PART I: Defining Religion in the Context of Sports

Defining Religion

In order to define the role religion plays in the public sphere, it is important to "establish a working definition of religion" (McGuire 5). Of course, this would assume that a single definition for religion exists, and more importantly, that the definition is universally accepted. Neither is the case. In fact, dozens of different definitions of religion, each subtly different, help to cloud our basic understanding. Consider the elements in the definitions of religion offered by four scholars.

Emile Durkheim, a French academic and sociologist, believes that "a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden - beliefs, practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them" (McGuire 11). Moreover, he wrote that, "phenomena held to be religious consist in obligatory beliefs, connected with clearly defined practices which are related to given objects of those beliefs" (Pickering, p. 93).

Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist, argues that religion is defined "as a set of beliefs, practices, and institutions which men have evolved in various societies, as far as they can be understood, as responses to those aspects of their life and situation which are believed not in the empirical-instrumental sense to be rationally understandable and/or controllable, and to which they attach a significance which includes some kind of reference to the relevant actions and events to man's conception of the existence of the "supernatural " order which is conceived and felt to have a fundamental bearing on man's position in the universe and the values which give meaning to his fate as an individual and his relations to his fellows" (McGuire 11-12).

Milton Yinger, who wrote The Scientific Study of Religion, posits that religion "can be defined as a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with these ultimate problems of human life" (McGuire 12).

And finally, Clifford Geertz provides a functional definition of religion, noting "a religion is 1) a system of symbols which acts to 2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by 3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and 4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that 5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic" (McGuire 8-9).

From these different perspectives, it can be understood that, at minimum, religion is (or attempts to be) based on belief. It is composed of certain axioms with respect to life which seem to be true but there is no way they can be verified: they are simply accepted without proof. They are, like the basis of any religion, the basic tenets from which all else follows.

Defining Civil Religion

The phrase Œcivil religionı can be attributed to Jean Jacque Rousseauıs essay, The Social Contract. Rousseau "outlines the simple dogmas of the civil religion: the existence of God, the life to come, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, and the exclusion of religion intoleranceŠ All other religious opinions," he argues, "are outside the cognizance of the state and may be freely held by citizens" (Bellah 172). Simply, there is room for "religious" beliefs in other aspects of life.

Civil religion is easily identified in the United States. It exists throughout the systems that comprise our government, our displays of patriotism and even our efforts to combat basic social problems such as homelessness and hunger, or to promote racial equality. As Robert Bellah explains it, "a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things" accounted for the religious content of our republic, and "while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, [it] was neither sectarian not in any specific sense Christian" (Bellah 175).

Catherine Albanese claims that other popular forms of religion develop in ways akin to those of civil religion. She re-terms Bellahıs idea as "cultural religion," claiming that it represents the cultural creeds and codes of a community that get enacted or dramatized in cultic ritual (Albanese 322). For Albanese, it is not surprising that sports have given people a code of conduct for everyday living. As Joseph Price writes, "if the ball field is a miniature rehearsal for the game of life, it tells us that life is a struggle between contesting forces in which there is a winning and losing side. It also teaches that Œsuccess [or winning] depends on teamworkı and that in competition Œloyalty, fair play, and being a Œgood sportı in losingı are virtues" (Price, Sabbath 35-36).

The elements that comprise religion, namely the concept of belief, as well as the systems and practices referenced above, are all important to an understanding of civil religion. But more importantly, those elements must exist simultaneously in the public sphere ­ without specific religious tenets or a define liturgy to act as boundaries. Those elements serve as a bridge between an individualıs private conception of religion and the societyıs public endorsement of things that they believe are "religious." And under those circumstances, almost anything can qualify as a civil religion.

Religion and Sacred Space

Among the most important elements of religion, civil or otherwise, is sacred space ­ how it is identified and how it is created. Edward Linenthal, a professor of Religion and American Culture at the University of Wisconsin and David Chidester, a professor of Comparative Religion at the University of Cape Town in South Africa have developed a detailed analysis of sacred space. Their definition of what is "sacred" is based on their conception of how people understand religion. They write, "in the study of religion, two broad lines of definition have been advanced, one substantial, the other situationalŠFrom [the substantial] perspective, the sacred has been identified as an uncanny, awesome, or powerful manifestation of reality, full of ultimate significance. By contrast, however, a situational analysisŠ has located the sacred at the nexus of human practices and social projects" (Linenthal and Chidester 5).

