Archive for November, 2015

Rugby as religion

November 6, 2015 Leave a comment

The film Bull Durham begins featuring photographs from the collection of Annie Savoy, whose wall serves as a shrine to bygone baseball superheroes. To the background of a gospel melody Annie confesses: “I believe in the church of Baseball. I’ve tried all of the major religions, and most of the minor ones…. I’ve tried ‘em all… And, the only church that truly feeds the soul… is the Church of Baseball.”

For Annie baseball functions like a grand myth that gives meaning and makes sense of life, and having been in the US for the opening of the season have experienced the religious devotion it inspires. One observer writes “The decline of religion as a source of significant meaning in modern industrialized societies has been extravagantly compensated by the rise of popular culture, of which the billion dollar sports mania is the most visible manifestation.” For NZ it is rugby. On the morning of the 2011World Cup final Michael Laws wrote, “rugby is is more than our national sport. It is our religion, our soul”. The rugby section in our newspapers is called “Rugby Heaven.” The lift out after NZ had won began “this is… Rugby Heaven. Thankyou Lord at long last.”

I first reflected on this issue reading an article in the Economist suggesting that if Karl Marx had visited a western society today, instead of Victorian England, he would have declared sport and mass entertainment, not religion, was the opiate of the people.

This topic raises the question, “what is religion?” George Santanya thought of religion as “another world to live in”, having doubtless no idea that what he thought of as religion would for many be displaced in the most immediate and existential sense by sport. For millions, sports certainly do constitute a popular form of religion by shaping their world and sustaining their ways of engaging in it. Paul Tillich defined religion as “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern… which itself contains the answer to the question of meaning.” Again, for many sport is their ultimate concern for which they are willing to “sacrifice any finite concern which is in conflict with it”. Emile Durkheim, defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things… which unite us into a single moral community”. In many societies sport now functions to do this more than traditional religions and for us at no time more than the final stages of a rugby world cup.

In the US sport has been identified as a form of ‘civil’ or ‘cultural’ religion by some. Harry Edwards suggests it is “essentially a secular, quasi-religious institution” and Michael Novak that “sport is, somehow, a religion.” He notes the joy of victory often prompts a religious response, for winning generates a feeling that “the gods are on one’s side”. The rituals of sport provide a mythic structure in which participants repeatedly experience death and resurrection providing a sense of transcendence. In the UK Desmond Morris sees soccer sees as a quasi-religion fulfilling powerful social-psychological needs, to be together in significant groups, to voice support and experience catharsis. In 1965 Hans Mol labelled rugby a national religion in NZ, arguing it represented the solidarity of the community against other groups, and in common with traditional religions “emotional commitment, the strict ritual of time and rule, the legends of the past and a stable, orderly context.”
The word ‘religion’, comes from ‘religare’ meaning ‘to bind’. This binding comes about through conflations of ‘ordinary’ and ‘transcendent’ qualities such as order, hope and charisma and reaches its ultimate context in celebration. Followers are transformed into ‘fans’, which comes from fanticus ‘inspired by a deity, frenzied’, from fanus ‘temple’.

Finally to suggest three other ways sport fulfils some religious functions: (1) First is in providing an experience of transcendence or ecstasy. Living in Dunedin there was an enormously transcendent experience for days after the Super 15final, as there was throughout the country in 2011. (2) The high days and holy days of a former society have been transferred from religion to sport. The Super Bowl functions as a major religious festival for Americans. For NZ it is the RWC or America’s Cup final. (3) A final way is the idea of pilgrimage, an important part of traditional religions. It is a concept re-emerging today and we experienced it in 2011 with pilgrims from Ireland or elsewhere. For New Zealanders, apart from Gallipoli, no pilgrimage is more sacred than to an overseas RWC.

I initially wrote this for Tui Motu in mid October, wondering whether all these religious experiences would be experienced by New Zealanders on November 1, both here and in London. Wonderfully what was obvious was that we did, and it has continued on for all of this week.

Categories: Uncategorized