If Sports Fandom Is Just a Cultural Trait, Why Isn’t Religion?

If Sports Fandom Is Just a Cultural Trait, Why Isn’t Religion? January 29, 2016

Lifelong fans of the Mariners baseball team would be Red Sox fans if they’d grown up in Boston instead of Seattle. Tarheels fans would be Trojans fans if they had gone to USC instead of UNC. People who eat Frosted Flakes for breakfast would likely prefer fermented soybeans (natto) if they grew up in Japan instead of the U.S.

And believers who think that the truth of Christianity is obvious might think that about Islam if they grew up in Morocco or Afghanistan instead of Mississippi or Alabama.

Begging the pardon of sports fans, there is no objective measure that makes their home team the only valid one, with all others being poor imitations of the real thing. The same is true for religion.

Think of the similarities between religion and sports. Sports fans have rituals. They pray for their team. They proselytize for it. They feel an us-vs.-them rivalry with opposing fans, which builds their own community. They make pilgrimages to out-of-town games. Their passion for their team often begins in childhood. They wear clothes or headgear that identify them as fans of their team.

Why do people pick the religions that they pick? In fact, most don’t pick. They’re in effect assigned a religion by the randomness of their birth. They take on the religion of their parents or their community, like any other cultural trait such as customary food, dress, or etiquette.

Let’s not take this too far, however. Not everyone born in Mississippi is a Christian—atheist theologian Robert M. Price is an example. Not everyone raised as a Christian remains one—I’m an example. Adults can switch religions, though the numbers are tiny. Less than one percent of believers switched in from another religion. What best explains that people tend to take on the religion of their environment?

The atheist view is that all religions are manmade, but they’re sticky elements of culture. People tend to adopt these elements, but you’ll always have some outliers. In a culture where men wear neckties, a few will prefer bow ties. In Seattle where everyone supports the Seahawks football team, a few will be fans of the Cowboys. In a culture where one of the first questions after being introduced to someone new is, “And where do you go to church?” a few will be atheists.

The atheist says that religion is adopted because it’s a dominant cultural trait, not because it’s true.

The Christian view is much tougher to justify. Christians don’t want to discard this correlation because it helps explain why the other guy clings to his religion. Is the fact that there are a billion Muslims strong evidence that Islam is correct? Nope—their belief is just a cultural trait. With over a dozen countries having 98 percent or greater Muslim populations, being Muslim is just what you do when you grow up in a monoculture.

Christians say that Islam, Shinto, Buddhism, Hinduism, and most other religions are cultural traits that are false. But they need to explain why Christianity is actually true even though it looks just like all those false cultural traits.

Seeing religion as nothing more profound or objectively accurate than a cultural trait is the best explanation of the evidence.

Of all things, good sense is the most fairly distributed.
Everyone thinks he is so well supplied with it 
that even those who are the hardest to satisfy in every other respect 
never desire more of it than they already have.
— René Descartes

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 2/27/13.)

Image credit: Keith Parry, flickr, CC

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  • Dannorth

    Do you have the source for the Descartes quote?

    I have seen it attributed to Voltaire and Blaise Pascal and it’s bugging me.

    • Michael Neville

      It comes from Descartes’ Discourse on Method (en Français: Discours de la méthode). The book is best known as the source of the famous quotation Je pense, donc je suis (“I think, therefore I am”) which appeared in Latin as cogito ergo sum in his later book Principles of Philosophy (Principia philosophiae).

    • I don’t, but I see Michael Neville has gentlemanly stepped in.

  • epicurus

    Interestingly, Robert M Price was a Christian at one time, and probably even contributed art for the Wittenberg Door!

    • TheNuszAbides

      he was even a minister iirc, and retains enough of the cultural baggage that he has referred to himself as a ‘Christian Atheist’.

  • KarlUdy

    How do you explain (South) Korea going from 2% Christian to 30% Christian in 1-2 generations if religion is merely a cultural trait?

    • JBrown971

      A change in culture does not mean it is not a cultural trait. We ditched the mullets, jean jackets and big bangs in the 80’s; that doesn’t mean that weren’t cultural traits of that decade.

    • adam

      Indoctrination through Propaganda.

      The same way Germany went Nazi crazy.

