Secular religion, groupishness, and ... crossfit
May 07, 2023; Updated May 21, 2023
A common criticism of something you don’t like involves calling it “religious”. The label has been applied to wokeism1, environmentalism2, effective altruism,3 Trumpism4, transhumanism5, libertarianism6, and every sort of obscure “ism” you can name. The appeal is clear: calling something religious implies that those who subscribe to it have discarded reason in favor of dogmatism. It makes you feel good and those other people seem like fanatics. They aren’t disagreeing with me because I might be wrong and they might be right, they’re disagreeing with me because they’re irrational!
This isn’t always wrong. Many of these movements do encourage religious-like devotion to the cause. There are weird, cult-like qualities to many of them, and many of their adherents ignore good arguments in favor of repeating quotes from the community’s elites.
Why does this happen? Why can activist and political movements feel religion-like?
Humans seem to have a predisposition towards joining communities which provide them with a sense of meaning. And once we form groups we become tribal: we yell at the outgroup and ignore the wrongdoings of our ingroup. Psychologists and behavioral economists have been making noises about this aspect of human nature for awhile now. (Perhaps best summarized by a paper literally titled Tribalism is human nature.) So many books have touched on it that I think it’s fair to say this idea is officially in the zeitgeist.
Historically, religion was a reliable way to find community. It provided a sense of purpose, an ethical framework (however dubious), and close-knit cohesion among members. It also provided a way to meet new people when you moved elsewhere: simply go to your local church/mosque/synagogue and get to chattin’.
Some have argued that the decline of traditional religions has people searching for other kinds of meaning-making communities only to find that secularism hasn’t furnished healthy replacements. So people turn to an unhealthy replacement: they dedicate themselves to activism (often of a political nature) with religious-like devotion. They go to rallies and protests, they read a select group of thinkers with fervor, and they convince themselves that they are warriors in the battle for the future. If they don’t beat the other side, all is lost. And this feels good: they hang around people who share their convictions and get validated for their beliefs. The strongest adherents are valorized, leading to a vicious cycle of increasingly extreme positions and intolerance for dissenting or more moderate views.
Obviously, we need people engaged in activism and politics. But having these ideas tied so closely to your identity leads to trouble. You can always be wrong, and donning ideological blinders moves you that much further away from impartiality. Imagine that tomorrow we make a discovery that renders climate change moot (perhaps we make a breakthrough discovery in how the earth’s feedback effects work, or develop perfectly efficient carbon capture technology). Do you think Greta Thunberg or Naomi Klein will acknowledge the problem is solved and stop advocating radical change? I have my doubts.
You may disagree that the decline in traditional religion has led to increased political tribalism. But asking how to handle our groupish instinct remains an interesting question regardless. If forming groups based around political ideology is bad, but humans are predisposed to identify with a group, what should we form groups around? What should we become tribal about? How do we construct healthy “secular religions”?
There have been some lofty attempts to answer this question. The cult of reason post French revolution and God-building of the early Bolsheviks come to mind. Both were attempts to create replacements of religion from the top-down. Neither succeeded. I want to offer an example that is undoubtedly more parochial than such grandiose endeavors, but I think offers a genuine and healthy answer.
My suggestion: Crossfit. (Seriously? I don’t know. But let’s see how it goes.)
The fastest I ever made friends was on my college rowing team during grad school in the UK. Stick a bunch of guys in a boat together, tell them to outrow the guys in the next boat, and all of a sudden you’re friends for life. Suffering together promotes loyalty and solidarity. Crossfit is not rowing, but it offers suffering in spades. If you walk in at the end of a crossfit class you’ll see everyone lying on the ground gasping for breath, unable to stand up straight. Everyone is doing the same workout7 and therefore knows just how much everyone else is suffering. When you come out alive on the other side you feel like you’ve been through battle together.
Of course, lots of sports induce suffering—I’ve just mentioned rowing. And to be fair, other sports can at times feel a little religious. Others have discussed the communal aspects of sport, and how it can provide a better outlet for our tribal propensities. So what makes a crossfit a unique contender for secular religion?
What crossfit adds on top of other sports is an ethic: guidelines for how to live your life. Walk into a crossfit gym and you’ll probably see quotes about personal responsibility, displaying grit, doing-the-right-thing-not-the-easy-thing, and not complaining. You’ll be admonished to eat healthy and take care of your body. To value friendship, family, and community. It’s a small-c conservative ethic and you’ll find it pervades most crossfit gyms you visit, even in liberal college towns.
At the time of writing, the homepage of crossfit doesn’t feature the professional athletes. Instead, it discusses community, belonging, coaches “living a life of service” to the members, and offers help with facing depression and cancer. You might disagree with these principles, but it’s hard to argue that crossfit, whether intentionally or not, has crossed the threshold from your average sport to something promoting a particular set of values.
Finally, nothing can be compared with religion if it doesn’t have mass gatherings. The crossfit games are the biggest crossfit event of the year, where the professional athletes face off and one gets crowned the “fittest on earth.” (This title may sound insane, but just watch one of them, I beg you.) There are also semifinal events leading up the games, as well as off-season competitions.
These gatherings differ from regular sports gatherings in that there is much more community involvement. Each competition sees different age groups compete (from teens to 55+), different skill levels (beginners, intermediate, RX, and elite), and adaptive leagues for various physical impairments. Competitions usually last for several days, during which the spectators meet each other, invade local gyms to work out, and frequent all the fitness booths setup in the event grounds (e.g., to try a new piece of equipment or try and beat the pullup record for the weekend). Additionally, everyone at these events identifies as a crossfitter, which separates it from, say, the superbowl or the world cup.
Okay, do I actually think we can replace tribal political attachments with crossfit? Probably not. I’m not about to die on some clean-your-room-and-something-something-lobsters hill like Jordan Peterson and claim that going to the gym a few times a week is the path to spiritual and moral nirvana. But I do think that crossfit is a fascinating sociological experiment that no one seems to have noticed is a sociological experiment. It offers more than typical sports vis-a-vis community and ethical principles and should be considered on the spectrum of secular religion. Considering that there aren’t many competing ideas on offer for healthy tribes, crossfit is worth considering (plus you’ll look good naked, which is always a bonus).
Thanks to Cam Peters for comments.
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