Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.
The opening words were the poem “We’re Human Beings” by Jill McDonough.
The first reading this morning is from “The Cult of the Red Sox” by Mark Silk, (“Spiritual Politics,” Religion News Service, October 31, 2013):
“Anyone who lives in New England knows that sports is religion. There are different denominations, albeit these are not (ecumenical souls that we are) mutually exclusive. You can be a devotee of the Patriots, Bruins, Celtics, and Huskies all at once.
“Of course, the most exalted regional cult is the Red Sox, who have been playing in their Fenway Park shrine since 1912. This year’s bearded incarnation was a dead ringer for the barnstorming teams fielded in the early 20th century by the Israelite House of David, a Michigan commune dedicated to gathering in the 12 Tribes of Israel to await the imminent Millennium.
“In the latter 20th century, the Red Sox sought the in-gathering of the six tribes of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut in anticipation of the Millennium that arrived in 2004, when they captured a world championship for the first time since Babe Ruth propelled them to one in 1918. Last night, Red Sox Nation celebrated its third championship in 10 years. Hosannah!
“Once upon a time, baseball’s gods were indentured to their teams by the reserve clause. Like Athena in Athens or Apollo in Delphi, they were permanent fixtures of a city unless the owner decided to trade them away (as Harry Frazee traded Ruth to the Yankees in 1919). Now, thanks to free agency, the gods can shop around for their gigs. Moving from city to city, they are, perforce, less attached to any of them.
“In Boston, this year, it was more like the old days. When the city was rocked by the Marathon bombing a few games into the season, the players, most of them newcomers, found themselves essential to civic recovery….”
The second reading was the poem “Baseball and Classicism,” by Tom Clark.
Sermon : “Is It Religion, Pt. 1: Sports”
Is sports a religion? The answer is — yes. The answer is also — no.
I guess I’ll have to explain what I mean. And to simplify things, I’ll begin by focusing on just one sport. The world of sports is large and complex, and it is composed of many denominations, sects, and cults. I suppose I should focus on the sport that is most widespread in the world, which is association football, known as soccer here in the United States. But we live close to Boston, where baseball reigned supreme for many years. With the coming of the prophet Tom Brady to the Patriots, some of baseball’s fair-weather fans became football fans, but now that the prophet Brady has gone back to San Mateo or wherever he came from, the faithful are slowly drifting back to the fold. So baseball it is.
It doesn’t matter that the Sox have finished three of the last four seasons in the cellar. This is not a Church of Baseball where salvation is measured by wins and losses. This is the peculiar cult known as Red Sox Nation. Regardless of whether the Sox are winning or losing, the faithful of Red Sox Nation make their annual pilgrimages to Fenway Park from all over New England east of the Connecticut River. The pilgrimage to Fenway is the religious dream of every member of Red Sox Nation:– to sit beside that holy ground, to watch the ritual battle of pitcher against batter, to drink the sacred warm beer (for which you paid eleven dollars), to join in the sacred ritual chants of “No batter, no batter,” “Let’s go Red Sox,” and “Hey ump, you couldn’t call a cab.” And for the pilgrims of Red Sox Nation, the ultimate religious experience is to be in Fenway for a game between the Sox and the hated Yankees. Because for the faithful of Red Sox Nation, baseball is more than a game, it is in its highest form a re-enactment of the universal Battle between Good and Evil.
Have I convinced you yet that Red Sox Nation is a religion, or at least a religious cult?
Even I have been converted to the cult of Red Sox Nation. Even I, who have approximately zero interest in sports. I’m one of those people whose only interest lies in outdoor sports — hiking, fishing, camping, canoeing — and outdoor sports don’t count as real sports. Yet fifteen years ago, before I moved out to California, I was a member of Red Sox Nation. I made my pilgrimages to Fenway. I read the box scores, back when newspapers carried box scores. I listened to Joe Castiglione give the sacred broadcasts. If the Red Sox can get someone like me to follow sports — then it must be more than sports, it must be religion.
Yet of course baseball can’t be religion. Sports can’t be religion. We all know what religion is. Social scientists here in the United States even have specific measurements to determine someone’s religiosity — things like belief in a higher power, engagement in prayer or an equivalent spiritual practice, attendance at religious services, affiliation to a religious institution, and so on. We are likely to use much the same measures as social scientists. If someone goes to church or temple, if they believe in God, if they pray regularly, if they identify with some widely accepted religion — then we call them religious. We who are not social scientists might add a couple of additional criteria for what defines a religious person — you’re supposed to read a sacred text or texts, and you’re only supposed to have one religious affiliation at a time.
By these measure, baseball is not a religion. But by these same measures, Unitarian Universalism is not a religion either. Many Unitarian Universalists do not believe in God. Many of us do not pray, nor even engage in any other widely accepted spiritual practice such as meditation. Many of us have multiple religious affiliations. A good number of us do not care much about sacred texts. Quite a few perfectly good Unitarian Universalists do not attend weekly services.
The problem with the usual American definition of religion is that it is based on Western Protestant Christianity. In order to be a Protestant Christian, you do have to believe in God. You do have to pray. You do have to read your Bible. You do have to attend religious services regularly. And you can only belong to one religion at a time.
We then apply these standards, which are based on Western Protestant Christianity, to all other religious traditions. It’s pretty straightforward to apply these criteria to Judaism and Islam. But we have to be more creative when applying these criteria to Buddhism: we have to include Buddhist meditation as a form of prayer, the sutras are like the Bible, and we get around the requirement of belief in God by saying that Buddhists believe in Buddha who is sort of like Jesus Christ.