    • Rudy R

      The same way indigenous peoples of North and South America. Proceletizing Christians infiltrating other cultures. BobS is not refuting that people change religions.
      Would you disagree that parents don’t decide what religion their children will observe?

    • Greg G.

      1-2 generations from 2%? Pew says the Christian population was at 1% in 1900. That’s more like four generations. Two generations would be the mid 60s when it was somewhere between 8% (1950) and 18% (1970). Most of that growth was Protestant religions but that has leveled off for the past two decades while Catholicism has grown slowly.

      Of course, in the early 50s, the US was involved in a war there and has had a presence ever since. South Korea has adopted capitalism, too, so they have been open to US culture.

      Nearly half of South Korea has no religion so they are not pre-indoctrinated with some other religion.


      So the question becomes “Why are South Koreans now becoming disillusioned by the church?”


    • You don’t like “cultural trait”? What would you prefer? That it’s a fad?

      Or are you saying that a sharp uptick means that Christianity is true? I’d like more of an argument if that’s your point.

      • Rudy R

        And while he’s explaining his argument, maybe he can also explain why American adults who describe themselves as Christians dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years.

      • KarlUdy

        I’m not saying that the changes in South Korea mean anything more than your assessment is rather too blunt. Read through the responses to my question and you will see that people are pointing out that there are all sorts of reasons why the religious composition of a particular group may change (and quickly), as well as why cultural traits may change. The issue is if that is the case, your central point that people are “in effect assigned a religion by the randomness of their birth” does not hold.

        • If your point is that some people opt into their religion as adults, I agree. The latest Pew study says that this is true for about 1% of adults. However, I argue that environment is the largest factor that explains one’s birth.

          When you consider the countries that are 95+% Muslim, I think you’ll agree that a baby born there will very likely become a Muslim, not because Islam is correct but because of their environment.

          MNb recently said that he’s a Detroit Pistons fan IIRC for simply capricious reasons, even though he’s never even been to Detroit. It happens, but that’s unusual.

        • KarlUdy

          In situations where religion is very closely tied to cultural identity, most people usually identify with the religion of their upbringing.

          However, there are several cases where that is quite demonstrably not the case, South Korea in the second half of the 20th century being just one example. You could make an argument about whether Korean cultural ties to Buddhism, Confucianism, or Taoism were strong or weak, but the change is certainly of a different order than 1%.

          Furthermore, in most Western countries today, cultural ties to religion are very weak, whereas the same is not true in all other countries, where eg it is common to hear “To be a Turk is to be Muslim.”

          Interestingly, the sports fandoms that run particularly deeply often have religious or cultural identity at their base, eg Celtic/Rangers.

        • Greg G.

          45% of the population of South Korea still has no religion. Show that the people who converted had a cultural religion that they converted away from. Even with that many unaffiliated people, the growth of Christianity has tapered off.

    • Susan

      How do you explain (South) Korea going from 2% Christian to 30% Christian in 1-2 generations?

      First, I would like to see your data. It’s not that I don’t believe you. Just that I would like to know what data we’re addressing.

      if religion is merely a cultural trait?

      What do you mean “merely”? Culture is complicated.

      What are you asking us to explain and how do you explain it?

      • TheNuszAbides

        maybe KU’s just a busy bee, but he seems rather hit’n’run lately.

        • KarlUdy

          Yeah, sorry. I don’t mean to be hit and run, but life gets busy sometimes

      • KarlUdy

        I got my figures from Wikipedia, one from the 40s from memory, and I think the other was from the 80s

    • Aram

      You might this article interesting. You can Google much more about Christian Korea, even find whole books on the phenomenon. There are a whole range of factors in play as to why South Korea is so Christian. Start with this:

    • Aram

      And I much more detailed history for your viewing pleasure.

    • smrnda

      We could also ask how baseball became popular in Japan or cricket became popular in India. Those sports came to be bigger than many traditional Japanese/Indian sports in, historically, a relatively short time. Cultures can and do change, sometimes rapidly. Yoga comes from India, and has a long history there. In a very short time, yoga has become popular across the globe.

      Food is a cultural trait, but potatoes (imported from the Americas) became a staple of many European cuisines in a relatively short time, along with tomatoes and maize. Chili peppers caused rapid change in Indian food. Curry is now one of the more popular dishes served in the UK, and I’m sure that it’s consumed by many people who are not Asian.

