“How sport became the new religion”

“The Conversation” website has an excellent piece titled “How Sport Became the New Religion,” by Hugh McLeod, professor emeritus at the Univ. of Birmingham (U.K.). McLeod traces the history of the rise of sport, and the concurrent decline of religion, over the past two centuries. From his perspective as a U.K. historian, he identifies several key moments:

1850s: sport was of central importance in the U.K.’s elite private high schools; these elite high schools were training grounds for Anglican clergy, and one third of the top cricketers and footballers from Oxford and Cambridge Universities went on to become clergy

1880s: “Muscular Christianity” movement begins to develop, with clergy advocates emphasizing spirt, mind, and body

1920s and 30s: a large percentage of club teams in hockey and rounders (women), and cricket and football (men) were church-based clubs

1960: the Football Association (soccer to us Yanks) lifted its ban on Sunday games

1960s: emergence of a trend of scattering a deceased person’s ashes on the field of their favorite sports team

1990s: “sports chaplaincy” movement becomes a standard position in many U.K. sports teams, esp. football (soccer) and rugby

2000s: “Game Plan,” a U.K. government initiative to “reduce crime and enhance social inclusion,” claims that participation in sports can reduce social ills — i.e., society is now looking to sport rather than to organized religion to reduce social ills

2017: in spite of sports scandals, 71% of Britons believe “sport is a force for the good”

Today: McLeod writes that “religion has been crowded out by sport in general society, it remains a conspicuous part of elite sport – with a number of studies around the world finding that athletes tend to be more religious than non-athletes.”

Obviously, the U.S. would have a somewhat different timeline. But the end result is much the same: participation in organized religion continues to decline, while participation in sports — both as a player and/or a fan — remains robust.

So don’t believe people who claim that religion is dying out in the U.S. Maybe Christianity is in decline, and probably other organized religions as well. But participation in sports is not in decline, and in fact it has taken over the role that religion used to play in the U.S.

Joe-pye Weed

Perhaps my favorite fall flower is Joe-pye weed (Eutrochium spp.). There’s something about the color of the flowers and the color of the foliage that gets me, I don’t know why. I often have a strong emotional response to certain colors, and when sunlight catches the dull purple of Joe-pye Weed, I can feel it in my chest. I have no idea why this is so, I just know that it happens.

On a walk this afternoon, I came upon some Joe-pye Weed nest to a rushing stream in the Whitney-Thayer Woods in Cohasset. About a hundred feet of the trail, near one of the crossings of Brass Kettle Brook, was flooded from the torrential rains we had last week. I was teetering along on logs and stones that someone had conveniently placed alongside the trail, when there it was by the side of the trail: those dull purple buds almost ready to burst into bloom.

A capitulesence of Joe-pye Weed showing purple buds, but as yet no blossoms

I’ve been trying to figure out which species of Joe-pye weed this was. I think it’s Coastal Plain Joe-pye Weed (Eutrochium dubium), but I admit that I get confused by the online dichotomous key of the Native Plant Trust (—are the leaf blades triple-veined? —are the stems spotted or streaked with anthocyanin? —what exactly is the shape of the capitulescence?). Admittedly, I didn’t try as hard as I might to figure it out, since the dichotomous key tells me that E. dubium is “difficult to distinguish from related species.” Nor do I really need to know exactly which species of Joe-pye Weed it is — they all have similar flowers which evoke the same emotional response in me.


I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston yesterday (in part so I could take advantage of their air conditioning on a steamy, stormy day). Major art museums in the West tend to be strange places, because they are typically full of deities from many different cultures. We in the West may have eradicated deities from our homes, and it looks like we’re in the process of slowly eradicating our public places of worship — but we like to salvage a handful of deities from all the cultures we’ve colonized, purify them of their religiosity by calling them “art,” and putting them in glass cases. Such is the trajectory the colonization of religion.

A small household shrine made of terracotta caught my eye. From Phoenicia in the seventh or sixth century before the Common Era, the shrine contains the goddess Astarte. Astarte was a goddess from Canaan. Some sources say that she was merged with, or took over from, the earlier Canaanite goddess Anat, a fierce goddess of fertility and war. Other sources say Astarte traces her origins back to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. Still other sources relate her to Esther, or to Aphrodite. There was plenty of cultural borrowing in the Ancient Near East.

