Sports and Religion

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SPORTS AND RELIGION . Throughout human history, sports and religion have been closely linked. Like religion, sports convey important lessons about values and culturally appropriate behavior. The lessons they teach are similar, and both religion and sports use symbols as their primary means of communication. In most of the contemporary world, however, religion and sports occupy separate but complementary conceptual realms. Religion focuses on the idea that, as one anthropologist put it, "there is something more to the world than meets the eye" (Bowen, p. 4). In religion, that "something" is the domain of the divine or of spirit beings; in sport, that "something" is the triumph of the human spirit.

Scholars from a variety of disciplines typically describe religion as operating in the realm of the sacred and as addressing the relationship of human beings to the supernatural or the transcendent. In modern terms, sport is seen as a secular pursuit, concerned with the relationship of human beings to each other. In fact, sport and religion are closely related on a number of levels:

  1. Historically, many sports developed as part of religious festivals;
  2. Sport is often used as a metaphor for religious striving;
  3. Sporting events evoke passionate commitment similar to that of religious festivals;
  4. Religion and sport are symbolic systems that emphasize similar values and goals, including transcendence of limited personal desires in favor of nonmaterial achievements or experiences and an emphasis on cooperation and personal sacrifice for the good of the group;
  5. Both religion and sport convey their message by means of powerful symbols.

Native Americans and Ancient Greeks

The Central American ball game, played by both the Aztec and Maya before the arrival of Spanish conquistadores in the sixteenth century, was associated with the ritual of human sacrifice. Ball courts were commonly located in the temple complex near the racks where skulls of human sacrificial victims were displayed. Players were sacrificed as food for the gods. The divine origins of the ball game are recounted in the Mayan creation myth Popol Vuh, which describes the defeat in a ball game of the underworld gods of sickness and death by the hero twins Hunter (Hun Hunahpu) and Jaguar Deer (Xbalanke). In The Blood of Kings (1986), Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller suggest that, among the Maya, the ritual ball game provided a conquering ruler with a means of validating his reign and a defeated rival with an opportunity to achieve an honorable death.

The four great games of ancient Greecethe Olympian, the Pythian, the Isthmian, and the Nemeanwere associated with worship of the gods. The Olympian games were held in honor of Zeus, ruler of the sky, whose worship was centered on Mount Olympus, also the site of his marriage to Hera. The Pythian games were held at Delphi, the site of Apollo's oracle, and were said to have been established by the god as compensation for his killing of the great serpent Python. The Pythian games eventually came to include both physical and intellectual competitions, including musical, literary, and dramatic events. The stadium at Delphi was also the site of religious rituals.

The Isthmian games, held on the Isthmus of Corinth every second year, included poetic and musical competitions as well as athletic events. According to one legend, the Isthmian games were initiated by the Greek hero Theseus, who slew the Minotaur. Theseus was fabled to be the son of Poseidon, and the Isthmian games were dedicated to this god. The legendary origins of the Nemean games are traced to an event in which an army led by Polynices, a son of Oedipus, slew a serpent that had killed the infant Opheltes (Snake Man). The Nemean games, held in honor of Zeus, also included poetry and music competitions in addition to athletic contests.

Greek athletes were sometimes accorded the status of gods. Theogenes excelled both in boxing and the pankration, a virtually no-holds-barred sport that combined elements of boxing and wrestling. He was the son of a priest at a temple dedicated to Herakles in Thasos, on an island in the Aegean Sea. Theogenes, whose name means "god-born," claimed that he was the son of Herakles rather than the priest. Statues of Theogenes were erected at Olympia, Delphi, and Thasos. By all accounts, Theogenes was an arrogant and unpleasant man who earned the wrath of a number of enemies. During his lifetime his enemies were powerless against him, but after his death, one of them sneaked out at night and flogged his statue at Thasos. The statue fell on the man and killed him. Since the statue was guilty of the man's death, it was taken out to sea and thrown overboard. Soon afterwards, Thasos was plagued by crop failures resulting in famine. A consultation with the oracle at Delphi resulted in the order that Thasians should recall their political exiles. All living political exiles were duly recalled, but the famine continued. Another consultation with the oracle at Delphi produced the reminder that Theogenes remained at large. The statue of the athlete was restored to its base, and the famine ended.