      • Greg G.

        Don’t forget about chocolate.

        • smrnda

          Or coffee. Some berry from Ethiopa is now the second most traded commodity after oil.

        • MNb

          Chocolate is the truth. That’s why it became so popular worldwide in such a short time. And the purest truth is to be found in dark chocolate. The darker the chocolate the closer to the truth.
          Don’t mess with chocolate!

        • Greg G.

          I like to give my taste buds a morning workout, going from dark coffee to dark chocolate and back.

        • MNb

          You’re a True Chocolate Fundamentalist.

        • epicurus

          A master of the Dark Arts!

        • InDogITrust

          Can I tell you about my lord and salivary:


          I highly recommend Cocoa Caliente and Spring Awakening bars.
          Alas, they no longer make the Egyptian pistachio and rosewater one.

  • JBrown971

    This discussion is pointless. Simply being culturally influenced has little bearing on truth. If you have two cultures, one which has slaves and one which forbids slaves; both are cultural traits, correct? By your logic either both are wrong or both are right. To claim one cultural trait is superior/inferior requires one to prove that a truth exists across all cultures equally and can be applied to any given cultural trait.

    Hence simply claiming Christianity or religion is false because it is a cultural trait also claims that countries in which secularism dominates yields to the same logic. In order for your argument to hold water, you must prove the existence of one truth in which secularism becomes the sole answer.

    Finally, religion is a system of beliefs that establishes one’s worldview. So please don’t argue that removing religion from a culture is a neutral action. If you remove religion, you must identify which worldview that culture then espouses. In doing so, you must succumb to the logic of your article.

    • Guest

      Nowhere did the author argue that Christianity is false because it’s a cultural trait. He simply pointed out that it IS one, just like other religions.

      • JBrown971

        “The atheist says that religion is adopted because it’s a dominant cultural trait, not because it’s true.”

        What would that indicate?

        • adam

          That it is ADOPTED because it is dominant.

        • MNb

          Exactly what it says – the answer whether a religion is true or false doesn’t determine which religion a believer – like you – adheres to.

        • Michael Neville

          It indicates that people are religious because their culture promotes religion.

          The best indicator of what religion a person belongs to is the religion of their parents. If your parents were Baptists then you’re most likely to be a Baptist. If your parents were Sunni Muslims then you’re most likely to be a Sunny Muslim. Guess what religion the parents of the vast majority of Hindus were.

        • adam

          ” Guess what religion the parents of the vast majority of Hindus were.”


          Isnt Jesus ALWAYS the answer?

        • Michael Neville

          Oh you were so close but sorry, that’s not the correct answer. We have some lovely gifts for you on your way out.

        • Greg G.

          A rental car company lets you pick the car you want. I chose one because it had more leg-room, not because it’s blue.

          That doesn’t say whether I chose a blue car or a different one.

          The sentence you complaining about could have “or false” at the end without changing the meaning and it still doesn’t imply whether the religion is either.

    • Simply being culturally influenced has little bearing on truth.

      Why bring up truth? I’m simply noting that some things are common across pretty much all cultures (murder is wrong) while others are specific to culture (like religious and sports allegiance).

      If you have two cultures, one which has slaves and one which forbids slaves; both are cultural traits, correct? By your logic either both are wrong or both are right.

      I don’t think so.

      To claim one cultural trait is superior/inferior requires one to prove that a truth exists across all cultures equally and can be applied to any given cultural trait.

      Nope. If this is not a moral trait, then I don’t know what you’re talking about. If it is, then I’ve seen no evidence that objective morality exists. Instead, we argue and debate if we want some moral aspect (from someone’s moral opinion to a law) changed.

      Hence simply claiming Christianity or religion is false because it is a cultural trait

      I think it is false, but not for this reason.

      That Christianity is a cultural trait helps people see that it’s manmade, not handed down from heaven.

      In order for your argument to hold water, you must prove the existence of one truth in which secularism becomes the sole answer.

      I see no absolute/objective answer(s) to moral issues. I argue for secularism because it’s a better organizing principle for society and government. You may have other opinions.

      don’t argue that removing religion from a culture is a neutral action.

      I never said otherwise. But anyway, I propose no action that would remove religion from culture (except mind broadening, of course).

