Religion and Sport

Is there anything wrong with footballers crossing themselves?

I’m a loud and proud member of the National Secular Society.

Since taking an interest in secularism over the last few years I seem to have comfortably jettisoned many inclinations to class my own political philosophies in terms of left or right, probably for two reasons.

Firstly, I believe religion’s influence is so great that its megalomaniacal tendencies desperately need to be checked, which brings secularism to the very top of my own political agenda.  I concur with the journalist and NSS honorary associate Nick Cohen that the NSS is “Britain’s most urgently needed pressure group.”

And secondly, I don’t think secularism should be viewed as exclusively a product of, or of interest to, the left, the right or the middle. It should and it does appeal to people regardless of where they sit politically.

This might sound like sandwich-board-wearing-Armageddon-talk, but I will even say that unless religion is put in its proper place the final result can only mean the loss of freedom to describe our political views as left, right or anywhere in between.

Like most groupings of people, political or otherwise, secularists don’t all agree with each other about everything, including secularism. As my friend macpsych remarked here, if you want to be surrounded by people with whom you do agree on everything, go join a church.

The NSS sends out a weekly email called Newsline, which I would recommend anyone sign up for (you can do this here). It’s an excellent round-up of news stories from various sources. In fact, some of my blog posts on religion are directly prompted by articles I would not have seen were it not for Newsline, or were the NSS not to link to them on their website.

Yesterday’s Newsline (11 November 2011) had a piece from the NSS itself called “Religious leaders on their marks for Olympics”, with the following:

“Mr Sanderson [President of the NSS] said that religion was already intruding too much into international sport with some footballers ostentatiously crossing themselves after scoring goals and Muslim women athletes being forced into ridiculous costumes to satisfy the prurient demands of their religious leaders at home.”

I had to rub my eyes, re-read this and then scratch my head.

As for the Muslim women, I’m not personally aware of specific examples of this, but to the extent it occurs it is quite right to highlight it and I share the objection. No problem there, then.

However, in principle I could not care less about footballers crossing themselves after scoring goals, ostentatiously or otherwise. Assuming this is done of their own free will (and that choice of religion is of their own free will, of course), with no pressure from state or religious institutions, and assuming also that they don’t pressure their team mates to do the same, it is to me wholly unobjectionable. In any case, stupid goal celebrations are a longstanding and amusing feature of the beautiful game.

The only secular logic at which I can grasp is that the objection, being expressed specifically towards international footballers representing their country, potentially suggests a degree of endorsement by the state of a particular religious belief. But that brings us comfortably within barrel-scraping territory.

I wish to frame my lack of objection in terms of my own views on secularism because I think some of the traditional terminology for articulating secularism, such as “separation of church and state”, is not always particularly helpful these days.

So here goes.

Secularism definition, Part 1 (of 2)
Which has as its function the stating of disapproval towards religious privilege

“Religion shall not enjoy special treatment.”

Secularism definition, Part 2 (of 2)
Which has as its function the stating of disapproval towards religious discrimination

“Religion shall not be subject to special mistreatment.”

Provided that my assumptions concerning free choice of religion, absence of state/religious pressure and absence of pressure towards team mates are satisfied, I say that restrictions or prohibitions on footballers, including international footballers, crossing themselves fall foul of Part 2 of my definition.  They would constitute an unnecessary and therefore unacceptable infringement of a footballer’s religious freedom.