King Solomon is taken to task in the Hebrew Bible because he worshiped Astarte, among other deities: “Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians… So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not completely follow the Lord, as his father David had done” [1 Kings 11:5-6]. One of Jeremiah’s jeremiads was against Astarte. The Shalvi/ Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women has a brief article on Astarte that’s worth reading, and that concludes by saying: “Although our sources do not provide enough information to identify definitively which Israelites were particularly attracted to the worship of Astarte or the reasons for their attraction, it is possible that some devotees were compelled by the presence of a female divine figure in an otherwise male-dominated religious environment.” You can learn a great deal more about Astarte in the Bible in the essay “Astarte in the Bible” by Stephanie Anthonioz, in David T. Sugimoto, ed., Transformation of a Goddess: Ishtar — Astarte — Aphrodite (Academic Press Fribourg, 2014).

But the Phoenicians apparently had no compunctions about worshiping Astarte. This small sculpture shows her nude, as if she were Ishtar. She is given an Egyptian headdress, and the columns on either side of her are topped with depictions of the Egyptian god Bes. She is, if you will, a multicultural goddess. This is not entirely surprising, given who the Phoenicians were. They were merchants and sailors, and they traded throughout the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, perhaps sailing even as far as Britain. No wonder, then, that they worshiped multicultural deities.

A small terra cotta relief sculpture of a woman standing between two columns.
Household shrine from Phoenicia, with the goddess Astarte
(Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1990.605)

Deconstruction and reconstruction

“…The term ‘postmodern’ had been used sporadically by process [theology] thinkers since the 1960s. The later French movement that gave ‘postmodernism’ wide currency reinforced many Whiteheadean criticisms of modernity, but it concluded on a ‘deconstructive’ note. Whiteheadians [and other process thinkers] joined with other constructive critics of modernity in emphasizing reconstruction.” — John B. Cobb, Jr., “Process Theology,” in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Routledge, 2007), p. 561.

Unitarian Universalists are in the direct lineage of process thought, through the contributions of thinkers like Charles Hartshorne and Bernard Loomer, both of whom were members of Unitarian Universalist congregations. And for many years, our thinking emphasized the reconstructive aspects of postmodernity. More recently, though, I’ve been feeling that we Unitarian Universalists (and I include myself in this critique) have been following the French postmodernists by emphasizing the deconstructive aspects of postmodernity. This is due, I think, to our adoption of liberal political discourse, which currently emphasizes deconstruction over reconstruction — liberal politics tends to default towards breaking down stereotypes and attacking the sacred cows of the existing social order, as opposed to trying to construct a better social order. We who ally ourselves with liberal politics know what we are against, but we sometimes find it difficult to articulate what we are for.

Speaking for myself, to get out of reactive deconstruction, it’s been helpful to think about process thought. But the process thought of Hartshorne, Loomer, et al., seems a little dated these days. Maybe for us Unitarian Universalists, the work that Dan McKanan is doing around ecospirituality is one way to be reconstructive rather than deconstructive. Although, finding myself still in a deconstructive mode, I can’t help but keep looking for someone who isn’t a Western white male….

Joyce Mansour

…Il n’a pas de gestes
Seulement ma peau
Et les fourmis qui grouillent entre mes jambes oncteuses
Portent des masques du silence en travaillent….

…There are no deeds
Only my skin
And the ants that crawl between my unctuous legs
Carry masks of silence while laboring….

— from the poem “Il n’a pas de mots” by Joyce Mansour, trans. Emilie Moorehouse, Poetry, June 2023, p. 244

Joyce Mansour (1928-1986) — so I learn from Marwa Helal’s introduction to the selection of Mansour’s poetry in the June issue of Poetry magazine — was born in London to a family of Egyptian and Jewish descent. She grew up in Cairo, where she spoke one or two contemporary Arabic dialects, and learned to read classical Arabic. She spoke Egyptian and Syriac, and read classical Arabic. After she married Samir Mansour, a Franco-Egyptian, she began writing poetry in French. She was exiled from Egypt in the 1950s, during the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser. She then lived in France, where she became associated with the Surrealists.