    • TheNuszAbides

      This discussion is pointless.

      it’s unfortunate that you leap so readily to that ‘assessment’ rather than entertain the possibility that your imagination or critical faculties could be found wanting.

      Simply being culturally influenced has little bearing on truth.


      By your logic either both are wrong or both are right.

      that would indeed be ridiculous; unfortunately, what is actually in front of us (and ridiculous) is your pretense of following logic.

  • MNb

    I’m a Detroit Pistons fan and I’ve never been in Detroit.
    But I just like to be contrary.

    “Begging the pardon of sports fans, there is no objective measure that makes their home team the only valid one.”
    For me that’s exactly the fun of it. When arguing that my favourites are the best ever the worse the arguments, the bigger the logical fallacies the more fun!
    Maybe apologists should take their religion a bit less seriously too. Oh wait – pastafarians already do.

    • MR

      Begging the pardon of sports fans:

      I just think that sports are stupid, and anyone who likes them is just a lesser person and has a small intellect.” –Amy Schumer

      I mean…, I just…, I mean, basically I agree…. Present company excepted, MNb.

      • MNb

        “has a small intellect”
        Possibly with the exception of brain games sports is not about intellect, so she has partly a point. I think it rather gets in the way, unless you make a serious effort to formulate bad arguments.
        My point is simply that I am more than only intellect.

        • MR

          Don’t take me too seriously on this one, MNb. I was just having a little fun dig at sports. It has its value, after all, like, remember when the Raiders beat the Titans in ’04? No, no, of course you don’t, because it meant nothing and it all just blends into one big, sporty wank fest that has no real value whatsoever other than to keep people off the streets on weekends.


        • MNb

          That’s my point – why we shouldn’t take sports too seriously! Still I remember damn well May 21st 1975, though I don’t expect you to. See, I totally can answer that last Peanut question …..

        • KarlUdy

          May 21, or June 21?

        • MNb

          Definitely May 21st. I have no idea what happened on June 21st.

        • KarlUdy

          You got me then. I’m curious, what happened on May 21, 1975?

        • MNb
        • KarlUdy

          High point for your team. Must be a bit bittersweet.

        • MNb

          High point?! Bittersweet???! It was a disaster! An apocalypse! I was 11. We had done very well on the first leg. We had one of the best defences in entire Europe. So I was anticipating our first major price. There I sat in front of the TV, Wednesday afternoon. Then losing like this! And to rub it in a bit more, my hero Epi Drost scored one of the most beautiful goals in his career – to exactly zero avail.
          You can believe me, I know exactly “how the other team did feel”, to quote the Peanuts.

        • Bread and circuses were said to be the only cares of the decadent Romans.

        • Greg G.

          See how far we’ve come? Now we have tailgating with either football or auto racing. Even theaters and popcorn.

        • MR


          Fix your opinions, and exercise yourself in them. No; but you go hence to the theater, to the gladiators, to the walks, to the circus; then hither again, then back again–just the same persons all the while. No good habit, no criticism, no scrutiny of yourself…. If this is not yet your case, flee from your former habits; flee from the crowd if you intend to begin to be somebody. –Epictetus


          Baseball is an interminable game played by overgrown boys who have nothing better to do for the amusement of loafers who have nothing to do at all. –Oxford Essential Guide to Writing

        • epicurus

          Growing up in the 70’s I was a Minnesota Vikings fan. Four trips to the Superbowl, four losses. Caution: SEVERE CHOKING HAZARD!

        • InDogITrust

          That cartoon had a greater impact on me than any bible verse. It taught me empathy.
          It also made me the last kid to get picked for sports teams because somehow it made me immune to becoming personally invested in sports and games, so I only played for fun. I still remember some girl in junior high screaming at me “Don’t you care about being a loser?!!! “A loser in softball? Why would I care about that?”

        • RichardSRussell

          That may be true of some sports, but anybody who’s ever seen a 3-inch-thick NFL playbook understands that you can’t be a dummy to play the game. It’s also the only sport where they build in thinking time before every play. (I know it sounds all snuggly and lovey-dovey because they call it a “huddle”, but it’s really quite an intellectual exercise.)

        • MNb

          I’m talking about fandom, not about doing the sports itself. I have tremendous respect for athletes, even when I don’t like the sports themselves, like handegg.

