Is soccer a religion?

Source: Creativecommons/flickr
Source: Creativecommons/flickr

This is not meant as a rhetorical question, but a rather serious one. Is Soccer a religion? What makes it one, and if not, why? There are several reasons why one can argue for Soccer ( or football) as you call it, to be classified as religion. “Religion,” which comes from the Latin root “Religio,” which means to practice, or to do something over and again. The problem only begins with semantics, but doesn’t end there. I believe that it is important to clarify what religion means, what its role in public sphere is, and how one is to deal with it, for purposes other than merely spiritual. The role of religion needs to be understood now, more than ever – with seismic changes taking place around us in the U.S, vast political and demographic changes in the Middle East and North Africa and also economic challenges and recession making a deep impact on people in Europe. Many of the explanations offered to us, by journalists, academics and policy makers are couched in the language of “religion.”

There is much more going on in the religious realm, if one pays close attention to it. The debate becomes salient in the context of “football hooliganism,” as in the latest case of Egypt, where 22 people are reported to have died in clashes, following a verdict about football riots in 2011.  Religion in the public sphere is making a come-back, often for the wrong reasons. While the debates advocated by many are outright misleading, there are many nuances to the debate, if one pays close attention and has the patience to look carefully at the intersections of religion and the public sphere.

Jonathan Benthall, a scholar of Sociology of Religion argues that a “religion” has the following 19 characteristics. Let’s see if Soccer satisfies these criterion:

  1. Appeal to supernatural entities
  2. Appeal to an ideal world
  3. Totalizing discourse, creeds, master dogmas and scriptures
  4. Ontology, or an explanation of human beings’ place in nature
  5. Foundation narratives – Narratives that talk about how the world was created
  6. Conversion experiences
  7. Acceptance of doctrinal paradox
  8. Ceremonies, Rituals and Spiritual disciplines
  9. Solace in the face of death and suffering
  10. Martyrdom
  11. Demonology
  12. Moral imperatives based on altruism
  13. Internalization of a moral code
  14. Sectarianism
  15. Identity politics
  16. The sacred-profane distinction
  17. Trance states
  18. From the local to the transnational
  19. Patina – Referring to having survived for a long time.

So what? One might be tempted to ask. While one can argue that Soccer satisfies almost (if not all) of the above criterion, does it become a “ religion,” despite not being considered one in a traditional sense. What about Scientology, which is struggling to being considered as a religion, despite not being accepted by many, including the liberal western states of the United Kingdom and France, where it is being viewed with much suspicion, and treated almost like a cult. This article shows how the “religion” of Scientology is being actively seen as a “fraudulent” faith.

This question of whether something is considered a religion is relevant also because of its public policy implications. There is something to be said about the negative connotation that the term “religion” has in certain circles. Certain societies and intellectual groups actively despise religion and religious practices and anything pertaining remotely to religion is seen with suspicion, if not active hostility.

While the United States guarantees freedom of religion and one can choose to believe in practically anything that one wishes, other parts of the world are not so tolerant. The case against Scientology in France centres on a complaint made in 1998 by a woman who said she was enrolled into Scientology after members approached her in the street and persuaded her to do a personality test. The Independent quotes her as saying that in the following months, she paid more than €21,000 for books, “purification packs” of vitamins, sauna sessions and an “e-meter” to measure her spiritual progress, all fraudulent ways to “extract money.” While this article is not meant to defend Scientology or explain its doctrines, I merely used this as an example to illustrate one of the debates in the public sphere concerning religion.

Any debate about religion in the public sphere these days (and since the renaissance) has centered on how it impacts the “public sphere.” While one can argue about the need to keep religion in the private realm and separate the public sphere and religion – reality is much more complex. Robert Wuthnow, Jose Casanova, Jonathan Benthall – all world-renowned Sociologists and thinkers who have studied the role of religion in the public sphere have argued for understanding, accepting the role ( and indeed, the need) for religion to address some of our social evils such as poverty, hunger and homelessness. And it is hard to argue that religion( through faith-based organizations such as the Church, Mosque, Temple or Synagogue) continues to address these fundamental challenges on a daily basis. Religion is also making a comeback given the economic recession, the lack of government intervention in providing social security ( Western societies are facing this challenge more than others, if one looks at this closely). A recent IRIN article pointed out that just Zakat contributions ( charity given by Muslims) throughout the world is to the tune of between $200 billion to a trillion, which is more than 15 times the global humanitarian development aid, given by all the western nations combined. This staggering potential cannot be ignored.

I would like to believe that globally, there is a shift to pay attention to what religion is – in its various manifestations, its key role in the lived human experience and also its critical contribution to making our lives better. Finally, as Robert Wuthnow  famously said:  “ You may close the door on religion, but it comes flying through the window.” Perhaps it is time we make peace with the idea of religion and learn to live with it.


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