Ideas | Zachary Davis

Has secularism gone too far?

Martín Elfman for the Boston Globe

T he first time I saw the ad, my first thought was: This is ridiculous.

“This is not about a class,” a buff, sweaty athlete says, over dramatic piano music, as he stares into the camera. “It’s not about a bike. It’s about you.” And then comes a litany of other talking heads, demanding to know: “What is your purpose?. . . What are you looking for?. . . What drives you?. . . What inspires you?”

And then the message turns explicitly spiritual. “It’s about you coming and believing. You finding your best self. . . Your dreams. Your power. . . Find your happy place. Find your truth. Find your soul.”

This is an ad for SoulCycle, the fast-growing indoor cycling studio chain. On some level, it’s absurd: Cycling in the dark to pulsing pop songs might get you in shape, make some friends, and improve your self-esteem. But can it really help you, as it claims, to find truth, find yourself, find your soul? Would millennials, or anyone else, go looking for their souls in a fitness class?

Then again, if not in a fitness class, where?


In the United States, more than a third of the millennial generation is religiously unaffiliated, notes Angie Thurston, a Harvard Divinity School researcher who writes about the spiritual lives of millennials. When surveyed about their spiritual identity, they check “none of the above.” “They are what I would call religiously homeless,” Thurston says. “They don’t have a place to go, a community to go around whatever it is that their spiritual life entails.”

She argues that younger Americans find spirituality and meaning in a variety of ways — for instance, by taking jobs that align with their values, factoring social impact into investments, and launching public-benefits corporations that look past the bottom line.

Thurston also describes an entire landscape of fitness communities — CrossFit, Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, the November Project — that instill participants with a culture of “high accountability” and “high bondedness.” People move apartments to be closer to these communities and meet their spouses in them. “When somebody passes away they name a workout after that person,” Thurston says.


When outsiders describe that kind of quasi-religious fervor, it’s meant as a criticism of these fitness groups. But religious ritual shaped everyday life in the Western world for centuries. And in an increasingly secular world nothing has taken its place. The popularity of SoulCycle and CrossFit, Thursdon says, has “something to do with that mismatch between the job religion is supposed to do and the society that’s kind of floundering looking around for that job being done.”

In 1851, the prominent British atheist George Holyoake coined the term “secularism” to describe an outlook toward the world that rejected religious dogma and supernaturalism in favor of reason and empirical evidence. How secular a society is isn’t just a matter of how many people attend church or personally pray to God, but also how much religious frameworks and categories shape people’s thoughts, commitments, loyalties, and routines.

In 400 AD, the bishop Paulinus of Nola, a city in southern Italy located not too far from Mount Vesuvius, began using bells as part of Christian worship. The practice soon spread across the Christian world, and church bells were rung to summon people to Mass, mark times of prayer, or celebrate special occasions, such as feast days or weddings. Christian lives were structured by the pealing of the bells. Each day unfolded to the cadence and rhythm of sacred time.

But over the next 1,000 years, some people started using church bells for a different reason. Thanks to the textile trade, 14th-century Florence was a boomtown. Merchants purchased unfinished wool from England and then had it cleaned, carded, spun, dyed, and woven into exquisite cloth, which they then sold to wealthy customers across Europe and beyond. By 1340 more than a third of the entire population of Florence was working in the cloth industry. The aldermen who owned the textile houses began to petition the bishop if the church bell could be rung not when it was time to pray, but instead when the workers should go to work in the morning, when they should eat lunch, when they should return to work after eating, and when they should stop work for the day.


Their petition was granted. In 1353, Florence went further and built an enormous clock tower in the center of town so that accurate time could be visible and audible from anywhere in the city. Liturgical time was gradually replaced by a new time that was more focused on commerce.

That moment — when spiritual practice bowed to economic necessity, instead of vice versa — was one small milestone in the long march toward secularism in the West.

“Over time,” says sociologist Craig Calhoun, “there came to be large-scale, complex markets, governments and other big institutions and eventually science and new technologies that people are related to without needing to have reference to religion. So you might be a very religious person, but the way in which you use your computer, how you push the keys, how you connect to the Internet isn’t something for which you turn to religion for guidance.”

Calhoun is president of the Berggruen Institute, a think tank that focuses how societies govern themselves in a changing world. “There’s been this growth in aspects of life,” he says, “that are not within the domain of religion even for religious people.”


Secularism has come to enjoy a good reputation. It’s how the 13 colonies — some of which were founded as Congregational or Catholic or Quaker bastions — avoided a fight over which religion should dominate in the new nation. It’s why the sins specified by any individual religion aren’t necessarily prosecuted as crimes. And it’s why Americans tend to define the health of our society defined in political or economic terms.

But even by those measures, how well are we doing? According to a succession of social-science books, people are “bowling alone,” the victims of an “unwinding,” or even a “great unraveling.” These developments raise a possibility that sociologists and theologists may see more readily than economists: For society to flourish, it helps if individuals believe in something larger than themselves.

For hundreds of years, scholars and social critics have been grappling with with how to fill a growing spiritual void. In the 19th century, as Christianity’s grip on Europe began to weaken, a philosophical debate emerged. Walking around Copenhagen in the 1840s, the Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard lamented the weakening of faith he observed. In contrast, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche overtly cheered it on. “He thought this was great cause for joy rather than cause for regret,” says Sean Kelly, a philosophy professor at Harvard.

Nietzsche extolled strength, competition, and achievement and admired the great warriors in Homeric epics. He also was fascinated by the ancient Greek theater festivals and the way that they combined music and drama to convey important truths. One of his friends, the German composer Richard Wagner, also wanted to recreate the experience of those festivals. In 1876, in a small Bavarian town called Bayreuth, Wagner premiered “Das Rheingold,” the first of an epic four-part musical drama called “The Ring of the Nibelung.”


Wagner’s festival was a self-conscious attempt to use art to create new myths, rituals, and experiences that would give a secular society meaning and inspiration. This would prove to be a popular idea. Beginning in the late 19th century, many formerly private art collections, typically owned by wealthy nobles, were turned into public museums, designed to be — like churches — a place where people could go for moral uplift and solace. Likewise, literature, paintings, and music were touted as avenues to the kind of soul expansion that scripture or sermons once provided.

This new emphasis on culture, however, eventually became dangerously entwined with ethno-nationalism. Communities looked to their own national myths and artistic heritage to provide the social unity and purpose that religion no longer could. Nazi Germany took high culture very seriously. Wagner, famously, was Hitler’s favorite composer.

Fitness classes, in comparison, are a far more benign way to fill a spiritual void. Toning up glutes is certainly preferable to ethnic chauvinism — or to preaching death for your theological enemies. But whichever new ways we develop to find meaning in our secular age, they may fall short unless we integrate a few of the qualities that religions, at their best, tend to embody. They can bind us to a larger community, help us learn to care for people who are different than us, and counter negativity and nihilism in the world. “Learning to be grateful for whatever it is you can be grateful for is one of the saving practices,” Kelly says, “but it takes a certain kind of attention.”

Perhaps most importantly, religions can inspire hope in a better world, and not just some sort of afterlife. One problem with secularism is that it can lead to pessimism; we begin to doubt our ability to collectively overcome the challenges before us. This pessimism, to be sure, is often based on a rational, scientific interpretation of social conditions. But that is precisely why we need a hope that goes beyond reason — to give us the strength to pursue a world beyond reasonable expectations.

Zachary Davis is the host of Ministry of Ideas, a new podcast available on iTunes, Google Play, and ministryofideas.org. He is also a student at Harvard Divinity School.