There is little doubt that Tom Inglis is not the first person to compare the rise of organised sport with the decline of public religious ceremony. There’s a host of information (sociological and otherwise) available on the increasing popularity of all sports and its now globalised nature. There is also no shortage of information on how religious practice is seemingly less important now than it used to be. In the article that Tom has put together for today’s Irish Times, he argues that sport
allows people to relate and reach out to strangers who may be divided by ethnic, racial, political or religious differences. In a globalised world, sport has become one of the key languages of cosmopolitanism. Through creating a sense of identity and belonging, sport gives purpose and meaning to people’s lives.
In this Durkheim-influenced piece, he discusses how sport has become “a metaphor for life” and how “it builds bridges” between people from different parts of the world. He goes on to state that
In a world where God and salvation have moved backstage, into the realm of the personal and the private, sport has moved to the front of social life. It has become one of the main mechanisms through which people create a sense of shared understanding.
Sport does create a sense of shared understanding for people in communities, locally and on other scales. We’ve just seen Lance Armstrong in the Tour of Ireland and soon Mohammed Ali will be Ennis-bound to share his witticisms. Two strong personalities who bring people together. To not see a shared understanding in the Cork and Tyrone game yesterday would be to deny its very real power. The GAA and others still have that attachment to the local but I am not sure that Tom argues at all that the Catholic Church has lost this. As difficult a time as the institutional Church has had in adapting to a changing market environment and mass media, right now it is the local Church that is keeping any sense of “collective consciousness” alive. When I get outside of Maynooth for work, I am repeatedly struck by the “collective effervescence” of parish activity, albeit tempered by an institutional timidity that worries more about perception than conviction. Parish-based activity is highly personal and drives private convictions but is no longer at the “front of social life”. Being at “the front of social life” seems too static a notion to be of much analytic use however. I’m not sure if religious conviction was ever any other way than private and personal.
I would take issue with Tom’s statement that the Church (or religion, I am not sure) has not adapted to the “globalised world” (how could the world be any other way?). In creating oppositions which may never have been fully realised, Tom ignores a question of scale and the uneven geographies of religion. What has been one of the signals of success for the Ryan report on institutional abuse has been its power to reveal local (and cross-national) struggles with national political priorities. How has this occurred? What has the GAA done well on various scales that the Catholic Church in Ireland has not done?