Looking At Bicycling Through The Lens Of Religion

Background Reading

Bicycles are simple machines with the power to tackle complex challenges.  Whether its health disparity, economic inequality, community violence, or threats to the environment, bikes are a part of the solution to many of the most difficult problems facing Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods.

As we celebrate the wonderful progress Chicago has made through advances like protected bike lanes and the Divvy bike share system, we must also continue to call attention to the work that remains to be done to create better biking and encourage healthy transportation.

For too many, biking is still not seen as a viable option.  Many barriers to biking exist for many different reasons. To change that, we must fully incorporate the voices and leadership of historically marginalized and underrepresented groups into the work of building a bike friendly city, including women, people of color, and individuals from low- to moderate-income communities.

Slow Roll Chicago

Slow Roll Chicago

The goal is simple: Two Wheels, One City. We work to create a City of Chicago where no matter who you are or where you live, you are able to enjoy all of the benefits biking can offer.

Ultimately, it’s our collective responsibility to achieve this goal. The Mayor, City Council, the Chicago Department of Transportation, and others in positions of power need our support for bold action to be possible.

It’s up to us, the people who live and work in Chicago, to achieve this vision.


Haggard New Allegations

Pastor and Evangelist Ted Haggard


I referenced the Slow Roll Philosophy earlier this morning and during luncheon it struck me that I had heard this sort of thing before. So I consulted some sources to see if I could find similar language elsewhere. It turns out that one of my recurring themes concerning the Urban Cycling Movement (which is the name I give to the ‘secular‘ portion of this community) is best viewed instead as its religious arm the Church of Urban Cycling.

There is indeed a Pope of the Church of Urban Cycling. And he has fought tooth and nail for the hearts and minds of his parishioners to make them aware that:

  • helmets are the Work of the Devil (automotive manufacturers)
  • jaywalking is a construct of the Devil too. Pedestrians and cyclists should avoid being hemmed in by ‘worldly concerns‘ in the form of crosswalks
  • clothing is optional, and when worn should be what you plan to wear at your destination
  • cargo bikes are holy and you should use the to do the Lord’s Work
  • car parking is sin incarnate
  • removing automobiles (i.e. sinners) is God’s Way of Reclaiming His Kingdom

Now I know if you are not an Evangelical much of this will seem weird and perhaps even silly. But bear with me here. I am serious about the fact that Bicycling has replaced The Christian Gospel for many unchurched individuals in today’s culture. I am not going to condemn this fact but am making the case that it exists.

Every Generation Needs A Holy Quest

One hundred years ago missionaries from the Christian Faith set out to Spread The Gospel. They spoke of this Good News as being ‘transformative‘. That is to say it had the power to change people’s lives. Slow Roll is essentially restating in modern terms wherein the Bicycle (written with a capital ‘B‘) takes the place of a person known as Jesus of Nazareth.

We are in essence giving voice to the idea these days that what ails the world, indeed our individual communities is a lack of something positive and indeed unifying. Back in the days of the Great Missionary Effort is was a message titled the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And the very same language was used.

The problem back then and even now is that sometimes our message is largely dismissive of the cultures into which it is spoken.

Social Gospel Versus Grace

At about the same time as missionary zeal was taking hold there were Socialists who needed a way of explaining that transformative nature of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in modern terms. The problem was that the Apostle Paul had written about Salvation as being by Grace. In essence there was nothing you could ‘do‘ that is to say ‘no works‘ that you could undertake that would ensure your Salvation.

Two passages come to mind:

“For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God: not of works lest any man should boast.”

Ephesians 2:8

and another

“And if by grace, then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.”

Romans 11:6

Now again I apologize if you are not a Bible student but for those of you who know the New Testament this is important.

Most of what passes for Urban Bicycling is more of the ‘works‘ stuff than ‘grace‘.

Comparing Our Suffering

If you scan through the Chicago ‘Whine and Jeez Club’ Cycling Forum you will note some rather interesting things:

The names of the members often have numerals following them. When my wife asked me what those were I at first drew a blank. What numerals was she talking about? But then I remembered that at one point one of the old-timers suggested that each Disciple of the Church of Urban Cycling include some indication of just how long their commute to work was.



