Some readers mentioned fandom as a bonding mechanism — World Cup enthusiasts and participants in fantasy football leagues, for instance, are creating ongoing relationships. But mostly I heard from people who bonded through athletic activities. Some talked about clubs that formed organically in their neighborhoods or towns, like that Colorado hiking group. But many who answered the questionnaire I launched in April about moving away from organized religion talked about replacing their weekend worship with SoulCycle, CrossFit or Orangetheory, and finding friends and even some spiritual solace in those activities. (In case you’re wondering, I’m an Orangetheorist and a SoulCycle dropout, though I can’t say I’ve ever felt a metaphysical connection to either one.)
Jeffrey Johnson, 62, who lives in Illinois just north of St. Louis, first heard about CrossFit from someone he met on a church mission trip to Haiti. He and his wife tried a few different churches, but stopped attending services because the ones they had joined felt too cliquish. But they found community — and more — in CrossFit, a group class that involves a variety of high-intensity exercises and weight lifting. “The one thing I feel out of CrossFit is, it’s kind of goofy, but it’s unconditional love,” Johnson told me. “Like, my coaches, even if I don’t hit the mark, whatever that mark is, they still care for me.”
Casper ter Kuile, the author of “The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities Into Soulful Practices,” studied CrossFit and SoulCycle when he was a student at Harvard Divinity School, and told me that he observed some of the “mutuality” that Johnson experienced when he talked to CrossFit devotees. CrossFitters write down their fitness goals on a whiteboard and, whether a goal is comparatively big or small, “goals are honored with the same amount of dignity and celebration.” There’s a feeling that you have the agency to meet your goals and that the community is also involved in your success. There’s also a lot of evangelizing for CrossFit that can parallel the outreach or recruitment aspect of religious worship.
CrossFit also has parallels with some religious organizations in terms of the potential to alienate people who disagree with conservative-aligned beliefs. In 2020, the CrossFit founder Greg Glassman stepped down from his role as chief executive of the company after he made inflammatory statements about George Floyd and Covid. In 2021, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela wrote a guest essay for Times Opinion about breaking up with the “cult” of SoulCycle. Petrzela described an unsavory side of group fitness involving entitled star instructors and the businesses that profit from them.
Still, there are many positives to glean from group fitness. Ter Kuile and his co-author Angie Thurston published some of those encouraging findings in a paper called “How We Gather.” In it, they note the general move away from organized religion in American culture and highlight secular organizations that are creating deep bonds in ways they describe as “powerful, surprising and perhaps even religious.” These organizations, they explain, “epitomize” a combination six qualities: community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity and accountability.