In the United States of America, sports is a national obsession. Every week, tens of thousands of avid fans pack into stadiums and arenas to watch their teams battle for supremacy on the field of play, and millions more watch and listen on TV and radio. Devoted fans follow their hometown teams with an interest verging on fanaticism, memorizing vast quantities of statistical and historical minutiae, filling their homes with the colors and iconography of their teams, and fiercely defending their team’s merits against all detractors. Great players are rewarded with vast wealth and undying fame.
In many ways, religion is like sports. For example, people almost always become fans of a team not through a rational comparison of its merits compared to those of other teams, but through cultural factors such as what region of the country they live in or what teams their family and friends follow. Similarly, most people acquire their religious preferences through cultural indoctrination and circumstantial factors, such as which religion is dominant in the area of the world where they were born.
Religion, like sports, is big business. Both make hundreds of millions of dollars in profit each year, whether from ticket sales and corporate sponsorship or from tithes and pledge drives. Both do a thriving trade in holy relics, be they home-run balls or a saint’s bones; there are frequent legislative proposals to levy taxes on the public for the support of each; and both bestow tremendous, almost unimaginable wealth and luxury on their most prominent and famous figures. The opulent and lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the most famous professional athletes can hardly be matched, unless one turns to the extravagance enjoyed by the world’s most famous preachers.
Religion, like sports, brings a curiously extensible type of fame. Both athletes and theologians are often treated as experts on topics that are completely outside their expertise – athletes endorse commercial products, for example, while religious figures are often treated as authorities on matters of science or politics. In both cases, it is assumed without evidence that the person’s fame in one area somehow makes them trustworthy and authoritative in other fields as well.
Religion, like sports, feeds people’s apparent need to belong, to be part of a group. There seems to be a strong tendency in human psychology to define oneself by one’s allegiances, to create ways to clearly label and categorize and separate oneself and one’s group from the rest of the world. Both religion and sports provide convenient ways to do this. Of course, the one difference in this case is that relatively few people are so devoted to sports as to define their entire identity in terms of their favorite team, whereas this is relatively common in religion.
With religion, as with sports, our society puts a high emphasis – some would undoubtedly say too high an emphasis – on both, spending huge amounts of time, money and interest that could probably be used more profitably by more important activities. Fans and followers can often quote pages of obscure statistical trivia or obscure scriptural verses, even while the majority of people remain abysmally ignorant of scientific and political issues that affect their lives directly. And one’s like of sports is sometimes used as an indicator of patriotism (Mom, baseball and apple pie), and religious commitment is very often used for the same purpose.
And finally, as testament to the seriousness in which they are both taken, both religion and sports lead to violence on occasion. Usually with sports this takes the form of overexcited fans rioting when their team wins, or brawls between fans or players of competing teams. But unlike religion, the violence rarely gets serious. Fans of competing sports teams do not go on jihads or launch inquisitions against each other, nor do they issue edicts declaring that supporting other teams is a grave crime, and it is unheard of for a sports fan to sneak into an opposing team’s stadium to blow himself up in a suicidal act of terrorism. By contrast, fundamentalist believers do all these things and more. And while the idea of Yankees and Red Sox fans, say, waging holy war on each other sounds supremely ridiculous and pointless to our ears, why is it any less ridiculous or any more pointless than it would be for devotees of different invisible gods to do the same?
In reference to the earlier point about the relative emphasis society places on these activities, it is probably no coincidence that so many people are strongly devoted to sports or to religion, while so few follow scientific debates or political negotiations with the same fervor. Sports and religion are both easy to follow; both distill the outside world into a simplified, highlighted, easily understood microcosm. By contrast, issues like science and politics require confronting the real world in all its tangled complexity and messy, difficult ambiguity, and it seems that many people do not have the desire or the motivation to do that.
The major difference between the two, as I see it, is that sports is not harmful in and of itself. There is nothing wrong with entertainment or recreation, and the widespread interest in sports is for the most part a harmless obsession. At their best, sports and athletics instill in us positive values such as teamwork, cooperation, determination, and they show us the highest and most noble things of which the human spirit is capable. (Indeed, a renewed appreciation for good sportsmanship is something our society could use, given the scorched-earth, win-at-any-cost tactics so frequently adopted by the modern religious right.) On the other hand, religion very often is an intrinsically harmful phenomenon, mixing the occasional good moral lesson with incitements to xenophobia, ignorance of the outside world, and prejudice towards those who are different. Most insidiously of all, religion teaches that faith is a commendable way to make decisions, that it is praiseworthy to hold a firm commitment to the unknown and the unobserved and even to value it over real, observable things.