Religion and Sports: an Analytical Comparison

Both religion and sports are major elements of culture in America. Religion is generally seen as a substantial guiding force in people’s lives, while sport is viewed as a less important recreational pursuit. While you would never expect to see “In Shaq We Trust” on a coin, or hear “Griese Bless America” being sung at a patriotic event, many Americans treat religion and sports with similar reverence. But does the American public really hold religion at a higher level of esteem than sports, and how is this illustrated by the similarities and differences between the two?

As a significant component of human society, sport has been the cause of violence between groups of people, just as religion has also had the same effect. In modern times, many people point to the Israel/Palestinian conflict or the violence in Northern Ireland as a situation of substantial religious violence. News reports also tell us about riots following sports events. In Canada, riots follow hockey games, in much of Europe and Latin America, riots spread across cities after soccer games, and many of these riots cause extensive damage to property and injure innocent people (Burstyn 10).

Conversely, sports and religion share the ability to unify a group of people. Just as religions can unite individuals of different races who originate from nations all over the world, so to can sports bring a diverse group of people together. Sports can unite people, provide them with strong feelings of group unity, and provide them with an identity to rally behind (Coakley 22). Fans of sports teams come from different socioeconomic groups, live in geographically separated areas, and work in varied blue-collar and white-collar occupations (Coakley 23).

Religion has numerous historical connections to sport, such as in ancient Greece, where athletic competition was a key element of major religious events. Each Greek city state paid homage to a patron god, and Greek athletes called upon this god in the fierce physical contests of the day (Janson 97). The original Olympic games, which were held in ancient Greece, were filled with references to Greek religion. The games themselves were named for Mount Olympus, the mountain home of the Greek gods (Janson 102). This connection between ancient Greek religion and sport lives on in the modern world; Nike, the name used by an American sports equipment manufacturer, is the one of the names used by Athena, the Greek goddess of victory.

Comparing sports and religion reveals a great deal about people’s attitude toward the two, and author Varda Burstyn illustrates many similarities in her essay, “Sport as a Secular Sacrament.” According to Burstyn, the feeling and identification associated with sports are closer to that of religion than any other practice in human culture (Burstyn 10). Sport is a “secular sacrament,” and the fanfare and ritual that is associated with sport has reached a level which rivals the societal promontory which religion has occupied in societies for thousands of years. These ceremonies, rich with tradition and protocol, have the fundamental purpose of transmitting information about ideal social arrangements (Burstyn 12). They establish rules for action and perpetuate tales of heroic success and abysmal failure, much as religions teach moral lessons through parables and accounts of the distant past.

Religion and sports are compared easily by conflict theorists (those who believe that the elements of a society work against one another in pursuit of supremacy). Religion and sports can both be used similarly by the economically and socially powerful to suppress the working public. Many of the world’s religions teach renunciation of material goods, denial of personal physical pleasures, and intense focus on morality and spiritual salvation. The conflict theorists’ evaluation of religion indicates that its primary purpose is to make the public content with their decreased level of material possessions and more submissive to the authority of powerful leaders (Coakley 29). Sport, when viewed from this same perspective, has a very similar effect. Being spectators of large sporting events takes the public’s minds off of the drudgery that marks their day-to-day lives. Sports also shows them the importance of following rules, and like religion, sport makes the common person more likely to accept the judgments of people with power and influence