Soccer and the World Cup as the upcoming functional religion

Soccer may be just a game but some academics see it having the properties of a global religion:

A growing body of scholars see football playing an under-appreciated role as keeper of society’s well-being – providing a sense of identity with an almost religious role…”It provides you with an opportunity to side with your country without being violent to another. So in that way it does replace war,” said David Ranc, a French sociologist who specialises in group identity in football.

“It is a non-violent way of resolving conflict … and taking sides where there is not that much at stake.”…

“Identification with a sports team can provide people with an important identity prop, … a sense of belonging in what would otherwise be an isolated existence,” according to Eric Dunning, a sports sociologist with the University of Leicester…

“The fans of a football team form a community of believers that is characterised by distinctively religious forms of behaviour,” sports sociologist Gunter Gebauer of the Free University of Berlin told AFP…

Football allows people from different social and economic spheres to meet and bond around a common passion, experts said.

 

 

Paging all sociologists of sport – the World Cup is nearly underway. This is a classic “functional religion” argument (a la Durkheim). If you set aside the supernatural aspect of religion, it has several components: rituals (pomp of the World Cup every four years, going to or watching a game), building solidarity (based on a club or national team, gathering with other fans), what is sacred versus profane (the importance of the games versus other aspects of life, elevating certain players). Given the number of people who will be paying attention to the World Cup, this argument makes sense: even religions would have a hard time rallying this many people with such fervor for 32 days.

“Half of American fans say ‘supernatural’ forces are in play during sports events”

Around half of American sports fans, particularly football fans, think that the supernatural influences are at play on the field/court/ice/pitch/playing surface.

“Just ahead of the 2014 Super Bowl, 50 percent of sports fans see some aspect of the supernatural at play in sports, meaning they either pray to God to help their team, have thought their team was cursed at some point in time, or believe that God plays a role in determining the outcome of sporting events,” reports a new survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan, non-profit group based in the nation’s capital.

A fervent 26 percent of the respondents say they have prayed that “for God to help their team”, while an equal number have entertained the notion that their team was “cursed.”…

“Football fans are also more likely than other fans to say they pray for their team (33 percent ), perform pre-game or game-time rituals (25 percent), or to believe that their team has been cursed (31 percent).

White evangelical Protestants (38 percent), white mainline Protestant (33 percent) and minority Protestant (29 percent) sports fans are considerably more likely than Catholic (21 percent) or religiously unaffiliated (15 percent) fans to say they have prayed for their team, the survey found.

A few quick thoughts:

1. America is often regarded as an unusually religious industrialized nation so it is not surprising that this would carry over to sports.

2. This gives credence to the argument that sports might sometimes act as functional religion.

3. Rather than attribute outcomes on the field to the actions of individual players or physics, some fans invoke the supernatural. How else to explain unusual plays or certain outcomes? Does invoking religion is related to the record of a particular team (bad teams are cursed, good teams are provided miracles – mediocre/average teams are supernaturally stagnant)?

Turning Apple’s brand and products into a religion

A new book lays out how Steve Jobs transformed Apple into a religion:

Jobs’ Zen master Kobun Chino told him that he “could keep in touch with his spiritual side while running a business.” So in true Zen fashion, Jobs avoided thinking of technology and spirituality in dualistic terms. But what really set him apart was his ability to educate the public about personal computing in both practical and mythic ways.

The iconography of the Apple computer company, the advertisements, and the device screens of the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad are visual expressions of Jobs’ imaginative marriage of spiritual science and modern technology…

Technology ads provide parables and proverbs for navigating the complexities of the new technological order. They instruct the consumer on how to live the “good life” in the technological age…

Jobs embraced elliptical thinking as a means of promoting technology objects that pose their own paradoxes. In the Apple narrative, the seemingly oppositional notions of assimilation/isolation and freedom/enslavement are resolved by Apple’s invocation of enlightened paradox.

Others have also made this argument: see this 2011 post as well as this 2012 post.  Claiming a brand is like a religion could be an analysis of a secular age (this piece suggests we traded gods for technological progress and consumerism) or it could be a slam against followers who blindly follow a brand (certain brands may inspire higher levels of devotion yet not all inspiring brands are accused of inspiring religious-like followings).

