The New York Times reports that some people treat their CrossFit gyms as a church substitute.
“What really struck us was the way in which people were bringing their kids to their box,” Harvard Divinity student Casper ter Kuile, who cowrote a paper about this phenomenon, told the Times, “or the way different workouts of the day were named after soldiers who had died in battle. So there’s all of these things you would expect to see in a church — remembering the dead through some sort of ritual, and intergenerational community.”
CrossFit enthusiasts aren’t the only ones looking for a religion replacement. In this recent interview, Stanley Kurtz (who, I must say, is just about the most courteous gentleman I’ve ever met) discusses one reason campus protests have been so forceful of late: “It’s almost a religion, and that’s what gives it its force.” It has been noted many times that progressivism commits this same fatal mistake, of trying to “immanentize the eschaton,” or create heaven on earth. Conservatives fundamentally reject this attempt, and often because our religious beliefs teach us that salvation is not to be found inside merely this material world.
Every human searches for meaning, for identity. It’s a part of growing up. Religion has been delegitimized in our culture as a source of meaning, even though, as social scientist Charles Murray relates, it has always been one of the most pivotal human reasons to live. So, Kurtz says, politically radicalized campus protesters are attempting to answer, without religion, “How can you be part of something larger than yourself, a movement that gives meaning to your life?” The same is true of the CrossFit “churchgoers.” And it’s all rather pathetic and sad.
We Are Really Shallow about Religion
The article, and the Harvard Divinity paper that sparked it, expresses the utter lack of religious understanding many people have now. You can see that in their thin applications of religious words. “Worship” is not “something I do regularly.” Going to a CrossFit box each morning to work out is not at all a religious activity even if it “brings me to my knees,” as the article hilariously says. If that were true, showering would be worshiping the sanitation god, or something. In the same vein, holy days and rituals are not “things I do every year or week.” Because that would make changing diapers a religious ritual for me. I assure you, it’s not.
“CrossFit is family, laughter, love and community,” CrossFit enthusiast Ali Huberlie told the Harvard students. “Huberlie speaks about her box as others might speak about a church or synagogue community,” writes Times reporter Mark Oppenheimer. “The same is true of some 12-step program members, and devoted college football fans. In an increasingly secular America, all sorts of activities and subcultures provide the meaning that in the past, at least as we imagine it, religious communities did.”
Except, no, no they don’t. Religion is not at heart some sort of social club where people go to feel nice. Yes, people can find “family, laughter, love, and community” at church or synagogue, but that’s not why churches and synagogues exist. Religion is ultimately about the state of one’s soul, and what one believes about it (even if that belief is that it does not exist). In their emaciated understanding, religion has gone from “comprehensive explanatory system for the cosmos and its ultimate meaning” to “my take on the latest Packers game.”
The meaning of life cannot be fully expressed in religious hottakes or Twitter blurbs. If someone thought McDonald’s was the epitome of nourishment, you would feel sorry for them, just as I do about these folks who think spiritual McDonalds is exciting. “We’re saving lives,” CrossFit cofounder Greg Glassman told an “excited crowd” assembled to hear his messianic sales pitch. But it’s not even messianic. We’ve gone from promising “cosmic justice” and “eternal bliss” to “probably not dying early from being fat.” That’s not exciting. It’s depressing.
A Prettily Decorated Shroud for Cosmic Despair
The oh-so-hip attitude expressed in this article reminds me of Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle’s 1831 attempt to address the despair he found in refusing to believe in God. In “The Everlasting Yea,” he works himself into an emotional ecstasy discussing what, now, he would do about his despondency over the meaninglessness of it all in a God-absent world. Of course, he could not swallow his pride and go back to believing in a God. So he had to turn despair into frenzy. His conclusion:
Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it, in God’s name! ’Tis the utmost thou hast in thee: out with it, then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.
In other words, life is short, and then nothing. So produce something while you’re still breathing, because…just because. It’s not really clear why this isn’t a different color of despair—what’s the point of producing something just to produce it?—but it was Carlyle’s “answer.” His “excitement” in generating it seems similar to that of the audience listening to the “CrossFit as Church?!” talk. It’s stimulating because it seems to answer the existential question without requiring anyone to actually do or believe anything other than they’re already doing or believing.
Meaning really only comes from a commitment to someone or something outside ourselves that places demands on our behavior. Of course, we don’t want that. We want the impossible: to be free from constraints without also being free from meaning. But a religion that basically requires you to do and believe nothing challenging is not really a religion. It’s cheap therapy. It’s an aspirin taken to relieve the pain of actually believing nothing but not wishing to confront what that might mean.
Toxic Religion Reinforces This Misconception
Besides lying to themselves in this way because it makes them feel better, people also believe church is just another lifestyle choice because many churches justify themselves to parishioners and the world at large this same way. In a recent and fascinating interview with World Magazine, “atheist chaplain” Bart Campolo, son of the well-known evangelical leader Tony Campolo, explained how he lost his faith, and how it even makes sense to have an atheist chaplain.
If somebody came to the conclusion, as I did a number of years ago, ‘I think this life is all there is. I think that when I die I’ll be dead,’ the most immediate question that came to me was, if this is it, how do you make the most of it? I have this wonderful opportunity to be a sentient human being, to be able to think and feel and understand and fall in love and have relationships. How do you make the most of this life? …
People have these experiences. I could recreate that in a laboratory. What I would say is, I don’t think there’s really a supernatural presence talking to you, but I think you really hear something. People that don’t believe in transcendent experiences, they haven’t been to the right concerts. They haven’t used the right drugs. We can induce these kinds of experiences. Indeed, as a secular chaplain, I often try to create experiences where people will feel connected to everybody else. …
What I found was, is that Christianity really became real to me, and the community was important to me and the mission, the idea that we were going out there and helping people.
Campolo relates how youth group and church was, to him, just basically a place to get happy. Even though he lived at the center of evangelicalism, shockingly no one seems to have instructed him otherwise. So when Christianity started making Campolo feel unhappy by teaching things he didn’t like, he dropped it.
It’s no secret that many churches have fallen prey to the therapeutic model of religion this NYT article expresses. They teach people “if it feels good, believe it.” They deliberately cater to what people want instead of instructing why their wants are not the ultimate arbiter of truth and offering them God’s means of grace that realign our corrupted desires. That means doing what Christ solemnly commanded his undershepherds (pastors) to do, which is preach the Word and administer the Sacraments.
If CrossFit or a rock concert can give people the same thing they can get in your church, you’re doing church wrong. In fact, you’re not running a church at all. Even if some churches unfortunately look like gyms, the two are not genuine substitute goods. The happy feelings and personal relationships that are usually a long-term side-effect of religion themselves do not constitute religion.
Without the central doctrines about salvation, religious sorts of feelings emanate from nothing real. People in this situation end up feeling spiritually like we all would ecologically if the sun supernovaed—we’d continue to get light for some time, but eventually it would dissipate because the source has died. So it ultimately seems this New York Times article and the research prompting it show us what religion looks like in the sad, sad lives of people who are trying to identify something as a religious feeling when they’ve never been religious. They’re like the proverbial blind men groping an elephant.
(P.S. If you’re like these folks and would like to try not to be, perhaps start with Murray’s advice. So far as I’ve last heard, he’s an agnostic who wishes he could believe, which is an improvement upon the pathetic, arrogant blindness of people who insist believing is for fools. Or try John Henry Newman’s advice (p. 69) to people who don’t believe: Start acting like you do, because your body influences your soul.)