By: Elise Burgett
Sport has often been compared to religion, and some would even consider it a religion in its own right. In particular, baseball is a common subject of study when debating the question of whether or not sport is a religious activity. Much like a religion, baseball does allow individuals to find and understand their identities within a greater community: the network of fans, or followers, supporting a given team. By focusing on the specific fandom of Boston Red Sox supporters, this paper examines whether baseball should be considered a religion in itself or simply a component of popular culture with many similarities to religion. It discusses this fandom in the broader context of American popular culture using Emile Durkheim’s concept of collective effervescence, as well as through Chris Rojek’s related idea of secular celebrity religion. Ultimately, it uses Samuel Sandmel’s theory of parallelomania to conclude that, while baseball does function like a religion in American culture, it cannot be considered a religion in and of itself.
It is true that there are a number of parallels between sport, in this case baseball, and religion. While discussing the possibility of the “Church of Baseball,” for example, David Chidester highlights four general areas of comparison: religion and baseball both ensure a sense of continuity, foster the creation of a community of belonging, involve a sacred space of home, and engage in sacred time of ritual (Chidester 745-746). All of these similarities are played out in the story of the Boston Red Sox and their fans. The Sox experienced an 86-year Word Series drought, failing to win the championship between 1918 and 2004. Just as God’s faithful look towards redemption with hope in their hearts, continuity was created as generation after generation of Red Sox fans carried on the hope that each year was their year until, finally, their decades of suffering were rewarded with a win in 2004 (“Here’s Hoping” 5). Similar to adherents to a religion, Red Sox fans are part of a distinct and passionate community with its own style of dress (apparel featuring the team’s logo), hymns or chants (“Let’s go Red Sox!”), practices and traditions (singing “Sweet Caroline” during the seventh inning of every home game), and even its own name (“Red Sox Nation” or “Fenway Faithful”). Red Sox fans also find community by taking part in the common practice of defining themselves in relation to the Other through their intense rivalry with the New York Yankees; for fans, the Red Sox are clearly “Us,” while the Yankees are “Them” (Magdalinski and Chandler 3). Boston’s baseball stadium and home of the Red Sox, Fenway Park, represents Chidester’s concept of sacred space, while the juxtaposition of ritualized time (nine innings in each game with a break in the middle of the seventh, for example) with moments of enthusiastic ecstasy, like after a crucial win during the playoffs, demonstrates his idea of sacred time. These examples based on the Boston Red Sox illustrate that it is possible to draw parallels between religion and the sport of baseball, but this descriptive definition of baseball as religion is not enough to deem the game a religion in and of itself. Similarities can be found between religion and many areas of popular culture, such as music or television series, so a deeper connection would be required to qualify baseball in particular as a religion.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim proposes a theory for looking at religion within a society that delves beyond the kind of surface comparisons discussed above, a theory he calls collective effervescence. He asserts that religion reinforces social ties and norms, therefore bringing people together in community, through this collective effervescence, or group energy, which is ultimately attributed to the sacred (Cary). In other words, individuals taking part in an activity, whether sponsored by an institutionalized religion or representing an area of popular culture, actually feel a distinctive energy as they come together in community, and they ascribe this feeling to the sacredness of the given activity in which they are participating. This theory of collective effervescence provides another link between religion and baseball specifically. Both the idea of God and the idea of belonging to a fandom like Red Sox Nation are social constructs which are considered religious because they bring and bind people together, aiding followers to understand their place within a larger social network (Xifra 194). Just as members of a particular congregation often feel increased religious fervour when worshipping among fellow believers, Red Sox fans are more likely to reach ecstatic highs when surrounded by other loyal fans; they are bonded through their dedication to the game, which is therefore raised up to a level of sacred importance.
This parallel between religion and baseball is more profound than the superficial similarities discussed previously because it actually affects the way people interact and understand themselves in relation to others. Analysing baseball through the social theory of collective effervescence highlights its status as an ideological practice that, like religion, helps socialize individuals into their community, in this case, Red Sox Nation (Magdalinski and Chandler 4). The shared experience of ecstatic moments among fans draws them together in their faith for their team, just like highly emotional religious experiences within a congregation enforce the beliefs of that community. For Red Sox fans, this shared faith has involved sticking by their team through an 86-year losing streak, through which they actually “bonded by this epic failure” (Saporito, Gregory and Wulf). All along, despite decades of disappointment, the Sox believed they would one day come out on top (Crepeau 113). This concept of redemptive suffering, which is also a major component of many religions, has linked generations of Red Sox fans who have never even met, and acceptance of it is part of the process of socialization into Red Sox Nation. Another aspect of this socialization, of the inculcation of faith in the Boston Red Sox, is participation in their intense rivalry with “that barnstorming assemblage of all-stars, that billionaire’s vanity toy, also known as the New York Yankees” (Cooper). In the true spirit of collective effervescence, when Red Sox fans come together for a game against New York, the anti-Yankees energy is almost tangible. Rooting against the Evil Empire brings Sox fans together almost as much as rooting for their own team. These social ties created within Red Sox Nation through fans’ worship-like treatment of baseball do demonstrate Durkheim’s concept of collective effervescence, but is this enough to consider baseball a religion? Questions remain; for example, who would be the god, or the source, of this religion?
