Saturday, 11 May 2013

Outsourcing Religion Part 1: Sports and Religion

Possibly the most important and essential part of religion is the sense of a community and group commonality it provides.  We are tribal animals by nature, we feel at home and fulfilled when we feel like we are accepted as a part of a group.  Religions have arguably created a sense of community better than any other institution in human history.  But since the emergence of large cities, air travel and mass media, something else is emerging as a form of human community.  The phenomenon of professional sports is a very fascinating institution when studying it as something that resembles religion.  The popularity of professional Sports in the modern world represents a part of primeval human behaviour that also has very striking parallels with religion. 

Not only is it occurring in the modern world but ancient Rome and Greece had spectacles very similar to the modern phenomena.  Rome had its combatant gladiator events(how much similar is that to the popularity of UFC and MMA currently?). In Greece, the Olympics were originally overtly religious competitions between the city states of Greece held in honor of the gods.

If anyone has been a spectator at a pro-sporting event, one will easily recognize the sense of grandeur and awe that it intends to provoke.  A stadium, arena or ballpark filled with thousands of cheering people and intense music and light to excite the senses.  The sense of something important happening is in the air.  This is what is described by famous sociologist Emile Durkheim has collective effervescence.  The perceived form of energy that is felt in large groups of people concentrating on one subject, Durkheim explained, may be an explanation for the emergence of primitive religion.  Of course this phenomenon is not restricted to the realm of pro-sports.  We can easily demonstrate the same effects at rock concerts, music festivals and of course large scale religious events.

 Instead of the sporting events being held in honor of the gods, they are now held in honor of nationality.  Pro sports events held in Canada and the US begin with the national anthems of one or both of the nations.  The modern incarnation of the Olympics is now a nationalistic and political event.  The annual sporting events such as The Superbowl, World Series or even Wrestlemania are treated similarly to religious holidays.  The Superbowl is an American television occasion to get together with friends and family and imbibe on American culture.  Those who attend the events in person could be considered to be on a pilgrimage.  Wouldn’t every football fan like to attend at least one Superbowl?  Much like every Muslim would like to participate in the Hajj to Mecca at least once.

As someone who follows NHL hockey closely, I have noticed many familiar religious behaviors in the teams I cheer for.  The Calgary Flames are my favorite team. I am quite interested in the way they alter their uniforms and logos over the years.  They were originally formed in the mid-1970s as the red, gold and white coloured Atlanta Flames and kept the same team colours and name of the team when the franchise was moved to Calgary.  The team found success in the late 80s by winning the sacred trophy, the Stanley Cup.  As the 1990’s progressed, the team began altering its look slightly by adding black as one of the official colours and changing the look of the uniforms.   But they have not found much success since the late 80s.  A very interesting thing to notice about the latest trend in their uniforms is the feeling of nostalgia.  They are now moving to a look that represents the classic image of their glory years of the 80s.  A very similar thing is occurring in a good number of other NHL teams. 

 Not only is this a hockey phenomenon but a trend in many pro sports.  The Toronto Blue Jays have changed their uniforms to resemble the look of when the team used to win championships and make the post season. 

I feel this seems to parallel religion because in many traditions, there is a feeling of wanting to return to the glory days of the past.  In many forms of Christianity, there is a yearning for kingdom of heaven to return to earth.  Jews wait for the return of Zion and the reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple.  Many Islamist organizations would like to resurrect a political caliphate resembling the great caliphates of the past. 

Pro-sport also has its saintly figures, demigods and hero worship.  Couldn’t Jackie Robinson be considered baseball’s Martin Luther?  Could Don Cherry be hockey’s Pat Robertson?  Doesn’t O.J Simpson resemble football’s Osama Bin Laden?  The uniform numbers of revered players are “retired” by teams and even leagues.  The retired numbers of heroes and championships years hang in the stadiums much like saints adorn the stained glass windows of cathedrals.  Flags of Islamic countries wear the favored colour green of the prophet Muhammad similarly as the citizens of Rider Nation, Saskatchewan.  Jesus fish sit on bumpers of cars, where Miami Dolphins stickers sit on others.  Crosses hang from necks of some, while Manchester United scarves wrap others.  Yamakahs sit on the heads of many New Yorkers, while Yankees caps cover others.                                      

Sports can function as a better outlet for our tribal selves than religion can for a variety of reasons.  The first reason is that allegiance to sports teams are chosen more arbitrarily than religions.  People choose their favorite teams for a variety of seemingly petty reasons like the uniforms or logos.  At the moment, the NHL team I currently follow is the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Not for any other reason than my favorite player, Jarome Iginla is currently playing for them.  Because of the arbitrarily chosen nature of some teams, there is less of a reason to invest an overly amount of money or emotion into something that I can’t afford to at the time being.  Unlike religion, Sports can unite a city in an extremely short amount of time.  A few weeks of a playoff run and the entire city is in a friendly, celebratory mood.  Being nicer to the people who live together in an area is extremely important for the health of the community.  No matter someone’s social status, people unite around sports teams with an equal sense of community.  Even fans of rival teams will acknowledge the shared commonality for the love of the sport.  For example if a Flames fan and an Oilers fan met each other in Europe, they would have much more in common to be friendly about than differences to dislike each other.   Different religions can isolate people in a foreign community and it is very hard to change religions just to fit in to the community.        

