Religion and Football–More Alike Than We Might Think

It’s Sunday, and today’s sermon will consider the origins of religion.

There are all kinds of theories about religiosity. Some scientists believe humans are “hard-wired” for religion, although there is considerably controversy over that theory.

Anther is that belief in a deity arose from the need to explain otherwise inexplicable phenomena –the “God of the gaps” thesis. Why did lightning strike that guy’s hut? He must have angered the Gods…The problem with the God of the Gaps theory is that science and empirical inquiry keep narrowing the gaps.  (Bill O’Reilly famously defended the existence of God by the fact that “the tides come in and the tides go out, and no one knows why.”  As Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out, however, we actually do know why, and God isn’t involved.)

Whatever the genesis of religion, social scientists have pointed to the benefits of religious affiliation, most of which can be explained by membership in a supportive community.

Because supportive communities come in all shapes and sizes, and don’t necessarily revolve around worship, one social scientist suggests that membership in a religious group is a lot like being a football fan.

Anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse has concluded that belief in the supernatural is window dressing on what really matters—elaborate rituals that foster group cohesion, creating personal bonds that people are willing to die for. (He doesn’t suggest that football fans go quite that far.)

The cooperation required in large settled communities is different from what you need in a small group based on face-to-face ties between people. When you’re facing high-risk encounters with other groups or dangerous animals, what you want in a small group is people so strongly bonded that they really stick together. The rituals that seem best-designed to do that are emotionally intense but not performed all that frequently. But when the group is too large for you to know everyone personally, you need to bind people together through group categories, like an ethnic group or a religious organization. The high frequency rituals in larger religions make you lose sight of your personal self….

All really large-scale religions have rituals that people perform daily or at least once a week. We think this is one of the key differences between simply identifying with a group and being fused with a group. When you’re fused with a group, a person’s social identity really taps into personal identity as well. And identity fusion has a number of behavioral outcomes. Perhaps most importantly, fused individuals demonstrate a significant willingness to sacrifice themselves for their groups….

Unfortunately, sacrificing oneself for one’s group has often meant demonizing–or even murdering–those who belong to other groups, who worship other Gods–or none.

Religion has been, at best, a mixed blessing.


  1. Reminds me of an extension of the development of complex organisms in the first place. First the replicating single-cell organisms had no worries – resources were abundant. Then they replicated themselves into scarcity. But, those who started eating the others had abundance. Then it became an arms race, cells combining to develop offensive and defensive mechanisms. Those who were most successful in defending themselves while eliminating the competition replicated the most DNA.

    Eventually you get to where combining the organisms means forming packs and tribes and groups. And you’re not just replicating your DNA; you’re replicating memes like religious beliefs. The meme that surrounds itself with defense mechanisms and arranges for elimination of competing memes is more likely to replicate itself.

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  3. Here’s are two interesting perspectives. Scientist: we’re only atoms. Sociologist: we’re so much more!

    Of course we could upgrade the scientists argument to, we are single cell animals, but a large colony of cooperating ones.

    Is that true also of the sociologist’s argument? Alone, we are a survival machine, as a society, so much more?

    Together we can compose and perform and enjoy great music. We can combine our individual thoughts and experiments into breath taking science. We can orchestrate entire countries into powerful forces for progress.

    It’s easy to get bedazzled by our egos. It’s so much closer to the truth to celebrate our culture. That’s what left the apes in the dust.

    Religion is culture. For many, it’s a main ingredient in cooperation vs competition. Of course occasionally it’s the opposite. Can’t we save the baby and lose only the bath water?

    I don’t know. I just don’t know.

  4. I this hits exactly on the social underpinnings of religiosity, but the more interesting part to me is the underlying reason for believing in God(s).

  5. One additional thought. It can be said that there are only two ingredients in the entire universe. Matter and energy. The big bang created matter from what was only energy. Suns are converting matter back into energy. Once thus created, photons of energy are immortal. They wander the universe for ever only taking on other forms when they by happenstance interact with matter. But the, ultimately when each affair with matter ends, they return to energy undiminished.

    We are not just matter, atoms, but also energy from our sun. We are composed of immortal matter and immortal energy. Death releases what we are to become other things.

    Seems like religion, doesn’t it?

  6. I have been thinking about this lately. I think those that believe in god need an explanation for things that may not have an explanation. Those of us who believe in science accept that we don’t have an explanation for everything, yet.

