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Millennials are not anti-religion, we’ve just replaced the church with the gym but kept the reasoning. Forgive me for these gains I’m about to receive.
As your average millennial, I subscribe to the theory that religion is not for me. Spending our free mornings in an ageing building, listening to the rigid out-of-touch teachings of a shouty person alongside like-minded people dressed in their expensive Sunday bests is meh. It’s passe, it’s a relic, and it’s something I do five (three) times a week.
Casper ter Kuile, a researcher at Harvard Divinity School, discovered that our generation, despite being mostly atheist, or “spiritual, but not religious” is still looking for elements of religious experience. In his 2015 study “How We Gather”, ter Kuile researched organisations where millennials gathered for meaningful experiences. At the top of the list was programs like CrossFit, F45 and the like. We’ve uniformly replaced the sanctity of the lord with the shining light of lord, dem gainz.
The most obvious reason is the sense of community. Not the torture, the shaming, or the insistence that we’re all going to be punished if we don’t cut out carbs, but it’s the unison feeling we have with those people we make eye contact with while we’re slowly dying.
Regarding the study, ter Kuile took a particular interest in a program called ‘SoulCycle’, stating: “SoulCycle talks about how people come for the body but stay for the breakthrough. What people experience is a sense of release of stress or a new insight and clarity about what’s important to them or a renewed commitment to the goals in their life or an experience of sanctuary, amid anxiety and pressure from their job. So it’s really an emotional and spiritual experience as well as a physical one.”
Which is as interesting as it is obvious. Only because the gym and the church possess many other parallels. You have your zealots, those who openly attempt to turn you from the seat of their bicycle by not shutting up about the righteousness of their ways (Mormons, Crossfitters), you have your songs of praise, be it recalling the noble struggle of Abraham or that time you totally smashed that invisible hill. You also have your basic discrimination, as one religion, like one gym, is regarded as stupid by the other, despite the noted similarities of. We have our religious totems, be in the rosary bead, or membership lanyard. It’s the pre-session (literal) self reflection, and the post-sermon exaltation. As an act of penance, some crawl to the church on their knees, similarly, we climb mountains on the floor.
Collective punishment in the name of something greater is as old as cardio, but it holds true in the gym world too. Think of Jesus on the cross. He’s not having fun, sure, but he looks fucking swole. In the gym, we’re Jesus. That time we sacrificed and fought to gain something we believe in will forever be held up as an example. Much like your standard Christians, we’re trying to get back to something decent. Be it Jesus, or that suit that makes people drop to their knees.
Ritual is a large part of the duality. It’s an act of attention, reflection and repetition. Much like how some congregations utter the Lord’s Prayer at the same time every week, CrossFitters participate in the workout of the day. Multiply your prayer, or circuit with the thousandfold other institutions doing the same, and wah-hey, it’s the same.
It’s entirely possible that religion is changing, but I doubt it. We’re just finding something that makes sense to us. Something to tithe our earthy money and time to in aid of something that will hopefully last – a new and improved us.
This is my body, and Christ I need a drink.