I firmly believe that the impulse toward religion is ineradicable from the human soul. It cannot be destroyed; it can only be diverted or redirected. There is something comical about those who claim they are not religious; for what they are really saying is that they are no longer distinctly “Christian” in their religion. However, their lives will not be marked by the absence of things identifiably religious; they will be marked by having replaced the Christian God with some other object.
Here, I would like to suggest to you that one of the major objects toward which the religious impulse in Americans has been diverted is fitness. Put another way, the real religion of the United States is health. It is often said that Americans are becoming “spiritual but not religious,” and this is certainly true, but I would like to suggest that one’s faith has become more spiritual and less religious precisely because the rest of their lives has become more religious.
This thought first occurred to me as I saw fitness swell to fill my own consciousness in precisely the way a Christian would want God to swell and fill one’s consciousness. The regularity, intensity, and single-mindedness with which I approached diet and exercise seemed to have a distinctly religious character to it. This might seem preposterous, but consider a few things that fitness and religion share in common:
Exercise is by definition ritualistic. It is something you build into your schedule, and which displaces things of lesser importance. One does virtually the same thing over and over in hopes that its repetition will have a salutary effect on one’s being. Exercise is for health of the body what prayer and meditation are for the health of the soul.
All religions have historically been deeply concerned about food and food laws. All one need to do is flip to Leviticus or the heated debates in Acts to see that this is true. This is because one’s diet has always been thought to have a bearing on one’s overall health, both physical and spiritual. The modern manifestation and proliferation of strict diets remains fundamentally religious, yet the change in the character of our modern religion can be glimpsed in the fact that we no longer consider the effect of diet on the spirit. We care only about a diet’s effect on the body. (More on this at the end.)
Diet is perhaps the only ascetic element yet remaining in the modern world. Just like the saints of old gave up food and drink for some spiritual benefit; we give up food and drink and hold ourselves to a rigorous standard. Yet this is a remarkable contrast to everything else in American culture, which is obsessed with self-development, self-actualization, and self-fulfillment. Diet is, in short, the only area of life in which self-denial is fashionable.
The way in which diet and exercise have been conflated with identity is incomprehensible outside of a religious framework. Think of the zealous self-identification of an individual as a “vegan” or “paleo” or “keto.” Think also how many Instagram profiles list “Vegetarian” as if it were some deep insight into one’s identity. Really what it belays is a religion of one’s own choosing and a self-constructed moral code. Really what it shows is the shallowness and self-centeredness of modern identity.
The wars between rival diet and fitness groups, as in between say vegans or paleo folks or between partisans of cardio and partisans of weightlifting, has come to resemble denominational battles within Christianity. One gains a sense of group identity by belonging to a group with a strict moral code; and one’s group identity is further enhanced by finding a common enemy.
When one describes why they are so passionately involved in a particular type of fitness, they use terms one could use to talk about their church: “I found good community there.” “It is a place where I can shut myself off to the world.” “It helps me deal with anxiety.” “I like seeing progress in myself.” “When I walk in, everyone is equal.”
Finally #transformationtuesday is the new (and shallow) version of religious repentance. Social media is filled with testimonies to the transformation fitness brings to a person’s life, and finding fitness often results in a paradigm shift in one’s lifestyle, diet, and habits.
These things all suggest that the gym has become America’s church; and fitness, America’s God. These things are all well and good on their own, but they are a profound problem when they misdirect the religious passions away from their proper object.
So why this remarkable displacement of the religious passion? It is a sign, I suspect, that we have bought into the modern conceit that the needs of the body are more immediate and more important than the needs of the soul (see John Locke). Modern philosophy sought to bring peace to the world by emphasizing the precariousness of human life and showing that all human beings see physical death as the greatest enemy (see Thomas Hobbes). I suspect that the displacement of our religious passions from spiritual needs toward the needs of the body belies a creeping atheism in our hearts: we protect our bodies because we fear death and we fear death because we secretly doubt the existence either of heaven or of God. The modern world was predicated on the fact that human beings need to take care of themselves because God and His creation will not (see Francis Bacon). Perhaps the fact that we have directed the religious impulse solely to the needs of the body suggests that we have a dessicated understanding of the needs of the spirit.
I will leave you with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson and a question:
“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will come out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”
What are you worshipping? What are you becoming?