In the days of my father’s youth this would have been clearly understood as the ‘giving of one’s testimony‘. It generally began with the Pastor of the Congregation opening the service with prayer followed by his testimony of how God had ‘brought him out of some affliction‘. In point of fact the current format of the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings has these same elements.

You stand up and give your first name followed by some idea of just how long you have been an alcoholic and then some idea of how many times you have lapsed back into drunkenness and then some measure of how long you have been sober. If you are brand new to the gathering you will simply indicate that you are there to learn to find a means of ‘giving in to your Higher Power‘.

For the most part the words are the same however the AA approach is to depersonalize the Deity of Christ and instead to acknowledge that you have a problem and are powerless to resolve it unless you follow the 12 steps towards ‘salvation‘.

Urban Cyclists have in addition to showing their mileage behind their names are given to sharing their testimonies each and every morning. They take great delight in letting everyone know that they rode to work despite the weather conditions. And in some cases they ‘refrain from sharing‘ if they feel that it reflects poorly on their commitment to the God of Bicycling.

And as with Christians a century ago behaviors meant a great deal. Any ‘Good Christian‘ attended Church on a regular basis. There were certain behaviors (not unlike those in AA) that you gave up. You were probably a tea-totaler going forward, did not chew tobacco, engage in social dancing with members of the opposite sex (it was considered lewd), did not fornicate, lie or swear. There was this admixture of ‘works and grace‘ that plagued every aspect of Christianity.

This approach to external aspects of one’s life came to be known as ‘legalism‘. It was something that Jews shared as well. They had observances that were centered around ‘The Law‘. You for instance could not eat unclean foods, do work on the Sabbath and much more. Christians were are legalistic as Jews only about different things.

We ate pork, but we too could not play baseball on Sundays. In fact one famous pro baseball player (Billy Sunday) made this part of his contractural agreement with his team owners. But besides being a baseball player he was also an evangelist.

Missions Meant Disseminating Cultural Norms

To better understand the Slow Roll Movement you need to look back at some of its ‘Do’s and Dont’s‘. The first time I came across these I was a bit stunned. But they made sense in the context of an urban setting where lots of young people who might participate in a ride needed some sense of what was permissible and what was not.

In sharp contrast the more ‘secular part of the Church of Urban Cycling‘ offers to its parishioners things like Bike Smut Movie Marathons, Full Moon Fiasco Rides (essentially bacchanals) or even the Wiccan-Inspired World Naked Bike Ride. This wing of the Church is evidently exploring the limits of tasteful behavior.

Some in the Early Christian Church did the same. In fact the same Apostle Paul spoke about a practice which created a good deal of consternation in the Early Church, eating meat offered to idols. Again I apologize if this is all foreign territory to those of you with little in the way of Biblical training in your college days. I went to school to become a pastor and instead became a Chemistry/Philosophy double major.

My one problem with Christianity had little to do with the teachings but rather the practices of its followers. In fact my single biggest complaint about the Church of Urban Cycling is that in its own way it is duplicating those mistakes.

Grace Is All There Is

When cyclists in this day and age inquire about the cycling habits of the DOT heads they are really asking if that person has adopted the ‘behavioral norms‘ of the middle percentiles of the Church of Urban Cycling. It begins innocently enough with a question of whether the person ride their bikes to work.

But eventually the ‘legalisms‘ become apparent as questions about car ownership surface. In this religious atmosphere you really cannot be as ‘good a person‘ while owning a car as living without one.

Then there is the question of how you dress. Do you place the ‘Mark of the Beast‘ on your head while you ride? Are you a purist in terms of the bicycle you use. In this spiritual world the few gears you have the better. And nothing really seems to satisfy folks that you are ‘on a path to true enlightenment‘ like ditching your freewheeling hub.

I could go on but that would be pointless. What is important is that merely riding a bicycling at some point in your life does not for some people qualify you as a member of their congregation. You are not in their eyes necessarily ‘saved by grace‘ but have to demonstrate some ‘works‘ as well.