Foot races were part of religious rituals among a number of Native American groups, and there were secret running societies throughout the Americas. Prior to the introduction of the horse by the Spanish, swift runners were important for carrying messages between groups and during times of battle. Within twenty-four hours of the landing of Hernán Cortés (14851547) on the east coast of what is now Mexico in May 1519, local runners had described his ship, men, horses, and guns to Moctezuma (14661520) at Tenochtitlán, 260 miles away. Ceremonial runners among the Mesquakie in Iowa took a vow of celibacy, adhered to strict dietary rules, and dedicated their lives to running. In many cases, runners represented their clans in races and in religious rituals. Zuni runners painted the symbol of their matrilineal clan on their chests and the symbol of their father's clan on their back. The ball was believed to hold magical power that pulled the runner along with it.

The Rarámuri, or Tarahumara (which may be translated as "foot runners"), of the Sierra Madre in Mexico incorporate wrestling matches in their Easter rituals, which are aimed at protecting God and his wife Mary from his evil rival the Devil. The Rarámuri were introduced to Roman Catholicism in the seventeenth century, and their Easter rituals exhibit a syncretism of Christianity and their own religious symbols. Since Rarámuri social life centers on the family, they cannot conceive of God as being a bachelor, because that would consign him to a lower social status. In "God's Saviours in the Sierra Madre" (1983), the anthropologist William L. Merrill states that the idea that Christ died on the cross to redeem the sins of the world makes little sense to the Rarámuri, so they have adapted his strange (to them) story to their own vision of the relationship between God and the Devil, which is that the Devil and his family threaten the well-being of God and his family. Ultimately, though they fight on behalf of God, Merrill suggests, the Rarámuri believe they must appease both God and the Devil.

Christian and Persian Thought

Even where sport is not a part of religious ritual, it is metaphorically linked to religion. The apostle Paul compared religious discipline to sport on several occasions. In his first epistle to the Corinthians he writes, "Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it" (I Cor. 9:24). Later he includes the metaphor of boxing: "I do not run aimlessly," he writes, "I do not box as one beating the air; but I pummel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (I Cor. 9:2627). In summing up his evangelical career, Paul writes, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (II Tm. 4:7).

Sport involves an all-out effort toward achieving an elusive goal. Thus, it is an appropriate metaphor for the spiritual quest or for the often elusive goals of life itself. The Persian poet Nizami (c. 11411203 or 1217) compared life to a polo game: "The Horizon is the boundary of your polo ground, the earth is the ball in the curve of your polo stick. Until the dust of non-existence rises from annihilation, gallop and urge on your steed because the ground is yours."

Hindu Documents

The gveda, perhaps the oldest of Hindu documents, draws on the chariot race as a metaphor for the pursuit of immortality. Hymn 3.31 of the gveda says: "Soon, Indra, make us winners of cows." Winners of chariot races won prizes of cows, whose milk is a symbol of immortality. This verse, which asks "Make us victors among men; make us more like you, O powerful one; and bring us immortality," can be interpreted, and no doubt was intended, to evoke multiple levels of meaning. In the gveda, milk is associated with seed, semen, and rain, all life-giving forms.

The Upaniads are Hindu sacred documents, the oldest of which may date from as early as the sixth century bce. The Mundaka Upaniad urges readers to aim for unity with Brāhma, the creative energy underlying the universe:

Affix to the Upanishad, the bow, incomparable, the sharp arrow of devotional worship; then, with mind absorbed and heart melted in love, draw the arrow and hit the markthe imperishable Brāhma. OM is the bow, the arrow is the individual being, and Brāhma is the target. With a tranquil heart, take aim. Lose thyself in him, even as the arrow is lost in the target.

Though this translation by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester refers to Brāhma as "him," Brāhma has no gender, since it is the source of all being, male and female.

Japan, the United States, and Europe

In the preceding examples, sport is a metaphor for religious striving. However, Zen archery, or kyudo, is a ritual, a religious act. In the Japanese tradition of Zen Buddhism, the object of kyudo is to achieve a balance among mind, body, and bow, which gives rise to a unity that links the spirit to the target. Achieving this balance is more important than hitting the target, though hitting the target is expected to follow naturally from achieving a balance among mind, body, and bow. The ritual includes practicing correct breathing techniques to control the mental and physical forceor ki believed to be centered below the navel. Proper technique ultimately leads to perfect serenity. Zen archery proceeds through eight smoothly executed stages which seem to flow as a single unit. At the sixth stage, the body of the archer is on a line with the target. The name of this stage is kai, or "meeting." Release of the arrow at the seventh stage is seen as an act of volition by the arrow rather than the archer:

Like a heavy drop of water that decides to be free, the arrow liberates itself.