There are, however, a variety of views on what exactly how a something qualifies as sacred. Claude Levi-Strauss proposed the sacred is "a value of indeterminate signification, in itself empty of meaning and therefore susceptible to reception of any meaning whatsoever" (Linenthal and Chidester 6). Chidester and Linenthal interpret this to mean "the sacred is nothing more nor less than a national supplement to the ongoing cultural work of sacralizing space, time, persons, and social relations" (Linenthal and Chidester 6). Jonathan Z. Smith agrees, and according to Linenthal and Chidester "has shown how place is sacralized as the result of the cultural labor of ritual, in specific historical situations involving the hard work of attention, memory, design, construction, and control of place" (Linenthal and Chidester 6).

From those additional perspectives, Linenthal and Chidester craft an explanation of sacred space, in three steps. "First," they write, "we can identify sacred space as ritual space, a location for formalized, repeatable symbolic performances. As sacred space, a ritual site is set apart from or carved out of an "ordinary" environment to provide an arena for the performance of controlled, "extraordinary" patterns of action" (Linenthal and Chidester 9). "Second, sacred space is significant space, a site, orientation, or set of relations subject to interpretation because it focuses crucial questions about what it means to be a human being in a meaningful world" (Linenthal and Chidester 12). "Third and finally, sacred space is inevitable contested space, a site of negotiated contests over the legitimate ownership of sacred symbolsŠ space is fundamental in any exercise of power" (Linenthal and Chidester 15). For Linenthal and Chidester, a sacred space is claimed, owned, and operated by people advancing specific interests ­ it canıt be discovered or founded like any other space.

There are different considerations when considering built environments as elements of sacred space. Philosopher Mircea Eliade argues "the sacred erupted, manifested, or appeared in certain places, causing them to become powerful centers or meaningful worlds" (Linenthal and Chidester 6). From Eliadeıs perspective, things become sacred; they canıt be constructed for that purpose. But, Linenthal and Chidester believe that built environments are obviously constructed as locations of religious meaning and significance and that, "places of worship, such as churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, have been marked off, ritualized and interpreted as specific sites of sacred space in America" (Linenthal and Chidester 13).

In short, Linenthal and Chidester allow for more commercial forms of construction to be considered sacred. As they explain it, by "extending the interpretation of specific signs, many other built environments have been identified and analyzed as sacred space in America. A preliminary inventory would have to include the following sites: cities; homes; schools; cemeteries; hospitals, asylums and prisons; tourist attractions; museums; and even shopping malls" (Linenthal and Chidester 14). In particular, built environments depend "not only upon a symbolic conquest or construction of place," they argue, "but also upon the temporal processes of ritual and practice, memory and narrative, and the ongoing engagement with historical factors and change" (Linenthal and Chidester 25). In other words, even a space not intended for designation as sacred upon its construction can, in time, be deemed as such.

Sports and Cultural Religion

All civil religions balance the literal with the theoretical and the public with the private. As Thomas Luckmann explains it, there are things that civil religions must contend with, simple realities they must endure. For example, "religion becomes a circumscribed and eminently visible part of social reality which includes not only founders, prophets, sacred texts, theologians, and rituals but also buildings, Sunday schools, fundraisers and church tax collectors, ministers' wives and sextons" (The Invisible Religion, Page 73).

A sport must adopt the basic form that a religion does, both physically and spiritually, in order to be considered a type of civil religion. Among the characteristics common to both religion and sports are ideas and images related to deity, faithful followers, and most importantly, belief. In addition, there are sacred spaces and ritual sites, historical texts, and well-worn traditions. Catherine Albanese compares sports and religions writing "sports and deliberate religious rituals, through their performances, create an Œotherı world of meaning, complete with its own rules and boundaries, dangers and successes." (Price, Sabbath 35-36). In other words both sports and religious rituals establish a sense of order. "By setting up boundaries and defining the space of the game, sports have helped Americans fit a grid to their own experience in order to define it and give it structure" (Price, Sabbath 35-36).

But, "a sport is not a religion in the same way that Methodism, Presbyterianism, or Catholicism is a religion," writes Michael Novak, "these are not the only kinds of religion. There are secular religions, civil religions" (Novak 18). Sports can easily fulfill the role that religion plays in society if the individuals seeking that spiritual influence allow for it.

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