For decades, demographic studies have indicated the steady decline of religion in America, but new measures suggest that, on the contrary, at least one religion in America is alive and well, thriving in every community, and claiming devoted adherents in nearly every household.
This new religious revival has remained under the radar in large part because its adherents do not claim any religious attachment to this social institution, but by every measure of behaviors typically associated with religion, it is deceitful to label it as anything less. Although it shies away from adopting an overarching organization or name for itself, for the purposes of this study, it will be considered under the name Athletica.
What must first impress outsiders studying the life of Athletica is how wholehearted is the devotion of its followers. These disciples are willing to sacrifice almost limitlessly where their dedication to this faith is concerned. Money, time, health, and even family may all be expended for the sake of bettering oneself within Athletica, and it is no exaggeration to say its members orient their lives around the strictures of their religion’s demands.
Forget One Service For Week. We Have Daily Meetings
Whereas in traditional American Christianity followers would regularly meet together once or twice a week (a timetable most now find unduly onerous), members of Athletica gather four, five, six, or even seven days a week. Despite the significant time demands, the families of adherents dutifully and unflinchingly keep these meeting commitments and accept as normal the stringent penalties imparted to those who miss a gathering—penalties usually enacted by limiting the devotee’s rights of participation in important group ceremonies.
Nor are the youngest members of Athletica uninitiated in their family’s devotion. Athletica parents regularly begin teaching their children its basic skills as soon as they are able to toddle, and some begin their benevolent indoctrination well before that by dressing their infants in tiny versions of the liturgical vestments. By age four or five, their parents have already catechized most of these youngsters in the basic tenets of Athletica, though this pious education will continue to deepen through daily family conversations, oral and written retellings of important historical moments in Athletica, and inclusion in the essential Athletica ceremonies.
Eager young zealots of elementary age and upward often relish memorizing not only the many Athletica rules, but also masses of historical information about specific persons and events. Although it is hard to believe such memorization would be undertaken voluntarily, there is no trace of a “drill and kill” mentality about this phenomenon. These youngsters apparently love this imparted faith enough that they simply cannot help trying to absorb everything about it that they can, and they especially find pleasure in learning of the great heroes of Athletica’s past, whom they inevitably long to emulate.
Start ‘Em Young for Optimal Results
One reason for the brilliant success of Athletica in handing down its tenets from generation to generation is the belief that children should be initiated into the fullness of its ways as soon as possible. Unlike most Christian denominations, which have opted for segregating children’s participation into minimal, appealing, but generally insubstantial segments of the community’s life together, Athletica differentiates for its young catechumens only insofar as is necessary.
It will, for instance, provide child-sized items when physical stature would otherwise prevent participation, but in most ways teaches children through full involvement. The astonishing result of interacting with its children through the sometimes daunting vocabulary and directives of the adult adherents is that these youngest disciples prove all the more eager to learn the tenets of Athletica and to mature into full membership.
Around the time of elementary or middle school age, children deemed physically and mentally ready begin to adopt the ascetic lifestyle of Athletica. Depending upon the particular denominational strain, parents will insist either that children rise well before sunup to practice for several hours in Athletica training or that such practice be dutifully performed immediately after school. Some adherents do both.
Late evening hours and weekends are reserved for the equivalent of local and regional worship services, at which Athletica adherents gather corporately, following intricate and time-honored liturgies that can often appear as a tangle of somewhat arbitrary rules to the uninitiate, but which perceptibly rouse Athletica followers into heights of emotional experience.
So Dedicated, This Religion Affects Food and Sleep
In the more devout Athletica households, diet and other bodily disciplines are also part of the ascetic training. Certain foods are eaten or avoided in an effort to maximize fitness for advancement in the ranks of Athletica, and dietary supplements supposed to enhance the devotee’s mind or body are sometimes procured at great cost.
Those most dedicated to this life will carefully regulate their sleep to ensure supreme attunement and awareness in the practice of Athletica. Attaining sufficient sleep in the midst of such a demanding schedule can be difficult, but most adherents find that short nights due to Athletica events can be compensated for by using times formerly set aside for other religious activities (e.g. Sunday mornings) to gain extra hours of sleep.