We manage to make our clumsy definition of religion work — sort of — by forcing non-Christian traditions into Christian categories. This can become awkward. Take, for example, Confucianism. (Which, by the way, is called Confucianism by people in the West because we like to think of Confucius as a sort of sacred founder figure like Jesus Christ, even though he’s not that at all.) When Christian missionaries went to China in the early Modern era, they said to Confucian scholars, “Confucianism is a religion, right?” To which the scholars said, “Hm. Maybe. Well… not really.” Or take Shintoism. When Westerners finally forced their way into Japan in the late nineteenth century, they told the Japanese that Shintoism was a religion. This led to a certain amount of confusion because there was no word for “religion” in Japanese at that time. It turns out that our Western category of religion is not a universal category at all.
We can try to make religion into a more universal category by defining it something like this: Religion is that which brings meaning to our lives. To paraphrase the mid-twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich, religion is the ground of being. This definition fits better with Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shintoism, and Unitarian Universalism. This definition also fits sports. Sports brings meaning to the lives of many people. It can serve as the ground of our being.
If sports really is a religion, that could lead to some interesting conclusions.
First of all, like organized religion, sports does more than just bring meaning to people’s lives. Like organized religion, sports can also help build character and develop leadership abilities. This mostly applies to actually playing sports, as opposed to just watching sports. When you play sports, you learn self-discipline — just as when you learn spiritual practices like meditation or prayer, you learn self-discipline. Playing sports teaches you how to work with others on a team — just like serving on a committee in our congregation teaches you how to work with others on a team. And playing sports teaches you both leadership skills and followership skills, because you have to learn when to lead and when to follow the leadership of others — not unlike organized religion where we are constantly learning and relearning how and when to lead and how and when to follow.
But there is a fairly large difference between sports and religious traditions like Mainline Protestantism, Reform and Conservative Judaism, Unitarian Universalism, and other more progressive religious groups. These more progressive religious groups maintain the equality of men and women, recognize LGBTQIA+ rights, and rely on democratic process in running their congregations. By contrast, most sports teams are run as hierarchies, not as democracies. Most sports teams require a rigid separation of the sexes, and men’s sports are seen as more important. Most sports no room for non-binary or genderqueer people. Let’s take these one at a time.
We may criticize organized religion for being patriarchal, but organized sports is far more patriarchal. While it is true that Title IX requires schools to spend equal amounts of money on boys’ and girls’ sports, in most schools the all-male football team reigns supreme at the top of the sports hierarchy, while women’s sports like field hockey and softball remain at the bottom. In pro sports, the most popular major league teams are always the men’s teams. And there is really no place for non-binary or genderqueer people in sports. The only team sport I could think of where all genders are allowed to play on one team is Ultimate Frisbee, a sport that is so low on the sports hierarchy that it’s below even women’s sports.
Not only are most sports patriarchal, team sports are also hierarchal and non-democratic. A high school soccer team doesn’t get to vote on who their coach is going to be — the school administration hires the coach without any input from the students. (Compare that soccer team to this congregation, where you vote on whether to call your ministers; and think of the typical soccer coach who is far more authoritarian than you would ever allow me to be.) And then there are the referees, outside authorities who can wield great power over players and coaches. We are so accustomed to the hierarchy of coaches and referees that it’s almost impossible for us to imagine a democratically run team sport where the players referee themselves. Again, the only sport I could think of where players referee themselves is Ultimate Frisbee, which is barely even a sport.
Now let me turn to another conclusion. If we think of sports as a religion, I suspect a significant part of the well-documented decline of organized religion is not about people becoming less religious — instead, I suspect that people are leaving traditional religions for sports and other cultural phenomena that help people give meaning to their lives. I’m willing to bet that many of the so-called “Nones,” the people who check off “None” when asked their religious affiliation, have simply substituted sports for religious affiliation.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. If you feel you get more meaning from sports than from organized religion, who am I to tell you otherwise? Just remember that sports is not democratic, while by contrast progressive religious groups are bulwarks of democracy, training people in democratic skills and generally supporting democratic principles.
Ours is one of those congregations that is a bulwark of democracy. If you participate in this congregation, you get to practice basic skills of democracy, things like participating in committee meetings, joining with like-minded people to influence policy-makers, learning how to do public speaking, and voting in our annual meeting. We also openly advocate for democracy. We remind each other to vote, we remind each other to contact our elected representatives, sometimes we gather with others to exercise our right of peaceful assembly. In this, we are like many more progressive religious groups that support democratic process. I was just talking with my friend the Reform Jewish rabbi, and his congregation is as big a supporter of democracy as is ours; like our congregation, his congregation advocates for democratic principles and uses democratic principles to run their congregation. The Sikh gurdwara that I got to know about while living in Silicon Valley was another congregation that serves as a bulwark of democracy. In fact, aside from the Christian nationalists and some fringe groups like the Scientologists, it seems to me that most of the religious groups in the United States support democracy more than organized sports does.
So let’s return to the question with which I began: Is sports a religion? The answer is still — yes and no. No, sports is not a religion because the IRS doesn’t automatically grant tax exemptions to sports teams. No, sports is not a religion because you don’t have to believe in God or pray (but by those criteria, Therevada Buddhism isn’t a religion either.)
But — yes, sports is a religion because it gives meaning and purpose to people’s lives. Sports is a religion for many people who no longer have a religious affiliation, where it fills a religion-shaped hole in their lives. And sports provides additional meaning and purpose in the lives of many people who are part of more typical religious groups like our congregation. We should honor all the things that sports brings to the lvies of many people.
But even if you can’t accept sports as a religion, it seems pretty clear that while organized religion is in decline, sports continues to grow. And there’s a problem with these two trends. Sports does not provide major support for democracy in the way that many religious groups do. Yet we live in a time when democracy is under attack; democracy needs all the help and support it can get. We need as many institutions as we can possibly get to support democracy, and democratic principles. So religious traditions like ours remain critical bulwarks of democracy.