Wednesday, June 06, 2007

[Soc.] Religion, Body & Sport - A Sociological Study*


In this short essay, I attempt to depict the relationships between religion and body by tracing the historical developments of religion, and in the process of doing so, I argue that there is a similarity between modern sports and religious rituals or practices in its ability to generate collective exciting experiences, and this similarity reflects one of the abiding, constant needs of human beings in the society throughout the history. The centre of discussion in this essay, however, will be on the emergence of muscular Christianity from Victorian era in United Kingdom, and its diffusions and influences globally along the course. By examining the developments of muscular Christianity, which may be the most visible example of how religious concepts are able to intervene the nurture of the individuals about notions of body, morality and society, I hope to shed a glimmering light on the complicated entanglements between religion, sports and body in society.

Religion and modern sports: The generator of sacred experiences?

The discussion will begin with Durkheim’s (1961) revolutionary notion of religion as a social phenomenon. Durkheim argued that religion is the expression of substantial and intrinsic needs of people in society over time, as he stated: “If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, that is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.” (Durkheim, 1961: 419) Using the periodic ritual practices by Australian aborigines as an example, Durkheim illustrated how different social groups of tribes reassembled together because of the religious rituals, and how the collective consciousnesses of the particular society were reinforced by the religious rituals and practices.

For Durkheim, religions were established in the categorical distinction between sacred and profane realms, and all religions can be characterised by a dichotomy between sacred and profane. Hence, the religious beliefs, rituals and practices are made to impose the classification concepts to individuals. Furthermore, Durkheim argued that the principal notion of sacred in religion comes from the stimulations of collective strong emotional states by the religious rituals and practices, as the social relationships will be restored and cemented by deep emotional devotions of people during the practices.

Here, one can find the resemblance between Durkheim’s notion of “collective effervescence” and the collective excitements sports are able to generate among the spectators. As Elias and Dunning (1986: 222) suggested, for some people in modern society, sports are regarded as “quasi-religious activities” as they fill the gap due to the decline of religion, and it is “not unreasonable” to value certain sports arenas like football or cricket, by the extent of collective excitements they generated, as the “sacred” or “hollowed” turfs. Similar thoughts regarding sports as a quasi-religion, or even as a formal religion, have been shared by scholars like Edwards (1973) and Novak (1992).

Throughout the history, one can find that the creating of sacred experiences have always been the backbone of religions, especially in the case of Christianity. As Brown (1988) claimed, in the period of the emergence of early Christianity (from 40 to 430 A.D.), originated from the fundamental dualistic value judgements of good and evil, Christianity viewed the body as the symbol for Christ’s victory over adversities like death, and encourage people to overcome the existing corporeal restrictions and transform their bodies from sinful fleshes.

In the medieval period, as Mellor and Schilling (1997: 36) argued, although the overall more insecure living environment in the medieval period, including unstable food supplement and the inability to remedy fatal diseases, has resulted to the difficulty in generating an “embodied identity-construction” among people in the medieval society, certain structured approaches to the body did have emerged. Religious rituals like baptism played as the central part in forming one’s initial religious experiences. Mellor and Schilling (1997) have pointed out that the procedures of baptism require not only preparations beforehand on one’s own body, but also including one taking off clothes to nakedness and donning the white linen garment afterwards. Consequently, through the profound sensory experiences during the baptism, one is able to transform his/her sinful flesh. Hence, Mellor and Schilling (1997: 37) argued that in medieval period, the body maintained ”a sensual relationship” with the sacred, and the Church acted as the guide to people, attempted to “harness” (1997: 64) people’s somatic experiences in helping the growth of sacred communities. To quote from Mellor and Schilling (1997: 65): “For the Church, the meaning was to be found through the body, not in spite of it.”

I will discuss the case of muscular Christianity in following paragraphs, but here I would like to firstly jump back to Durkheim’s (1961) arguments about the lingering importance of sacred experiences. For Durkheim, the sacred cannot entirely disappeared from modern society, and the sacred experiences still played an integral part in holding interdependent individuals together in modern societies. Here, certain scholars have argued that modern sports may have become even more powerful forms of religions than the traditional counterpart in society nowadays. Reflecting on Berger and Luckmann’s (1967) account, Coles (1975) has even suggested that comparing to the place of worship where rituals eventually may dampen the religious fervours, one may find football field as an even more devotional place. Price (1992)’s argument of how the whole event of Super Bowl was represented as a religious festival in order to reinforce the American identity and promote patriotism also provided a weighty example of the issue.

