In this day and age, the statement “we’ll always have religion” may sound a bit out of sorts, a bit old fashioned. I don’t think so. I think it’s natural. I think we’re wired to participate in some kind of organized worship of something.
I am reminded of this often. Recently the NY Times (yes, I know two days in a row that I’m citing them) ran an article entitled “When Some Turn to Church, Other Go to CrossFit.”
Here’s a quote:
Mr. Glassman’s remarks at times sounded religious — “We’re the stewards of something,” he said — and salvific, even messianic.
“We’re saving lives, and saving a lot of them,” Mr. Glassman said. “Three hundred fifty thousand Americans are going to die next year from sitting on the couch. That’s dangerous. The TV is dangerous. Squatting isn’t.” He said he has refrained from marketing his own gym equipment because that would hurt his existing suppliers, which would be a “sin.”
The author of the article points out the challenges with comparing other things with religion. And I think he has a point.
In the classic 2000 essay collection “Religion and Popular Culture in America,” scholars argued that activities as diverse as “Star Trek” fandom, dieting fads and football could all constitute religions. But if anything that creates community and engenders passionate devotion can constitute religion, does the word lose all meaning? If everything is religion, then maybe nothing is.
Maybe it comes down to definitions. Or maybe seeing things we want to see and pointing them out. Or maybe there is just a basic human desire to gather together with like-minded people who share a belief and a hope in something that is beyond them. And if it requires some kind of work or sacrifice, all the better.
Exercise is often compared to religion for some good reasons – there are holy foods (food that is healthy), holy days, actions that are done in the midst of worship. There are priests – those who guide people through the rituals. And a tight community that are bonded together and have gone through the initiation ritual. In fact, there is no cheap grace either – you earned it. And if someone blasphemes against the exercise, they will be labeled a heretic. Often, many exercise locations will have a motto or a sort of creed of what they believe.
The same things apply to many sports. Professional football certainly fits this description.
Yet consider football. Religion scholars have noted that it brings people together in large crowds to “worship,” and has a weekly holy day and even annual holidays, like N.F.L. draft day and, of course, the Super Bowl.
I think you could go farther with the description for fans of some teams than others – ie The Steelers nation. If you know a Steelers fan, they may be the closest thing to adherents of a team that is confused with a religion. They are extremely devoted.
In the end, it makes me wonder – why are people leaving religion, only to pick up another one, or many, somewhere else? What is it about organized religion that turns people away? When they become dissatisfied with their new “religion” will they drop it and do something else, in an endless cycle of searching. What can the church learn from this? And what can the church avoid? I’m not arguing that church should pick up all the things that seem to be working for CrossFit or other devotions. What I’m saying is that the church might want to take notice of why people are going – the core message.
As far as I can tell, people want a challenge. So often we water down church’s message to something simple and easy – “Just be nice.” That’s not what Christianity is all about. Are we selling the message of Christianity short? Are we so worried about offending people in order not to lose them? Guess what – we’re losing them. When you water down your message so much that no one will be offended anymore, then you have reached a point in which there is no reason to be a part of it.