Posted by: Titus Presler | December 2, 2015

CrossFit a religion? – Hate to break it to you, but . . .!

Distinguishing religion from other human phenomena is crucial in our paradoxical era of intensifying religious violence and, in some places, declining religious practice.  Understanding the 21st century’s religious landscape can be difficult, but the difficulty is compounded by proposals that broaden the definition of religion to include virtually any social group that has strong internal bonds and a distinctive view of the world.

Such  a proposal appears in the Nov. 27 New York Times “Belief” column by Mark Openheimer, “When some turn to church, others go to CrossFit.”  He recounts two Harvard Divinity School students’ explorations into whether the particularly enthusiastic devotion of some CrossFit members to their fitness gym’s community and discipline qualifies as a kind of spirituality and, indeed, religiosity and even “church” in the contemporary USA.

Here’s an excerpt:

After all, it’s surprisingly hard to say what makes a religion. [A participant] speaks about her [CrossFit] box as others might speak about a church or synagogue community. The same is true of some 12-step program members, and devoted college-football fans. In an increasingly secular America, all sorts of activities and subcultures provide the meaning that in the past, at least as we imagine it, religious communities did.

Any criteria you choose to define religion will quickly reveal its shortcomings. Is it about belief in a deity? Judaism and Christianity have that, but many varieties of Buddhism do not. Existence after death? Mormons believe in that, but plenty of liberal Protestants do not.

Among various facile notions the article cites about what qualifies as religion is one serious suggestion, from a Whittier College scholar, that any activity that establishes a worldview is religious.  There are several problems with this definition.  One is that it collapses the distinction between religion and philosophy, which certainly establishes a worldview.  Religions have philosophical underpinnings but are not reducible to philosophy.  In the modern period many philosophical approaches have specifically excluded religious perspectives.  What then?  To assert that anti-religious philosophers are actually religious, albeit unwittingly, is condescending and arrogant.

The idea that religion is anything that establishes a worldview also collapses the distinction between religion and ideology, which, like both religion and philosophy, certainly establishes a worldview.  Long before the comparatively trivial phenomena of CrossFit and fanatical football fans, the 20th century wrestled with the intellectual valence of Marxism and Nazism, serious ideologies that took the lives of millions.  Many were the analysts who noted how the doctrinal strength, communal loyalty, propagandistic zeal and sacrificial devotion of many communists and Nazis resembled such characteristics in religions.  Thus noticing similarities between religions and other social phenomena today is not particularly innovative.  But such similarities did not qualify Marxism or Nazism as religions.  Communism, in particular, is by its own account anti-religious, a stance that has resulted in totalitarian suppression of religion and the deaths of millions of religious people who were well aware of the distinction between ideology and religion and were not prepared to give up religion.

12-Step programs’ participants are also familiar with the subtleties of religion and non-religion.  The “Higher Power” invoked by The Big Book occasions a good deal of discussion among 12-Step participants.  Agnostics among them grate at what seems a religious or at least spiritual intrusion into the program, even though it’s phrased very generically, while religious 12-Steppers are grateful for what they experience as an explicit acknowledgment of one whom they identify as God, Allah, Christ, Buddha, or whomever.  The notion that religion is anything that establishes a worldview dismisses the importance of distinctions that are clearly important to 12-Steppers.

So here’s a definition of religion that I’ve found useful over the years – whether in comparative research in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, or Latin America, whether in contexts of intense religious tension or relative secularity, and in the analysis of public life:

Religion is the dimension of human individual and social experience concerned with relationships between human beings and reality experienced as supernatural or divine. These relationships are experienced in thought, emotion, and morality, and they are pictured in an idealized way in ritual. Any particular religion, as distinguished from the religious dimension of human experience, is the comprehensive religious pattern of thought and practice that a social group shares and develops over time.[*]

In short, it’s actually not that hard to say what makes a religion.  The distinguishing feature of religion is that it posits a supernatural or spiritual realm with which human beings are in relationship.[†]  This understanding dovetails both with commonplace, everyday understandings of what religion is and with most academic understandings of what religion is in anthropology, sociology and theology.  When commonsense and academic understandings of a given phenomenon coincide, that’s a good clue that the understanding is on firm ground.

Getting back to CrossFit, seeing such phenomena as religions or churches fails to address either the decline of religious practice among many in the West or the rise of religious conflict throughout the world, including Europe and North America.

