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The Function of Sports in Relation to Religion

Posted on: November 15, 2009 1:49 pm
Individual religions lay claim to more or less specific belief systems, traditions, and rules for behavior.  Although there may be overlap to various degrees when considering the morals and values of these groups, the particular ways in which they celebrate or express their convictions are unique.  For example, one religious group might value pilgrimage to a sacred place while another encourages confession of misdeeds within a private chamber, with both of these instances being viewed by their respective assemblies as forms of reaffirmation of a shared faith.  When considering the preceding statement, one must acknowledge the fact that two separate behaviors, which are different in just about every conceivable fashion, resulted in the same functional outcome.  It is in conjunction with this fact, and countless other practical similarities between diverse religious activities, that some intellectuals have come to establish supposed functional properties of religion as a whole.  One of these individuals was Emile Durkheim.
    According to Durkheim, religion consists of “ideas with which [. . .] individuals represent to themselves the society of which they are members” (as cited in Edles and Appelrouth 2005:121).  This implies that religious values are merely a reflection of those beliefs already held by a civilization of people rather than being their determinate.  This would seem to be supported by the fact that a change in the nature of social structure over time can be shown to coincide with a changing of religious belief.  For example, Fasching and Dechant explain that “[t]he world religions emerged in conjunction with the formation of great empires that united peoples of various tribes [. . .] in a larger political unity.  Such [. . .] orders created a need for a new understanding of what it means to be
human” (2001:34).  In essence, group values were altered as populations grew larger and more diverse, and this coincided with a change in individual religious belief.  Continuing down this path, Durkheim believed that “the primary function of religion is to encode the system of relations of the group” and that it “focuses and reaffirms the collective sentiments and ideas that hold the group together” (Edles and Appelrouth 2005:121).  So, this would indicate that religion is simply an externalization and reaffirmation of social ideas which serves to outline common beliefs as to proper group behavior and relations.  After considering this, it is my contention that if one were to accept Durkheim’s functional definition of religion, one might just as easily argue that sports serve a similar function in society.      
    Formally, according to Durkheim, religion “is a system of symbols and rituals about the sacred” (Edles and Appelrouth 2005:121).  From this statement, it can be ascertained that he believes these rituals and symbols share the purpose of reaffirming the ideas that a society holds dear.  Therefore, when making the argument that sports serve a similar function as religion in society, it is important to examine each of these points of discussion.  First, rituals can be defined as sets of actions that are performed repeatedly and in a specific manner.  They can serve to reenact or to commemorate events, and they can bring individuals together in a display of common unity.  Ritual can involve wearing masks or costumes, engaging in heinous or glorious activities, or being elevated to levels beyond one’s own individual capabilities (Durkheim 1912/1995:127-130).  When applying this to what has already been discussed, it becomes apparent that religious ritual consists of repetitive behaviors which serve to commemorate events, people, or beliefs which are reflections of what the group holds dear.  Some examples of this ritualistic behavior are Sunday church service for many Catholics, celebrating Hanukkah for those who practice Judaism, and praying five times each day while facing Mecca for Muslims.   
    It is not a difficult task to see the connection between these types of ritual and the ceremonial behavior prevalent in sports.  For example, many Sundays in the United States, groups of people gather in large congregations (stadiums) to celebrate the game of football.  When this is not possible, or convenient, smaller groups sometimes gather to share in this unity in the convenience of their own homes.  Also, every year, there is a special day in which the culmination of this togetherness is celebrated: the Super Bowl.  Before each game, it is tradition for all those involved to stand for the National Anthem.  It is also common for groups of individuals to paint themselves in team colors, to chant in favor of their team, or to endure cold temperatures in displays of solidarity at these games.  The people who are gathered at these social events are capable of noble acts, such as cheering when a hurt player on an opposing team is able to walk off the field, and they are capable of despicable acts, such as jumping onto the playing surface in order to attack those who are members of an opposing squad.  Regardless of their character, these gatherings and rituals serve to unite individuals in a celebration of common interest and shared belief.  As Durkheim put it: “It is by uttering the same cry, pronouncing the same word, or performing the same gesture in regard to some object that [individuals] become and feel themselves to be in unison” (1912/1995:132).   
    Next, one must consider the significance of symbols in relation to society. Durkheim defines these emblems as things which “stand for something else” and whose depictions “[call] up collective ideas and meanings” (Edles and Appelrouth 2005:122-123).  Essentially, symbols serve to represent and to reinforce the same feelings and beliefs which are prevalent during ritualistic activities, but they are able to do so even in the absence of such ritual because they are not confined to a particular place or time.  Therefore, they are extremely important when considering social unity: As Durkheim states, “without symbols, social sentiments could have only a precarious existence.  Though very strong as long as men are together [. . .], they exist only in the form of recollections after the assembly has ended, and [. . .] the[y] become feebler and feebler” (1912/1995:132).  Again, when applying this to what has been discussed prior, it is clear that religious symbols have the purpose of calling to mind collective beliefs about what is significant within a society.  Examples might include a cross representing Christianity, a Star of David representing Judaism, or a pentagram representing paganism.