Helal warns us against simplistic interpretations of Mansour’s poems: “While some might try to categorize her work under the umbrella of Feminism™ [sic], Mansour was writing beyond the body and this world…. Par of colonization’s cruel work upon all of us is that it repurposes the work of poets like Mansour for its own ends and meaning. Kind of like how American English conveniently erases important etymologies, essentially whitewashing its own linguistic heritage. But language and meaning existed before colonizing languages like French and English….”

…Je suis l’argent
L’argent qui fait l’argent sans savoir pourquoi….

…I am money
Money that makes money without knowing why….

— from the poem “Je suis la nuit” by Joyce Mansour, trans. Emilie Moorehouse, Poetry, June 2023, p. 248

A final comment by Helal on Mansour: “I think what’s important to consider as you engage with Mansour’s work is to remember she isn’t some radical exception — a woman having escaped or defied gender and its imposed or cultural norms — but a woman who made a place to be her full self in these poems…. I want to avoid ascribing or imposing any kind of Eurocentric reading or categorization of Mansour’s work because, though she lived in France, she held so many cultures and lineages in her….”

More on Mansour: an essay about her by translator Emilie Moorehouse.

Coral fungus

I almost stepped on this small fungus — it was maybe two and a half inches tall — when I was out for a walk today. I’m not competent to identify it, but between my field guides and iNaturalist, I’m thinking it’s a coral fungus in genus Clavulinopsis. Not that I’m particularly anxious to learn what species it is. I’m more interested in its weird beauty: delicate little sculptural forms rising up out of the woodland litter.

Coral fungus, perhaps genus Clavulinopsis

Blog index

I’m in the process of bringing the index to this blog up to date. I maintained the index up until 2012, then let if fall into disuse.

You might wonder: who’s going to bother looking at an index when you can just use the search function? But I feel that a blog index can do two things. First, just as when browsing a physical library, a reader might stumble across topics they didn’t even know they were interested in. Second, I think the index will serve as another additional little piece of search engine optimization, exposing search engine bots to yet another mention of obscure names and topics.

If you happen to use the index, and come across any problems, please email me or leave a comment.

The non-neutrality of “AI”

Whatever you call it — “artificial intelligence,” “machine learning,” or as author Ted Chiang has suggested, “applied statistics” — it’s in the news right now. Whatever you call it, it does not present a neutral point of view. Whoever designs the software necessarily injects a bias into their AI project.

This has become more clear with the emergence of a conservative Christian chatbot, designed to give appropriately conservative Christian answers to religious and moral questions. Dubbed Biblemate.io by the software engineer who constructed it, it will give you guidance on divorce (don’t do it), LGBTQ+ sex (don’t do it), or whether to speak in tongues (it depends). N.B.: Progressive Christians will not find this to be a useful tool, but many conservative and evangelical Christians will.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Muslim software engineers are working on a Muslim chatbot, and Jewish software engineers are working on a Jewish chatbot. Then as long as we’re thinking about the inherent bias in chatbots, we might start thinking about how racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, etc., affect so-called AI. We might even start thinking about how the very structure of chatbots, and AI more generally, might replicate (say) patriarchy. Or whatever.

The creators of the big chatbots, like ChatGPT, are trying to pass them off as neutral. No, they’re not neutral. That’s why evangelical Christians feel compelled to build their own chatbots.

Mind you, this is not another woe-is-me essay saying that chatbots, “AI,” and other machine learning tools are going to bring about the end of the world. This is merely a reminder that all such tools are ultimately created by humans. And anything created by humans —including machines and software — will have the biases and weaknesses of its human creators.

With that in mind, here are some questions to consider: Whom would you trust to build the chatbot you use? Would you trust that chatbot built by an evangelical Christian? Would you trust a chatbot built by the Chinese Communist Party? How about the U.S. government? Would you trust a chatbot built by a 38-year-old college dropout and entrepreneur who helped start a cryptocurrency scheme that has been criticized for exploiting impoverished people? (That last describes ChatGPT.) Would you trust a “free” chatbot built by any Big Tech company that’s going to exploit your user data?

My point is pretty straightforward. It’s fine for us use chatbots and other “AI” tools. But like any new media, we need to maintain a pretty high level of skepticism about them — we need to use them, and not let them use us.

