I was – I think I’ve mentioned before – raised Catholic. Which is to say, I attended a Catholic primary school, went to Sunday mass with my dad, was confirmed at age fourteen, and still look back with misty eyed nostalgia at the day our parish priest appeared on BBC Crimewatch having absconded to Australia with a hundred grand in parish funds.
Then I went off to university, and then moved to London where I fully embraced the life of a cynical, secular, Guardian reading (then Guardian writing), liberal. This was the early 2000s, around the same time George and Tony cited their shared Christianity as the casus belli for invading Iraq, firmly establishing liberalism and religion as polar opposites. I knew which side I was on.
Still, no matter how liberal my politics became, I couldn’t quite get on board with the militant atheism practiced by my fellow lefties. The insufferable Ricky Gervais, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Fry brand of atheism: Hectoring churchgoers and eye rolling about “sky wizards” to millions of hooting and cackling Twitter followers.
It’s one thing to be evangelical about something, but to be evangelical about nothing seems like a special kind of obnoxiousness. Like a Jehovah’s Witness knocking on your door just to call you a fucking dope.
A decade and a half later, this type of militant atheism is strongly in vogue in Silicon Valley. It seems especially prevalent amongst young techies raised on Ayn Rand for whom the only true gods are technology and The Market, and the only legitimate prophets are men like Steve Jobs and Peter Thiel. Never would those geniuses be so dumb to blindly take direction from an invisible sky wizard, not when there are so many perfectly good algorithms to show them the way, truth, and light. (Never mind that Saint Peter Thiel – ever the contrarian – is himself an evangelical Christian.)
What those techies, and other young, sophisticated San Franciscoites do dig – however – is spiritually. Spirituality, like its cousin mindfulness, is cool. Especially when it comes packaged inside a fitness regimen. Witness the armies of young believers, traipsing dutifully through the city to their 9am Sunday yoga/Soul Cycle/Bar Method worship. See the flickering candles surrounding the SoulCycle altar; hear the exhortations at Orange Theory Fitness to shake hands (or fist bump, if you must) your neighbor in communion, to say nothing of the mantras and icons and incense and prayers to the “universe” and to one’s inner goddess found in every yoga class.
Picture, an hour or so later, the roomful of yogis or spin cyclists, their hands clasped together “at heart center” to connect with the universe at the end of class. How infinitely more sophisticated they are than those rubes in church with their hands clasped together in, pffft, prayer.
On the face of it, the line between organized religion and organized fitness is now so blurred as to be almost meaningless. So why is it that the very same young, liberal Silicon Valley types who mock religion – who roll their eyes at middle American evangelicals and the devoutly religious – are so enthralled by the exact same ideas when they’re disguised as a workout? Is it just that yoga is cool and church isn’t? Is it just the ‘G’ word that’s taboo?
Maybe it’s a simple case of supply and demand. The demand, in this case, is for the comfort and feeling that religion once offered: That sense of togetherness and real world connection desperately needed in a world which seems to have been re-engineered to divide and distance us from each other. A yearning for simple moral guidance – for some concrete and universally agreed code of right and wrong in an age when the rich and powerful are able to lie, cheat and steal with impunity. In a world run by Donald Trump and Mohammed Bin Salman, we have to at least hope there’s a hell waiting for them.
That spiritual demand remains constant, or growing, even as churchgoing has fallen off a cliff. As religion has disgraced itself with child abuse, bigotry, misogyny, support of terrorism and being co-opted by right wing politicians, so the fitness industry has stepped in to fill the void. For the young and spiritually restless, boutique fitness teachers – spin instructors and the like – have taken the role of pastors and other religious leaders: Doling out instagram-worthy affirmations over a thumping techno beat. Meanwhile, yoga teachers offer a smorgasbord of goddesses to satisfy a congregation that’s had quite enough of being told what to believe by the Father, the Son, and the rest of the patriarchy
No surprise, then, that more than one Silicon Valley mogul has mooted the idea of starting his own non-religious church: All the community and ritual of the real thing, but none of the God. The O’Douls of churches. My favorite example – and I swear I’m not making this up – was the successful startup founder turned would-be cult leader who hired a branding consultant to invent “religious sounding words” to describe his various pseudo-sacraments. Because, yeah, it’s the Christians, Jews, and Muslims who are the crazy ones.
And it’s no wonder both audiences – the yogis and the techies – are avid consumers of self-help books. From the charmless-but-harmless Tim Ferris to the tolly not about God (and please ignore the religious imprint logo on my spine) Rachel Hollis, there has never been a more lucrative time to publish your own bible.
It’s almost impressive how thoroughly religion – Christianity in particular – has fucked itself, brand wise. Last year, Yale University Press published David Bentley Hart’s much-hyped re-translation of the New Testament. Flipping through 600 pages of familiar-but-forgotten stories of Jesus and his pals, I was struck by how the source material of Christianity (that is, without the bigotry, intolerance, and general hatred that’s been piled on top by church leaders) knocks the spots off any self-help book published in the last, say, two thousand years. Love thy neighbor, cross over the road to help the afflicted, throw the capitalists out of the temple, free healthcare for lepers…. OG Jesus leans so far left he makes AOC look almost centrist. (Spoiler: The New Testament contains not a word about abortion, gay marriage, guns, or invading Iraq. Second spoiler: The hero dies at the end.
Or doessss he?)
Of course, “Jesus wasn’t an asshole, despite what Evangelicals say” isn’t a particularly original observation – in fact it’s pretty much the elevator pitch of the Jesuits. (Billion dollar idea: Jesuit Boutique Fitness — Save Your SoulCycle). Similarly, I have no doubt that adherents to other religions – Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and all but Scientology – could make similar claims about their holy books. I’m focusing on the Christian New Testament here only because it’s the only one I can credibly claim to have read.
Which brings me neatly back to Jamaica, where after a perfect week of yoga, staring out at the sea, surrounded by wonderful people offering nothing but love and support to each other, I’m boarding this flight happier, healthier and feeling closer to… something (God? The Universe? My fellow humans? Rachel Hollis? All of their above?) than I’ve ever felt.
The perfect starting point, in other words, to think more deeply about where exactly I sit on the religion – spirituality spectrum, and how the answer to that question might help me on my continuing journey to become slightly less of an asshole.