Today’s elite athletes have much at stake in sports. Climbing up the rankings within youth, collegiate and professional sports is no doubt daunting, where the victor has the best chance of advancing and everybody will seemingly do whatever it takes to win. Competition can produce uncertainty and anxiety in the lives of athletes, where the gap between sporting existence and religious living (outside of sports) is smaller than one might think (Nesti 2010).
There are many ways to comprehend the relationship between sport and religion. In their book Understanding Sport as a Religious Phenomenon, Bain-Selbo and Sapp (2016) highlight Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion (e.g., ritual, doctrine, mythic, experiential, ethical, social and artistic) as aspects for interpreting sports as religion: e.g., in the mythical creativity of Brazilian soccer teams, or the emotional highs and lows of the New England Patriot’s victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the 2015 Superbowl. Bain-Selbo and Sapp draw upon the work of Durkheim, a founding father of sociology, to exemplify how the rituals and community life of religion—i.e., “collective effervescence”—can draw sports people together as displayed by fans of teams like the New Zealand All Blacks. In support of secularization theories, these authors conclude that, because the status of religious institutions is declining, “religiosity is diffused through our lives to greater and lesser degrees” (Bain-Selbo and Sapp 2016: 134). In other words, religion is not disappearing in the twenty-first century, but the clear division between conceptions of religion and the secular—in this case, sports—has blurred and thus requires a more careful examination of how sports interact with religion and vice versa.
In light of the fact that the role of religion in western industrialized society is not as clear as it was 500, or even 100, years ago (Taylor 2007), some sociologists have begun to investigate how ordinary people act religiously in their everyday lives (i.e., lived religion). Ammerman (2016: 87) outlines that this area of study examines regular people, instead of religious professionals, to determine how ordinary people live spiritually outside of institutionalized religious settings. Orsi (1997: 7) explains that religion can still be seen as something unique and distinct from secular life, but that, in concentrating on the connection between experience and religion, “religion comes into being in an ongoing, dynamic relationship with the realities of everyday life.” Thus, the focus of lived religion is not on authority found in religious traditions or the clergy but highlights how individuals freely choose to live out their spiritual lives. This kind of sociological work is not anti-religious or anti-institutional, because, as Ammerman (2016: 88) notes, institutional religion’s influence on ordinary people should not be excluded or understood as disconnected from everyday life. Ammerman and others (e.g., Bergman 2014) are clear that they do not wish to separate spirituality from religion, as if institutionalized religion is devoid of spirituality or that it destroys personal spirituality. On the contrary, lived religion in the twenty-first century remains focused on ordinary “domains of life where sacred things are being produced, encountered, and shared” (original emphasis) (Ammerman 2016: 89), which often reveal a dynamic range of spiritual practices drawn from religious traditions.
Research in this field continues to take shape. In her mixed-methods study of the lived religion of ninety-five Americans of diverse backgrounds, Ammerman deduced several dominant cultural discourses that act as overarching categories to classify different spiritualities that extend beyond religions traditions. In other words, she finds spiritual commonalities among people in the 21st century instead of classifying people according to denominational differences, such as Baptist or Methodist. She distinguishes many cultural discourses, where people primarily connect spirituality to: (1) the divine (theistic [or God]), (2) various naturalistic forms of transcendence (extra-theistic [and often linked to creation]), (3) objects and bodies (embodied), and (4) everyday compassion (ethical). These categories focus on people’s lived experience and freedom within their spiritual lives instead of being restricted to church attendance or basic religious practices like prayer. Using the above four categories as a conceptual framework, it is possible to facilitate greater understandings of how people engage religiously within the context of competitive sport.
