Religion and Sports
a). The Olympic Games began in Olympia, South West Greece about 2700 years ago. They were a series of athletic competitions among the Greek city-states. The games were held as part of a religious festival every four years. The games were held to celebrate the great king of the gods, Zeus. The games were considered pure and important because of this religious attribute to the deity. In the middle day of the four-day event, 100 oxen would be sacrificed to the deity. The Greeks worshipped physical fitness and mental prowess. They believed that excellence in these fields was a way of honoring Zeus. All the participants spoke the same language and had the same religious beliefs. However, the Olympic Games were not just cconducted as a religious fete. The Greeks valued physical prowess and there was an ever growing military rationale spreading among the Greeks. The games were a way of separating the uniquely gifted from the physically mediocre. Those who won the races were considered to be superior assets in the battlefield (Hoffman, 2010).
The Mayan Game of Death was a sport played by the peoples of Ancient Mesoamerica. The aim of the game was to keep the ball in play with players striking the ball with their hips. The Mayans played for life and death. The game was meant to commemorate the victory of the Mayan heroes, Xbalanque and Hunaphu against the Xibalbans of the Mayan underworld. The captain of the losing team was sacrificed to appease the gods. There are various themes associated with the game including astronomy, war, cosmologic duality, and fertility.
Sumo wrestling involves several ancient Japanese traditions. These traditions include salt purification, which was a common practice in the Shinto religion. The daily activities of the sumo wrestlers are dictated by strict tradition. They still live in sumo training stables known as heya. Sumo wrestling was initiated as a way of entertaining the Shinto deities. Sumo wrestling involves a ritual dance where humans are said to be fighting a Shinto divine spirit known as the kami (Hall, 1997).
2. The origin of baseball has been the subject of major controversy in the States for more than a century. The sport has become entwined with the American culture since the Civil war period. Many specialists believe that the game of baseball originated in England from the development of older games such as rounders. Others argue that rounders and baseball are actually variants of each other but their direct antecedents are the English ball games, ‘tut-ball’, and ‘stoolball’. The first American reference to baseball appears in a 1791 publication from Massachusetts. In 1845, Alexander Cartwright codified the games’ rules with the introduction of the Knickerbocker Club (Block and Wiles, 2006).
Baseball had a major impact on racial discrimination in America during the 19th century. The simple ball game led the nation to be aware of the equality issues in the country. Many African Americans began playing the ball game in order to cope with racial discrimination. It soon became a unifying symbol for the African Americans (Rask, 2013).
i). Luther’s theological concept- Martin Luther developed the Justification by Faith. The Lutheran followers believe that salvation is granted by ‘grace alone through faith alone for Christ’s sake alone’. All other teachings are based on this primary Lutheran tenet. According to Luther, the acts of God alone are the basis of justification. He believed that righteousness of the Christian believers stems from the righteousness of Christ that is imputed in believers through faith. This is in contrast to the belief of the time that the righteous acts of the believers culminated in their salvation and righteousness.
He also developed the doctrine of Universal priesthood of the baptized whereby believers are part of one body. There is no distinction between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘temporal’ Christians. Luther believed that all Christians are priests.
Another theological concept is the Simul Justus et peccator. The concept means that Christians are both righteous and sinners. Even though baptism washes away original sin, it does not remove concupiscence, the inclination to sin. Roman Catholic tenets dictate that once a believer is baptized all his sin is washed away. Luther believed that baptism alone could not stop one from being inclined to committing a crime (Bayer, 2008).
Calvin’s theological concept- One of his more prominent theological tenets was Providence. He believed that whether human beings did good or bad, their efforts always resulted in the execution of God’s will. Another tenet is atonement where he believed that Christ died for everyone in the world but he only prays for an elect group (Gerrish, 2004). The Lutheran theology differs sharply with Protestantism in terms of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the use of God’s law, and theories of worship.
ii). Application of theological concepts to sports
The Calvinist theology preached that the Puritans should live a pious and consecrated lifestyle. The doctrine emphasizes work instead of leisure led to the development of the Puritan’s aversion to leisure and sports. However, the followers still participated in their own forms of recreational activities including music, arts, and sport. The Puritans saw it as their duty to spend all their time productively and to avoid all idle time including sport, which was widely considered an idle activity. The only physical activity prevalent in the Puritan way of life was manual labor (Jable, 1976). However, the Puritans began to see sports as a service to God and the means to higher calling.
Overman (2011) believes that Protestantism has had a profound impact on social and cultural institutions in America and the rest of the world especially when it comes to sports. The Protestant Ethic has seven cardinal rules that include time ethic, worldly asceticism, achieved status, individualism, work ethic, goal directedness, rationalization, and goal directedness. These tenets have led to the exaltation of individualism, achievement, and competitiveness in everything especially in sports.
3. Civil religion can be defined as the religious values that a country upholds seen through the lens of ceremonial rituals held during sacred days, public rituals, sacred places, and symbols. Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined the term in 1762 to describe the spiritual and moral foundations of any society. Civil religion helps to unify the state by granting it a form of sacred authority. Civil religion entails a number of activities including using public buildings for worship, use of religious symbols on public entities, and the use of the name of God in public monuments and political speeches.