I think sports are perfect combination of physical activity as an expression of animal nature and team spirit as an expression of the tribalism of our ancestors.  We no longer have to be physically fit to survive but we still need to practice physical fitness to relieve stress and be happier people.  Games like sports also allow us to fulfill reward centers in our brain when we achieve goals and objectives that are artificially set up.  If life is a game, then the goals and objectives are extremely difficult to discern and are very convoluted.  We cannot tell if the big decisions in our life were the correct ones for quite some time or even ever.  Games simplify objectives to a point where we can tell if our decisions were the correct ones in a much shorter time.  Just by watching a sport, we can bask in the reflected glory of the achievements of the players of our favorite teams achieving easy to understand objectives.  
In many ways religion is a game.  It turns life into a much easier to understand place.  The decisions religious people make are much more guided by a framework of laid out objectives.  Knowing what the game designer intended for you, makes the game of life much easier to understand and makes the rewards much more immediately tangible.  The Ten Commandments are a perfect example of a religion laying out the rules of the game to follow.  Follow these simple rules and you will beat the game.  The reward for beating the game being, you get to live in Heaven after you die.  If you fail at following the rules of the game, you lose and go to Hell.  In Buddhism, the objective of the game is to end your suffering, level up and become a Buddha.  But if you don’t beat the game before you die, don’t worry.  You have an infinite amount of lives to try again.
If I look at religion as a kind of game, my atheist quest to outsource religion is starting to shape into how I can successfully achieve goals and objectives in this very complicated life, without having to simplify life into the easier and simpler game of religion.  So what are those goals and objectives?  American Psychologist Abraham Maslow outlined a list of human needs in a hierarchical system of five levels.  The lowest level of needs are the most immediate and most vital to physical survival such as water, food and air.  These needs are where the objectives are clear and rewards are most immediate.  The highest levels of needs are where the objectives are most uncertain and the rewards are undefined and much less immediate.  According to this theory, an individual cannot begin to pursue the next level of needs until all the needs of the current level are being met.  As we live in a very wealthy and complex time in human history, we live at a higher level of our needs being met.  I don’t live in a place where my basic survival needs are much of a concern of mine.  The goals and objectives in my life are uncertain and not as clear as a man living 200,000 years ago, where the game of life had very simple objectives and immediate rewards.  My needs and those of my peers have to do with satisfying the faculties of love, belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization and creativity.  These objectives are extremely complicated and are satisficed differently for every individual.  
Many people become overly absorbed into the smaller games in life.  There are countless situations where people get stuck in addictive patterns such as online video games, gambling, sex, drugs, alcohol, eating and body building.  All of these can be considered examples of games with easy to define goals and immediate rewards.  As society gets more and more complex, people can get lost easier on the struggle for life fulfillment.  People get stuck in smaller life games because they may be unsure and insecure of their goals for the more difficult and complex life games. 

A possible explanation for religious fundamentalism is the objectives of the larger game of life for people in those circumstances are very uncertain.  Religious fundamentalism gives frustrated, uncertain and insecure people a simple set of rules to follow in life.  Take the religious violence that is currently being expressed through Islam for example.  These people are living in situations where war and ideology is compromising their ability to fulfill many of their needs.  The strict religious rules of Islamism, is a way to simplify the goals and rewards of their lives.  If the end goal is to reach paradise, and the Quran can be used to justify being a martyr for the faith, suicide bombing could be the answer for the naïve and destitute.   
The religiosity of prisons could also be a very interesting case study.  The future for inmates spending extended periods of their lives in prisons is incredibly dreary.  They know what the potential for a good life outside the walls are, but they know they would never be able to achieve it.  They live in a relatively simple framework of life already in a penitentiary, what better way than religion to simplify the game of life?
Secular society has also developed other ways of creating life simplifying games.  Capitalism and “The American Dream” is another example of how goals in life can be simplified.  If we can quantify who is winning at the game of life with a number, it makes the objectives much simpler.  Bill Gates is a successful player at the game of life and a poor person is a loser.  The success of an American life is measured by how much wealth it creates for the economy.   
Even in pro sports, games can be taken more seriously than they should be.  Football hooliganism was a serious problem in England in the 1980s.  The consequences of a failing British economy during that time led to young men feeling frustrated and unfulfilled.  These young male fans began to live vicariously through their Football club and violence between rival fans was a common occurrence before, during and after matches.  The 2011 Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver is also an unfortunate consequence of the combination of large crowds, disappointment and drunken young men.

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