LGBTQ+ and religion

Here are a few things I’ve come across recently on the topic of religion and LGBTQ+ issues:

1. A statement signed by some 300 prominent Muslim scholars and clerics titled “Navigating Differences: Clarifying Sexual and Gender Ethics in Islam” interprets the Quran as asserting that “God explicitly condemns sexual relations with the same sex”; and further, that “as a general rule, Islam strictly prohibits medical procedures intended to change the sex of healthy individuals, regardless of whether such procedures are termed gender ‘affirming’ or ‘confirming.'” While acknowledging that there are Muslims who interpret the Quran as fully supportive of LGBTQ+ rights, these Muslim scholars and clerics say that public schools should not force their Muslim children to hear any messages that support what they call “LGBTQ ideology.” These Muslim scholars and clerics join many conservative/evangelical Christians, many Orthodox Jews, and many other religious subgroups in saying that their religion does not affirm LGBTQ+ rights.

2. Three social science scholars realized that U.S. research on LGBTQ+ and religion tends to focus on the attitudes of non-LGBTQ+ people towards LGBTQ+ persons. But there isn’t much social science research on how LGBTQ+ persons themselves relate to religion. So last month, they did a survey of LGBTQ+ persons to ask them about their relation to religion. While they admit that their survey is not representative, the results are still of interest:

“Our findings suggest that the relationships LGBTQ+ people have with religion are more complicated than most media headlines portray. Many LGBTQ+ people are religious… 36% of participants report a religious affiliation; about the same percentage say they attend religious services at least once a year…. A full 80% of survey respondents were raised religious. Of those who no longer identify religiously, nearly 1 in 3 say they nonetheless continue to feel a connection to their religious heritage.”

Let’s hope this preliminary survey eventually leads to published research on this topic.

3. Sarah Imhoff, professor of religious studies at Indiana University, has written an essay for The Conversation titled “Nonbinary genders beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’ would have been no surprise to ancient rabbis.” She says in part:

“As a scholar of Judaism and gender, I find that people across the political spectrum often assume religion must be inherently conservative and unchanging when it comes to sex and gender. They imagine that religions have always embraced a world in which there are only men and women. But for Judaism – and for many other religious traditions, too – history shows that’s just not true.”

My favorite part of this essay is when Imhoff points to interpretations by ancient rabbis, found in the Jewish Midrash, where Genesis 1:27 is interpreted to mean that the first human created by God was both male and female — not exactly what we today would call transgender, but definitely a human who did not have binary gender.

Summer reading: nature books for kids

Last week, I led some ecology programs in Maine with kids of various ages, including with the “Sand Diggers,” a group of children in preK-K. A few days before we drove up to Maine I checked the weather forecast. The National Weather Service was predicting rain most of the week, meaning we might be indoors much of the week. Uh oh. All my lesson plans for the Sand Diggers were for outdoors activities. I decided to get some nature storybooks to provide some indoors activities with the Sand Diggers.

I found a couple of good books at a nearby Mass Audubon sanctuary gift store. Our local bookstore didn’t really have any nature-themed picture books. So with the help of my librarian sister, I placed on online order for seven nature-themed picture books. Amazon was the only online bookseller who promised delivery in time for our trip to Maine; all I had to do was sign up for a month of free Prime “membership.” Of course, only one out of the books I ordered arrived before we left for Maine, typical of the poor customer service offered by Amazon. (Needless to say, I canceled my Prime “membership” before I had to actually start paying for that kind of poor service.)

Enough about Amazon, because this post is not about how horrible Amazon is. It’s a post about nine nature books for kids, all of which I think are pretty good. Capsule reviews of each book are below, with the best books saved for last.

The nine storybooks arranged on a table.
L-R, top row: I Can Name 50 Trees Today (the only book shipped on time by Amazon); The Lorax (shipped late by Amazon, but I got a free used copy from a Mass Audubon Little Free Library); Celia Planted a Garden (shipped late by Amazon); We Are Water Protectors (shipped late by Amazon); Light the Sky, Firefly (purchased from Mass Audubon).
L-R, bottom row: Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt (shipped late by Amazon); Over and Under the Pond (shipped late by Amazon); Hike (purchased from Maine Audubon); The Hike (shipped late by Amazon).
Amazon shipped just 1 out of 7 books on time. Thank goodness for Mass Audubon and Maine Audubon, so I had books to read to the Sand Diggers. Support your local booksellers!
Continue reading “Summer reading: nature books for kids”