25 January 2015

What is ‘The Serious Life’?

French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s contribution to sociology can scarcely be overstated. Regarded as a founding father in the field, he is arguably best known today for his work on religion.

Religion, as Durkheim saw it, consists of beliefs about the nature of the world (or worldview) and the rituals which symbolise or enact those beliefs.  Each worldview makes distinctions between the ‘sacred’ (what is held to be of importance) and the ‘profane’ (that which is unimportant). To honour the sacred through ritual is, to Durkheim, to live ‘the serious life’.

Since the Industrial Revolution, and specifically in the dominant cultures of the West, sport has been gradually lifted from the profane and, it may be argued, is being relocated within the sacred sphere. Today within the realm of sport there exists much of what constitutes religion: rituals and beliefs, adherents, devotees and fanatics, rites of passage and liminal experiences.

Think of football (soccer) for a moment. Fans are called to ‘keep the faith’ when their team is relegated, banners at stadiums announce that the manager is ‘The Chosen One’, and voices are raised in corporate worship in the stands. For many, the encompassing emotional experiences of football fandom come closer to religious experience than anything else they have known. For these, a wedding, christening or Bar Mitzvah is nothing like as unifying and uplifting an experience as is being an active part of a pulsating Saturday afternoon crowd at the Holte End.

So, sport is like religion, but sport is not religion. While the culture of modern sport fandom has much in common with Durkheim’s conception of the ‘sacred’, no-one could maintain that sport and religion are synonymous. Even the ‘sacred’ practice of elite sporting competition can be punctuated by more serious realities. When Fabrice Muamba, a Premier League footballer, collapsed on the pitch in March 2012 due to a cardiac arrest the chanting was immediately set aside by fans who knew they were witnessing something more ‘real’ than that for which they had paid.

So, sport inhabits the nether-land between the sacred and the profane, and borrows from both. It is both deeply and profoundly meaningless and yet at the same time invested with significance by its adherents.

In this blog I will be investing sport with personal significance. I hope to write on matters relating to sport in society: issues of health, gender, politics, body image, the media, violence, migration, globalisation, and – of course – religion. I don't intend to venture into philosophy or theology, but nothing is off the table!

Sport is not my religion – it’s not a religion at all – but it is a part of this serious life.

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