  7. I think contorted ideas about the origins of religion, like the God of the Gaps theory, are condescending and unnecessary. It’s obvious that the origins of religion are in the simple fact that people have spiritual experiences and seek a way to explain them. Rituals obviously have many different origins, some of which have to do with group cohesion, some of which don’t. The fact that there are group rituals explains very little about the fact that humans have been having spiritual experiences for probably at least the last 15,000 years — and we will continue to have them, whether the skeptics approve or not.

    As for “sacrificing oneself”, this is far more alive in the secular militarist mentality of the United States than it is in Christianity today. Islam is the main religion facing the problem of some of its adherents murdering and self-sacrificing, and Islam is not an especially ritualistic religion. I think it’s a long stretch to say that the ritual of group prayer 5 times a day is causing Muslims to kill themselves for the group.

    As for early Christians, I think they were probably the only group who consented to be killed by their enemies to testify to what they considered the truth. Nobody willingly died for their belief in Zeus or Thor. But the early Christians went to a heck of a lot of inconvenience to testify to something they believed they’d seen. I’m skeptical that people let themselves be fed to lions, crucified upside down, and set on fire by Nero to be human candles at night, just to protect their group identity.

  8. Just stumbled across.

    “Nothing lasts forever, but in the universe, nothing is ever really gone, either. As the Columbia University astrophysicist Caleb Scharf pointed out in an essay on his blog recently, long after you and I are dead, the light reflected off our faces today will still be traveling across space, ever fainter with distance, but always there. For somebody with a big enough telescope somewhere, we will be immortal.”

  9. Our closest non-human relatives are Gorillas and Chimps. Both are Social Animals. I would be confident neither Gorillas or Chimps attribute an abundance of food or lack thereof to Gods or God. I would suppose humans tried to make sense of what appears to be a chaotic world, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, droughts, and the predictability of some events. At some point we have religion and politics bound together. Religion would be used to support the State, Divine Right of the Kings.

    If we look at archeology, the huge and elaborate edifices that were constructed were for Leaders or Religion. We still construct places of worship, but certainly not on the Grand Scale of the Cathedral Building of the Middle Ages. Today, some of the Grandest and most Opulent buildings are Sports Stadiums.

    It is amazing in a way, when you think of the enormous transfer of wealth, and effort by a Society to construct those Cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Perhaps, the average peasant of that era living in a hovel did not think about his lot in life could be better if the resources were shifted. Glory to God and all that.

    Our Political Leadership and Mega-Media here in Indianapolis see nothing at all wrong about this mis-allocation of tax resources to build stadiums for Colts and Pacers. In fact our Mega-Media constantly deluges us with Sports. Equally disappointing are the number of commoners who do not object to this transfer of tax dollars to the 1%.

    I used to follow Professional Sports, but no more. I could care less about Professional Sports.

  10. “It’s obvious that the origins of religion are in the simple fact that people have spiritual experiences.”

    That’s not at all obvious – if it’s even a fact. Whether it’s a fact would depend on what distinguishes “spiritual” experiences from non-spiritual experiences. Maybe experiences they are calling “spiritual,” requiring a God for explanation are just experiences.

    I think God is the glue in these group dynamics because, aside from being an explanation for the unexplained, is also an unseen enforcer of social norms when no one else is looking.

  11. Religion (Christianity) and football are both American obsessions and (other than current GOP politicians) draw the highest amount of money from the public via their places of worship. Religion based schools are now receiving a portion of our tax dollars; granted, a much smaller portion than sports but this is against the Constituion of the United States of America and state constitutions regarding separation of church and state. There appears to be no rule, law, ordinance or restriction to prevent our tax dollars being spent on sports teams and their playing grounds. We allow religious organizations and their facilities in all forms to be tax-free so we are in a sense supporting them by providing infrastructure which they avail themselves of but do not help maintain. Sports in many forms have become so important to this country that it is virtually impossible to find local news reports mid-day or early evening due to sporting events played through to the end. Just sayin’

  12. @ Doug: “I think God is the glue in these group dynamics because, aside from being an explanation for the unexplained, is also an unseen enforcer of social norms when no one else is looking.”

    I’ve never bought that argument. God is completely unnecessary when it comes to enforcing social norms. That’s pure human animal behavior. Religion-less people and societies do exactly the same thing. Every day. In the coming liberal utopia, social norms and approved behavior will most definitely be enforced, just as rigidly as in any conservative backwater.

