Opinion: Empty churches – full stadiums

POSTED: 06/24/14 1:39 PM

Sociologist Ruud Stokvis published an intriguing study about sport and the social functions of religion entitled Empty Churches, Full Stadiums. While soccer players are running behind a ball in Brazil to establish the next world champion, Stokvis says in his study that soccer is the new religion.

In an interview with Trouw, Stokvis says that believing in God is not necessary for the well-being of a community. Formation, bonding and giving meaning can all be found in sport. For the wellbeing of a community, religion has become redundant, the sociologist says. “Sport has taken over the role of religion.” The full stadiums in Brazil seem to suggest that Stokvis has a point.

Well, up to a point, of course, because his study refers to the situation in Western Europe where the significance of religion has crumbled. Is that bad? Nope, says Stokvis. If religion no longer has a regulating influence, other institutions will assume this role.

“Sport is not the only institution to take over the social aspects of religion. Education, media and social facilities also do that. What makes sport so important is that it has a combination of functions like formation, bonding and giving meaning.”

By nature, Stokvis notes, people are not religious, but social. “The feeling in a stadium is not different from that in a church.” Okay, we hear you: this is the opinion and the approach of a sociologist, not from a priest. That does not mean he is necessarily wrong of course.

His reference to a book written by Emil Durkheim, the founding father of sociology, in 1912 already describes how members of primitive tribes periodically met for large celebrations whereby they became part of the larger whole they formed together.

“Maybe this is a simplification but just like monkeys and people have common ancestors, so do religion and sport share the same origin. Social ritual and religion are an extension of one another. In both cases it is about the feeling of becoming part of a larger whole and the recognition of mutual bonds.”

What is the practical value of the approach Stokvis presents? It is meaningful, also for St. Maarten. One of the things children learn in sport is that they have to become better. Stokvis: “Even though practically nobody manages to become a champion, the thought is an important incentive to direct one’s life. Sport teaches children that perseverance isuseful and that slacking is useless. At the same time, children learn that they are dependent on others, with the perspective of a reward. It is a different moral and a different way of giving meaning than Christianity, but it is absolutely there.”

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