The term for the seventh stage is hanare, or "release." At this point, it is believed that there is an explosion of energy flowing through the body of the archer.

The martial art of kung fu was believed to have been developed by the Bodhidharma (d. c. 530), the legendary founder of Zen (Chan) Buddhism at the Shaolin Monastery in China. It is said that the Bodhidharma meditated for long hours in a cave and developed kung fu as a means of keeping his body flexible after long, motionless meditation.

In his book Mountaineering Essays (1980), John Muir (18381914) describes his explorations with religious fervor, often using religious terminology. He writes of Cathedral Rock in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains:

No feature, however, of all the noble landscape as seen from her seems more wonderful than the Cathedral itself, a temple displaying Nature's best masonry and sermons in stones. How often I have gazed at it from the tops of hills and ridges, and through openings in the forests on my many short excursions, devoutly wondering, admiring, longing! This I may say is the first time I have been at church in California, led here at last, every door graciously opened for the poor lonely worshiper. In our best times everything turns into a religion, all the world seems a church and the mountains altars. And lo, here at last in front of the Cathedral is blessed cassiope, ringing her thousands of sweet-toned bells, the sweetest church music I ever enjoyed. (p. 19)

This passage is comparable in religious fervor to writings of such mystics as Teresa of Ávila (15151582), who describes her feelings after a vision in which she was cautioned against her longing to escape city life for meditation in the desert:

Here suddenly came upon me a recollection with an interior light so great it seemed I was in another world. And my spirit found within itself a very delightful forest and garden, so delightful it made me recall what is said in the Song of Songs: Veniat dilectus meus in hortum suum. (From Song of Solomon 5:1: I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse.)

Modern Sports

In his book From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports (1978), Allen Guttmann describes the secularization of sport as though it were a fall from grace. When it had its original close link to religion, Guttmann suggests, sport was a meaningful enterprise that upheld the noblest ideals of a group and was integral to other activities of the group. Modern sports, Guttmann writes, have become centered on the quest for quantification in the form of setting distance or other records and evaluating performance in terms of statistical data:

The bond between the secular and the sacred has been broken, the attachment to the realm of the transcendent has been severed. Modern sports are activities partly pursued for their own sake, partly for other ends which are equally secular. We do not run in order that the earth be more fertile. We till the earth, or work in our factories and offices, so that we can have time to play. (p. 26)

In his Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1950), the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga describes humans as "Homo ludens," the player, and asserted that all of culture has its origins in the spontaneous activities of play. Like Guttman, Huizinga considers the rules and regulations characteristic of sports to be antithetical to the spirit of play, and he blames what he regards as the deplorable conditions of modern sports on the English. He attributes the rise of ball games to English competitions between villages and schools; to "the specifically Anglo-Saxon bent of mind" (p. 197); to the emphasis on "association and solidarity" occasioned by English social life; to the need for physical exercise in the absence of obligatory military training; and to the English terrain, which provided ideal playing fields. Huizinga sums up the English sensibility for sport: "Everybody knows the delightful prints from the first half of the 19th century, showing the cricketers in tophats. This speaks for itself" (p. 197). He adds:

The great competitions in archaic cultures had always formed part of the sacred festivals and were indispensable as health and happiness-bringing activities. This ritual tie has now been completely severed; sport has become profane, "unholy" in every way and has no organic connection whatever with the structure of society, least of all when prescribed by the government. The ability of modern social techniques to stage mass demonstrations with the maximum of outward show in the field of athletics does not alter the fact that neither the Olympiads nor the organized sports of American Universities nor the loudly trumpeted international contests have, in the smallest degree, raised sport to the level of a culture-creating activity. However important it may be for the players or spectators, it remains sterile. The old play-factor has undergone almost complete atrophy. (p. 198)

Huizinga acknowledges that his view of modern sport may not be a popular one: "This view will probably run counter to the popular feeling of today, according to which sport is the apotheosis of the play-element in our civilization. Nevertheless popular feeling is wrong" (p. 198).