The birth and transition of muscular Christianity

Although the origin of the ideology of muscular Christianity can be traced back to more 150 years ago, Mangan (2000) have argued that the fundamental concept of masculinity in western societies has encountered rather slight changes historically. Boys will experience rigid educations in order to mould vigorous and outward personalities as the preparations to take heavier social responsibilities and deal with aggressive competitions with fellows in the future. Echoing with Mangan’s arguments, Gilmore (1990: 224) pointed out that “manhood scripts” are first and foremost “modes of integrating men into their society, as codes of belonging in a hard, often threatening world”.

As of now, the ideology of muscular Christianity still remained profoundly persuasive toward the aristocrats and governing class in British societies, as they hold the belief firmly that sports play crucial roles for the moulding of morality and characters of young males. (Whannel, 2007; Mangan & McKenzie, 2000) Literatures promoting muscular Christianity, like Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays, have been influential in shaping the mainstream doctrines of masculinity and femininity.

Interestingly, however, as Vance (1985) and Allen (1994) have pointed out, Hughes has deliberately omitted the narrations about the corporeal figures among the fictional characters in his literatures, and they argued that the reason for the erasure of the body was to dodge the unavoidable manifestations of ideological clashes between masculinity/Christianity and physicality/spirituality.

In Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the incompatibility of masculinity and Christianity is unified between the contrary of two main characters: Tom and Arthur. As Allen (1994: 116) pointed out, Tom and Arthur are at different ends attempting to meet each other: the barbaric, physically-vigorous Tom is assigned to take care of Arthur, who is frail corporeally but also high-minded and sensitive. During the intercourse, the designed goals are for Tom to gradually imbue with Christian values and moral principles, while Arthur is supposedly to become sturdier physically to support his spiritual strength. Nonetheless, as the story advanced, the contradictions between the narratives of Tom and Arthur’s bodies are becoming apparent, while Arthur’s body slowly gave away. In the end of the novel, neither Tom nor Arthur was able to be identified simultaneously with both characteristics of masculinity and Christianity.

Furthermore, Allen endeavoured to reveal the ideology of muscular Christianity in Tom Brown’s Schooldays was a product out of bourgeois hegemony. The character of Tom was created by Hughes to represent a typical bourgeoisie in British society: brave, fearless on the rugby pitch, yet is also able to prepare a tea party better than the servant employed in his teacher’s house (Hughes, 1993: 265-6). By demonstrating the prevailing ability of Bourgeois class both in working utility and rugby play, Hughes implicitly attempted to indicate the representative values of Bourgeois and upper classes among the British society. On the contrary, the proletariat class of people are deprived of utterance, as the bourgeois and upper classes people will “speak for them”, most notably in sports activities like rugby.

Consequently, as Allen (1994: 124) argued, the sharp discrepancy between the physically vigorous body images worshiped by Bourgeois class and vague narratives of bodies in Tom Brown’s Schooldays leads one to the conclusion that the body in Hughes’s novel, as in muscular Christianity, is a “bourgeois conception, a semiotic body that articulates the transcendental”. Only by abstracting the body per se can Hughes utilize the factual physical bodily experiences from the working class people to enhance the imaginary narratives of Bourgeois bodies, whose daily labours in fact were constituted of little corporeal activities. Hence, the Bourgeoisies are able to turn themselves into the “universal signifiers” (Allen, 1994: 130) which stand for working class people as well. The construction of Bourgeoisies’s identities here in Hughes’s novel disclosed the essence of muscular Christianity, that “bourgeois male represent all male” (Allen, 1994: 130).

Here, besides catching the glimpse of bourgeois hegemony at work, interestingly, one is also able to draw the comparison to Bourdieu’s (1990, 1993) interpretations about the invention of modern sports happening in the mid-nineteenth century, that the offspring of aristocrat and bourgeois classes altered the content of popular and vulgar games, revised the meanings and functions for the benefit of acquiring advantageous social class distinctions. Bourdieu (1990: 119-120) argued that the intention of physical exercises, which seen rugby played an integral part, in elite educational systems, was to cultivate the students to occupy a “distant, neutralizing disposition” toward sports and their own bodies. Similar disposition toward cultural phenomena, including language and arts, as Bourdieu (1990: 120) also pointed out (“an elective distance from material interests”), can be found in bourgeoisies.

