Perfecting Humanity: Nihilism or Celebration?

Monday, 3rd August 2009 at 8:00 UTC 7 comments

Reflecting on a recent discussion with a friend about the impending ban on hi-tech swim wear in competitions, I was musing about the different attitudes to what sports is actually all about. Essentially, I found that on an individual level, it came down to one question: is sport a celebration of human capacity, or an attempt to overcome one’s humanity?

Sports can certainly be characterised as individual, collective or institutional; people perform for themselves, their group (the people on their team) or some kind of body, be that a football club with an image to maintain, or a nation looking for success on the international stage. But in each of these cases, the above question can be answered both ways.

I wonder what role a person’s attitude in this area contributes to their willingness to even consider taking performance enhancing drugs; some athletes refer to their pride at succeeding without these aids and this rather suggests that they view their success as a celebration of human potential. That said, one feels that any athlete must at some point view themselves as a barrier to success, and perhaps its not quite as clear cut as the title lays out. But I suppose its usually some combination of nihilism and celebration.

Its no surprise that this is a debate around science; sport relies heavily on science, and the relation is often uneasy, as some claim sports like cycling are now more about the equipment than the performer. But I do think this ignores the fact that no individual sportsperson is an island, with a huge team behind them. I guess its a bit of an Ubuntu situation; the sport star is who they are because of everyone around them. If they forget this fact, failure will follow.

I then realised this is very much the debate reflect in certain areas of religion: are we attempting to destroy people or build them up? Sometimes this is known as Condemnatory and Affirmational religion, and its a big discussion. Quakers, for instance, would be hard pressed to be Condemnatory, as they believe there to be “that of God in everyone”. But for many, a fallen humanity needs to be overcome, through strict rules to bend one to God’s will through fasting and abstinence on many levels. I know which I prefer!

The question of the fall becomes a huge issue in religion, and one that will ultimately shape many other questions. Churches which take the nihilist position, the condemnation of the human state, seen as the opposite of Godliness, have an uncanny tendency to stick with a very restrictive viewpoint on sexuality, and by this I mean every aspect, from Male “headship” and heterosexuality, towards the “sex only for kids” and “missionary position only” arguments.

But this hardly celebrates humanity as something good looked at and declared to be good. Yes, the fall, but also the fact God didn’t give up on us. Yes, we’re prone to doing less than our best, but is our humanity something to be overcome, or something to work with? Seems God has a very specific viewpoint.

Anyhow, back to sports. I must say I have often found myself taking a more nihilistic line. Sports at school was always about overcoming my uselessness, overcoming the restrictions, both physical and psychological, that barred myself from succeeding. Certainly, riding 25 miles with only one break and inside 2 hours riding time can feel a lot like I’ve overcome the restrictions my body has always seemed to place on myself.

Yes, there must always be a place for denial of one thing in order to get another, after all, life simply isn’t long enough for everything. But should humanities aim in life really be to get beyond the boundaries our bodies place on us? Is being completely human a terrible starting point, or a high goal to be achieved?


Entry filed under: Drugs, Ethics, Religion, Science, Sports, Technology.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  Monday, 3rd August 2009 at 11:03 UTC

    Cycling, sex and religion all in one post? I must be dreaming. (Make of that what you will.) I take issue with your line on original sin and the fall, but I’ll comment on that later. Actually, I’ll probably write more about sport and drugs later as well, save to say that I’ve used both caffeine and alcohol to get round rides before, while audax riders even have their own name for ibuprofen, “Vitamin I”.

    One point I’ll make now is that cycling results are not about the bikes, so I don’t know where you got that idea from. Formula 1 driving is about the car, but in top level cycling, the bikes are much of a muchness. Look at the Tour de France and you’ll notice that each of the main manufacturers will even be sponsoring several teams. Meanwhile, the organisers have imposed a lower weight limit of 15lb and the bikes will be stripped right down to that, with many being ballasted up to it. It’s not about the bike.

  • 2. Lois  |  Monday, 3rd August 2009 at 13:10 UTC

    Don’t forget that we, bodies and all, are created by God, so that it’s not only our spirit that matters, but our body too. Otherwise, why would we be given a new body after death, rather than remaining purely spiritual beings? Some Greek philosophers around at the time of the early church set up a dichotomy of spirit= good and body= bad, but that doesn’t seem to be what Paul talks about (eg 1 Cor 15, vs 35-57).

    And, of course, that the process of transformation that takes place makes us into ‘good humans,’ people that are more like ourselves, as we should be and were designed to be, rather than into something that’s not ourself.’

    • 3. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 3rd August 2009 at 17:16 UTC

      Congrats on being comment #750. I agree with what your saying, but I really do wonder how many Christians not only say they believe what you’ve put, but also consistently act on it. I think the heresy you refer to is quite endemic in today’s church, or at least the more vocal parts of it.

      • 4. Lois  |  Wednesday, 5th August 2009 at 12:40 UTC

        I’m afraid you’re probably right. It’s not understood.

        So much of the culture/ media tells us how our bodies are inferior and how we can or should change them, make them ‘better’. (I’m now speaking from a woman’s point of view, but I think it’s true for men too, although maybe in different ways or to a lesser extent). Perhaps, as in so many ways, the church is being influenced by the culture of the day? Or is reacting to it by putting more emphasis on spirituality (blame the charismatics!)? Or reacting to the seemingly hopeless situation of the physical world by looking only at the non-physical? I don’t know.

      • 5. Graham Martin  |  Thursday, 6th August 2009 at 22:08 UTC

        Probably some truth in all those possibilities. Unfortunately with regards marketing, the answer to feminists complaining that women were being told to look better wasn’t for marketing to be more positive about women but to find ways in which men could also be berated.

        This covers failure to use the correct razor; I found myself watching an advert yesterday in the message seemed to be razor X is crap, despite the fact we made it, you should use razor Y instead. This was interesting by the fact I use said inferior razor and actually made me want to keep using it just to go “har, I’m not taking your marketing crap”! (I realise there’s a short coming in this, that I’m still handing money to them).

  • 6. Greg  |  Tuesday, 4th August 2009 at 10:48 UTC

    I started writing another reply, but the first half was too long to post here so I’ve put it up at my blog. The second part will follow in the same place.

    If you’re really worried about sports equipment aiding people, how about we take a lesson from the ancient Greeks and all compete naked?!

  • 7. thomasbilly  |  Sunday, 14th February 2010 at 16:59 UTC

    I like a lot about this blog. I must quickly add that I’m new to blogging so I’m just working my way through a couple, and the fact that nihilism was in the title of this one got me interested as I’m quite a devout reader of nietzsche.
    Besides largely endorsing what you say, I would like you to clarify why you insert nihilism into the topic, because nihilistic thought as I have studied wouldn’t be totally apt in your referral to it here. Nihilism as I understand it through the writings of Nietzsche and microcosmically in Sartre is that objective meaning does not exist internally within ones morality.. Maybe I’m barking totally up the wrong wisdom tree, but if you’re asserting that individual athletes and sporting bodies hold a morality devoid of conscIous objectivity, I would disagree as you explain that companies and clubs have an image to preserve, which for me, revolves around the very morality they assert in projecting themselves.. I apologise if the spelling is crap, I’m using my phone which is far too intricate and fiddley to keep going over! Hope this helps, and doesn’t appear patronising, that is not my intention.


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