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Prof. Hugh McLeod, PhD

Senior Research Fellow


Main Areas of Interest

  • Social History of Religion In Western Europe and USA
  • Religion and Sport
  • Comparative History of Secularisation

Is Sport a Religion?

In many societies, sport has been associated with religious worship and observances. Since the later 19th century, however, and with increasing frequency since the later 20th century, it has been asserted that sport is itself a religion, and maybe is the religion of the contemporary world. Those making the claim include not only sportspeople, fans or sports journalists, but sociologists and religious studies scholars.

This is a historical project, focused on Europe and North America during the last two hundred years. It will ask what is meant by such claims; how this situation has come about; and what it means for our understanding of ‘religion’ and of ‘secularity’. I begin, with the gymnastic movement originating in Germany during the wars with Napoleon. The movement’s patriotic agenda and the claims to virtue made by its members both pointed to the future. No longer could sport be regarded simply as relaxation and fun. I will trace the growing role of sport in Western societies from the later 19th century up to the present day and the relationship between this role and the changing religious context. Churches and Christian youth organisations played a major part in the growth of sports as a mass phenomenon. But sport soon became a powerful competitor with the churches for the use of people’s limited free time. It also presented more subtle challenges. The belief both by governments and by parents that sport makes you a better person has meant that sport frequently takes over the role in education and socialisation formerly performed by churches.

As well as examining the wider social and religious context, I will compare the differing perspectives of fans, of recreational athletes, and of professionals. I argue that the forms of salvation offered by the ’religion of sport’ are of diverse and contradictory kinds.  Meanwhile there are also many people who continue to define sport as ‘secular’.   


2010 - present

Emeritus Professor Church History, University of Birmingham, UK


Elected Fellow of the British Academy

1994 - 2010

Professor of Church History, University of Birmingham, UK

1973 - 1994

Lecturer and Senior Lecturer in Church History, University of Birmingham, UK

1972 - 1973

Lecturer in History, University of Warwick, UK

1970 - 1972

Research Fellow in Modern History, University of Birmingham, UK

1963 - 1969

Trinity Hall, Cambridge, student in Faculty of History, BA 1966, PhD 1971

Relevant Publications

  • McLeod, Hugh. Religion and the Rise of Sport in England. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Publication scheduled for November 2022.
  • McLeod, Hugh. “Muscular Christianity, European and American.” In Secularization and Religious Innovation in the North Atlantic World, edited by David Hempton, and Hugh McLeod, 195-210. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • McLeod, Hugh. “Religion, Politics and Sport in Western Europe, c.1870-1939.” In Religion, Identity and Conflict in Britain: From the Restoration to the Twentieth Century, edited by Stewart J. Brown et al., 195-213. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.
  • McLeod, Hugh. “The ‘Sportsman’ and the ‘Muscular Christian’: Rival Ideals in nineteenth-century England," in Beyond the Feminization Thesis: Gender and Identity in Modern Europe, edited by Patrick Pasture et al., 85-105. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2012.
  • McLeod, Hugh. The Religious Crisis of the 1960s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • McLeod, Hugh. “’Thews and Sinews’: Nonconformity and Sport.” In Christianity and Cultural Aspirations, edited by David Bebbington, and Timothy Larsen, 28-46. Sheffield: Academic Press, 2003.
  • McLeod, Hugh. Secularisation in Western Europe, 1848-1914. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000.
  • McLeod, Hugh. Piety and Poverty: Working Class Religion in Berlin, London and New York, 1870-1914. New York, NY: Holmes & Meier, 1996.