By: Sean Sullivan
Throughout the course of this semester, the definition of religion, along with various examples of religion were heavily discussed. These were based on the ideas of religion gathered from a variety of theorists. Topics ranging from atheism to football were analyzed, and this paper will critically analyze bodybuilding. Bodybuilding has a community of members that share common practices, “beliefs”, and goals. From the “Mecca of bodybuilding” in California to the “Dubai Muscle Show” in the Middle East, the number of bodybuilding followers and the level of passion that they have for what they do makes it appropriate to consider whether bodybuilding can be classified as a religion.
The sport has developed from roots that tie back to weight training in ancient Greek and Egyptian societies. The solidification of modern-day bodybuilding, which occurred in the mid-late 20th century,and a recent resurgence in interest launched by an increase in use of social media also aided in the advancement of the bodybuilding culture (Robson). The practitioners of the bodybuilding community typically place this lifestyle, and its accompanying sacrifices, above anything else. Whether it is waking up at 4:30 a.m. to carry out a fasted cardio session, or endless months of eating only chicken and broccoli to prepare for a show, there is sacrifice and dedication required to achieve the end goal of being your “best self”.
Based on class discussions, there are a few criteria that an activity must meet to be considered a religion. It must offer a sense of community and some “indescribable” experience for those involved. Even though body building is an individual sport, there is a sense of community among those who participate in shows, and expositions continue draw the attention of several thousands of people. In addition, websites like bodybuilding.com and t-nation.com, offer forums for discussion, which helps to bring people together and educate them on the lifestyle. Those that use these websites are extremely passionate about bodybuilding. One quote about training taken on t-nation that I found particularly reflective of this was, “‘If I take a day of, I won’t get back to the gym’…But a lot of people, when they begin to have a drop in motivation take a week off…if you start to lose motivation, keep training” (Thibaudeau). These communities do not participate in worship or other typical practices, but how they interact as a community functions in the same way.
One example that parallels the obsession that bodybuilders have is the discussion about college football as a religion. In the South, college football is closely tied into faith and some would even say that it has become its own religion. In fact,it has caused some concern among religious communities. Community and church members worry that football could be replacing churches. The stadiums resemble churches,coaches resemble pastors, and prayers are often offered in the most gut-wrenching moments (Babb). In addition to the increasing implications of college football as a religion, CrossFit is another example of this phenomena of religion changing.In a study done by the Harvard Divinity School, researchers found that more than one-third of millennials do not identify with a religion. In place of traditional religions, they are turning to things like CrossFit that offer a close-knit community full of people with similar goals about bettering themselves (harvard.edu).In other words, these communities of people are functioning just like more traditional religions do. A participant in an interview about CrossFit said, “‘My CrossFit box is everything to me…CrossFit is family, laughter, love and community” (Clifford). The passion, closeness, and level of seriousness that these people incorporate into exercising is often arguably more than many people who practice what are thought of as traditional religions. In addition,those who take part in these activities stress that when they are watching football games, lifting weights, or training for CrossFit, they experience a level of emotion and passion that is difficult to explain.
Now that some other modern examples about religion have been introduced, it is necessary to apply some methodologies discussed in class to the example of bodybuilding. Arguably, two of the most important theologists that were discussed were Marx and Weber. Both theorists are considered sociologists, but offer their own unique perspectives on religion and how it applies to everyday life. Marx attempted to reduce religion to simple economics, saying that when an individual thinks in terms of themselves,rather than the group, self-alienation occurs. The result of this materialism is religion, which can be broken down into “Base” (material goods) and“Superstructure” (any other phenomena that follow) (Harman). Applying the ideas of “Base” and “Superstructure” to bodybuilding, Marx would say that the activities that bodybuilders carry out (lifting weights, eating healthy, competing, etc.)are the “Base”, and the “Superstructure” is the other parts of their lives that are impacted by participating in the activity (i.e. their sense of purpose and the meaningful relationships that they develop with others that share similar values). Marx believed that religion was like a drug; used to suppress the masses, and make them believe that their lives after death would be better. Applying this to bodybuilding, he would say that it is another way for people to distract themselves from harsh realities, whether they are financial or interpersonal, diverting them from the larger problems that they face or that are imposed on them.
In contrast to Marx, Weber understands that religion is its own entity, but can still be somewhat attributed to material factors.Rather than claiming that religion is solely shaped by the outcomes of society,Weber makes the point that religion can also shape the outcomes of society. For example, Weber says, “We shall as far as possible clarify…the religious movements have influenced the development of material culture” (Pals 245). For Weber, the sense of purpose and community that come with bodybuilding would impact the individual habits of lifting weights and eating healthy. He would say that these societal factors impact the willingness/likeliness that the material factors, or individual habits, are carried out, just like the individual habits strengthen the sense of purpose. There is a reflective relationship between the “religious” and the “material”.
A second methodology that can be applied is the psychoanalytical approach. Freud is one of the most widely recognized psychoanalytical theorists. Freud saw religion as “a reversion of to childish patterns of helplessness and guilt” (philosophyofreligion.com). Freud argues that after childhood humans look for something to fulfill the absence of a father-like figure, like God. Although this idea primarily limited Freud’s ideas to Christianity,it can be applied to these newer ideas of religion, like bodybuilding. Most people start working out as they transition from childhood from adulthood. In other words, Freud might say that people use bodybuilding to escape feelings of detachment.
One final methodology that can be applied to body building is the philosophical approach. Non-realism is the idea that the effects of religious beliefs on people are what is important, not whether they are true or not. There is no doubt that the choices that those who participate in bodybuilding are physically real. However, this is not what non-realism focuses on. The choices to sacrifice time, money, and health to become a bodybuilder act as a religion because they function as avenues for a change in one’s purpose in life, their mentality, and a creation of a community that they included in. Contrary to non-realism, realism is, “the belief that things of a certain kind exist independently of our experience of them and thoughts with them” (Cupitt). A realist perspective in this case, would be limiting, recognizing the existence of bodybuilding and the practices that it requires, but failing to recognize its function. Dualism can also be loosely applied to bodybuilding. Dualism is, “the idea that…there are two fundamental kinds or categories of things or principles”(stanford.edu). In religion, it is typically applied to divide in discussion of whether God does or does not exist. However, in the case of bodybuilding, it is essentially the classic case of man versus nature. Bodybuilders are always trying to increase the amount of muscle that they have despite their natural limitations, often through drug use.
Bodybuilding in its entirety is a religion because of the community that it has created and the indescribable feeling that members within the community experience while lifting or competing. The modern-day examples of college football and CrossFit also help to demonstrate the shift in the modern definition of religion. These activities function in ways almost identical to the “old religions”. The fact that several methodologies that we have discussed in class can be applied to bodybuilding in a similar, if not identical way, elucidates the fact that bodybuilding does not differ significantly from other religions. Although there are several methodologies that can be applied to bodybuilding, there certainly are some limitations. For example, many of the aforementioned methodologies are only applied to monotheistic religions, like Christianity.For this reason, the questions can be raised of whether or not these methodologies are applicable for a more practice-based religion, or if they are valid as methodologies at all. Using the criteria that religion exists as a shared set of practices that bring people together around a common interest/belief,and that a religion must involve indescribable feeling that overcomes an individual when practicing, I feel that bodybuilding is, indeed, a religion.
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