Is Sport a Religion?

I can’t imagine that this is a new observation, but according to Nigel Barber at The Human Beast,

Psychologists are closing in on the conclusion that sport has many of the same effects on spectators as religion does. Here is Daniel Wann [2001], a leading sport psychologist at Murray State University, and his co-authors: “The similarities between sport fandom and organized religion are striking. Consider the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration.”

So, is sport a religion?  The answer to that question could only be resolved, if at all, after some haggling over what one means by “sport” and “religion.”  In any case, there is something compelling about the comparison.  Myself, I’m inclined to think that there is something mystical and quasi-spiritual about baseball, but I can see how, especially this month, others might be more inclined to see adumbrations of the holy in World Cup Soccer (Football, Futbol, whatever).  As it turns out, meditations on the spirituality of soccer abound.

At the TimesOnline, Matthew Syed explores the psychological benefits of belief for players in “The Players with God on Their Side.” He concludes,

… if Ali [the boxer] is praying to Allah and Edwards [a triple jumper] to Jehovah, and if these two men believe in contradictory theologies, and if both are reaping benefits, it must be the belief itself, not its truth, that matters. These insights explain, I think, at least in part, the pervasiveness of religion at this World Cup. It is less a matter of theology than psychology. Belief in God can give an athlete, a team, a crucial edge in the cauldron of competition, where success and failure are measured in fractions.

Preston Davis at Religion Dispatches explores “Soccer and the Sublime in the Shadow of Apartheid” eloquently reflecting on the themes of grace, incarnation, beauty, and justice.  He soberly reflects on what the game can and cannot do, concluding that World Cup soccer,

like religion, possesses a beauty that humanizes. It does not whitewash tragedy but it does provide transcendence from it, and at its best meaning-making for it. It mysteriously wields us together and separates us all at once. We place our hopes in the efforts of 11 men on a pitch, competing against an opposing 11, and in the end we are thankful just to be a part of the experience.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, each essay contains enough links to keep you busy for the better part of the morning.

65 thoughts on “Is Sport a Religion?

  1. Like fandom of any sort (arts, science, history), sports fan culture functions as and consists of participatory behavior akin to religion.

    The ritualistic aspect of attending or watch games, feeling heightened joy or despair based on the outcome of those games, and the communal aspect of experiencing athletic competition is similar to religious worship.

    In the case of American football, though, where there is a strong positive correlation between the fervor of athletics and religion, then it’s not that sports is religion as much as it mirrors religion.

  2. yeah i could see how you would make the argument that sport is like a religion.
    it is evident particularly when you have devoted ritualistic ways of watching games as sittingpugs said.additionally,when you observe diehard fans who ride the rollercoaster of emotions associated with following the season of their favorite sports team, it seems like a pretty convincing argument that sport is similar to religion.
    the only thing that i would say would be missing from making sport a religion is a set of morals or a belief system other than a loyal fan following.

    1. The morals or beliefs would, to some extent, fall under the officiating crew’s job description, wouldn’t it?

      But because the definitions of what is and is not sportsmanlike conduct changes as the rules of game-play change, the Rule Book is more like a country’s constitution than a holy text. Moreover, holy texts are interpreted differently based on denomination. The rule book of X sport for Y season won’t be as open to interpretation. If your foot is out of bounds, it’s out of bounds. The consequences of an out-of-bounds foot does not vary from case to case.

      I’m probably over-thinking it, but there are league rules and game-play rules. There’s the athlete on the field and off the field. Sure, when your competing against another team or player, you are free to exercise a degree of sanctioned violence. Even as a spectator and not a participant, you can justifiably get swept up in the vicariously lived through excitement of the athletes.

      You want to shout and curse and flail your arms about? Go ahead. Once the game is over, however, you must return to your “normal” self.

      A devoted follower of a religion, on the other hand, may not necessarily wish to keep their worshiping self separate from their “normal” self.

  3. Well, everyone has idols and things they worship. T.V., computer, cell phones, general technology, music, art, a person, a star, an artist… an athlete.
    Anything can become a “religion” with enough devotion, time, and obsession.

  4. football and basketball sure are idols of their own here in oklahoma. heck, you should see how worked up we all were over the potential disappearance of the big 12 conference. heads were about to roll.

