IS SPORT REPLACING RELIGION? IS THIS A GOOD THING? Part 2

By Jim Harding

In my last column I asked whether the fixation with winning gold and in particular hockey gold, was in the best spirit of the Sochi Olympics. This relates to a bigger question about what kind of role we want sports to play in upcoming generations.

I am no stranger to sports and don’t judge it from the outside. I played competitive hockey, football and baseball and university level track and basketball. I was a certified basketball referee and coached this sport in Regina’s Church League and YMCA for years.

There are many reasons why people enter sports; I was motivated in part by a desire to overcome childhood asthma. I was raised on the ethic that sport develops social as well as physical skills and is good for character. But it wasn’t any more important than other activities, such as the arts. I was also raised to believe that sports can be inclusive and help build a broader sense of community. There were people in high school that excelled in drama but couldn’t shoot a free throw. There were also those who could shoot a puck but would freeze up in a debater’s competition.

When I grew up any kid who came back to the elementary school grounds after supper was picked to play in scrub baseball. Playing together was more important than winning. At higher levels, sport can teach a lot about ego, pride and shame.  It can teach you to not identify too much with winning and to respect the game, including the referees as well as the competitors, especially when they’ve won. Without all of this there would be no game to celebrate. Winning at any cost was not generally promoted, though I had one coach from the U.S. who encouraged us to intentionally foul and try to hurt our skilled opponents. Luckily he was dropped by the next year.

SPORTS AND NATIONALISM

But something is changing. Sport is starting to take on a much greater cultural and national role. It may even be starting to replace religion. And what does that say about both sport and religion? Is sport taking on such an inflated role that it could make us even more dysfunctional in meeting our global challenges?

Certainly sports can bring humanity closer together. But to do this do we need to spend $52 billion at an average of nearly $19 million dollars for each of the 2,800 athletes who competed at Sochi? We know that previous civilizations used sports to engender military patriotism. But is it a good thing that Harper is following in this ancient, pre-democratic tradition? The mass media also privileges hockey as a national religion, although in places like Saskatchewan where there’s no professional hockey, we see how popular the U.S.’s favourite sport, football, can become. But is this Rider Pride just great public fun? Is it yet another version of popular culture? Or is something else happening?

RESEARCH ON FANS

Writing in the November 11, 2009 issue of Psychology Today, evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber noted that sports can have strikingly similar effects on spectators as religion does. Even the vocabularies converge: devotion, faith, dedication, commitment and sacrifice are in sports too. Fans gather in mass arenas to support, even worship their heroes. Clothing, flags and mascots are marshaled in the service of this special collective identity. Anthems can function somewhat as do hymns and the stadium can seem like a cathedral of believers.

Surely such “worshipping” of team victory can’t be compared to the worship of a creator. Yet as church attendance steadily declines, as churches close and congregations die off, larger and larger stadiums continue to be built. Saskatchewan churches are closing at an unprecedented rate while Regina plans for a multi-million dollar new stadium at huge public debt. Might Rider Nation have more dedicated followers than organized religion?

We know that religious identities, like sports identities, can be very symbolic. People can attend the church of their birth without much existential questioning. People can also be born into Rider Nation. And yet surrendering to either identity can be personally transformative, creating opportunities for fellowship which wouldn’t otherwise exist for some. However, emotional group experience and belonging can also be blinding and impersonal when combined with a compulsive desire to win.

In the January 31, 2014 Washington Post, historian Chris Beneke notes that the number of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated more than doubled in the last two decades, while the number who identity as sports fans has also doubled over the last half century to a majority of 60% of the population. Is this simply the upcoming generations looking for new social allegiances as old ones decline, which goes with the shift from rural to urban and from the religious to the secular?

RELIGION IN SPORTS

Beneke also notes that some religiosity has carried over into sports. We’ve all seen born-again athletes who claim that their victory has to do with them being special in the eyes of their God. God apparently picks teams in much the same way God picked countries in time of war. The Public Religion Research Institute also found that half of American sports fans believe that God played a part in the 2014 Super Bowl game. Some prayed for their team, some believed their team was cursed, some thought God was involved in the outcome. One half of Americans believe God rewards faithful athletes with special health and success.

Apparently sport has already taken on religious proportions south of the border. Evangelicals were most likely to inject their religiosity into sports and then Catholics, with Protestants the least likely to link the two. Some theological undercurrents may be showing here.

But might this shift reflect any positive changes in society? Might the growing allegiance to sports reflect the triumph of our earthly pleasures over “pie in the sky” religion? Or might it perhaps reflect a more accessible way for people to dissociate from the trials of everyday life, much the same way as many did with traditional religion? Some might say that sports celebrations are becoming a lot like pagan rituals; certainly the consumption of alcohol during sports events continues to rise. What might this suggest?

POSITIVE OUTCOMES

It is thankfully becoming less acceptable to proselytize fundamentalist religious views. Perhaps people who value or have need of a “righteous” community are turning to sports. With many adherents of the world’s main religions trying to overcome a sense of there being only one view of “God”, institutional religion may be less attractive to some. Ecumenism is somewhat on the rise but so is evangelicalism. But even with realities like soccer violence, isn’t it better to have the “us-versus-them” identity stronger in sports than religion?

But can mass, global sports contribute to our society becoming more spiritually enriching or more democratic? Possibly, if we look at the brotherhood, sisterhood and solidarity of the Olympic experience of both athletes and audiences!  But mass sports can take us on another tangent, becoming another way to avoid the painful truths about our unequal and at risk world. It can also be an externalized collective identity to be manipulated for political, economic or other purpose: it already is.

Might those who truly mourn the decline of religion, and not just the decline of their partisan church, now have something in common with those who mourn the turning of sports into something like religion? Stranger things will happen in the quest for a sustainable humanity.

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