Although Guttmann agrees with Huizinga in general, he acknowledges that even modern sport sometimes has its moments of transcendence: "It is actually one of the happier ironies of modern sports that we can lose ourselves in play and forget the creative and sustaining (and restricting) social organization and cultural assumptions that have been a central concern of this book" (p. 160).

Those who bemoan the secularization of sport do not express similar criticisms of other aspects of human social life. Modern sports, which are largely the product of western Europe, have undergone secularization at the same time as other institutions. European governments became secularized as monarchs broke away from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The United States was founded on the ideal of separation of church and state. This was an attempt to avoid the religious rivalries and persecution that drove a number of groups to leave their European homes and settle in the land that became the United States. The French achieved their ideal of separation of church and state only in the early twentieth century, a hard-won accomplishment that in 2004 led the French government to ban religious apparel in the public schools. Modern science emerged as such thinkers as Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543) and Galileo Galilei (15641642) supplanted religious dogma with empirically derived data. At the time of the Enlightenment in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, writers such as Voltaire (16941778) rejected the domination of ecclesiastical authority. In the process, theater, the visual arts, literature, and music became secularized.

Scholars generally regard the secularization of government, education, science, and the arts as positive, since it liberates these institutions from the constraints of dogma and subjugation to religious hierarchies. Why then, do Guttmann and some other scholars bemoan the secularization of sport? In their view, sport alone seems to call for an alliance with an institutionalized moral and religious order. In Sport as Symbol: Images of the Athlete in Art, Literature and Song, Mari Womack argues that the secularization of sport is commonly viewed as degradation rather than liberation precisely because sport has retained its close symbolic ties to religion, whereas the other institutional forms have drifted further away.

Athletes may no longer be viewed as gods, but they retain their role as heroes. Athletes are held to higher standards than musicians, actors, artists, or writers. Only government officials, educators, and religious leaders excite similar degrees of outrage in the wake of scandal. American sportswriters often lament the behavior of athletes who violate cultural norms, but in fact the failures of heroes in all domains often educate us as much as their successes. Could any sermon teach the perils of arrogance and hubris better than the fictional baseball hero in Ernest Lawrence Thayer's 1888 poem, "Casey at the Bat"? In a similar situation, the real-life baseball hero Babe Ruth (18951948) succeeded where Casey failed. The Sultan of Swat called his shot during the fifth inning of the third game of the 1932 World Series, in what has been called "the most magnificent gesture ever made on a baseball diamond." (Durant and Bettman, p. 239). It was a grudge match between the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs at the Cubs' own Wrigley Field:

The score was tied at four runs each when Babe Ruth came up to bat for the Yankees. He was greeted by a barrage of abuse from the Chicago bench. He took a strike and then defiantly pointed to the centerfield bleachers. He took another strike and again indicated his target as Cubs players jeered from the bench. On the next pitch, he hammered the ball to the deepest part of the centerfield bleachers, the exact spot he had indicated. Unlike Casey, the mighty Babe Ruth did not strike out. (Womack, 2003, p. 150)

In this case, Babe Ruth taught a different lesson: he defied the unsportsmanlike behavior of the opposing team and demonstrated a form of valor that is undeterred by opposition. Womack writes, "The same existential conflict that lies at the heart of religion also gave rise to the sporting contest" (2003, p. 220). "Sports symbolism," she states, "usually expresses themes of epic proportions: responsibility to oneself and others, the moral choice of Right and Wrong, the dilemmas of power, and the agony of loss and betrayal. Often, it is clear that the 'game' is life itself, played out in a hazardous universe" (2003, p. 14).

In a pluralistic society, sport makes mythological themes accessible to people from many different backgrounds. It is a fact of modern life that no one religion has a secure hold on the imagination of its adherents. No matter how strongly one believes, one knows that others do not believe. This challenges the absoluteness of one's faith. The various competing religions do not provide an overarching symbolic system that explains ultimate reality, including right and wrong, for all members of the group. Precisely because it is secularized, sport provides a symbolic system that unifies rather than divides. It addresses overarching symbolic themes, not specific theological issues. It deals not with the nature of God, but with the nature of human beings.