    The earliest human religion I’m aware of is documented in Ice Age cave art and has to do with shamanistic hunting and gathering rituals (apparently). What that has to do with Big Brother looking over our shoulder when no one’s looking, I’m not clear.

  13. Ooops; I neglected to specify that it is weekend news reports frequently unavailable due to sports programs.

  14. Stephen. Military people by the millions throughout history have gone to war with equal expectations of killing for, or being killed by, their association with a group. Typically country or religion or race or class. Christianity has no lock on that.

  15. @Louie: basic social history. When ostracized immigrants like Polish and Irish Catholics came to cities like Chicago and Indianapolis (remember, these were Mexicans and Hondurans of their day), they voluntarily gave money to build huge churches — for a couple of big reasons, mostly having to do with wanting to seen as successful in a society that hated them and threw up constant obstacles to their success. Churches and religious schools were community centers at a time when these immigrants were shunned elsewhere. They were huge (yes, stadium-like) because people typically had enormous families until the 1970s. You had to fit everybody in.

    I seriously doubt that most 19th-century Catholic immigrants would have complained about being fleeced by the 1% when a huge stone church was being built in their neighborhood. That church was a sign of their upward social mobility in American society. They could have been corrugated tin shacks to worship in, but when it comes to proving to the wealthy Anglos who think you’re a backward Irish peasant straight out of a mud hut, that’s when you show them you’re capable of building St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

    Then your descendants get freaked out about black people, do a little white flight, and run out to suburbia.

    As for stadiums, I’m not a fan of professional sports either, but sports are literally the only reason why Indianapolis isn’t Detroit right now. If sports can keep this town from being more than just the gritty distribution center it is, then I’m for it. They’re the immigrant churches of our day, I guess. If they help Indianapolis move up, like churches helped immigrants rise out of poverty, then I’m not against professional sports playing a role.

  16. “In the coming liberal utopia, social norms and approved behavior will most definitely be enforced, just as rigidly as in any conservative backwater.”

    Not so sure what’s coming. Liberal has always meant “free” to me. Conservative, chained to what is or was or what some people think should be.

    “Free” never means at the expense of others as that expense would be antithetical to the concept.

    There is no more liberal system than democracy. The negative often given by conservatives, that liberal is tyranny of the majority, overlooks that the only alternative is the tyranny of the minority. Which is worse.

    A proper Constitution is the protection that we’ve always enjoyed from any tyranny. That’s the given. The democracy is ours to maintain or give away.

  17. Stephen, concerning Detroit they also have Professional Sports Arenas for the Tigers, Lions, Red Wings and Pistons. Professional Sports has not helped. I know about immigrants, 3 out 4 of my grandparents were from the “Old Country.”

  18. @ Pete: so if a newly conservative/formerly somewhat progressive state like North Carolina (progressive for the South) votes **by popular referendum**, as it recently did, to ban gay marriage (approved by something like a 75% margin against gay marriage, wasn’t it?), you’re telling me that liberals will not challenge that? That they’ll just accept that as the democratic consensus. Of course not.

    If, tomorrow, there was a popular referendum in a conservative state like North Dakota or Oklahoma to completely outlaw abortion there, and the majority of voters approved it, you’re telling me that liberals would accept that decision? Not a chance.

    Liberals will wiggle out of democracy any way they can. Just like conservatives are trying to wiggle their way around the recent Indiana court decision on gay marriage.

    Liberal. Conservative. Actually dead slogans. The “liberals” I know aren’t any more angelic when it comes to freedom that “conservatives” are.

    @Louie: I just know that Indianapolis would be a huge, huge dead zone if Bill Hudnut hadn’t stolen the Colts. I’m not even a Colts fan, but it’s this weird infusion to the economy here in Averageville. So until someone brings in the hip high-tech green companies that will never, ever, relocate to Indianapolis because of the Indiana stigma, then I support professional sports keeping this place at least somewhat on the mental map of the rest of America. Sports is literally the only thing this city is known for. Take that away and what do you have?

  19. Steve. The concept of limiting freedom based on sexual orientation is antithical to a liberal democracy. What does sexual orientation have to do with rights under any government?

    I don’t know your definition of “angelic”. I do know however the concept of freedom. If it ain’t for everyone, it ain’t freedom.

  20. @Pete: I agree with you. I think conservatives should support gay marriage as a conservative cause. Less government in your life is good. Conservatives are plenty hypocritical about this.

