Religion as Sports







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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://secularplanet.blogspot.com Secular Planet

    I have made similar observations. Here is the relevant paragraph from one of my essays on sports which is no longer available online:

    It is no exaggeration to state that certain sports have become religions in certain parts of the world. College football in the southern United States, college basketball in the Carolinas and Kentucky, ice hockey in Canada, and soccer in most parts of the world. Fans attend public ceremonies, make pilgrimages, worship their heroes, and even drink communion beer. They decorate their bodies, their faces, their children, their homes, and their cars with the colors and symbols of their teams. They have their oracles and scholars and constant access through television, radio, and the internet. They perform inane rituals to ensure their teams win and always find some excuse whenever these rituals fail, as though it were not the will of the sports gods. They make large donations to their alma maters and associate socially with fans of their own teams. They often consider it their divinely-appointed duty to attend games even when they have neither the time nor the money and even when their team loses almost all of their games.

    I suppose that if we must have a religion, sports is not the worst choice. There have been no crusades, inquisitions, witch-burnings, or terrorist attacks associated with sports, only relatively minor incidents of drunken rioting. And it’s still acceptable to marry someone who is the fan of another team and no one will burn in hell for supporting the Los Angeles Clippers. They suffer enough already.

  • Nes

    Nice coincidence, I was just thinking of something along these lines earlier today at work. I live in western Wisconsin, so we’ve got quite a few Vikings fans mixed in with the Packers fans (I’m originally from MN myself, but I have little interest in sports). One of the Vikings fans knows that the assistant manager is a Packers fan, so she likes to cheer “Go Vikings!” to ruffle some feathers, but they’re pretty good sports about things like that.

    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.

    That’s precisely what I thought this morning, though I didn’t continue with the comparison. I just had a chuckle about it and went back to work.

  • Alex Weaver

    I dunno about sports being harmless; I’ve certainly witnessed (and, to my undying regret, narrowly avoided) some fistfights based on sports affinities and that was in Junior High. I can only imagine what those thugs have become as adults…

  • Doug Purdie

    Simple explanation are often the best. And the simplest explanation for our facination with sport is that it satisfies a basic human desire to put our bodies in motion and keep them under control.

  • Alex Weaver

    Simple explanation are often the best. And the simplest explanation for our facination with sport is that it satisfies a basic human desire to put our bodies in motion and keep them under control.

    That doesn’t explain our fascination with watching other people do it.

    And it doesn’t explain why we choose sports instead of sex. ^.^

  • Christopher

    Most popular sports involve hard contact (football, boxing, cage fighting, etc…): a reminder to humanity of his primal nature. We enjoy watching trained proffessionals beat the living tar out of each other because we are hard-wired for violence.

    Sports are a (reletively) safe way for us to exhert or violent passions that we would otherwise turn on each other. Like them or not, they serve a vital function for our species…

  • Ken. F

    I think sports (team sports) are just war without the shooting!

  • Doug Purdie

    Alex,
    It is beautiful to watch as well as fun to do.
    Sports and sex are not mutually exclusive. I choose both, don’t you?

  • Oz

    Just don’t talk badly about the Red Sox. Or I’ll kill you.

    Just kidding.

    Unless you’re a Yankees fan.

  • Pj

    “The major difference between the two, as I see it, is that sports is not harmful in and of itself”
    Not quite sure i personally agree. If one is harmful then so is the other as they both also have similar functionalist aspects. Both support capitalism in these functionalist ways.”Sports and athletics instill in us positive values such as teamwork, cooperation, determination”, these traits, you’ll find, are the traits of capitalism. I’m not saying that all capitalism is evil however it can be harmful and by driving these traits into society in an all be it sub-conscious way supports this movement. Furthermore it masks a class struggle which again is imperative in capitalism. Instead of the “working class” standing up as one they are fighting against each other.
    Religion also has similar concerns in servant of god or servant of the upper class idea. anyway probably taking things too literal but it is food for thought

  • Jack7x

    For most of my adult life I have experienced a type of “cabin fever” when attending events like concerts or sports events. I firmly believe this is the result of being forced to attend Catholic church services everyday and twice on Sunday. When I was about 8 or so, I was sent to live in a Catholic boarding school and of course was inundated with Catholicism.

    Since then, I’ve related any type of crowd attendance activity with going to church. The similarities I see are: a seated crowd with “something” happening up front. Expected behaviour, stand, sit, kneel, pray/cheer,etc.
    The sense of unity that the crowd experienced was uncomfortable to me, like being with a bunch of zombies chanting and howling, jumping up and down depending on what was going on “up front”.

    I can never go to any event such as these without the claustorphobia creeping in on me.

  • http://blogs.pioneerlocal.com/religion Brett

    What about baseball players being seen as experts on religion. Many have a strong faith and use their profile to talk about and evangelize (http://blogs.pioneerlocal.com/religion). Most obvious this week is home run king Hamilton.