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Belonging: The Overlap of Sports and Religion

Updated: Feb 12

With the Superbowl upon us once again, it sparked a memory from when I was a student in seminary. My wife and I had become friendly with another couple. The wife was in seminary, training to become a pastor, and her husband was along for the ride. One night, he and I were talking about sports and I confessed that I’ve never been a huge fan of team sports. The sports that tend to draw my attention are swimming (which I only get to enjoy every four years at the Olympics) and professional tennis. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer held little interest for me.

Philadelphia Eagles (Photo by KeithJJ from Pixabay)

He, on the other hand, was obsessed with team sports. His favorite football team was the Philadelphia Eagles. He told me he loved the Eagles so much that he would dream about their games. The longer we spoke, the more confused I became. I eventually worked up the courage to ask him, “Why do the Eagles hold such importance in your life?”

Much to my surprise, he had a very thoughtful response. He explained that he wasn’t always obsessed, but the turning point was a very low moment in his life. Prior to meeting his wife, he was single and working a dead-end job that he loathed. Every day he would drag himself out of bed and force himself to go to work. Feeling demeaned by his boss and the customers, every shift left him horribly depressed.

Then one Sunday, he was channel surfing and came across a football game. For once the Eagles were having a good season. They had a new quarterback and, if they kept winning, their record would put them in contention for the playoffs. Something clicked in his mind. With everything negative in his life, this was a ray of hope.

At first, the games gave him something to look forward to during the drudgery of his week. But that eventually gave way to him watching interviews of the players online, watching Sportscenter analysis and reading articles. Whenever the opportunity arose, he would talk to customers about the Eagles, which many of them appreciated. He noticed the banter made his workday much more enjoyable.

Whereas previously, he felt isolated, now he felt like he was part of a community. After work, he would spend hours poring over statistics, learning as much as could about the players and the history of the franchise. Slowly, he came to feel as though he was part of something important, something bigger than himself. Their success was his success. Their failure was his failure. But the best part was he was never alone. These triumphs and disappointments were celebrated and mourned alongside hundreds of thousands of fans just like him.

When he finished explaining why the Eagles mattered so much to him, I understood something about sports that had eluded me for years. The human affinity for sports draws from the same wellspring as religion and politics. Their success is predicated on the human desire for belonging.

The Genetics of Tribalism

If we could step inside a time machine and turn back the clock 100,000 years, we would find that humans lived in small groups or bands that would fluctuate between numbers as small as ten and as large as several hundred when the bands would combine together for certain events. These groups were highly transient, following their food sources and living off the land. They had no permanent domiciles, utilizing simple tents and natural shelters like caves and forests.

Their lives were spent entirely immersed in nature. Moreover, they depended on each other for survival. Everyone played a role in defending the camp, finding food and raising the children.   

As a result, our brains evolved to operate most effectively while living in small communities. Survival was tenuous so everyone in the group had to fully trust everyone else. This required developing intense personal relationships with every person in your community. This way, when the community faced a threat, they knew the safety of the community was everyone's top priority and not any one person's individual safety.

At the core of this type of lifestyle is a fundamental requirement: You must sacrifice your individuality and adopt the identity of the tribe. You talk like everyone in the tribe; act like everyone in the tribe; and, most importantly, think like everyone in the tribe. Conformity is what keeps you and everyone you love safe in a world that is filled with threats.

The Bushmen of the Kalahari are the oldest surviving cultures in the region and have lived in the area for at least 20,000 years. (Photo by AinoTuominen from Pixabay)

Now, let’s fast forward to the present day. The circuitry of our brains is fundamentally the same as it was 100,000 years ago. Humans still feel the most secure when they are part of a tribe. And yet, Western culture is constantly emphasizing how you need to be a unique individual. Whether we realize it or not, embracing your individuality means risking isolation and loneliness. Very few people have the mental fortitude to manage life without some kind of close community.

Therefore, people in Western culture have divided personalities. On the one hand, we are ardent non-conformists who cling to individual freedom as our highest value. On the other hand, our brains are constantly pushing us to find safety in being part of a tribe. Sometimes we find our tribe through a subculture of people who share a love for our unique interests. However, more often, we find our tribe through the arenas of politics, religion and sports.

Team Jesus

Something that really stuck out in my friend’s description was how the challenges of his life circumstances played a major role in developing his obsession with football. His life felt completely out of his control. No matter his decisions, he had no ability to change his situation. Then, by becoming a fan of a sports team, he discovered a sense of purpose and belonging that allowed him to rise above the emptiness he felt in his life.

At the time he told me this story, I was studying the origins of the earliest Christian communities in seminary. Most of the people drawn to Jesus’ movement in the first century were those on the lowest rungs of society—peasants, farmers, laborers, and social outcasts, like prostitutes and lepers. What’s critical to understand about the economy from this period is there was very little social mobility. If you were born poor, more than likely, you would die poor.