    But I think liberals are actually terrified of democracy. If a group of voters in a democracy decides against gay marriage in their state, and you overturn that, then so much for fancy language about democratic values.

    I’m not the kind of person who says that gay marriage will lead to group marriage or something, I don’t think that’s true. And it’s not fair to gay people. But if your philosophy of “if it ain’t for everyone, then it’s not freedom” goes, then what ARE the legal bars against polygamy? And do you think women would support polygamy in, say, NYC if Mormon fundamentalists want to move there from Utah? Do you support the right of New York voters to ban polygamy? If so, technically, you’re being exclusionary.

  21. Democracy, to my way of thinking, (BTW I’m not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV) should exist within a constitution. The constitution should define the areas of life which cannot be regulated, as well as be based on the simple notion that where laws can be established they cannot discriminate among people because of their natural diversity.

    Within the bounds of the constitution, officials elected by everyone are free to make, enforce and adjudicate laws.

    That’s my entire mindset on the size of government. If it is based on those precepts, it is, as Goldilocks once famously said, “just right”.

    As it’s not a huge problem, I haven’t thought much about polygamy. I suppose it’s somewhat like wealth distribution. Should folks deprive others from having wives or husbands just because they can? Seems to me the greater good is served by no. If something in our DNA changes though and we have many more of one gender than the other, the greater good might change too.

  22. @Pete: democracy had better exist within a constitution, because most people are not truly interested in participating in a democracy and expect the Constitution to do all the work for them, apparently. As Sheila pointed out on this blog, in Ferguson, MO, something like 12% of citizens voted in the last municipal elections, and I’m sure the number is even lower among African Americans there. African Americans went to a hell of a lot of effort to get the right to vote. Now they don’t exercise that right in places where they really ought to.

    Not to mention, as I’ve said here before, that it took over 150 years of effort by progressive evangelical Christians to get constitutional rights for blacks and women, who were conveniently left out of the franchise by the rational Deist Founding Fathers. The history of abolition and Civil Rights is largely the history of a religious movement, arguably more than it’s the history of a democracy at work. Democratic voting procedures long excluded people from full participation in American government. Religion is not at all inimical to solid constitutional values that you and I both support.

    Just to go back to gay marriage for a second…. another reason why conservatives should support it is because ANY couple (gay or straight) who wants to raise children is preferable to killing children whose parents can’t or don’t want to support them for economic or personal reasons. If conservatives want to put some muscle behind their opposition to abortion, I think encouraging gay couples to raise unwanted children is a constructive step, ethically and civically.

  23. I don’t think that women in general, would support polygamy anywhere …

    I don’t think that any woman in her right mind, would want more than one husband.

  24. It sounds like you and I agree on many things. First and foremost, voting. If we don’t use it, we’ll certainly lose it.

    I can’t say that I’ve researched the cultural aspects of choosing not to vote. I can formulate several plausible explanations though. High on my list as explanation for the poor and maybe even middle class not voting would be the belief that the country has already been lost to oligarchy. What’s the use?

    There is ample evidence in the media every day that politics is a bought and sold commodity and the 99% can’t afford it. They’ve got kids to raise and bills to pay. SCOTUS has reinforced that both money and people have a say in politics and while the 99% can claim one man one vote once money sidles up to the polls, they are hopelessly outnumbered and getting more so each day.

    My thinking on gay marriage continues to be that there is no reason to excuse discriminating against them. What they are predisposed to is no different than skin color or gender.

  25. One other excuse for not voting is that all candidates are alike. Why participate if there is no better and no worse? This, of course is what much politicking is based on. I’ve said before that I believe that it stems from the country’s Bush whacking and the realization by the GOP (grand oligarchy plot) that the only shot that they have following that debacle is to convince voters that the only thing worse than Bush is Obama.

    One of their many recent choices to put party over country.

  26. @Pete: I would actually sympathize with voters who feel like it’s useless to vote. I’ve felt that way myself. But it will definitely be interesting to see what happens in Ferguson next election. If African Americans in Ferguson think that looting the Kwik Trip to express their grievances is easier and more effective than voting, then sorry, they lose my support.

    I think the idea that what’s going on in presidential and Congressional elections is more important than what’s going on locally is the ultimate cop-out of our whole situation. If the White House and Congress are in gridlock, honestly screw ’em. That’s not where much real change happens anyway. That’s where demagogues spout out meaningless rhetoric and newspeak.