Yet, beyond Apple, wouldn’t most, if not all brands, aspire to this kind of devotion? Religion implies a devoted set of followers who are willing to participate in rituals, of which the most important is buying the new product. Evangelism, telling others about the products and brand, might also be high on this list. Another key is that brand followers and users think they are participating in a transcendent experience.

Equating religion and being a sports fan

A communication professor makes a Durkheimian argument that equates being a sports fan and religion:

Almost precisely a century ago, Emile Durkheim pondered along similar lines. Durkheim, a pioneering sociologist, began digging through accounts of “primitive” cultures like the Arunta tribe of Australia, hoping to excavate the ancient source of ties that bind. His conclusion—as revealed in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life—remains as profound and relevant today as it is elegantly simple: Whenever a society (or, here, sports subculture) worships a divine form, it is, in fact, also simultaneously worshipping itself.

For Durkheim, this all hinged on what he called “the totem.” As he wrote, “On the one hand, [the totem] is the external and tangible form of what we have called the… god. But on the other, it is the symbol of that particular society we call the clan. It is its flag; it is the sign by which each clan distinguishes itself from others, the visible mark of its personality.”…

What totems, therefore, still survive in this culture of ours? The Red Sox. The Packers. The Lakers. And so on. The notion that sports remain our civic religion is truer than we often let on: In fandom, as in religious worship, our social connections are brought to life, in the stands as in the pews. It serves as a reminder of our interconnectedness and dependency; it materially indexes belonging. Like others, I indulge the royal “we” when speaking of my team, though there is little evidence they need me much beyond ticket sales, merchandise, and advertising impressions. Nonetheless, as Durkheim long ago noticed, “Members of each clan try to give themselves the external appearance of their totem … When the totem is a bird, the individuals wear feathers on their heads.” Ravens fans surely understand this.

In short, if you look hard at sports, you can’t help but see contours of religion.

It looks like this researcher recently published a piece in Communication & Sport that involved analyzing some of the Durkheimian features of the behavior of Philadelphia Phillies fans during their 2008 World Series run. However, this is not a new argument. Indeed, from a Durkheimian perspective, lots of social phenomena could take on the functional role of religion in providing people an energy-giving experience, common totems or rituals to rally around, and a sense of cohesion and purpose beyond their individual roles in society. Going back to sports, take, for example, the upcoming spectacle of the Super Bowl. Few other annual events in the United States draw such attention for a short period of time. My undergraduate sociology adviser discussed this back in the 1980s:

The answer, brothers and sisters, appears to be a resounding yes, by the reckoning of James A. Mathisen, a sociologist at Wheaton (Ill.) College. Mathisen, in a scholarly paper presented in Washington at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, argued that the Super Bowl has become “the American spectacle of folk religion . . .the festival of the folk, (celebrating] their faith, their practice and their history.”…

That shift has been accomplished in great measure by the miracle-working power of television and technology, sustaining and spreading the words and deeds of sports figures, Mathisen added. Televised extravaganzas such as the Super Bowl and World Series take on the characteristics of “collective cultic observances,” he said…

“As an American, I simply am expected to be a ‘generic’ sports fan and possibly also have a favorite team or alma mater which becomes a community with which I identify and a clan whose symbols and totems bind me to it,” Mathisen observed. “Being a sports fan is comparable to being religious – it’s a taken-for-granted, American thing to do.”

The attachment or loyalty to a particular team is similar to choosing allegiance to a religious denomination, he continued. Sports also take on the qualities and characteristics of religion in the evocation of tradition and history, Mathisen said.

The halls of fame, for example, “preserve the sacred symbols and memorabilia which encourage us to rehearse the contributions of the saints who have moved on.” Moreover, Mathisen continued, the copiously kept records of sports function in the same manner as the “sacred writings and the historical accounts of any religious group, providing a timeless, normative guide by which later disciples’ accomplishments are judged.”

Also see this piece from the Los Angeles Times from January 2, 1987.