Although on the surface it may seems like Bourdieu’s descriptions about Bourgeoisie’s perceptions of sports and their bodies are sharply opposed to the praiseworthy characteristics like bold, energetic and aggressive which represent muscular Christianity, one can discover the connections between two arguments by looking at deeper contexts. As Houghton (1957) and Rosen (1994) argued, the birth of muscular Christianity was invented from dominant classes in order to regain control of the ever-changing world. The deep insecure feelings of people in Victorian era, including the scientific, industrial and territorial (the colonization due to imperialism) improvements and rapid social evolvements (including the democratisation and middle-classification process), provided the breeding ground for the need of a “foundation of manliness” (Rosen, 1994: 40). In turn, the educational systems of public schools, with most of the students from Bourgeois and upper classes, has been regarded as the crucial aspect for dominant classes to mould the Christian masculinity into next generation, hence explaining the appearance and long-lasting popularity of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

This kind of fabrication in the emergence of physical exercises in Victorian era echoed Bourdieu’s (1993: 119-121) descriptions about the elite sports practices being “disconnected” from the traditional games and folk games in the forming of modern sports. Bourdieu argued that only by employing a more distanced disposition toward sports practice and seeing it as “an end to itself”, can both the manly virtues and aristocratic ethics be developed through it. In this vein, sports practices were conceived as the training of personal characters, hence the blueprint of amateurism - the “fair play” spirit - was emerged.

Interestingly, as Vance (1985: 189-195) noted, despite the fact that Tom Brown’s Schooldays became extremely popular among pupils after its first appearance in 1857, and even found the genre of “schoolboy literature”, the scene Hughes attempted to portrait in his novel that public school boys devoted themselves to rugby just for the game itself and simultaneously refine themselves morally was actually outdated. The rapid growth of public schools due to the educational needs from Bourgeois class for their offspring beginning from 1850s, has lead to the increase of popularities participated in rugby and accordingly intensified the competition levels. Consequently, the importance of spiritual and educational values in the rugby match were gradually pushed aside by the factual result. The following context quoted by MacAloon (2006: 689) in Tom Brown’s Schooldays is best suitable as a summary to Hughes’s moral intention in the novel: “Leave behind you the name of a fellow who never bullied a little boy or turned his back on the big one”; however, as MacAloon also pointed out, the happenings of abusive fagging, fisticuffs and barbaric forms of fights in turn have replaced the character moulding and ethic developing, ‘sinews of the spirit’ which Hughes originally hope to see in the results of physical exercises in public school.

The continuous development of muscular Christianity and the game ethic

Although Hughes did not see his ideals of muscular Christianity successfully realized in the public schools during Victorian era, the subsequent influences of muscular Christianity have been profound and multi-directional.

Mangan (1986) has argued that, by acting as the training instrument of pupils’ characters and imposing moral values – courage, endurance, assertion, self-control – muscular Christianity also strengthened the stratified relationships between rulers and labours in the society, subsequently served for the purpose of colonialism and imperialism as civilizing tools in the late nineteenth century. As Mangan (1986: 22) pointed out, the headmasters of public school have played the role of agents of “hegemonic persuasion”, spread and legitimatized the dominant ideology.

Honey (1977) also argued that the “irresistible tides” described by Winston Churchill, that certain social classes collectively sending their offspring who were still at very young ages to public schools beginning from Victorian era, was the result of social requirements which closely related with the rise of imperialism. Tracing the historical developments, Honey pointed out that organized team sports gradually played more important roles in public educations, as they subsequently became compulsory not only for every student to participate, but also to speculate, between 1880 and 1900.

Consequently, more than one critics in Victorian era have argued that the collective sporting experiences of young males working as a team in public school days have helped the British empire to develop not only more morally better citizens beneficial for society, but also more suitable characters to explore its imperialism around the world.

By presenting the case of Eton in India, Mangan (1986) offered a forceful example of how the British Empire utilize the education system which followed the model of local public school to mould and create obedient generations of people on its colony. The hidden agenda of Indian public school systems could not be portrayed more clearly than the quote by Sir James Peile at the opening ceremony: “We shall discipline their (Indian boys’) bodies in the manliness and hardihood of the English public schoolboy.” (quoted in Mangan, 1986: 133). Here, just like the case in their British counterpart, the ultimate goals of sports in the Indian public school education are to improve the moral characters of pupils and subsequently create the “oriental Englishmen” (Mangan, 1986: 122)

On the other hand, scholars have argued that the central concept of modern sports, the game ethic, is the secularized form of muscular Christianity. Here, I will use the football-related movie Goal! (2006) as a example to show how different forms of game ethic have been complied by athletes and portrayed in sports narratives.