  5. I would say that ‘Cricket’ is a religion in India, the same as ‘Soccer’ is a religion in Brazil.

    I guess US do not have that 1 game which could be called a religion. It could be the same with European nations. A few African nations could lay claim to ‘Soccer’ being a religion.

  6. Considering that there probably are more people watching football on Sundays than in church–and that they’re paying closer attention–then in some ways sport is a religion.
    On the other hand, considering the competitive nature of various Christians, perhaps religion is a sport.

  7. I think specially football is a religion. Devotion, veneration and mysticism are common words to both areas of human existence.

    But there’s a word that can’t be supported by football: transcendence (“trascendencia”, in my language). Maybe, this is only a possibility for starring, not for “believers”…

    Excellent post

  8. to me its not even a question, sports is a religion. Communities meet on a regular basis to express and gain hope, inspiration, and a sense of belonging. They also meet to sing and have one local leader show them how to act. Sports has a hierarchy of organization, heroes to be emulated, and iconic symbols representing various thoughts and loyalties. Sports is by far the most attractive religion.

  9. Most sports, especiall football, have been converted from their original purpose to become all about money and aggression. There are times in history where this has happened with religion too.
    Football is not a religion but a substitute. Football is competitive. Religion is the opposite. It’s about Grace and Universal Love. Football is about belonging to a tribe. Religion in it’s purest form is about including everyone under an umbrella of Love.

    1. It actually depends on the religion. In most Christian religions believe in Universal love. But Some Norse religions believed in violence and war. And others believe in seclusion and pride in one’s nation. Some don’t even believe in equality, but a system of rules that puts on in a certain place in religious society. It all depends on your culture…

      So sports can be a religion, even if it is a competitive one. People serve he God they choose, it has many Gods just like some Greek religions.

  10. Yes, football could be called a ‘religion’, but God is still so beyond it. ‘Religion’ is a box that we put God in, guess what? He doesn’t sit in boxes.

  11. “…a leading sport psychologist at Murray State University…”

    what does someone from murray state know about athletics? they couldn’t get someone from auburn or florida, duke or north carolina?

  12. Sports can definitely be a religious experience. Think about all of the things we do or have done to “help” our team win. We wear a certain jersey because it’s our “lucky” shirt or we don’t wash it while our team is winning…some pretty disgusting things we justify. It’s almost like we think our good works will save us and give our team a win. Definitely a lot of ironies between sport and religion. Good thoughts.

  13. The Meaning of the Religion
    is the way of life u follow.

    Practice some Sport can established some
    good rules in your life. Like Work in team, Leadership, the passion for competence
    and the list can be extended.

  14. Both religion and sports are escapism and make people think their lives are more important than they really are. So yes, they are the same thing. And they are also both about money and power, BTW.

  15. As you noted above, it depends on how the key terms are defined.

    Some years ago, one of my colleagues (a religion professor) argued that religion is to be regarded as what is of utmost importance to a person. He then went on to argue that sports (specifically football) could qualify as a religion.

    Religion is also often taken as requiring some supernatural elements as well. Sports fans do often seem to buy into this-at least in the form of luck. This might just be a necessary condition for religions, though.

  16. For some, sport is definitely a religion. Perhaps more accurately, winning is their religion. That could explain why some players and fans think nothing of the “gamesmanship” (cheating) that goes on in sport – it’s all for the higher glory of winning.

    For me, I love sport immensely, but it’s secondary to my religion. I want my teams to win, but not at all costs. Even if I weren’t religious, I’d at least want my teams to win with class.

    Doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy an exciting game more than a less-than-inspired sermon. But then, sport is for enjoyment, while religion is about what you put up with for God.

  17. Living in Chicago and watching the 2.5 million Hawks fans gather to watch the players parade down the aisle (oops i mean streets) and hear the players express their gratitude to the worshippers (woops I mean fans) from the altar (woops I mean the stage)….. Yes, I firmly believe that sport is a religion

  18. Every human being has been created to worship, that is to devote onself to the adoration to an object of affetion. Yes, sports are fascinating and we at times can become so confuse on that one. Yeah, it is like a religion, sports, tradition in the sence on the word. But if you take the another translation of the word RELIGION which means RELATIONSHIP, re-conect to God, then that would be an creepy asumption. Since God is God, Sports are sports. When everything is in the right place in the hearts, then all else is well. Keep the first thing first. Otherwise, why God should invent something so fascinating as Soccer, He tought of it! He loves it. That’s one you can count on.
    ~Great Love to You,
    Mirian from peelingtheorange.

    pd: My favorites? Argentina and Brasil. word! “)

    1. People can make their own Gods. In Greek culture people had their own Gods from the ones Christians do. Muslims call him Allah. Other call one of Him Ra. Some call Him Jehovah, and some might call him Michael Jordan or Obama…some might even call him Christ Jesus, and others call him Satan. It’s just important to know the name of the God that you serve, because anything can become a God. Everyone has different beliefs on who the creator is.

