Monday, June 18, 2012

Skepticism and sports

So the New Jersey Devils lost to the Los Angeles Kings in game six of the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals (congratulations, Kings. The refs wrapped up the final game for you and you took it to the bank).

They deserved to win, but that doesn't
mean I have to like it.
During my enjoyment of the Devils' run to the finals, I employed the handful of rituals that I generally observe in an effort to exhort my team on to playoff success. These customs have morphed and expanded somewhat over time, building on what seemed "successful" in the past.

These rituals include obvious things like wearing team colours (my #30 Martin Brodeur jersey that I purchased in 1995, and my 2000 & 2003 Stanley Cup champions hats), drinking a beer per period in my 2003 Stanley Cup champs mug (the 750ml volume means if the game goes into OT I'm heading to work the next morning with a hangover!), and munching on peanuts during the game.

If the Devils score a goal or win the game, my dog is rewarded with a peanut treat (which is a variation on when I used to have pet rats instead of a dog) and I hit the play button on Hammer (a mechanized plastic mouse with a helmet, jersey and hockey stick that dances to "The good ol' hockey game").

There are a few other actions I practice as part of my playoff rites, but you get the idea. This year however, my wife snapped a couple of photos of me performing my rituals and commented, "You're the most superstitious atheist I know!"

This of course led me to review exactly why it is I perform these idiosyncracies while watching a hockey game. Do I really think that these actions will affect the results of what is happening in a hockey rink thousands of kilometers from my house? Certainly not. So why act out these peculiar traditions?

This happened because I finished my first period beer
before the end of the period.
I think part of it is to feel a little more "involved" in the game instead of merely watching it passively. It creates a sense of responsibility and builds a greater (albeit false) connection to the team resulting in a greater emotional investment. Thus, the little rituals provide that extra collective elation when my team is winning because it makes me feel like I've contributed in some small way to team success instead of merely watching images on a TV screen. On the flip side, it can be a sense of comfort when my team loses, because missing a ritual or doing one improperly becomes the reason why the favored team wasn't ultimately successful, avoiding the reality that the rival team was just a better team.

So then, my customs have some similarities to religious rituals: they offer a sense of community, build emotional attachment, and offer comfort when disappointment strikes. And, just like religion, they are also complete bullshit.

However, my rituals are fun, I don't really believe they have any actual power, and I certainly don't try to force my little traditions on anybody else or demand respect for my silly practices. So they are also very unlike religion.

Am I a hypocrite for claiming to be a skeptical atheist, yet observing these little superstitious acts? I don't know. I don't think so, but I'm pretty sure that it shows I'm more than a little weird because, after all, shouldn't enjoying the game of hockey be enough?

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