        • smrnda

          Though some people do protest that it’s a misuse of the intellect, but you could make the same comment about chess or D and D. What games people play is a personal preference.

        • Are Dutch people mad for football too (on average)?

        • MNb

          Pictures sometimes say more than words:


        • Wow, they sure love their orange.

  • L.Long

    You take a cup of culture, add 3lbs of traDITiiiooooon!!! mix well with 10lbs of steroids, 25oz of egocentric I SAY SO, 3 bags of bigotry, 12lbs of hate, 1lb of terrifying fear, and add a pinch of GAWD says so….bake at 400degs and you get ….RELIGION!!!!!!
    This can be flavored with intolerance and violence.

    • adam

      “This can be flavored with intolerance and violence.”

      But you still can’t do anything about the stink.

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

      I’m pretty sure that the hate measure is tons, not pounds…

  • RichardSRussell

    The parallels between religion and sports go even further than you list, Bob. We both have our sacraments (chips and beer for us football fans), our responsive chants, our music, our vestments and funny hats, our little shrines (mine is 54″ on the diagonal), our saints (Lambeau and Lombardi) and prophets (Starr, Favre, and Rodgers), our evangelists (essentially the whole state of Wisconsin), and so on. Unlike Christians, we know there’s a Promised Land, because the Packers have been there 5 times already (won 4 of ’em, too). And you’ll have to excuse us if we get a tad snooty comparing ourselves to Christians, because the Bible says that only 144,000 people will get into heaven, whereas Lambeau Field, with a capacity of 80,978, is far more exclusive.

    The analogy does break down eventually, however. No matter how much the Bears suck, we’ve never waged a holy war with their fans or tried to barbecue them when they drive up north here to “Illinois’s biggest state park”.

    • MNb

      There are no handegg hooligans? My respect.

    • Greg G.

      “Illinois’s biggest state park”

      I was working in Chicago last year. On one day off, I drove to Milwaukee for lunch just to say I’d been to the state and cross it off the list of states I’ve never been to.

      • RichardSRussell

        Frankly, if it weren’t for the Packers, nobody in Chicago would ever take Wisconsin seriously.

  • Technically, a religion could be true without that being the reason for most people to believe in it. Of course, this “truth” would have to be demonstrated with different means (some Christians have stated the success of Christianity is evidence it’s true-appeal to majority, anyone?). In any case, pointing out why most people do believe takes away a lot of its cachet.

    • Sheila Warner

      I see it the opposite way–majority appeal doesn’t prove truthfulness. After all, there are billions of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Plenty of majority appeal there, in the countries where those are practiced, but huge differences in the theologians’ interpretations of them. Diametrically opposing “facts” cannot be true simultaneously. I searched for decades for the “correct” religion. It’s why I just stopped believing altogether.

      • Of course, I agree. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear from the post.

  • rascal barquecat

    “Let’s not take this too far, however. Not everyone born in Mississippi is a Christian…”
    Not everyone living in Atlanta is a Falcons fan, either, not even everyone born there.

    • Sheila Warner

      Is that because the Falcons don’t win very often???? j/k

  • Sheila Warner

    I think one step on my journey into atheism was the realization that I was imprinted as a child to be a Christian. I came to this realization after listening to some atheists on some blog somewhere. I don’t even remember where. But, I used to visit atheist sites from time to time as a way to challenge my own beliefs. I tired of echo chambers because I wasn’t learning others’ way of thinking. I love opinions of others. My favorite part of a publication is the opinion page. I love the interactive panels on political and news shows. I bounce around the channel, viewing various networks and cable news shows. What good is a brain if it isn’t challenged?

    • Otto

      When I was a kid I though how lucky I was to be born in the right religion…lol.

      My cognitive dissonance hit when I realized other people would be punished for being unlucky.

      • MR

        A reason the hairs on the back of my neck go up when I hear apologists talking about how humble Christ makes them, yet somehow they are special enough to receive God’s revelation over the billions of other people on the planet who weren’t lucky enough be born in a fill-in-your-preferred-religion community. “Christ humbles me, but I am special; I am special!”

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          “christ humbles me about *how* special I am” ?? 😉

        • MR

          I’m echoing a line from The Fantasticks. 😉

  • MNb

    Off topic: a book I (and you) might want to read.


  • Greg G.