I come from the side of the aisle that believes that ‘Grace Alone‘ is enough. I do not feel that you need to know how many miles a year I ride, or whether I ride my bicycle to work. I shun fixed gear riding because I prefer the benefits of both freewheels and hand brakes. And I am not ashamed to admit this publicly, although it should have no bearing on how I am treated, yet I know that it does in the eyes of many.

I would no longer seek to dissuade a person that using an electric motor was a sign of ‘backsliding‘. At one point a fellow recumbent rider indeed brought a bike to rides that was equipped with a electric motor. I felt is was cheating. And to be perfectly honest I still feel that way.

But I have decided no one should have to live by my ideas on how bicycles should be configured, at least if I want to freedom to adapt my bike without comment. So when I wear reflective clothing and use a hub generator with a bright headlight and flashing tail lights I do it because it feels right to me.

I find that safety has to be a central part of my thinking on cycling. That means a helmet for my noggin and reflective vests and brightly colored clothing. I find that brouhaha over reflective paint by the Pope of the Church of Urban Cycling about as relevant as the attempts by foreign missionaries to get people in cultures where women went bare breasted to wear tops. Why bother?

The only people concerned about bare breasts were cultural outsiders. But Missionaries spent countless hours convincing women in these cultures that being undressed was immoral. So you can only imagine my surprise (tinged with disgust) that a century and a half later the spiritual heirs of those same Missionaries are introducing Naked Bike Rides into our culture.

The real problem is that no matter what the century there are always people who feel superior to the rest of us who want to ‘save us from sin‘. These days they are trying to get us to give up fossil fuels so long as it does not get in the way of their enjoyment of cold beers and anonymous hot sex.

And for these folks (as with the Missionaries of a century or more ago) criticism of their practices is a signal that you are an UnBeliever. The Urban Cycling Movement is fraught with this kind of demand for ‘conformity‘ to their rules.

In fact I have likened them to their political counterparts in the Tea Party. They have made up their minds that unless you believe in the kinds of bicycles they want you to have you are likely to find yourself a lost soul.

The Urban Cyclist "Shuck and Jive"

The Urban Cyclist “Shuck and Jive”

This is a group that has made a religious commitment to the Idaho Stop Law not because it is just or moral but rather because it is convenient. I liken this sort of thinking to being a pedophile who having been caught with an underaged child starts ranting about ‘loving children‘.

We are equally dishonest when we try to posture that our fight is for ourselves and pedestrians. To listen to our forum discussions it is rather obvious that more often than not we view pedestrians as ‘being in our way‘. We identify with pedestrians only to the extent that doing so probably makes it far more likely that we can secure funds for bike-related projects from the Government.

But projects like the 606 Trail are evidently disappointments to those who had hoped that there would be far fewer pedestrians roaming around the place. But it should be noted that most Christians who believe in Heaven are probably going to be surprised (assuming that it is a ‘real place‘) to find that the very folks they would not ride beside on the bus are sitting next to them for all of Eternity and there are no sections for just their kind.

Cyclists Should Ask The Question What Will Bicycle Heaven Look Like?

If you are one of those members of the Church of Urban Cycling who don’t feel that a recumbent bicycle with a Bionx motor is good for Bicycling then you might end up being disappointed. In fact you may have to do some soul-searching to get your head around the fact that perhaps 50% or more of the bicycle commuter population might one day be using some sort of electric-assist vehicle.

The Europeans have found themselves in the middle of this situation and are slowing working their way through it. Do not assume that Bicycle Heaven here will look like it does in Amsterdam. That would be like assuming that rock music would have been the same whether it came from Europe or developed out of the Mississippi Delta Blues spawned by African Slaves.

Beware of the notion that the world has to match your expectations. You never know when some Inner City Youths might turn the idea of Bike Lanes on its head and suddenly bring back the idea of Vehicular Cycling with a different twist.

Alan Watts

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it and join the dance.

Voor de Liefde voor Fietsen from Bella Turnbull-Finnegan on Vimeo.