“Introducing relationship fitness,” Peoplehood proclaims on its minimalist website, “an entirely new concept with one goal: to help you feel better.“This wellness business, the company promises, will be ‘a place to grow personally, together.’
She offers (a little) more detail on her Instagram: “Peoplehood is the spiritual practice of connected conversation. Our gatherings are 55-minute group conversation experiences led by trained guides in our digital sanctuary. A New York Times reporter testing a Peoplehood course (the company is still in beta) described the “gathering” as a session in which “strangers discuss their deepest hopes and fears” and engage in breathing exercises and light stretching.
So this is group therapy? Is it a sect? Is it Alcoholics Anonymous in fancier rooms?
The key is in the language: guided spirituality in a sanctuary. Peoplehood presents itself as a new type of exercise. But if you take a closer look, it is clear that what is being sold is the church.
The fact that there is a potential market for it speaks to what our society lacks. But the company itself – at least in the details it’s revealed so far – is modeling the biggest issues with how we’ve tried to fill the void.
Conventional religious attendance is down and continues to decline. At the end of 2021, the Pew Research Center reported that about 3 in 10 American adults were unaffiliated with religion, a share 6 percentage points higher than it was five years earlier and 10 points higher. percentage more than it was 10 years earlier. Affiliation declines were most apparent in Protestant Christian denominations, with millennials leading the decline.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. A lack of shared spiritual practice means that some of the most valuable benefits of being part of an established religious community – connection, transcendence, a sense of larger purpose – are also on the decline. And the pain is obvious.
While religious participation has declined, depression and anxiety, fueled by feelings of worthlessness and lack of meaning, are on the rise. In response to a 2018 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 1 in 5 Americans said they always or often felt lonely or socially isolated – something the covid-19 pandemic has only made worse.
So big steps Peoplehood – ready to tap into a market. “We realized that the connection should be its own product,” one of its founders told The Times.. “We are modern medicine for the loneliness epidemic.”
But turning something into a “product” means modifying it to make it more appealing to the mass market. And in this case, it looks like emptying a religious experience of the rigor, expectation and commitment that give it meaning.
Peoplehood’s tone is carefully non-denominational and rigorously open, without the slightest hint of judgment or expectation. The word “love” features prominently in his meticulously branded social media posts, as do calls to “listen” and “be self-centered.” The occasional quote from Martin Luther King Jr. appears, signaling bona fide social justice without being too alienating. “The problem is not youcoos the Peoplehood website, “it’s just life.”
Here’s the thing: the religious structures that Peoplehood tries to emulate kindle aim by asking things of their adherents – hard things. They cultivate meaning by providing ethical frameworks and moral visions to achieve that are not just 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 to others.
It’s the opposite of the woo-woo fitness moves that suggest we don’t really need to get changed — we just need to talk about it (in a trendy, branded “gathering” space, of course).
An experience whose sole purpose is to “help you feel better” may be appealing in the short term, but it’s unlikely to fulfill the deep longings that may inspire people to try it in the first place.
And in the worst-case scenario, the “scaling” and “growth” of a for-profit enterprise based on deep insecurities will depend on seeding them. The ability to sell a connection, after all, depends on its rarity.
For all its fashionable branding, the unmarked church of Peoplehood is just a religion in an impoverished and toned down form. If it succeeds? This will only confirm the depth of our collective desperation.