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Sports are the new religion for many Americans

Zan McPherson

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Immediately upon the Seahawks’ glorious and absurdly lucky win against the Green Bay Packers a few weeks ago, I called my twin brother in Seattle only to hear an ear-assaulting flood of laughing and screaming surrounded by distant firework explosions.

“Zan… I’m just, I’m just running around outside. I don’t know why. I just can’t sit still.”

Adrenaline was evidently surging through him, and I picked up on a faint sound of sobs and sniffles. This was the first time that Gavin had cried in two years, and it was because of a football game.

This reaction might seem absurd, even to an avid sports fan, but the Seahawks’ fan base has turned into a community that is inordinately devoted. Aside from the few who just hopped on the bandwagon, most fans, including my twin and me, hold an intense emotional attachment to the team and to each game. Passionate responses like this across the country have led psychologists to investigate the connections between sports and religion in America.

According to a survey done by the Public Religion Research Institute, one half of Americans believe that God or other supernatural forces play a role in the outcome of the Super Bowl. In this way, sports teams and players embody God’s will, and religion evidently plays directly into sports games.

But many psychologists argue further that the culture surrounding sports has managed to create a faith entirely separate from the religions that have already been established. Sports and religion are separate, and they serve the same purpose in relation to American culture and the psychology of human spirituality.

The stadium and the church are comparable in their ability to bring a community together in a ceremonial manner. Especially through singing and chanting, these revered spaces create the same feeling of social “electricity” as a result of seasonally ritualistic, unifying worship. As Psychology Today columnist Nigel Barber explains, sports fans “face painting, hair tinting and distinctive costumes are thought to satisfy specific religious goals” like establishing a communal identity and escaping from boring, everyday life.

In the same way that people are often “born” into their religion, children raised in sporty families are “born” into a sports following. Heretics and fans of rival teams receive similarly hateful threats from specific fan bases and religions. Also, through enculturation, as leading sports psychologist Daniel Wann mentions, people associate specific vocabulary with their team and religion alike: dedication, celebration, suffering, worship, faith.

Most Americans do not consciously connect the spiritual aspects of sports with the predominant religions that exist today. The deeply emotional and spiritual experience that comes along with watching sporting events, especially ones as nerve-wracking as the recent Seahawks-Packers game, is not associated with religion because the game seems more present than some aspects of religion.

But even though religious gods are technically abstract and athletes are living people, both trace back to the same cause. Humans seek to join a communal identity, but more importantly, they seek faith. In a religiously declining modern world, we have adapted to our basic need for faith, devotion and worship by dedicating ourselves to sports teams. As traditional faith continues to decline, Americans will be more worried about winning a game than achieving salvation.

The aforementioned survey found that three quarters of Americans are more likely to be watching football than going to church on Sunday. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 10 years, the pews were empty.

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Sports are the new religion for many Americans