Emile Durkheim Explains How Sports Are the New Religion

Except for the occasional moment of evangelical witness, sports, by and large, is not about God.  Religion, on the other hand, is all about God. So sports, ipso facto, cannot be a new religion.  But one of the earliest sociologists of religion, Emile Durkheim, thought that God actually wasn’t exactly necessary to religion at all.  

Drawing on a cross-cultural comparison of modern and primitive religious practices, he defined the concept as, “ a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”[1]  See.  No mention of God at all.  For Durkheim the essential ingredients are just something sacred, beliefs and practices, and a community.

Does our modern devotion to sports fit such a definition?

It might help to get a little more clarity on what Durkheim meant by “the sacred.”  The sacred, for Durkheim, included anything set apart from the day-to-day.  Almost anything could be sacred: a time of year, a space, an animal, an object, an image, a person, even a body part.  What mattered was that it was set apart from the profane.  Let’s illustrate.  So in the Western world, a stick is not sacred. A stick is quite ordinary, profane by Durkheim’s reckoning. Lay two sticks over each other, however, and you’ve made a cross. A cross is sacred. A cross must be set apart from the profane.  

And so it goes.

A priest is sacred, a history professor is not.  A graveyard is sacred; a playground is not.  Even blood (by comparison with our other body parts) is usually sacred, whereas excrement almost always is not.  To sum up: somethings are set apart; they are sacred.  Somethings are not set apart; they are ordinary and mundane.  They are profane. 

That being said, a good way to determine if something is sacred is to consider whether it is liable to “profanation” or “desecration”.   Or to say it better, consider whether “profaning” the object or person in question is liable to piss anyone off.  Put a stick in a jar full of urine, and no one is likely to notice.  Put a cross in a jar full of urine, and you’ve got yourself a controversy.  Put the President of the United States in a political cartoon and all you’ve got is Doonesbury.  Put the prophet Mohammed in a political cartoon, and violence is possible.

So that leads nicely into the question: Is sports paraphernalia liable to profanation?  Consider that at this moment, you can find (and I checked this myself) various Youtube videos of fans burning the jerseys for every NFL team except the Dolphins and the Buccaneers (hooray, Florida; that was not what I expected). Sometimes, it is in response to a player leaving.  Sometimes, it is in response to a particularly disappointing loss.  Sometimes, it is done by opposing fans.  Sometimes it is just because everyone hates Tom Brady.  Lately, it’s been done in response to players kneeling for the national anthem: as some kind retaliatory sacrilegious one-upsmanship (you desecrate my symbol; I’ll desecrate yours). 

The fact that sports paraphernalia is so often the object of public burning is strong evidence in favor of its sacrality, I think.  But actually, I am going one step further; I am going to suggest that the identifying logos of college and professional sports teams have become something much more important than merely sacred symbols: they’ve become totems.

The totem is not just any sacred object, but rather a sacred symbol whose sacredness “stems from one cause; It is a material representation of the clan.”[2]  Indeed, totems are so much like logos that I actually can’t think of a better analogy with which to explain them.  Like sports team logos, totems are almost always drawn from the plant or animal kingdom, with a mythic ancestor or mythic being occasionally thrown in as well.  Amongst the Mount Gambier tribe of Australia, to use Durkheim’s example, one clan had as their totems the fish-hawks, another the Pelicans, another the Crows, and yet another the snakes, with the names usually being drawn from the local flora and fauna.[3]  It is hard not to be struck by the immediate coincidence that Americans have the Atlanta Hawks, the New Orleans Pelicans, the Baltimore Ravens, and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The animal or plant is then turned into a totem by symbolic representation (in other words, the animal is turned into a logo; for instance, the idea of bronco is represented as a very particular picture of a bronco head).  This ‘logo’ then becomes the emblem of the clan.  When the logo is carved, drawn, or etched onto other objects, those objects are infected by its sacrality and themselves become sacred. 

The analogy is even better when applied to college teams, since for colleges the totemic identifier embraces not just the individual members of the sports team, but the whole “sports community.”  An aboriginal clan member might tell you that he is a water reed.  A graduate of Ohio State might tell you he is a Buckeye.   

And this brings us to the other part of Durkheim’s definition of religion: the importance of social unification.  If religion is about man’s relationship to the sacred.  And if the sacred is primarily expressed by the totem.  And if the totem is primarily about the community.  Then religion is basically about man’s relationship with his own community.  Insofar as a “god” is necessary in Durkheim’s idea of religion, the god IS the community, since for Durkheim, the society is to the individual member what God is to the faithful.[4]    

And thus religious ritual is really about community building. Indeed, it is the euphoria provoked by the social aspect of religious ritual that gives rise to a sense of the sacred in the first place.  For instance, commenting on the fire rituals of the Warramunga tribe of Australia, rituals that involve processions, dance, and ritualized combat that looks a bit like a rugby match that got out of hand, Durkheim has the following to say: “Especially when repeated for weeks, day after day, how would experiences like these not leave with the conviction that two heterogeneous and incommensurable worlds exist in fact?  In one world he languidly carries on his daily life; the other is one that he cannot enter without abruptly entering into relations with extraordinary powers that excite him to the point of frenzy.  The first is the profane world and the second, the world of sacred things.”[5]

Where in the Modern West is any similar communally experienced euphoria provoked?  Where in the modern West are people bound into a community by a communally shared ritualistic event?  Sometimes in church.  Sometimes during national holidays.  But isn’t it mostly at our sporting events, when we chant “We are Penn State” together, when we sign the fight song, when we cheer at the right time, when we wear white to a white-out. This is what religious ritual is all about for Durkheim.  The feelings evoked by sporting rituals are the closest thing we’ve got today to the primitive religious feelings that Durkheim thinks are at the heart of religious experience. And so, perhaps sporting events are the closest thing we’ve still got to real religious rituals.

If religion is really about our relationship to the sacred objects and rituals that bind us together, then it sure seems like sports is the new religion.

[1] Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 44.

[2] Durkheim, 124.

[3] Durkheim, 236.

[4] Durkheim, 208.

[primitive man]

[5] Durkheim, 222.