Lived religion in sports
In line with this framework of lived religion, the remainder of our discussion engages with media interviews and stories of prominent modern-day athletes to show their human side and a spiritual dimension not typically highlighted in and through sports media. This particular use of lived religion is based upon my own research findings with fifteen-year-old student-athletes in Canadian Catholic high schools (see Hoven and Kuchera, 2016; Hoven 2016; Hoven 2017). These findings operate as a pedagogical tool for better articulating what spirituality looks like in sports today. Several spiritual practices reflect personal authentication of the Christian faith, the possibility of existential depth for athletes, and even connections to theological issues related to Christian spiritual practices in sports.
This chapter has highlighted a range of spiritual practices enacted by athletes: e.g., pointing to the heavens, making the sign of the cross, reflecting on the purpose of prayer, exhibiting tattoos, helping a teammate, or openly questioning issues of injustice. By looking at sports through the lens of lived religion, we find athletes engaging in spiritual practices that give existential purpose and meaning in athletic endeavors. The intermingling of Christian practices within the sporting world, which blurs boundaries between sports and religion, can enable athletes to find the sacred in the created world (i.e., for Christians, the principle of sacramentality) and need not pit religion against spirituality. Scholes and Sassower (2014: 149) point out that “new interpretative horizons open up [and] allow for novel applications” for people bringing Christian practices to sports or when sports provide opportunities for Christian spirituality.
Ammerman (2014: 301) confirms this thinking by “recognizing the permeable boundaries of all institutions,” where sport and religion are not clearly distinct in people’s lives and religious institutions cannot assume authority over all things spiritual or religious. She argues that spiritual practices are shaped by social interactions with others, which allows for elements of religious (or sporting) identity to carry across distinctions of different fields. Thus, for the athletes featured here, these spiritual practices are not created individually rather they are socially constructed through interaction with family, friends, coaches, and ministers. Of course, institutional religion does not solely shape the identities of athletes, and determining religious identity, sociologically speaking, is not as simple as declaring that one is baptized. By accepting findings from lived religion and the apparent diversity of religious living today, we see that actions cannot necessarily be judged as sacred or profane on the surface and that they may be both sacred and secular at once (Ammerman 2014).
I hope this book excerpt provides an interdisciplinary glimpse for understanding better sport and religion. It particularly assists us with understanding sporting participants experiences and potentially enables greater possibilities for theories about the intersection of sport and religion.
Excerpt taken from Hoven, M. (2019). “Lived Religion in Sports.” In Sport and Christianity: Practices for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Matt Hoven, Andrew Parker, & Nick J. Watson, pages 73-84. Bloomsbury.
Ammerman, N. (2016), “Lived Religion as an Emerging Field: An Assessment of Its Contours and Frontiers,” Nordic Journal of Religion & Society, 29 (2): 83-99.
Ammerman, N. (2014), Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes, New York: Oxford University.
Bain-Selbo, E., & D. G. Sapp. (2016), Understanding Sport as a Religious Phenomenon: An Introduction, London: Bloomsbury.
Bregman, L. (2014), The Ecology of Spirituality: Meanings, Virtues, and Practices in a Post-Religious Age, Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.
Hoven M. (2016), “Faith Informing Competitive Youth Athletes in Christian Schooling,” Journal of Research on Christian Education, 25 (3): 273-289.
Hoven, M. (2017), “Re-Characterizing Confidence Because of Religious and Personal Rituals in Sport: Findings from a Qualitative Study of 15 Year Old Student-Athletes,” Sport in Society, 22 (2): 296-311.
Hoven, M., & Kuchera, S. (2016), “Beyond Tebowing and Superstitions: Religious Practices of 15-year-old Competitive Athletes,” International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, 21 (1): 52-65.
Nesti, M. (2010), Psychology in Football: Working with Elite and Professional Players, London: Routledge.
Orsi, R. (1997), “Everyday Miracles: The Study of Lived Religion,” in Lived Religion in America, ed. by D. Hall, 3-21. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Scholes, J., & Sassower, R. (2014), Religion and Sports in American Culture, New York: Routledge.
Taylor, C. (2007), A Secular Age, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.