Classifying Sport As Religious In Postmodern Times

This paper will examine the question of if sport can be classed as a religion? It will then go on to discuss the implications this could have on religion and societies beliefs, looking specifically at the sporting event of football. Where the paper speaks of religion it will refer to the Christian religions that are widely practiced in the United Kingdom (UK), unless otherwise stated.

The paper will explore various definitions of religion, from a traditional and postmodern perspective as well as briefly examining the term postmodern. After this arguments both for and against the notion above and any similarities in the values, rituals, beliefs and practices that football and traditional Christian religions in the UK hold will be explored. It is important to draw comparisons between religious life and that of a supporter of footballs life to fully understand if football is religious. I shall endeavour to examine such notions as does classing football as a religion take away the sacredness of religion or is it positive and progressive that people can choose their own religions rather than simply being lead, or following traditions passed on from generation to generation.

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There are many definitions of religious. In fact within Sociology it is well known that sociologists cannot agree on a single complete definition. For the benefit of this paper the definitions quoted here shall come from sociological or religious organisations. Below one can reflect on various definitions of religion, even if it is only to gain a sense of how vast and different the interpretations can be.

Emile Durkheim defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them.” This statement could be related to traditional belief systems and religions and to sporting events, especially football as will be explored later on in this paper.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary postmodernism is described as “a late 20th -century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism, which represents a departure from modernism and is characterized by the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions, a mixing of different artistic styles and media , and a general distrust of theories.” In sociology the term postmodern has been defined as “argues against the idea of objective truth” So, form this it could be argued that if postmodernism is against the idea of a truth, then religion, as we have known it, can play no part in a post modern society. Religion would, at the very least be individualistic and would give members of society the opportunity to interpret ‘religion’ as a personal belief system and way of life.

Postmodern views on religion are far removed from some of the more ‘traditional’ views within the UK. Before one can understand ant definition of religion via postmodern terms one must look to outline postmodernism. Again, this is hard to pin down due to the many variations. The post modern era, is for many the period of time post world war two (WW2). Postmodernists would state that society is in a constant state of change, it is ever evolving. Therefore there are no absolute truths, only relative ones. Basically each individual shall choose their own set of beliefs, values and understandings that shall replace ‘religion’ as it has been known. One could describe it as a ‘pick and mix’ where an individual takes from each traditional religion what they like, understand or believe and, in effect, create a personal religion that they and they alone are at one with. Where traditional religions would mean the coming together of communities in post modern times if the people are’ ‘picking and mixing’ then there is no formal meeting place for them to worship as they do not fit into one set religion.

According to Furlong & Cartmel (sociology introductory readings 2001) “postmodernists such as Lyotard and Baudrilland argue that recent social changes have been so far-reaching that it is no longer possible to predict individual life chances or patterns of behaviour. Consequently they reject the validity of social science and key concepts such as class and race” Religion can be applied to this idea, as religion has always been a key concept in the way one lives their lives, the groups they belong to and the moral and spiritual beliefs that they hold.

Parry (2007) argued that, spirituality came about in force during the 20th century. Spirituality was originally associated with a formal religion, but then came postmodernism, and along with it many people developed their own views of religion, which is now more often described as spirituality. Spirituality in sport is different for every individual involved, from the feeling of exhilaration and exhaustion caused pushing the body to its limits, right through to a crowd of supporters who have returned to their own ‘church’ to support their own religion.

Janet Leaver ( Sport culture and society, 2006) states that “Sports is one institution that holds together the people of a metropolis and heightens their attachment to a locale……The pomp and pageantry of sport spectacles create excitement and arouse fervour, doing for the people of the metropolis what religious ceremonies do for people in communal societies”

The sociologist Karl Marx once said, “”Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of heartless conditions, the soul of a soulless world. It is the opiate of the people.” However,as the world evolved and people realised that they had a choice. In turn, Illya McLellan stated in the article named ‘The Cult Of Football: A Religion for the Twentieth Century and Beyond(September 2008)’ “But as the world moved on from this time there arose a new opiate of the people and, in its own way, a new religion. A religion that would in some ways inspire more devotion and fervour than its tired counterparts that were still mired in the doctrines of yesteryear.”

