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Opinion From the founders of SoulCycle, a new (flawed) kind of church

SoulCycle co-founders Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler attend the SoulCycle x Target Launch Event in New York on Jan. 14, 2016. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Target)

You’ve bought a Peloton for cardio. You’ve tried out CrossFit for strength. You’re going to yoga for flexibility, and maybe you’re detoxing to balance your microbiome. Yet your wellness journey feels incomplete. You’re still lonely, still anxious. Where’s the workout for … your soul?

That’s the gap that Peoplehood, a new company from SoulCycle founders Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, aims to fill.

“Introducing relational fitness,” Peoplehood proclaims on its minimalist website, “an entirely new concept with one goal: to help you feel better.” This wellness venture, the company promises, will be “a place to grow personally, together.”

It offers (slightly) more detail on its Instagram: “Peoplehood is the spiritual practice of connected conversation. Our Gathers are 55 minute group conversation experiences led by trained Guides in our digital sanctuary.” A New York Times reporter testing out a Peoplehood course (the venture is still in beta) described the “gather” as a session in which “strangers discuss their deepest hopes and fears” and engage in breathing exercises and light stretches.

So is it group therapy? Is it a cult? Is it Alcoholics Anonymous in fancier rooms?

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The key is in the language: guided spirituality in a sanctuary. Peoplehood introduces itself as a new kind of exercise. But if you look more closely, it’s clear that what’s being sold is church.

The fact that there’s a potential market for this speaks to what our society is lacking. But the venture itself — at least in the details it has revealed so far — models the biggest problems with how we’ve tried to fill the gap.

Conventional churchgoing is down and continues to fall. At the end of 2021, the Pew Research Center reported that roughly 3 in 10 American adults were religiously unaffiliated, a share 6 percentage points higher than it was five years before and 10 percentage points higher than it was 10 years earlier. The drops in affiliation were most apparent in Protestant Christian denominations, with millennials leading the decline.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. A lack of shared spiritual practice means that some of the most valuable benefits of taking part in an established religious community — connection, transcendence, a sense of larger purpose — are also on the decline. And the pain is evident.

While religious participation has decreased, depression and anxiety, fueled by a sensation of purposelessness and lack of meaning, are on the rise. Responding to a 2018 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 1 in 5 Americans reported that they always or often felt lonely or socially isolated — something the covid-19 pandemic has only made worse.

So in strides Peoplehood — ready to tap into a market. “We realized that connection should be its own product,” one of its founders told the Times. “We are modern medicine for the loneliness epidemic.”

But to turn something into a “product” means modifying it for mass-market palatability. And in this case, that looks like emptying a religious experience of the rigor, expectation and commitment that gives it meaning.

Peoplehood’s tone is studiously nondenominational and stringently open-ended, without a hint of judgment or expectation. The word “love” features heavily in its meticulously branded social media posts, as do appeals to “listen” and “center yourself.” The occasional Martin Luther King Jr. quote shows up, signaling social justice bona fides without being too alienating. “The problem isn’t you,” Peoplehood’s website coos, “it’s just life.”

Here’s the thing: The religious structures Peoplehood is attempting to emulate kindle purpose by asking things of their adherents — hard things. They cultivate meaning by providing ethical frameworks and moral visions to strive for that are not solely opt-in consumables. Ideally, they push us to think outside of ourselves, to not be ruled solely by our own desires, to develop a sense of obligation toward others.

This is the opposite of woo-woo fitness movements that suggest we don’t really need to change ourselves — we just need to talk it out (in a hip, branded “gathering” space, of course).

An experience with the sole object of “helping you feel better” may be attractive in the short term, but it’s unlikely to fulfill the deep longings that may draw people to try it out in the first place.

And in a worst-case scenario, the “scaling” and “growth” of a for-profit venture based on deep insecurities will depend on seeding more of them. The ability to sell connection, after all, depends on making it scarce.

For all its trendy branding, Peoplehood’s commoditized church is merely religion in an impoverished, attenuated form. If it succeeds? It’ll only confirm the depth of our collective desperation.

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