First, the West.  It’s actually the decline of religious practice in the USA that prompted the students’ research project, for they’re trying to understand the activities that people, especially younger people, are drawn to instead of religious practice.  Why are people at CrossFit (or whatever) instead of in church?  That’s a fair question, and the project of trying to understand the alternatives is important.  Again, though, people have huddled together in non-religious gatherings for a very long time, often in ways that resemble religious practice but are not, in fact, religious: self-help groups, women’s groups, men’s groups, war reenactments, poetry and fiction groups, Elks clubs, even VFW posts, and many of these have been very intense with commitment, esprit du corps, and a certain view of the world.  The Hellenistic world of the 1st century abounded in voluntary associations of many kinds, both religious and non-religious and many of them intense, and the early Christian movement was, in effect, yet another voluntary association, in this case religious.  So inquire into contemporary iterations of voluntary associations, but don’t confuse them with religion.

The comparison of religion with CrossFit is not only incommensurate to the phenomena of religious conflict and violence in today’s world, but the comparison insults both the evident gravity of genuine religious commitment and the immeasurable pain inflicted on millions by religious discrimination, conflict and violence.  The facile equivalence supposed by the researchers may be yet another instance of the West’s ethnocentric secularism hypothesis, the 20th-century assumption that because the West was becoming less religious we must be the vanguard of an inevitable drift throughout the rest of the world.  The fact, of course, is that the weakness of the secularism hypothesis has been exposed by how indelibly religious the 21st century is proving to be.  Idly speculating about how CrossFit and similar groups may be new manifestations of the religious impulse is irresponsible in a global environment that requires astute and painstaking analysis and action to address the current century’s religion-scape.

In sum, religion shares characteristics with other social phenomena, but religion is something distinctive. What marks religion off from other social and cultural phenomena is the concern with relationships with reality experienced as supernatural or divine – God, Allah, ancestral spirits, Jehovah, Brahma, Christ, and the like.  We need to address the dynamics of how belief and practice are going up or down in the West.  We need to address the dynamics of religious conflict in Britain, France, Germany, Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Indonesia, and the USA.  That’s quite enough to probe, research, understand and address.

We don’t need CrossFit in the mix.


[*] I developed this definition under the influence of Robert Hefner, the Boston University anthropologist.

[†] The article’s statement that some varieties of Buddhism do not posit a deity is true but misleading.  The reality is that the vast majority of the world’s Buddhists are quite supernaturalist in their belief and devotion.  The supposition that Buddhism is mainly or in its “true form” not supernaturalist is one that validates the view of certain elites over that of ordinary practitioners.  In any case, the view of one minority in one religion does not invalidate an understanding of religion that is true of the vast majority of religious people in virtually all religions in all times and places.



  1. I would like to descant on this proposition:

    “the fruit of the western secularism hypothesis that tends to marginalize religious motivation in favor of materialist factors. Why? – only because religious motivation is marginal for so many westerners. ”

    In the ideal melting pot communities, cultures and their religious would dissolve into a perfect thermodynamic compound with the consistency of tomato soup. But just as in the universe with galaxies and solar systems, there is a tendency toward imperfect cultural thermodynamics despite western utopian ideals. The result is something more like a stew.

    It’s difficult to develop a template to accommodate that in a democratic model where this must percolate up from below. Templates, as such, are far more often imposed from above. I think of these two polar considerations, the entropic one is preferable but as we see in this morning’s news (and as we saw in Paris) it has its problems.

  2. Exactly, Titus. I hope you send this (or an abbreviated version) to NYT as a response to Openheimer’s piece.

    • Thanks, Ann. But there are two more damaging tendencies in the current climate which I do want to address in more public forums. One is to say that when Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist militants (and there are fundamentalist militants in all these religions) carry out heinous attacks the culprits are not ‘real’ Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus or Buddhists and that the attacks have nothing to do with the religion in question, even when Muslim militants shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ and Jewish and Christian militants quote scripture to justify their actions. Not only is such an analysis factually preposterous, but it absolves of responsibility in each religion’s case the only people who have a hope of moderating the radicals’ religious views, and those are their fellow religionists! The other common and pernicious tendency is to diminish the religious element in ‘religious conflict’ and claim in a worldly-wise way that all such conflicts are ‘really’ economic, social or political, and religion is only being ‘used’ for these other ends. This is also the fruit of the western secularism hypothesis that tends to marginalize religious motivation in favor of materialist factors. Why? – only because religious motivation is marginal for so many westerners. But religion has been a central driver in many parts of the world for a very long time and is becoming even more central. Every social phenomenon is a complex of many factors, and certainly every ‘religious conflict’ has economic, ethnic, political and other dimensions, but the religious dimension has just as much claim to be included in the analysis as the others. That’s a précis, and you’ll be hearing more about it. But, again, thanks for the quick response. Titus

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