Briefly moving away from to UK to touch on our neighbours in the United States of America (USA) Harry Edwards (1973) argued that the universal “popular” religion of the USA is, in fact sports. To be considered a religion, sport must hold a number of characteristics that are also common within religion. Edwards states that there are thirteen factors that sport shares with religion. This paper will now go on to examine some of these thirteen characteristics, as well as other characteristics that this paper holds in high regard when comparing the two subjects, and ultimately show how sport can, at the very least show startling similarities between the two .

The research that has been conducted in order to compile this paper has seen many, many similarities between football and religion. Below one can look at what one could argue are the perceived key issues and similarities between the religion and sport – specifically football. As one can see the information provided below is quite compelling in answering part of the paper title ‘In postmodern times can sport be classed as religious?’

Coming together as a community

Within traditional Church settings the Church community has always held great importance; this extends to such organisations as the local Church fates, women’s church groups and youth clubs that centre on their shared beliefs and faith. Within a football environment these past times have been replaced by the ‘drink down the pub’ prior to a match, the meeting to organise the away events and such like. The community is centred on their follower’s beliefs and faith.

Places of worship and pilgrimages

Within the Church community it is expected that the worshippers have a place they can call their religious home, somewhere they can reflect upon their religion and travel to on a regular basis to hear the word of God. Within football this Church could be substituted for the ‘home ground’ the football stadium of the followers team where they can attend to worship their team and call their spiritual home. It could be argued that football even has its own Cathedrals in the guise of places such as Wembley stadium, and even for some this could be considered a pilgrimage

Belief Systems.

Within football belief is an important part of football religion and culture. Every Saturday as the team in top position of the Premier League take on the relegation favourites there are thousands of people willing and believing that, against all odds their team will come through. They hold faith and belief that their team are the best, that their faith will see them through. The atmosphere is made up of the chanting and singing and many other rituals that will, hopefully turn their beliefs into a reality after ninety minutes. Much in the way that a traditional religious person will believe that they go to Church to be close to God, so the football fan believes that by attending week in week out their team will have support and the faith to go on and win the three points each team supporter believes they deserve. Edwards (1973), states that both religion and sport have a formal set of beliefs that its attendees must adhere to. Fans are told to have faith in their team in testing times, just as Church attendees are expected to look to their faith in times of need.

Gods and Saints v managers and players

Religions pray to, and believe in their God and Saints, within football the followers idolise, and on occasion, chant and sing songs of praise about their players or managers. This could be seen as a distinct difference between traditional religions and football. However one could argue that followers of traditional faiths can, did, and do sometimes change their beliefs. Examples that spring to mind are when Christianity split between Rome and Constantinople and so formed the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Another example could be when Martin Luther split to form the Protestant Church as a revolt against Catholic Doctrine. However, it must be said that within football splits, changes and opinions do change much quicker than the traditional religious examples cited here.

Symbols. The Cross and chain v the replica kit

Within traditional religious communities it is common to see Church-goers adorning a cross on a chain and many attendees can be seen to clutch Rosary Beads. Some cross and chain wearers will, at certain times, be seen to kiss their cross as a symbol of faith, or for guidance and re-assurance. Within the religion of football the cross is exchanged for the team colours in the way of scarves, badges, flags and replica shirts….and football fans can often be seen to kiss the crest of their club that appears on the scarves and shirts they wear.

Rituals and Hymns v rituals and chants

When a football fan enters their home ground they will be welcomed with the familiar chants of their chosen team. Many of such chants will concentrate on club history, great victories, club saints and heroes, the famous pilgrimage to Wembley – not to mention the chants they save especially to rejoice when their team scores that all important goal. Within the Church community these chants and songs are replaced by hymns that rejoice in the name of Jesus and God.

Football provides a ritualistic weekend gathering for the devoted, as does Church and for the more lax followers they can catch up on match of the day, some may say it’s the football followers Songs of Praise. This very statement shows that football can be practiced amongst the masses, or more in private – like night time prayers for the more traditional religious believers.


According to Stephen Tompkins in his article ‘Matches made in Heaven’ he states that “September is football’s Christmas, a joyful celebration of new birth after a season of expectant waiting…… The close of season brings Easter’s mix of grief and (if you are lucky) triumph, followed by the long Lenten period of summer. As one can see from this citation the similarities between religious festivals and sporting events are evident.