Analyzing the movie Goal!, Kwuak (2007) argued that the ideology of muscular Christianity still manifests in sports narratives, but with the transformative form of game ethic. Kwauk also pointed out that while the concept of game ethic has spread transnationally and varied differentially, the purest form of game ethic, which embodied by the leading character Santiago Muñez, would unexceptionally won out in the end. The story of Goal! followed the adventures of Santiago in a professional football team, let the audience see how Santiago trying to fulfill his lifelong dream of being successful in a football pitch, while different factors, including heterosexual love, father-son relationship and materialism, intersect the plot.

Quoting from Mangan (1986: 18), Kwauk (2007: 77) argued that Santiago embodies the essential moral values of muscular Christianity: “Santiago is like the ‘universal Tom Brown: loyal, brave, truthful, a gentleman, and…a Christian.’” By embodying the pure game ethic, Santiago is able to resist from different kinds of temptations, including money, women and alcohol, and gradually making his way to stardom.

Around Santiago, it is sufficient to say that different characters in the story of Goal! employed different kind of muscular Christianities, and eventually, Santiago’s personal charisma would prevail and altered the personalities of others which could not be accomplished by other factors. One of the best examples can be found in the character of Gavin Harris, who in a way represents a sharp contradiction to Santiago’s pure, dedicated spirit to the love of the game. A talented player who has experienced the fame and glory before, Gavin’s main objective toward football is solely for the interests of himself. To quote from Hughie Magowan, the teammate of both Santiago and Gavin: “Gavin is a glory boy…[who’s] only in it for himself. He doesn’t give a toss about which club he plays for; it’s just the money for blokes like him.” (Kwauk, 2007: 77-78) However, while all the efforts by the team manager and other players to rectify Gavin’s behaviours failed, Gavin’s deliberately attempts to lure Santiago into his material lifestyle ended in vain either. Consequently, in the end of the film, the collaborations between Santiago and Gavin on the football pitch helped fulfil the dream of playing in European champion league next season for the team. Furthermore, it appeared that Gavin has learned a lesson from Santiago’s faithfulness to the game and began to change his own mindset and demeanours.

While in the conclusion of her literature, Kwauk (2007) argued that the film Goal! demonstrated the process of how muscular Christianity needs to adapt itself to the cultural and social differences in order to become the globally doctrine in sports field, the monolithic and predictable story plot that Santiago will always turn out to be the person to get last laugh in different aspects of conflicts around him certainly has weakened her arguments. I will argue here, conversely, that it is much more convincing to interpret Goal! as a film served for the purpose of advertising the power of pure form of muscular Christianity, which is embodied by Santiago, as he is able to overcome any adversities either by the efforts himself or by the timely help of significant others. Subsequently, I will argue that the major reason for movie producers to create such a football-related film is to promote the simplistic values of game ethic which not only is able to recall the familiarity but to obtain the identifications from majority of viewers worldwide who have been imposed the game ethic, albeit in different forms and occasions, through physical educations in their young ages, hence increasing the popularity and business profits. Furthermore, I argue that by reissuing the plot of promoting game ethic, the transformative form of muscular Christianity, the movie Goal! should be viewed as the manifestation of hegemonic masculinity from mass media which endeavours to reinforce the social control by the dominant classes.


Throughout the essay, I endeavour to demonstrate two main facts in the research of religion, body and sports: firstly, the similar profound sensory experiences created by religions and modern sports in search of a sacred state require further explorations. Although overall it can be argued that modern sports still resemble only a handful of similarities with traditional forms of religions, it is undeniable that certain “taboos” and “doctrines” often exist in sports fans’ mindsets and behaviours, and more than few fans will describe that their relationships toward their supporting franchises or nations as “spiritual”. Or, as Elias and Dunning (1986) pointed out, certain fans would even like to have their ashes spread on the pitch of their supported team after they passed away. All of these behaviours and deep emotional fascinations toward sports by “fans” – a term which may need further examination as well in indicating certain group of people - certainly have exceeded the level of involvements compared to most other behaviours toward certain social institutions.

Secondly, I argue that the pure form of game ethic has experienced little changes throughout the history and still remain as a dominant ideology not only in the physical educations, but also in mass medias, literatures and other mainstream cultural presentations in modern societies. As MacAloon (2006) argued in his informative article in reviewing the history of muscular Christianity, that the mainstream journalisms in United States nowadays have been profoundly embedded by the ideology of muscular Christianity to the extent that few critics are able to literally discern the influences of it. In some ways, the movie Goal! once again proved MacAloon’s point, as it like other mainstream sports-related movies deceptively served for the purpose of promoting the values of the transformative form of muscular Christianity.

*This was my course work for the "Sport, The Body and Society" module in term 2 of Msc Sociology of Sport course.


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