Of course, not every child demonstrates the natural ability to progress to the highest levels of Athletica. However, as in churches of yore, there is room in this religion not only for those who will carry out the priestly duties but also for devoted laity. While tens of thousands participate actively in the life of Athletica at the local level, hundreds of thousands participate in less all-consuming fashion at the national level, transferring hope for their own advancement into hope for vicarious vindication through the advancement of others.
Long before more traditional religious groups thought of using media as a means for finding and retaining converts, Athletica had a well-established presence in radio, television, and internet. Its devotees are therefore long-accustomed to setting aside Sabbath times when Athletica events will be broadcast and to treating these devotional times as sacred. Despite the physical disconnectedness of these media-based believers, such Athletica followers display an astonishing level of knowledge, fervor, and devotion. The younger members of such “observer” Athletica families sometimes even surpass their “participant” peers in sheer memorization of knowledge.
Across all branches of Athletica, there is a high regard for proper liturgical vestments. Those who serve the equivalent of priestly roles wear elaborate outfits permeated with history and significance. In part, such garments functionally allow participants in the various Athletica denominations to carry out their assigned duties, but it is obvious to even the most casual observer that here is a religious body for whom colors, symbols, and numbers are deeply meaningful.
This is clearly reflected in the eagerness of the laity to clothe themselves fittingly for their observance of Athletica rituals. Far from the prevailing Christian drift toward an “anything goes” mentality of dress for religious occasions, Athletica followers put surprising amounts of care and expense into the clothes they wear, even when participating in their own homes via televised events.
The Dark Side of This Popular Religion
This popular religion does have a dark side. Alarmingly, it is not uncommon for those striving to advance through the ranks of Athletica to suffer chronic pain or serious injury from their devout exertions. However, it is a tribute to the depth of conviction Athletica elicits in most of its followers that this does not deter them from persisting in their daily routines. Almost universally, the response to such suffering is that it is simply part of the affliction that must be borne in the Athletica life, and that they endure such pain because of the glory for which they hope.
For, like every religion, Athletica does offer its devotees a form of hope. In comparison to more traditional religions that typically offer extravagant rewards (e.g., life after death, forgiveness of terrible sins) to virtually any willing convert, Athletica is a more stringent and elitist sect. Its promise is of financial gain and personal glory, but only for the most elect.
Of the tens of thousands who hope for financial reward through Athletica, only 2 percent will be granted their desire. Of those who work to earn a spot in the highest ranks of the Athletica hierarchy, hardly more than one out of a thousand will find their hope fulfilled. Interestingly, though, Athletica adherents commonly convince themselves that they (or more often, their children) will be among the favored few, despite statistical data to the contrary, and many who hope for the financial gain accompanying such advancement fail to recognize the more significant financial outlays they have unquestioningly offered up on its proverbial altars.
Underlying all these devoted practices is the recurring theme that for its faithful, Athletica is more than a religion to attend to for a couple hours per week. It is a complete lifestyle and way of thinking. A rudimentary calculation reveals that Athletica devotees typically spend anywhere from five to ten times as many hours dedicating themselves to religious learning and activity as the typical weekly church-goer. Whereas Christians now tend to compartmentalize their religious and non-religious activity, Athletica adherents purposefully infuse their beliefs into every aspect of their lives, from finances to scheduling to family entertainment.
Unquestionably, the ongoing success of Athletica is rooted in its centrality to the lives of its devotees. As Christianity fades in the West, dying from a desire to be like everything else except itself, Athletica has risen to the ascendance as the self-assured, pervasive cultural influence. Where the Judeo-Christian world has laid down its mantle, Athletica has picked it up, unwittingly following the directives of the Hebrew Bible to teach tenets of the faith to their children, “Talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
This depth of enculturation is most certainly the key to the trenchant, growing success of Athletica, which—by all reasonable evidence—has already replaced its rival religions in most American homes.