The thinking at the time, especially among first century Jews, was that your lot in life was determined by how much God loved or hated your family. For instance, those who lived in generational poverty and struggled to feed their families were thought to be suffering the consequences of the sins their parents or grandparents had committed against God. By contrast, those who were wealthy were considered loved by God. The blessing of wealth demonstrated that their family had done well in God’s eyes and, thus, they were favored by God. (Gn. 24:35, 26:12-13, 32:13-15; Jb. 1:1-8; Mk. 10:17-31)

Heinrich Hofmann: Christ and the young rich ruler

When Jesus comes on the scene, his teachings on God’s kingdom challenge this wisdom. In God’s kingdom, the normal social order is reversed. The ones you would expect to be first will be last and those you would expect to be last will be first. In particular, Jesus tells us that the wealthy will have a difficult time gaining entrance into God’s kingdom. Jesus lets us know in no uncertain terms that the poor are favored in God’s kingdom: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mk. 10:24)

Now, put yourself in the shoes of a Jewish peasant and imagine how you would hear this message. Up until this point, everything you’ve experienced has reinforced the idea that your life is fixed. You’ve been told that God determined your social location. You have no ability to affect substantive change in your life. No matter how hard you work or what decisions you make, you can never alter your circumstances.

Then Jesus comes along and undercuts this entire way of thinking. Jesus says, contrary to what you’ve been told, you are the one favored by God. Even though you are a suffering right now, when you enter into God’s kingdom, you will be first in line and everyone who is wealthy will be the ones suffering. Who, living under those circumstances, wouldn’t want to hear that message and be part of Jesus' team?

Adopting Your Tribal Identity

As I thought about my friend and how he became an obsessive Eagles fan, I noticed a lot of similarities between his circumstances and those of the early Christians. Both my friend and the earliest Christians were disempowered. The identity they had been assigned by society was that their lives had little value. They both felt like a cog in a much larger machine over which they had no control.

Then you hear about this new tribe; one that values who you are as a person and will accept you as you are. This tribe tells you in no uncertain terms that, when you join our group, you will automatically receive respect. You will be valued. All you have to do is conform to certain expectations.

University of Texas football game (Photo by KeithJJ from Pixabay)

As a football fan, you demonstrate your allegiance by wearing your team's paraphernalia to indicate your loyalty. My friend would wear an Eagles hat throughout the week and a full jersey on game days. Christians wear crosses on their person, adorn Jesus fish symbols on their cars and Bible verses in their homes. These identifiers convey an important message to other members of the tribe: You can trust me. I am one of you.

But simply wearing the gear is only part of the equation. You have to walk the walk and talk the talk. Being a fan not only means watching the games, but also being able to talk about specific players, coaching decisions and the statistical likelihood of success or failure. The deeper your knowledge of the team, the deeper your loyalty to the tribe, the greater your level of respect among other members of the tribe.

Christians in worship (Photo by jaefrench from Pixabay)

For a conservative Christians, that not only means going to church every Sunday, but also going to the right kind of church with the right kind of teachings. Do you read the Bible daily? Do you listen to Christian music? Are your beliefs consistent with how you vote at the polls? If you pass the smell test, then you will be accepted as doctrinally pure. I can trust that you and I are on the same page and you’ll fight for the survival of the tribe.  

The Collapse of the Christian Tribe

You may have seen the most recent Pew Research polls that the "Nones" (people with no particular religious affiliation) now make up 28% of American society and are one of the fastest growing demographics. Depending on how quickly this trend accelerates, the proportion of America’s population that identify as Christian could fall as low as 35% by 2070. That’s nearly a 30 point drop over the next 50 years.

What this tells us is that, for numerous reasons, people living in industrialized nations are rejecting the belonging offered by religion. However, just because people are no longer seeking out religion as their tribal identity, that doesn’t mean they won’t be searching for other replacements. Everyone wants to feel as though they are part of a community and my prediction is that the United States will go the way of the United Kingdom and Europe where church attendance is under 20%. With the demise of organized religion in Europe, the church has been displaced by sports.

The most popular European sport, by far, is football/soccer (Photo by Pexels from Pixabay)

Not only is the sense of belonging provided by sports very similar to religion (as I describe above), but the rituals around sports parallel each other. First of all, the rhythm of the sports schedule is familiar. Most Christians who are dedicated to a particular community, will attend church a few times a week for Sunday service and other programs. Many professional sports teams play at least once per week during their seasons (and often more frequently).

Second, similar to church, you often gather with friends for a few hours to watch the game. Like the church supper, watching the game usually involves food and drink. The fans worship certain players as the saviors of their teams in the same way a Christian might worship Jesus as the savior of their souls. Moreover, similar to the church tithe, the fan will invest in their team. Often this involves buying team paraphernalia, but every so often the fan will make a pilgrimage to the stadium to see the games in-person.       

The point being, the belonging offered by sports that my friend described to me all those years ago is going to assume much greater status in American society over the next 50 years as religion falls by the wayside, which raises a really important question: Where do you find your tribal identity? Religion, sports, politics, subcultures, all of the above?

If you would be so bold, leave your answer in the comments below. Thanks for reading and enjoy the Superbowl!   

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For the first time in my life, at the age of 72, I watched the entire Super Bowl last evening. And I agree with all of your insight here. And I also love the question about tribal allegiance. I am one of those who has an allegiance to my faith journey. And I find I'm drawn to the "I'm not that kind of Christian" tribe. I'm so grateful to have settled in a church where questions are more than welcome, they are encouraged. And the idea that "if you think you have this all figured out, then you've missed the point." Mystery is still there...keep asking questions, keep wondering, keep searching. I appreciate the lessons from your journey, Alex.


Very insightful, Alex. I would add musical fandom (think of the Swifties) and, less glamorously, things like weekly yoga and fitness classes.


Makes sense to me. I was a sports fan as a child, I think because everyone else was. I knew all the rules of basketball and football - still do - and went to all the games, It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized that I didn't really like sports that much.

Sort of the same thing happened with religion.

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