2 That special day
It's that special day in the week again. People begin to gather, set apart by their passionate convictions and the symbols that bind them together. Some stand by and scoff but the like-minded take strength from each other and stride proudly on, indifferent to those who do not share their commitment. For those caught up since birth (the less sympathetic might say ‘indoctrinated’) by their elders' commitment and enthusiasm, this is the climax of their week.
How can an observer convey in words the feelings of those who gather at this special place at this special time? The chanting and singing lift those present out of the work-a-day world. Truly, to be here does raise the spirits and charge the batteries for the week ahead. To be sitting in the same row and conscious of familiar faces, possibly among generations of the same family, gives a sense of belonging that others can hardly imagine. This is something of value to be passed from generation to generation. But enough of this; those who will officiate have taken up their positions. It is time for minds and hearts to focus, for the moment has come. The whistle blows, the ball is passed, the match has begun.
My account of ‘that special day’ deliberately encourages you to assume that I was beginning this study of religion with a description of a religious gathering at a place of worship. After all, for many people the word ‘religion’ conjures up just such a picture of gatherings on days held to be special by different groups in the community; for example, at a Jewish synagogue on Saturday, an Islamic mosque on a Friday (Islam is professed by Muslims) and a Christian church on a Sunday. Whether or not you think of yourself as religious, the celebration of these special days and the marking of events such as marriage and death in places like churches or mosques are hard to avoid. Regardless of our personal attitudes towards religion, these associations give rise to a measure of shared understanding of what we mean by ‘religion’. It's something we take for granted. You might anticipate, therefore, that mapping the limits of ‘religion’ should be straightforward – a matter of common sense, for we all know what we mean by ‘religion’. But is it as straightforward as that?
One prominent football manager declared: ‘Some people say that football is a matter of life and death. It isn’t. It's much more important than that’ (Bill Shankly, when manager of Liverpool Football Club). In speaking about his personal commitment to football, I am sure that Bill Shankly was not intentionally seeking to cast it as some sort of ‘religion’. Yet, the language he used is reminiscent of a characteristic associated with ‘religion’: namely, that ‘religion’ claims to offer its followers meaning and a way through life which leads them to attach greater importance to it than anything else. If we take Bill Shankly seriously, establishing a clear boundary between religion and other kinds of commitment may prove less easy than we might have imagined.
Can you suggest some parallels between following a football club and following a religion?
Both football and religion can arouse deep passions, even to the point of violence, and their respective followers will often make considerable sacrifices. Both groups are inclined to mark themselves out with exclusive codes of dress and forms of ritual behaviour. Both have their own songs. There is individual experience but also a powerful sense of belonging to a community with its own code, which is reinforced by sharing in pilgrimage – whether to a place of worship or to a football stadium. Both religion and football produce their heroes, their ordinary followers and their fanatics.
So, am I suggesting that the activity of a religious person at a place of worship can be adequately described in much the same way as, for example, the passionate support of a football fan at the local stadium? Not exactly, but I do want you to consider that the meaning of the familiar term ‘religion’ may be less clear-cut than it seems. Although many people rush to pronounce judgements on whether religion is ‘true’ or ‘false’ or whether it is a ‘good’ thing or a ‘bad’ thing, few pause long enough to ask, ‘what is religion – how do we recognise it when we encounter it?’