Celtic v Glasgow Rangers religion and football can unite and divide

It has been said that religion has been the cause of wars throughout the world, due to different people’s ideologies and beliefs. The very same can be said for football if we look at what is the most famous rivalry in the UK Celtic and Glasgow Rangers. Rangers Football club has always been portrayed as a ‘Catholic’ football club and Celtic have always been portrayed as a Protestant football club. If one was to look at the BBC News website ( they would see that there is an article named “A rivalry tied up in religion”. This article goes on to state that this is such deeply rooted in supporters that “The mutual animosity was outlined four years ago when some Celtic fans began flying Palestinian flags and some Rangers supporters responded by fluttering Israeli flags. ” Lever comments that a Celtic fan “may feel his Catholicism most strongly” when he faces a Rangers fan. It is important that this paper highlighted the fact that religion and football are already walking (or battling) hand in hand within the UK.

Obviously there are groups that will argue what has been divulged so far within this paper is not religion, but a group of people who have a sense of belonging within a community, but that does not make the sport religious in its own right. The Church would be the first to argue that football is not religious as it does not worship God or Jesus.

Michael Novak argues “a sport is not a religion in the same way that Methodism, Presbyterianism, or Catholicism is a religion…these are not the only kinds of religion. There are secular religions, civil religions” (Novak 18). Sports can easily fulfil the role that religion plays in society if the individuals seeking that spiritual influence allow for it.

One could even go as far to compare footballs rites of passage to the Sacraments of the Catholic Church. Such things as baptism could be substituted for the first match, confirmation for the attendance your first match independently of your parents. Confession could be substituted for the after match analysis, where you admit your team could do better and that you feel you start to question your own faith. Indeed, some people are even indoctrinated into football and the following of a certain team from a young age. Followers may also, in extreme circumstances face fear in the thought of informing their parents that they no longer wish to follow ‘their’ team and wish to follow another, much in the same way some Catholics may feel fear in wishing to turn to the Protestant faith or vice versa.

“It is clear that the more closely we analyze the mystique of sports, psychologically and functionally, the more we tend to use religious language to describe it. And no wonder: from its beginning athletics was regarded as a religious cultaˆ¦”-Cornish Rodgers, The Christian Century

As this paper has shown football is indeed a religion to many people around the UK and many similarities can be drawn between sport and religion. They meet in their thousands every week at the 92 football league grounds around the UK to profess their faith and beliefs with their fellow believers . I feel that, the notion that football can be classed as religion is true for all the reasons explored above.

Of course there will be people who disagree with my findings, but these people will probably be of a Church community. In the 21st Century, sport does indeed fulfil the most common definition of religion as a system of beliefs and practices by which a group of people struggles with the ultimate problems of human life. “Religion does not have clear-cut physical properties, nor are its characters readily ascertained and agreed upon” (McGuire 1987, Religion: The social context)

Now, what does this mean for religion and beliefs in society? Undoubtedly it means that the traditional norms and values of society have shifted, congregating in Church to pray to God has, for some, been replaced with meeting on the terraces to cheer on their local football teams. Undoubtedly, if sport is a religion it will, for some take away the sacredness that religions have previously held. But, is that due to the fact that religion, as the UK has traditionally known it, is redundant and has moved on to give way to spirituality. The community of religion is similar to that of sport

For many, the worry lies in the fact that footballs moral teachings are not in line with what society needs for guidance and reassurance. It is imperative that people do take some moral guidance from the teachings of the Church and the Ten Commandments; however it could be argued that the law within the UK can draw direct comparisons to the Commandments themselves. By making the decision to not abide by the law the individual faces the risk of being held in custody. So, maybe the moral underpinning that the Church teaches can be sought and taught by other mediums?

It must be said that although football is, for many, classed as a religion I can see no evidence that sport answers some of the age old questions of what happens to us after death and the likes…but maybe the post-modern society that we now live in makes such ponderings redundant so therefore there is no longer the need answers to such questions? Finally, if I had to categorise sport I would ideally prefer to say that football is more spiritual than religious, but as we have explored that religion does not really fit in with a post modern society. It is up to the individual to find what is for them, a spiritual journey.

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