Related to Durkheim’s collective effervescence theory is Chris Rojek’s notion of secular celebrity religion. Just as fans imbue entire areas of popular culture, such as baseball, with sacred meaning and significance, they also often raise individual athletes up to a religious status. According to Rojek, “[c]elebrities offer peculiarly powerful affirmations of belonging, recognition and meaning in the midst of the lives of their audiences” (172). Similarly, followers of different religions rely on a higher power to provide substance and meaning to their lives. In the case of baseball, these celebrities would be the athletes, the individual members of a team like the Red Sox, and Red Sox Nation certainly does put its players on pedestals. During the ultimately successful 2004 bid for the World Series, for example, pitcher Curt Schilling played on an injured ankle, the tendon sewn in place to prevent it from coming out of the sheath. During this game his sock became quite badly bloodied, an image that remains sharp in the minds of Red Sox Nation. Aside from the obvious religious metaphors involved in this image, those relating Schilling’s sacrificed ankle to Christ’s bloody sacrifice on the cross, it also links to religion in less readily apparent ways. Just like Christ and His life are held up as examples for believers to follow, Schilling’s brave performance is used by Red Sox fans to symbolize the mustering of courage and endurance to overcome a given adversary (MacDonald 18). In keeping with Rojek’s idea of secular celebrity religion, Schilling is lifted up to sacred significance as his fans revere his physical sacrifice, using his example to guide and empower their own lives.
However, the worshipful treatment of an athlete by fans does not necessarily make him or her a god. In reality, the media often plays a large role in transforming celebrities, such as baseball players, into larger-than-life figures for their fans to worship. In other words, there is not something intrinsically sacred about baseball or its players; rather, America’s media portrays the game and its athletes in a way that prompts fans to think of them as held up above the ordinary citizen. These depictions have a profound effect on the attitudes of fans towards their team, since it is basically inevitable for Americans to engage with some form of popular media culture on a day-to-day basis (Beaudoin 13). In today’s television-obsessed, internet-saturated world, culture is perpetuated and passed on primarily by print and electronic media (Albanese 5). At the same time, media helps create the very fandoms that ultimately worship their favourite teams through broadcasting games on television and radio, aiding fans in supporting their teams even when far from home (Juffer 9). Therefore, the way that the media chooses to discuss baseball, an integral component of American culture, helps mould fans’ outlooks regarding the game. In the case of the Red Sox, religious terminology and imagery abounds, casting the team and its players as sacred entities. Articles with titles like, “In Boston, Some See Hand of Higher Power” feature pictures of players like former Red Sox left fielder Manny Ramirez pointing to the sky in an apparent salute to God (MacDonald 18). Meanwhile, Time Magazine’s article “Holy Sox!” discusses the “messianic belief” and “redemption story” experienced by Sox fans during the 2004 season (Saporito, Gregory and Wulf). This use of such overtly religious imagery and language is a clear attempt by American media to raise the Red Sox up to a sacred level, a tactic that deeply influences fans of all ages. “Believe in Boston” was Red Sox Nation’s battle cry during the 2004 race to the World Series, and apparel proudly proclaiming the wearer a member of the “Fenway Faithful” is all over Fenway and the surrounding sports bars on game days. Sox fans see their team as a sacred source of and reason for faith, just like the media has portrayed it.
Between the abundant religious undertones in media coverage of the Red Sox and the fans’ highly emotional attachments to their team, baseball clearly has a religious side to it, but the question of whether it can actually be considered a religion in itself remains. In relation to texts, Samuel Sandmel, former president of the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, coined the term “parallelomania” to describe the tendency towards “‘extravagance among scholars which first overdoes the supposed similarity in passages and then proceeds to describe the source and derivation as if implying literary connection flowing in an inevitable or predetermined direction’” (qtd. in McCloud 10). This theory of parallelomania can be expanded to consider the relationship between popular culture fandoms and religion: though there are similarities between fandoms and congregations, they are often not thorough enough to render a given area of popular culture the same as a religion (McCloud 10). Despite the similarities in ritual between religion and baseball, the collective effervescence that manifests itself during gatherings of fans, and the way in which fans treat players with worshipful respect, these parallels are ultimately too broad and superficial to deem baseball a religion. While they can constitute part of a definition of religion, the descriptive and functional parallels between religion and baseball discussed in this paper are not enough to form a solid definition of baseball as an actual religion. For example, the descriptive approach of finding parallels in ritual can be used on almost any aspect of popular culture to make it seem like a religion; as for collective effervescence and fans’ relationships to athletes, not every activity that serves to build community and identity can be considered a religion (McCloud 10). In accordance with Sandmel’s theory of parallelomania, it can be said that while baseball can function in a similar manner to religion in American culture, it cannot be considered a religion in its own right.
As William Herzog II, vice president for academic affairs at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts, states, “[b]aseball is just a game. [...] It doesn’t feed the hungry, or care for the sick, or settle disputes between warring nations. And yet [...] there is something ineffably stirring and nearly transcendent about sitting in Boston’s Fenway Park [...] [t]here are a lot of things about baseball that tug at the heartstrings” (Burke 18). Baseball, in its own right, is not a proper religion. Though it does bear resemblances to institutionalized religions, in the end it does not serve the same purpose. However, at the same time, there is an intensely emotive side to baseball by which faithful fans can partake in “nearly transcendent” experiences, a phenomenon which highlights the parallels between religion and baseball that do exist. Though baseball and religion are not deeply similar enough to be considered equals, an examination of the fandom of Red Sox Nation demonstrates baseball’s ability to function like a religion in American culture and, perhaps more importantly, in the hearts of its fans.
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