When Some Turn to Church, Others Go to CrossFit

Ali Huberlie at CrossFit Boston in Brighton, Mass. “CrossFit is family, laughter, love and community,” she said.

Ali Huberlie, a 27-year-old education consultant in Boston, awakens at 4:45 every morning to go to her CrossFit “box,” or gym, where she spends two hours. When she and her boyfriend, whom she met through CrossFit, went apartment-hunting, they chose a neighborhood near their box. This year, as a student at Harvard Business School, Ms. Huberlie wrote a case study about a founder of CrossFit that was incorporated into the school’s curriculum. And when Harvard Divinity School researchers were studying spaces other than churches that function as spiritual communities, they interviewed Ms. Huberlie.

“CrossFit is family, laughter, love and community,” Ms. Huberlie told the researchers, who quoted her in their study, “How We Gather.” “I can’t imagine my life without the people I’ve met through it.”

A for-profit gym franchise founded in 2000 that now has 13,000 licensed operators serving at least two million exercisers, CrossFit — like television, sports fandom and health fads — has become the focus of study by researchers trying to pinpoint what constitutes religiosity in America.

After all, it’s surprisingly hard to say what makes a religion. Ms. Huberlie speaks about her 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.

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.

Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston, the Harvard Divinity School students who wrote “How We Gather,” were hosts of a talk this month, “CrossFit as Church?!” with Greg Glassman, co-founder of CrossFit. About 100 people attended, far more of them local CrossFit enthusiasts than ministerial students.

As he spoke to the excited crowd, 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.”

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.

For Joseph L. Price, who teaches religion and popular culture at Whittier College in California, the key criterion is whether a given activity establishes a worldview.

“To what extent is the worldview of the CrossFitters determined by their practices, their aspirations for the perfect body, or for the most fit male or female in the world?” Professor Price said in a recent interview. “Does their aspiration for fitness shape their view of how their world is ordered and organized?”

Using this logic, one can see how “Star Trek” fans, with their deep interest in science and cosmology, might qualify as religious. But members of a men’s breakfast club who meet weekly at a diner, by contrast, while they might derive great joy and comfort from their ritual, would not, by virtue of it, be religious.

Of course, that is just one way of answering the question of what a religion is. At the Harvard discussion with Mr. Glassman, Mr. ter Kuile, who plans a career in ministry to the “nones,” as the religiously unaffiliated are often called, offered other criteria.

“What really struck us was the way in which people were bringing their kids to their box,” Mr. ter Kuile said, “or the way different workouts of the day were named after soldiers who had died in battle. So there’s all of these things you would expect to see in a church — remembering the dead through some sort of ritual, and intergenerational community.”

Lindsey Carfagna, a graduate student in sociology, said that CrossFit helped her find another kind of community, that of “adaptive athletes,” or those who have overcome physical challenges.

“I lost my collegiate athletic career to concussions and have since struggled with long-term physical challenges,” said Ms. Carfagna, who competed in soccer and track as an undergraduate. “As an adaptive athlete, CrossFit has given me the voice in my head that says, ‘You’re not broken, you just have to adapt.’ It has given me the community of other adaptive athletes that are daily choosing to listen to that same voice, instead of the voice of limitation.”

Christian ministers talk about healing broken people, but it seems they would hesitate to focus on athletes, because, in Christian theology, all are fallen sinners, all are broken. Then again, groups like Athletes in Action do, in fact, focus their Christian gospel on athletes. If CrossFit is, for Ms. Carfagna, an even more specific community, one of adaptive athletes, that may not be so different.

Skeptics might scoff that CrossFit is just a gym. But in an interview this week, Mr. Glassman said that for many participants it is obviously much more.

“Down the road,” Mr. Glassman said, the core CrossFit values — which he defined as accountability, community and personal transformation — will “translate into, ‘I’m going to take my Camry into the Toyota dealer tomorrow, and will someone from the gym pick me up?’ And of course they will. ‘I’m going to move — will people from the gym help me?’ Of course they will.”

Ms. Huberlie described the CrossFit experience as an intimate, supportive one, in which cheering for one another to meet fitness goals was expected. It is a culture that can produce effects more often associated with church.

“There is something raw and vulnerable that happens to you when you go into the CrossFit gym,” Ms. Huberlie said. “A workout can bring you to your knees, so to speak.”

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