Why watching a baseball game is not a religious experience.
But playing in one is.
The World Series is soon upon us. With the lead up to these games come the talking-heads pontificating about who they think will likely win it all, car and beer companies producing eye-catching commercials, and street vendors thinking up the designs for their next viral t-shirt.
What this also means is that between October 23–31st there will be millions of people screaming in jubilation or crying in intense anguish.
I’ve been there. Both screaming in joy as I attempt to find the closest human near me to dance in circles with them and also covering my face with a t-shirt (the non-viral kind) as I sob knowing that I must now wait a whole other year before there can be any second chances.
There is a word for this intoxicating emotional rollercoaster in the field of sociology — it is called “collective effervescence”. The idea that when we are with others we get caught up in the excitement and symbolism of it all to the point where we identify more with the group than we do with ourselves as an individual. “Who am I” isn’t even a question — it’s obvious… just see my shirt!
A few years back I was speaking with a friend of mine who happens to be a Chicago Cubs fan. She told me that when she was growing up and going to Cubs games with her family it was like a religious experience for them. “Okay, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration there but I get the idea” I thought to myself. Not only were the games themselves a transcendent experience for them but being a Cubs fan overall was like a religion to them she said.
I get that, too. But come on. We are either defining baseball wrong, or religion, or both.
“We are either defining baseball wrong, or religion, or both.”
Before we try to wrestle down what exactly makes a religion let’s try something slightly easier first — community. What makes a community? Robert Putnam in his landmark essay of Bowling Alone (1995) spells out some of the limitations of sports communities. He says:
“They root for the same team and they share some of the same interests, but they are unaware of each other’s existence. Their ties, in short, are to common symbols, common leaders, and perhaps common ideals, but not to one another.”
I know what you are thinking: “that sounds exactly like organized religion to me”. Touché, dear reader, touché. Putnam has something to say about these types of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and gurdwaras as well:
“For the vast majority of their members, the only act of membership consists in writing a check for dues or perhaps occasionally reading a newsletter. Few ever attend any meetings of such organizations, and most are unlikely ever (knowingly) to encounter any other member.”
Any community where people do not know one another is no community at all. How much the more so should they refrain from calling themselves “religious communities.”
I don’t think we are defining baseball wrong at all. That — I think we’ve actually got down pat. Instead, it’s the ability to figure out what a religious community is that makes this Cubs thing so hard to dispute. If only so many religious communities weren’t going about it so wrong I would actually be able to have something to say to the fans at Wrigley Field.
So signing a dues check and reading a newsletter is not a religious community. Got it. What is then?
What is a religious community or religion, anyways?
Now comes the part where I try to define what a religion is: a religion is a spiritual discipline that a practitioner practices in order to develop a greater closeness to their own being, towards others around them, and to the universe as a whole (some call this God).
A religious community is a space in which each member of that collective looks out for the wellbeing of those around them. It is not the false and stuffy piety that so many of us have experienced in those check writing, newsletter reading organizations — rather religious communal participation is a piety where each member is concerned about the wellbeing of their own soul and the stomach of his or her fellow neighbor; not the other way around.
When is the last time that a baseball game created space for their fans to have a moment to reflect on the state of their soul? They never do and nor should they. They are not in the business of creating religious experiences, so let’s stop pretending that they are.
Playing the game on the other hand — now that can be a religious experience.
While watching a game in the midst of tens of thousands of strangers can be fun but not spiritually fulfilling, participating in a sports league as a player can actually be both.
This does not just apply to baseball teams but it is also true for being a part of an orchestra, a book club, and increasingly nowadays even part of a CrossFit class as well.
In these spaces individuals care to know who the other members in the room are. They have a vested interest and concern for the wellbeing and growth of those around them. And most importantly they themselves grow as a result of opening up to others with a sincere vulnerability.
About this type of real community professor and writer Brené Brown says:
“True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are.”
Just as the religious practitioner must keep returning to themselves in an honest and open way, so too does the softball pitcher transform herself spiritually and technically by showing up to practice everyday.
Such an accountability to oneself and to one’s teammates is what makes playing sports so impactful on youth and adults all across the world. It is this very same participation that is most lacking when making pilgrimage to a World Series game.
It’s still a fun and once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it will never be a religious one. That is, of course, unless you are playing in one.
Misha Clebaner, originally from San Francisco, is in his final year of rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Boston. He is currently serving as the rabbinic figure of Temple B’nai Israel in Revere, MA.