    When looking for symbolism in sports, again using the United States as a template, it is unnecessary to search any further than the logos on each team’s uniform.  Patrons can be seen sporting the insignias of the respective clubs they support on jerseys, caps, t-shirts, pants, key chains, stickers, and countless other items which signify their loyalty.  Representing a specific team might be images of birds, swords, land beasts, or even sea creatures.  There are also symbols particular to each sport, both at the professional and at the amateur level.  In addition, individual players are signified by the numbers they wear on the front or the back of their uniforms.  These symbols serve to unite those individuals wearing or viewing them due to the assumption of each individual partaking in said symbolism holding “specific shared ideas” (Edles and Appelrouth 2005:123).       
    Finally, it is important to identify exactly what is considered to be the sacred in this discussion.  The sacred can be defined as “the extraordinary” or “that which is set apart from and ’above and beyond’ the everyday world” (Edles and Appelrouth 2005:123).  In relation to this, Durkheim explains that a god is “a being whom men think of as superior to themselves, and upon whom they feel that they depend” (1912/1995:125).  One way of approaching the sacred when considering religion is by simply stating that it is that which the rituals and symbols discussed prior are related to and seek to reaffirm.  For instance, the holy cross and Sunday church service are related to Christianity while Hanukkah and the Star of David are related to Judaism.  In the functional sense, however, these religious belief systems are external manifestations of shared social belief, or society itself, and it is this belief which is in fact the sacred.  Therefore, gods can be viewed as the supreme deities who are connected to the aforementioned religious groups, or they can be acknowledged as archetypical individuals that exemplify social beliefs in practice.  In accordance with this, Durkheim states that men believe they contain a principle within themselves comparable to that which they hold sacred, although it is to a lesser extent and magnitude (1912/1995:131).  
    When examining the sacred from the perspective of the sports world, one has little trouble identifying similar concepts or figures to those held in esteem by the religious community.  Sports teams are the correlate of religious belief systems.  They have symbols and rituals in their honor, and they are set apart from the common, everyday world.  Sports stars are treated as icons or gods by those who support athletic teams.  This is even more apparent when considering the money they receive for playing or even for
endorsing a random product.   As Durkheim explains, if society “happens to fall in love with a man and if it thinks it has found him in the principle aspirations that move it, as well as the means of satisfying them, this man will be raised above others and, as it were, deified” (1912/1995:129).     
    While a great deal of time has been spent clarifying the ways in which rituals and symbols serve to reaffirm the ideas that a society holds sacred, and defining the externalized forms that these ideas take, one must also consider the content of the beliefs these externalizations promote.  In order to illustrate this point, one might consider the United States in conjunction with the Catholic Church and a generic professional football team.  The United States is a capitalist society in which large groups of workers are subordinated to a few property owners, or individuals who hold the means of production.  There is a very significant division of labor in which people engage in specialized tasks, and these individuals must all work at their tasks in order for a common goal to be accomplished.  Individuality and individual improvement are all encouraged within a concept of bettering the whole, and there are sets of rules, or laws, as to acceptable behavior.  Although these are gross generalizations, they are more or less true, even today, and although they may seem to be the exclusive values of property owners, one might argue along with Marx that “the dominant economic class controls not only a society’s means of material production, but the production of ideas as well” (Edles and Appelrouth 2005:31).  Next, the Catholic Church (which is a prevalent force in the United States) has a small number of leaders to which a rather large congregation is subordinate.  There is specialization with regards to the expectations for an individual within this organization depending upon their rank or position within it, but all must do their part.  Individuality, individual improvement, and the following of religious laws are encouraged.  Finally, in football (which has a large following in the United States), large groups of players are subordinate to a few team owners or coaches, and they follow a detailed rule book.  There is a very specialized division of labor in which individuals engage in specific tasks (quarterback, receiver, etc.), and individuality and improvement are encouraged within the concept of improving the team.  It is apparent that, in this comparison, religion and sport serve as externalizations of the beliefs held by the society in which they exist.  These beliefs are in accepting one’s position, working together, individuality, following the rules, and constantly improving.  These beliefs are not universal, but it is belief of this type which is universally externalized.     
    Religion is often examined in regards to its social function.  Rather than focusing on individual belief systems, people like Emile Durkheim have instead theorized concerning the purpose of religion as a whole.  In particular, he believed that religion is simply an externalization of the common beliefs held by a group of people.  Rituals and symbols were believed to be ways of reaffirming those sacred beliefs.  It is apparent, however, that sports also seem to fulfill this function: Athletic teams are associated with rituals, symbols, and the externalization of common social ideas.  It is my conclusion, therefore, that since sports fulfill a similar function as religion in society, sports can be said to function as a form of religion within a society.     
Durkheim, Emile. 1912/1995. “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.” Pp. 124-134 in
    Sociological Theory in the Classical Era, edited by L.D. Edles and S. Appelrouth.
    Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Edles, Laura D. and Scott Appelrouth. 2005. Sociological Theory in the Classical Era.
    Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Fasching, Darrell J. and Dell Dechant. 2001. Comparative Religious Ethics: A Narrative
    Approach. Maiden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. 

Original material written and produced by Huff, Ryan F.

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