What is religion?, part 2: why football doesn’t measure up
A perfectly reasonable question to ask of people like me, who define “religion” in a way that plays down theology, is why something like football should not be a religion. After all, it involves collective emotion, quasi-mystical experiences of loss of selfhood in a higher purpose, even if that is only to crush those (away supporters,*) from the visiting team. If Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is to be believed, it is also a way of coming to terms with the disappointments and tragedies of life. Going to a match with your estranged father has something of the effect that taking communion together is meant to have for Christians.( * words supplied)
If you do a Google news search, in the months of an English winter, for terms like “miracle”, or “messiah” many results will turn out to be about football matches. For a lot of people the fate of their football team does affect them the way that God’s good opinion is supposed to do. All kinds of mental illness and unhappiness diminish when their team does well, and increase when it does badly. And then there is the Bill Shankly quote, that football isn’t a matter of life or death, it’s much more important than that: this, in itself, is a wonderful definition of the ambitions of religious truth – that it should be more important than life or death.
And yet football very clearly isn’t a proper religion. And the reasons why cast some light on what religions are, or must be.
I should perhaps add here that I am completely unsympathetic to the game. I have only been to one serious football match (a north London derby) in my life, when I was accompanying a police patrol. We sat on the touchline, and came away with our shoulders coated with spittle because the people behind us were howling out their feelings without any inhibitions. I will watch football sometimes on screens because the movement is so completely meaningless. I suppose this is a vague equivalent to the homoerotic pleasures of liturgical traditionalists.
But I absolutely lack something which is obviously a deep part of the engagement of real football fans – the ability to suspend disbelief so that I feel I am in some way present on the pitch myself. The sale of replica shirts that is such an important part of the economics of modern football clearly depends on the idea that you take on some of the virtue of the player whose number you wear. That’s clearly one of the mechanisms that makes up religions. But it’s not enough on its own.
And this is important. Religions aren’t made from specially “religious” behaviour or thoughts, but from ordinary patterns of thought and behaviour which are assembled in particular ways.
The most blinding and obvious deficiency of football as a religion is that it lacks any kind of theology. There is in fact an absurd public rhetoric embraced by Fifa about brotherhood but no one takes it seriously. Although theology is the least important part of any religious system, and the one which alters most in response to changes either in public ritual or in private emotion, it is needed as a way to make sense – to the participants – of what is going on. [-]
But all this is really rather theoretical. The real reason why football could never function as a religion is blindingly obvious – which is why we are blind to it. Many women find it boring and incomprehensible.
For the most part “serious” men’s football is an escape from all the problems entailed by the existence of another sex. This has its charms, but it won’t do at all for a religion, which has to offer sense and meaning and hope to the whole of life. If religions were only expressions of willed stupidity, willed escapism, and orgies of communal feeling, then, yes, football might be a religion. But since it isn’t, there must be more to religions than that.