"The comparisons between sport and religion are under-studied. On the surface both offer places of communal gathering, heroic figures, rituals, and are steeped in a quest for betterment. Sport and religion both celebrate group values and offer excitement and heightened emotions. Sport and religion are grounded in disciplined practice, a devotion to a cause, and a belief in the unseen. And both require faith. The primary difference however, is that sport is profane and of this earthly world while most religions focus on the sacred and a life beyond death."
-- Scott Tinley
Two time Ironman World Champion and Triathalon Hall of Famer
I read this quote in an article written by Scott Tinley who won the Ironman World Championships back in the 80s and I found it fascinating and insightful. It brought some clarity to a lot of thinking I had been doing around this journey and why I feel such a spiritual connection to it. Ever since reading the article I have done a lot of thinking about it and the connection between religion and sports. Here’s my take.
It took me a little while to get comfortable with actually saying this, but I believe that sports are a religion. There are a few layers and clarifications that go along with this statement, but after giving it a lot of thought, I am totally comfortable with saying it. Let me explain why.
For purposes of my argument, I would like to clearly state my definition of “religion”. I believe that in its simplest form, the only true purpose of religion should be to provide humans with a way to encounter and live into the spiritual existence. This existence may or may not include a belief in any formal deity or theology. Now, there are many different opinions and views on what that spiritual existence actually is, and my intent is not to get into any of that. My intent is to show that sports do provide a path for encountering that spiritual existence and as such, can be considered a religion as I have defined it.
At the center of my argument is the intent of the individual in participating in any “religious” activity. I know many people who attend church every Sunday but for them church is not a spiritual activity at all. For them attending church is a way of meeting cultural norms, a social activity, a requirement to maintaining status in the community, and a number of other reasons that do not relate to any spiritual ends. My point here is that although they are participating in a traditionally accepted “religious” activity, their intent or motivation is not centered on living into a more spiritual existence.
On the other hand, I know many athletes, myself included, that find the act of participating in sports a highly spiritual activity. Again, the key here in my mind is intent. For me this all started when I began playing Lacrosse. Lacrosse is an ancient game that the Native Americans used as a way to honor the creator. They believed that the game was given to them by the creator and as such participating in the game was much more of a spiritual activity than a physical one. Games were used to help cure the sick, end droughts, bring favor to the people in times of need, or give thanks. As I learned the history and purpose of the game, I began to tap into those ancient themes and playing it became a highly spiritual experience for me.
As I transitioned into running and triathlon, I found that the time I spent out in nature physically challenging myself provided me a way to tap into my spiritual self in a way that I had never experienced sitting in a church.
Now, I think it is important to clarify that I am in no way saying that there is no place for traditional organized religion. Attending traditional church is also something that is of great value to me and provides another path to experience the spiritual. My point is simply that sports or athletics can also provide that experience and can add depth and texture over and above what is traditionally accepted as religion.
I do have to say, however, that I have found that my experiences participating in sports are often more pure than my experiences in organized religion. The reason is this; organized religion often makes itself the center of the religious experience rather than putting the spiritual at the center of the experience. It is my strong belief that religions can be a way for man to draw closer to God (if that is your spiritual model) but that God does NOT need religion to draw closer to mankind. I don’t believe that God will only accept one pathway to a relationship with him. Again, in my opinion the key here is intent.
I can honestly say that for me personally I feel I am closer to my spiritual self and God (my own personal model of the spiritual existence) when I am running down a trail in the wilderness surrounded by God’s creation. I feel a more direct connection to God an5d spend the time in what feels as a very active, personal prayer and conversation with God.
When training with others or participating in a race, this experience becomes a way to engage in fellowship with others, complete with rituals and a quest to better ourselves and encourage each other, much as a traditional congregation.
I want to highlight, as I close, that I do not intend this to be a critique or indictment of traditional religion. My intent is to make the argument that engaging in sports or athletics should be, based on intent, considered as just as much of a religious or spiritual experience.
Finally, my argument in this case only applies to participation, not watching sports and athletics. I am not saying that I don’t think that there isn’t an argument there but I need to think through that one. Need to do more thinking on that one.
I know that many of you will disagree with me on my argument here. Please comment below, I would love to hear your thoughts, ESPECIALLY if you disagree with me.