Game On

Volume 47, Issue 1, by Michael J. Crosbie

Are professional sports replacing organized religion? That question was at the root of a recent Washington Post article that pointed out that as membership in organized religion has declined, the number of people who identify themselves as sports fans has increased. According to a Pew study, two-thirds of those polled say that religion is losing its influence in the U.S. In contrast, 50 years ago only 30 percent of those surveyed said they were were fanatical about sports; today it is double that. The article asks: “Are Americans shifting their spiritual allegiances away from praying places and toward playing places?”

The article generated quite a bit of comment among members of the Forum for Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality (, which circulated it for discussion. There were lots of comparisons to the sports spectacles of the ancient world, and how closely they were tied to the religious beliefs of the times. Others noted that the sacred places created for religious spectacle, now often sparsely populated, still have the power to move us through their mere presence. The sanctity of the work of the architects, artists, craftspeople, and builders has outlived that of the high priests who once marshaled the masses in unwavering belief.

Still others questioned whether the rise of sports and the decline of religion is a false correlation. After all, American pop culture is heavily invested in all kinds of spectacles that consume the attention and devotion of millions: sports, music, movies, fashion, the Internet in general. Sports are really just a part of a rampant commercial spectator culture, one that only asks the participants to watch, passively, and not tune out the ads.

Might it be possible that the number of adherents of organized religion is shrinking not because sports have become more dominant, but because religion is undergoing a seismic shift that will, maybe someday, change everything in the culture, including sports? Is it perhaps that today people are defining modes of spirituality and religious devotion with different forms of transcendence, beyond that of spectator religion? Are we seeing the transformation of passive believers into active seekers, whose spirituality asks for more than spectacle, and demands more than mere observation?

Harvard theologian Harvey Cox puts his finger on such a transformation when he describes the spiritual awakening that he detects throughout contemporary culture. He notes that the new generation of believers is not passive. They are more open to the mystical, transcendent nature of faith, but they are resistant to doctrine. They are more oriented to first-hand religious experience not interpreted by intermediaries. They have a thirst for questioning received wisdom. They disdain organized religion’s exclusivity and are suspicious of “the only way.” They see connections between science and religion, because both are part of the human search for knowledge. They are more empathetic to the poor and the marginalized.

“Do you follow sports?” is a common query, but I have never heard anyone ask, “Do you follow religion?” The question is absurd, and it points to the false comparison between the two, especially today. Spirituality is not a spectator sport.

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at

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  1. “They see connections between science and religion, because both are part of the human search for knowledge.” This is an important understanding. Thank you.

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