The “functional religion” of Steve Jobs, Apple

After seeing the response to Steve Jobs’ death, a commentator at the Washington Post looks at some sociological research on Apple and concludes that Jobs was the leader of a religion-like movement:

In a secular age, Apple has become a religion, and Steve Jobs was its high priest.

Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, and that same year, an Eastern Washington University sociologist, Pui-Yan Lam, published a paper titled “May the Force of the Operating System Be With You: Macintosh Devotion as Implicit Religion.” Lam’s research struck close to home, quite literally — her husband has a mini-museum of Apple products in the basement…

And what it stands for, apparently, is more than just gleaming products and easy-to-use operating systems. Lam interviewed Mac fans, studied letters they wrote to trade magazines and scrutinized Mac-related Web sites. She concluded that Mac enthusiasts “adopted from both Eastern and Western religions a social form that emphasized personal spirituality as well as communal experience. The faith of Mac devotees is reflected and strengthened by their efforts in promoting their computer of choice.”…

If that sounds like academic gobbledygook, consider how Apple devotees see the world. Back when Lam’s paper was published, there was a palpable sense of a battle between good and evil. Apple: good. Bill Gates: evil. Apple followers, Lam wrote, pined for a world where “people are judged purely on the basis of their intelligence and their contribution to humanity.” They saw Gates representing a more “profane” world where financial gain was priorities one, two and three.

This is an argument based on the work of Emile Durkheim. The argument is one that can be applied to many things that take on the functions of religion such as providing meaning (Apple vs. other corporations, beauty vs. functionality), participating in common rituals (buying new products), and uniting people around common symbols (talking with other Mac users). For example, some have suggested that the Super Bowl also is a “functional religion”: Americans come together to watch football, united in their patriotic and competitive beliefs while holding parties to watch the game and the commercials. Or baseball can be viewed as a “primitive religious ritual.”

While the comments beneath this story suggest some people think otherwise, this is not necessarily a slam against Apple or Steve Jobs. Durkheim argued that individuals need communal ties and we can find this in a number of places: the relationships formed in religious congregations, team-building activities in the office, and at bars and coffee shops where we try to connect with others during our daily routines. This does not mean Apple was necessarily a “false religion”: of course, we could talk about whether people could or should find ultimate meaning in a brand or products but we could also acknowledge that the social aspects of Apple made it more than just a set of technological product.

Baseball as primitive religious ritual

One common means that sociologists use to gain perspective on social phenomena is to consider what an alien might observe and conclude if they happened to see human social life. Hampton Stevens takes a similar tack at theAtlantic.com to report on baseball as a primitive religious ritual:

Essentially, the religion of baseball is based on the hurling of a small, white orb that represents the sins of believers, and the attempt to expiate those sins by the ritualized touching of three small white squares. Two bands of warrior-priests wage an intricate, highly symbolic battle to see who can cleanse the most of their followers’ sins.

Each sect has a high priest. He stands elevated atop a circular mound at the very heart of the temple, the sanctum sanctorum of, beneath which are buried his ancestors and martyrs to the faith. Hurling the white sphere, he thus symbolically accuses the entire community of some great wrongdoing, challenging them to defend themselves and their sacred honor.

A cleric from the opposing clan does just that. He holds a weapon, offering a defense by trying to strike the orb in the hopes of being allowed to progress through the series of small white squares and therefore disprove the accusation.

While this may seem like a silly essay, it has value:

1. It is always useful to be reminded how others view practices that we think of as “normal.” Whether the others are aliens or people from different cultures, it is a reminder that what is obvious to us may not be obvious to others. Indeed, social life is made of up of norms and rules that one must learn starting at a young age.

2. Sporting events can be thought of on religious terms. While I have joked that being a Cubs fan is almost like having another religion because of the amount of faith it requires, sports in American society can be analyzed as “functional religion.” Particularly with an event like the Super Bowl, the amount of attention, time, and money spent on sports is astounding. We gather in stadiums/”hallowed grounds” to lustily cheer on our “good” team versus the “evil” team from another place. We might even go so far as to suggest that it may be possible that more Americans pay more attention to sports than they do to religion.