    “One other excuse for not voting is that all candidates are alike.” Agreed. And bigotry and hatred doesn’t stop at party boundaries. How many times did you hear liberals during the Bush administration say they secretly wished somebody would just shoot him? I heard it lots. Then liberals scream and shout when these Teabaggers who are one step removed from Fascists wish the same thing on Obama. Well, nobody’s right here, obviously. But there’s not a lot of innocence left anywhere on our political spectrum at this stage.

  27. Politics is based on two things. Results (past) and promise (future). Real promise, not promises.

    We can now almost make an apples to apples comparison of results from Bush and Obama. I asked the other day, what’s not better now compared to 2009?

    So when Republicans say let’s get back to Bush like conservatism, I say, no thanks.

    Now, promise. When I wonder about the promise of Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, John Boehner, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Scott Walker and other reflexive conservatives like them, I see none. So I’m rooting for the return of a Republican Party of opportunity for all, not more for some. We, the people have the responsibility to hire and fire our way there.

    Republicans in Congress have rendered it useless. No promise there either.

    If Dwight Eisenhower were to run against Hillary Clinton in 2016, I’d have to think hard. And, I’d love to be put into that dilemma. A strong Republican opportunity for all President and a solid Democrat Congress representing we, the people. Nirvana. Both Democrat? Not the best but at least progress would not be stymied.

    I loved the days when America had unlimited horizons. We could do what we could dream. To me, conservatism focuses on limitations, scarcity, real or imagined. That’s not me.

  28. Stephen; no vote IS a vote – a vote for the status quo. If you don’t care enough to attempt to change things, you must be satisfied with the way things are being done today.

  29. Pete, no doubt. Bill Buckley and Dwight Eisenhower would vomit if Palin and Bachmann walked into the room. We’re agreed there.

    Same goes for Evangelical Christianity. I’m a Catholic, but I’ve got to say this: evangelicals of the stripe of William Lloyd Garrison, William Wilberforce, Harriet Beecher Stowe and guys/gals like that would roll over in the grave if they could see what some the so-called Christian Far Right is doing today. A lot of it’s not Christian, and it’s not even good conservatism.

    I have some conservative views, some liberal views. But like I said before, I think these are pretty much dead labels in American politics today.

    The days of Dick Lugar are slipping away fast, so I try to find something in everyone’s views that I can agree with. Otherwise we’re screwed.

  30. I used to be a conservative, then a middle of the road Republican, now quite liberal and, I swear, I haven’t changed at all. The definitions changed.

    All of the while what I longed for was progress. Continuous improvement. A future brighter than today.

    I’ve glimpsed that today. It’s still cloudy. But there’s a chance of a world much better, much different than today. Can we? Will we?

    I don’t know. I just don’t know.

  31. Pete’s last comment describes my “evolution” perfectly. When I ran for Congress in 1980, as a Republican, I was told I was too conservative. Now people label me a liberal/socialist. But my political philosophy–and most of my positions–haven’t changed. The political world lurched well to the right.

    In 1980, I won a REPUBLICAN primary and I was pro-choice and pro-gay-rights. That would be inconceivable today.

  32. I have never understood how the current GOP can consider itself to be conservative. They have taken control of voter rights, the freedom to marry the person we love, the right for women to decide personal medical care themselves which includes birth control with the assistance of SCOTUS, they want documented proof of rape (maybe they are waiting for the rapists to step forward and admit their actions), they contol most of the financial opportunities of all of us who are not part of the 1%, they allow the infrastructure to crumble around us while sports facilities blossom, they push for/demand war responses to resolve problems in other countries while ignoring those in need at home, they support pollution of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and on and on and on. All the while they put their financial holdings in offshore banks to assure they don’t pay their fair share of taxes; leaving the burden to those who struggle to survive in today’s economy. They want to deny us repayment of the hard earned money we paid into Social Security for years and take away Medicare coverages which we pay for monthly. I consider this to be a dictatorship NOT being conservative. The only thing they are conserving is their increasing financial gains and the lowering of living conditions for the majority of Americans. Please name a true conservative who is active in the GOP today. We would more easily find a conservative in the Democratic party. And back to my continuing and endless rant – VOTE IN NOVEMBER TO BEGIN CLEANING HOUSE AND MAINTAIN OUR HOLD IN THE SENATE.

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