Folk religion refers to the ethnic religious traditions and practices under the façade of religion. However, these religious practices are beyond the confines of official religious doctrines and practices. Many people who do not attend official worship meetings or profess an official creed use folk tradition to baptize their children or hold religious functions such as weddings and funerals.
Folk religion seems to be inferior to civil region despite the fact that civil religion can be described as the folk religion of the nation and its political culture. This is because civil religion encompasses the entire society and is practiced by even the leaders of the society. However, civil religion is not an establishment of a religion. Established religions have churches with clergy members and a fixed way of practicing. Civil religion is basically initialized and practiced by political leaders who are not spiritual but rather just laymen (Bellah, 1967).
Based on this information, baseball is a carrier of American folk religion. According to Linder (1975), American folk religion can be described as originating from their everyday experiences in order to provide and promote social integration and the legitimization of American values. Sports has been able to overtake all other aspects of American way of life and become central to the people’s culture. Experts have come to realize that sports including baseball have surpassed piety and patriotism in the eyes of the American people. It has become a form of communication between the masses while still exploiting piety and patriotism.
The sports played in the country encompasses, magnifies and reflects back to the society, the values and norms that the Americans have built around their culture. Sport in America has become sacred and this phenomenon can be observed through the collective rituals and cultic practices carried out before, during, and after every game.
One individual in American history that has been able to personify sports as a folk religion is John F. Kennedy. He was assassinated in 1963 and this caused the massive cancellation of several football games and other sporting events in the country. Howevr, the National Football League did not cancel seven games it had scheduled for the weekend. According to the then NFL Commissioner, it was traditional for sports athletes to play during tragic national events including the death of a beloved president. Surprisingly, less than three years before his untimely death, the President had written an article imploring people to become more actively engaged in sports so as to rid the country of physically impoverished people.
It is interesting to note how baseball is able to sway the individual lives of American citizens and their collective character. James Mathisen believes that baseball and other American sports are more than just the pop culture variant of folk religion. Baseball has become almost sect like in the country with everyone expected to be a baseball fan. However, it goes even further. Every baseball fan has to identify himself with a specific team. This is not unlike how the Protestants are expected to have a specific religious affiliation to the set of pluralistic denominations ascribed to them as options.
Baseball manifests itself folk religion in three main ways: ideological dimension, its historical character, and cultic practice. In his understanding, civil religion is another form of folk religion. He believes that sports including baseball are a way of implementing cultural values and ideas (Dailey, 2002).
The ideological dimension inculcates the myths, beliefs, and values enshrined in baseball and American culture. Its cultic practice can be observed through collective disturbances and rituals. The historical character of baseball includes historical records, heroes such as Babe Ruth and other traditions (Dailey, 2002).
He argues that all the sacred aspects involved in baseball reinforce the sacred aspects of American culture as a whole. However, these aspects are in no way a part of civil religion. Rather, baseball and sports in general surpasses the realm of civil religion in the society.
Mascots are an essential part of any team sport including baseball and basketball. Mascots are believed to bring good luck to the team and they also help boosting the school spirit. Therefore, there is a real spiritual element when it comes sports and having a team mascot. Every sports team in our campus has a mascot including the chess and debate teams. These mascots keep the crowd excited enough to support the team and also motivate the players to do their level best in any competition.
I have also witnessed the doctrine of totemism in the school’s sports teams. A totem can be described as a symbol for the religious force being worshipped by a group of people. For instance, the jersey worn by the team’s first captain is the totem for the school’s football team. Totemism is the religious belief that there is a special connection between a human and a special emblem such as a plant or animal. The football team believes that the jersey gives each player the courage to play at their best and win the games. The power of the football team is embodied in the jersey meaning that the team members place their significance on the totemic object.
Collective ritual is also a big part of the football team in our school. Most of the townspeople are supporters of the football team. They watch the games whether they are played in the school or in the opponent’s field. Commitment to the team is usually sealed using awe-inspiring speeches given before and at the end of each game and in prize-giving ceremonies (Leach, 2013).
Bayer, O. (2008). Martin Luther’s Theology: A contemporary interpretation.
Bellah, R.N. (1967). Civil religion in America. Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 96 (1): 1-21.
Block, D., & Wiles, T. (2006). Baseball before we knew it a search for the roots of the game. University of Nebraska Press.
Dailey, T.F. (2002). Believing in baseball: the religious power of our national pastime. The Salesian Center for Faith and Culture.
Hall, M. (1997). The big book of Sumo: History, Practice, Ritual, Fight. Stone Bridge Press.
Hoffman, S.J. (2010). Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports. Baylor University Press.
Gerrish, R.A. (2004). The place of Calvin in Christian theology. Found in McKim, Donald K., The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jable, J.T. (1976). The English puritans-suppressors of sport and amusement? Canadian Journal of History of Sport & Physical Education, 7(1): 33-40.
Leach, E. (2013). The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism
Overman, S.J. (2011). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of sport: How Calvinism and Capitalism shaped America’s games. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
Rask, K. (2013). American Ball Sports: Origins and Evolutions.