Is Sports a Religion, or is Religion a Sport?

Some of this originally appeared on the Chicago Tribune’s “The Seeker” religion blog and in the Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation.

As NBA and NHL seasons enter the playoffs and MLB is heating up, you will inevitably hear more about the influence of religion in sports. All too often we hear that God or Jesus has helped a player hit a home run or the winning shot, or even gets blamed when a player football_player_blames_goddrops the winning touchdown pass. Evangelical organizations like Athletes in Action or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes {no hyperlinks on purpose} push prayer, piety and Bible study before, during and after games and practices, and some churches even encourage praying for the local team!

All of this interconnection raises two questions. First, have sports become a religion? And for those more anthropologically inclined, the reverse question is also interesting: is religion a sport? Maybe it’s not an accident that LeBron James’s nickname is “King James” (like the Bible), given the “messianic” fervor surrounding his team choice, which eventually brought his team to the “Promised Land.”

“Sports is a religion:” Sports have “shrines” and “meccas” to which devotees make pilgrimage. Sports have rituals and curses, and even occasional exorcisms – when the foul ball with which a fan interfered during a Chicago Cubs playoff game in 2003 was sold for over $113,000, the new owner blew it up! Players are superstitious, pray and cross themselves on the field, and thank God for their successes, even if He/She/It almost never gets blamed for a loss. Fans watch games on television thousands of miles away from the real action, yelling and screaming (i.e. praying) as if their words will be heard and the ball will be caught or dropped or “get in the hole!” And fans simultaneously uncover their heads and place their hands on their hearts for the collective ritual.

The best players seek “immortalitbaseballhall8y” and a place in the Hall of Fame, a modern-day Elysian Fields (where the bravest Greek heroes lived forever). Indeed, Halls of Fame collects modern holy relics – instead of fragments of the True Cross or the Western Wall, they display the helmets, jerseys and bloody socks stained by the holy sweat and blood of the martyrs and saints, visited by pilgrims who gaze in wonder. And if the essence of most religions is faith in the face of contradictory evidence, no greater testimony can be offered to sports being a religion than these words: “Chicago Cubs fan optimism.”

On the other hand,

“Religion is a sport”: Is a religious sense of being one of the elect, whether a saving remnant or a Chosen People, another version of chanting “we’re number one, we’re number one”? Do people join religions to feel like they are on an important team, wearing symbols and clothing to feel part of the group?

Root, root, root for the home team

Root, root, root for the home team

If gear-wearing Chicago White Sox fans smile at each other, so too may cross-wearing Christians or kippah-wearing Jews. The collective feeling in an arena parallels that in a mega-church – 10,000 people “rooting” for the same thing, sharing the same goals, singing the same “team songs,” even if they do not make sense any moreAfter all, how many people really look forward to Cracker-Jack at baseball games? Ritual memory replaces muscle memory; the same words and ideas and actions are repeated over and over to create the same performance. And the best clergy are those who perform at the biggest events: High Holidays are rabbinic “prime time,” as Easter and Christmas are the Christian “Super Bowl.” Is calling out “T’kiah” for the shofar that different from “Play Ball!”?

Our challenge as Humanistic Jews is to take the best of both worlds: the enthusiasm and energy that sports evokes, and the personal significance and emotional support that religion provides. Can a Shabbat service compete with a playoff game? Perhaps not yet, but just wait ‘til next year.

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