The Rise of the Pagan Athlete
For many athletes - their pursuit of excellence in sport has bred a religious curiosity. They are seeking out an immersive lifestyle, worldview, accountability “feedback-loop”, esotericism (special language that lets them decode and understand the ambiguities of life) in which they can orient the purpose of their life: that which they most often and most investedly participate in (Sport). In society at large, the experience of passion has become the highest currency in many peoples lives. And they’ll tell you precisely that! The idea of “love” has become passion-centric; The satisfaction with ones work has become contingent on the passion they feel for what they’re doing. Same goes for hobbies, charity, and most notably: religious experience. More and more people are seeking the religious experience, (as opposed to seeking religious understanding / religious commitment). That’s not in small part why there is a rise in interest in the experiential activities of things like yoga -- meditation -- political advocacy -- diet... When the mind is weak in philosophical currency, it tries to compensate with increased experiential preoccupation -- with that which it can immerse itself in.
To clarify my use of the word “Pagan” in the title of this piece: I’m talking about a worldview and pattern of living in which the aims of a person are either material and/or multivariate (ie. polytheistic)... The modern professional athlete emerges as a prototype of this Millennial Neo-Paganism that is bubbling up throughout our society....
Athletes are becoming disciples of religious-like gurus: workout gurus, diet gurus, lifestyle gurus. These workout gurus they have don’t walk around with just some isolated or constrained bio-mechanic theorem. They include a totalitarian superstructure that covers diet, supplements, mental hygiene, meaning, validation, downtime, time-off, etc etc. This happens in large part because anyone who dives into one area of expertise quickly learns how contingent and interrelated any domain is on supplementary and overarching domains. The fact that their schools of thought become totalitarian systems has little to do with why we’re identifying these athletes as neo-pagans as does the emotional self-subjugation and seeking-out of precisely these class of totalitarian answers that the athletes are looking for.
The Neo-Paganism is arising of the practitioners themselves -- not the charisma of their leaders.
The market demand is driving the supply of these all-encompassing edifices.
I’ve been there. As a division one athlete who had a secular and atheistic worldview, as time continued to pass I became increasingly aligned with novel and esoteric therapeutic-recovery systems, and the bio-mechanic outlooks I trained under in the offseason were increasingly philosophically oriented and self-subscribed to. I wanted a way of understanding movement, competition, physical health maintenance, injury rehab and “pre-hab” (where you seek to prevent injuries in the first place). All of the while my atheism grew increasingly self-evident, and those who trained along side me with religious beliefs looked more and more dyslexic in their religiosity from my perspective.
In many ways the superstitious capacity that creeps up in people living within religious systems that rely on overly simplistic dogma was revealing itself in the world of sports as well. There were all the perennial / universal hallmarks of religiosity increasingly emerging in the world of sports: on the simplistic end was pathological superstition; on the intellectual end was pathological esotericism; and all throughout there was a radicalizing fundamentalism.
This is not to say trainers aren’t great and don’t help strengthening and keeping these athletes healthy -- they do! What this is about is the omni-participatory lifestyle these athletes are seeking in the wake of a philosophical and theological void they are finding themselves self-evidently in.
An adults theology/philosophy shouldn’t be the same as a child or teenagers theology. For example: the term “Dogma” has taken on a pejorative sense of being arbitrary and baseless, something only the unenlightened and scientifically illiterate occupy themselves with. The child is given rules on the authority of parental assertion, but the adult should somehow understand why they do all that they do... The adult must come to understand “Dogma” as first principles / axioms off which any subsequent assertions must be made. And we are future oriented beings, so assertions must be made... Other examples: what is the role of guilt? how should one attempt to appraise their sense of purpose? what mark can one leave outside of themselves or their life? what are the psychological stressors of human adulthood? what is the fabric of existence’s relationship to you? Does it have one? Is it intentional or deterministic, or something else? What is faith? What is the role of doubt in faith? -- The stories that we tell children won’t suffice for the adult mind subject to angst and despair, isolation and silence.
Language is paramount. Conceptual formulation is key......
Whole senses of self in athletes are becoming inseparable from the affirmations and deaffirmations they experience in their world of sport. It’s no wonder that its members are seeking a way of understanding, processing, reacting, orienting, predicting, anticipating, and manufacturing favorable results; attempting to reconcile it all with the rest of their lives.
Most notable of all: as time has continued to pass this propensity to totalitarianism in sport is not signaling any red-flags - by society or the athletes themselves; instead, the exact opposite is occurring: it’s being accepted, affirmed, and articulated shamelessly as precisely that! What is it - Tom Brady, Michael Strahan and Deepak Chopra’s son have like an entire production company called “The Religion of Sport”... And it’s not like they’re out of touch! I’d say their brand is spot on! It’s entirely symbiotic with the modern reality. It’s exactly resonant with the ethos of our time......
There’s much more to say about the philosophical void and the signs of the times we’re living in... But in closing, let us point out the real key of this all as this: Athletes are becoming increasingly desperate for fully immersive and totalitarian conceptual superstructures they can preoccupy themselves with and live by. As professional athletes, they have the time and resources to invest as freely as their hearts desire in fulfilling whatever needs they think need to be fulfilled, and so they’re well representative of a prototypical craving living beneath the surface of our modern man. The answers these athletes are seeking are becoming less and less bio-mechanical and more and more esoteric.
In all their answers being anchored in a materialistic premise of Sport, the philosophical mind can almost effortlessly see how this is a selection for a contemporary brand of Paganism.
I’ll write more about this down the road, for there is more to be said on this topic of investigation. But for now we’ll leave it to this preliminary overview and let it marinate in the ether of our humanosphere. +
A.J. Barker is co-Founder of The Last Renaissance. He is author of the book ‘The Will to Despair’ and is a former standout division one football player. He lives in the Twin Cities.