      Yet, again, Sports could be a religion and the form of creation to some people.

  19. If religion consists of the belief in the salvation of an eternal afterlife, then sport fandom consists of the eternal belief in salvation in this life. (Where the latter salvation is, of course, their team winning.)

  20. Yes I would say so, Some twenty years ago I walked into Cleveland stadium. A cathedral like atmosphere , Gladiator Music Playing . Man better then Me competing in a sport as honest as any Church.
    Ceremonial wardrobes, Chanting ,and Heroes. Men do need Heroes.
    Some books tell us lack of mythical Heroes Will be the downfall of amarican men.
    Giant like men that achieve Righteous dream by the tip of a sword or the power of thought can make us better men.Yes our modern day Gladiators.
    From the odyssey to brothers Grimm men need Heroes

  21. Sports are like religions.

    When you have followers, you will have fans.

    When fans become arrogant, there become fanatics.

    When there are fanatics, there will be problems.

  22. having travelled every continent except Antartica I can tell you this, I do not know if a sport can be called a religion throughout the world, but “futbol” sure is.

  23. I wouldn’t say its a religion but I will say that it is so well integrated into the culture of these countries that it is secondary only to religion.

    What can bring people together, rip them apart and bring them back together again? :D

  24. Great post and an interesting topic.

    Sport is definitely treated like a religion by many. A commentator will remark that the star quarterback is the ‘savior’ of the team. Just before a tough match, a World Champion will kneel for a quick moment of prayer. But of all the Hail Mary plays in professional sports, the one illustration I think most captures my heart is that of the fan asking for divine assistance in winning the big game (I’ve definitely done that myself as a Seattle Mariners fan!).

    Between the miracle comebacks and worship of athletes, it’s no wonder they say sport has many of the same effects on spectators as religion.


  25. each sport has a strong following of devoted fans who will tell you if you asked that their sport is very much so a religion!!!!

  26. Well put. I guess if sport fills a void (like religion is intended to do), then it’s just a measure of the dedication you put into it.

  27. I just dont get sport…

    Even though as a guy, I’m supposed to grab my crotch, yell and scream like a madman, yell “Smash ‘im” and multiple other obscenities , get blind drunk and pick a fight over a woman in a pub.

    Franly I couldnt think of worse way to spend my time…..

    And yes, I prefer women….

    Any ideas? Maybe the neanderthal bit of my DNA was omitted? Who knows….

    But yes – sport IS a religion.

  28. Well, certainly in some countries football could be likened to a religion, what they both provide is a sense of community. I think that is what people respond to…

  29. People serve who they want to. Sports, Twilight, Justin Bieber, and money could be sources of religions! ;)

  30. uh… hm.. sport is not a religion… but it has a connection with religion..
    for example, the outfits, time,
    relationship, the ways their play…

    as i knew, in Islam, it is illegal to wear any outfits that expose the aurat and yet, most of sport outfits do not close the aurat.

    the time of the game always be on the time for praying… and it collide. but of course, who want the gane to stop for a while??

    relationship between the player, coach, and fans.. there’s a limit but people nowdays said that the limit just out off date.. old style.. so, now more and more illegal relationship happen, right?

    sometimes… no.. not some times but most of the times, people become to fanatic with the game.. and very eager to win a game.. so, there’s no doubt that not all game were clean….

    just leave comment…..

  31. It sound similarity in the sense that many people worship, believe and trust to their idol player. But in everything,we do, God is the source of all power.

  32. Great comments and links. Glad this spurred some interest and thought. Here’s something on the lighter side that is very funny. The British comedy duo Mitchell and Webb lampooning the way fans identify with their teams
    (h/t: Luke Bailey):

  33. To an a range I can say yes sport is a religion because many people worship it .So what soever one worship become a god to him or her.

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