See Also



Bowen, John R. Religions in Practice: An Approach to the Anthropology of Religion. 2d ed. Boston, 2002. Rather than attempting to develop a unitary definition of religion, Bowen surveys consistencies and variations in the practice of religion in a variety of contexts.

Durant, John, and Otto Bettman. Pictorial History of American Sports. Cranbury, N.J., 1952. The authors do not deal specifically with the relationship between sport and religion, but their richly illustrated book eloquently demonstrates the historical role of sport in American life.

Guttmann, Allen. From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports. New York, 1978. Guttmann notes that sport in what he calls primitive societies was integral to other activities, whereas modern sport, with its rules and regulations, is antithetical to spontaneous play.

Harris, H. A. Greek Athletes and Athletics. Bloomington, Ind., 1964. Harris provides a comprehensive overview of the four Greek athletic gamesthe Olympic, the Pythian, the Isthmian, and the Nemeanwith particular emphasis on the events held at each. He also links the athletic contests to the esteem in which athletes were held, as well as the celebration of athletic victors in the poetry of Pindar.

Hoffman, Shirl J., ed. Sport and Religion. Champaign, Ill., 1992. Hoffman has compiled essays dealing with various aspects of the relationship of religion to sports, including ethics, sport as ritual, the use of rituals by professional athletes, and such experiential aspects of sport as runner's high. Christianity is the only religion considered in any depth.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston, 1950. Huizinga asserts that all cultural forms arise from play, and from this he deduces that play is older than culture. He then analyzes play as a "civilizing function" with respect to law, war, poetry, philosophy, and art while taking a less positive view of sport, which he considers antithetical to the spontaneity of play.

Merrill, William L. "God's Saviours in the Sierra Madre." Natural History 93, no. 3 (1983). The Rarámuri (Tarahumara) of Mexico's Sierra Madre have adapted the essential message of Christianity to their own experience of the relationship between good and evil. Merrill notes that the Rarámuri see themselves as the protectors of God and his family against the designs of the Devil and his family. However, the Rarámuri consider it necessary to placate both God and the Devil.

Morford, Mark P. O., and Robert J. Lenardon. Classical Mythology. 4th ed. New York, 1991. The authors include a brief summary of the importance of the Olympic and Pythian games for Greek symbolism in their analysis of the complexities of relationships among the gods of Greece.

Muir, John. Mountaineering Essays. Salt Lake City, Utah, 1980. Muir describes in religious terms his awe at exploring the natural wonders of the West.

Scarborough, Vernon L., and David R. Wilcox, eds. The Mesoamerican Ballgame. Tucson, Ariz., 1991. Scarborough and Wilcox have compiled a comprehensive analysis of the ritual, representation, and social context of the Central American ball game based on the archaeological evidence, ranging from the American Southwest to Central America.

Schele, Linda, and Mary Ellen Miller. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Forth Worth, Tex., and New York, 1986. Schele and Miller conclude that ball games played in the Maya sphere dramatize the military and religious might of Mayan rulers, adding that the outcome of the ball game was prearranged to result in the victory of the ruler and the sacrifice of his opponent. Thus, the symbolic victory of the ruler in the ball game dramatized his military victory over his rival on the battlefield.

Womack, Mari. "Risk and Ritual in Professional Sports." Paper presented at the meeting of American Anthropological Association Meeting, Los Angeles, California, 1981. This paper examines the conditions of risk in professional sports competition that give rise to uncertainty and anxiety. It concludes that rites of preparation aid performance in competition by giving the athlete a sense of control over his surroundings, which reduces anxiety and allows the athlete to focus on the game.

Womack, Mari. "Religion and Sport: Sacred and Secular Rituals of Conflict." UCLA Center for the Study of Religion, 1991. This paper defines aspects of contesting in sport that involve three types of opponents: the opponent in nature, the human opponent, and the enemy within. Ultimately, sport is closely allied to religion because the essence of all sport is the contest against the treacherous aspects of our selves.

Womack, Mari. Sport as Symbol: Images of the Athlete in Art, Literature, and Song. Jefferson, N.C., 2003. Illustrated throughout with black and white reproductions of art from a range of traditions, this book considers imagery relating to the hunt, bullfight, martial arts, ball games, racing, and contests of grace and beauty. It discusses the role of the sports hero in culture and explains the relationship of the athlete to society in general.

Mari Womack (2005)