 at 18:13
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My brother, sister and I walked the camino de compostela in 2013 - we are all non religious.

Everything is quite organized and we had no problems finding places to sleep/eat. Depending on where you are planning to stay, it can happen that the hostel belongs or is part of the church (albergue parroquial).

One time we were asked if we could attend/say a few words in mass (because they wanted the blessing to be in different languages) - it was interesting and nice. But most of the time nobody cared if we were religious or not.

In Santiago at the office where you get the compostela (the certificate that you walked at least the last 100km of the way), they asked if we where Catholic. If you say no you will get a different, not so pretty looking certificate.

What (not) to do:

  • Do not visit/interrupt churches during mass
  • When visiting churches, wear propper clothes (nothing too short etc.)
  • Enjoy the walk.
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I think that there are 2 basic approaches to a pilgrimage which have served people for centuries.

  1. It's a holiday. For this to work you need to be properly dressed and equipped (enough sunscreen!) and expecting to enjoy yourself. As with any holiday you need to respect "the locals" which in your case means not only respecting the Spanish, but also the religious. Don't horn in on groups who want to pray together as they walk or talk loudly about your dissent from their beliefs.

  2. Treat it as "time out" - a pause from the everyday which is designed to let you think about some of those things which you avoid at other times. This can mean doing the opposite of a normal holiday - turn your mind towards matters which are making you uncomfortable. You could use this as an opportunity to work through grief and come to terms with the loss of a loved one or the end of a phase of your life. You might want to think if you are happy with the direction your life is taking. Is it time to go easy on the booze? Do you want to move house? Are you ready for new responsibilities? Here the steady pace of walking and the removal of other distractions can be used to help with a calmer mood or creating a bubble in which to think.

If you do take path 2, then be prepared to structure your contemplations a little and don't just wallow. This is the secular equivalent of "spiritual discipline".

If you decide on path 1 then create "happy space" for yourself - an enjoyment of the moment. You are not here simply to get to your destination - if that were the case then planes, trains and automobiles would have been your choice. For this to work you need to be sure that you are fit enough to keep walking without the very act of movement being a penance!

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