Leon Festinger, Passion, Commitment, and Art as a Shield For God

With a title like that, you might not be expecting an article about football, let alone one as rushed as this is going to have to be.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the simple obstinacy of much of English football; wondering how often it can be offered a short-cut into the future by the likes of Craig Johnstone, Simon Clifford and co. and yet refuse – how often a Sir Trevor Brooking can warn about the future and find no one willing to take responsibility.

Why all this, and of course, part of the answer lies in the particular culture of the game: it’s more of a cult than a sport, but this cult isn’t going to modernize its liturgy unlike other English cults we could mention.

But there are a couple of other, more specific reasons, which relate to the way the game reacts to the misfortunes of the national team. I refer in particular to the defeat by Hungary in 1953 which first really confirmed that we were in trouble, but there are others: West Germany at Wembley in 1972, Poland at Wembley in 1973, and, more recently, World Cup games against Brazil in 2002 and Portugal in 2006.

In 1956, psychologist Leon Festinger infiltrated a Christian group led by a Dr Armstrong and a Mrs Keech, a group he knew were about to meet their own Magical Magyars. They’d predicted the end of the world, and Festinger wanted to know whether his hunch about them was correct – that this disaster would be followed, not by their disappearing from the scene, but by an intensification of their proselytising.

For the “end of the world” substitute ideas about traditional English values, passion, commitment, spirit, etc. and note well that these ideas only become popular when it becomes apparent, in 1953, that English skills and English tactics have failed.

Here’s what Festinger had to say about Keech & Co. It translates well into football:

We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a
strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some
investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of in­
genious defenses with which people protect their convictions,
managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating

But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a
belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole
heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief,
that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose
that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable
evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The indi­
vidual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more
convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he
may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting
other people to his view.

How and why does such a response to contradictory evidence
come about? This is the question on which this book focuses. We
hope that, by the end of the volume, we will have provided an
adequate answer to the question, an answer documented by data.

Let us begin by stating the conditions under which we would
expect to observe increased fervor following the disconfirmation
of a belief. There are five such conditions.

I. A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have
some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how
he behaves.

2. The person holding the belief must have committed himself
to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some
important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more
important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to
undo, the greater is the individual’s commitment to the belief.

3. The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently con­
cerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally re­
fute the belief.

4. Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and
must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.

The first two of these conditions specify the circumstances that
will make the belief resistant to change. The third and fourth
conditions together, on the other hand, point to factors that
would exert powerful pressure on a believer to discard his belief.
It is, of course, possible that an individual, even though deeply
convinced of a belief, may discard it in the face of unequivocal
disconfirmation. We must, therefore, state a fifth condition speci­
fying the circumstances under which the belief will be discarded
and those under which it will be maintained with new fervor.

5. The individual believer must have social support. It is un­
likely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of dis­
confirming evidence we have specified. If, however, the believer
is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support
one another, we would expect the belief to be maintained and the
believers to attempt to proselyte or to persuade nonmembers that
the belief is correct.

These five conditions specify the circumstances under which
increased proselyting would be expected to follow disconfirma­
tion. When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World. Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, Stanley Schachter; Harper & Row, 1956

In the Keech instance, belief isn’t maintained unaltered: clearly, the end of the world didn’t come on the specified date. Instead, the belief shifts slightly: the goodness of the group has saved the world, and now their teachings are more necessary than ever. The world didn’t fail to end because God doesn’t exist, or because he hasn’t made Himself personally known to Keech. All that’s required is a change of emphasis and a big swell in the membership to provide plenty of social support for the new position.

Now, translate all that across into football. Everyone in the English game up to 1953 has devoted their professional life to the game; it’s a game we invented, and have dominated.

What a crushing blow to a generation to be the ones that spoil such a record. That allow our game to be pulled from English hands.

The choice then was clear. It’s the same choice we have now. Either admit that a very great deal needs changing, that a great deal of hard work and time and (cough) commitment has been in vain, or find a way of looking at it that avoids the hard choices.

So, quite quickly, it becomes part of the furniture to believe that Brazilians, Italians, the Spanish, are of nature more skillful than we are. But skill isn’t a virtue: it’s really rather sneaky and underhand. It becomes associated with some of the (real) rule-bending and gamesmanship of the continental and South American game. And our own rule-bending and gamesmanship, the things that so shocked the young Stan Matthews when he played his first matches for Stoke in the 1930s, become obscured, elided.

If skill and tactical awareness are so obviously not English qualities all of a sudden, then what’s left must be pushed as far as it will go. We are fit, we show courage, determination, passion, commitment – that’s what being an English footballer is all about, not that fancy-dan foreign stuff with all its sexual connotations and its air of cheating.

What was blamed for our “failure” in 2002? Injury to Beckham and Owen? The way the players lost stones in weight owing to the extreme heat? Honorable defeat to a better opponent? No, it was lack of Churchillian attitudes, passion and commitment. Likewise in 2006: somehow, somewhere, there was, it was supposed, reserves of guts which could have been wheeled out and applied. But Sven “failed” as manager (a view I expect to go into stark reverse within a few years of post-Sven management) and now we need a traditional captain and a traditional English manager.

We don’t believe these things because they are true. We believe them for Leon Festinger’s reasons. We are down a psychological and sporting cul de sac, with everyone we know cheering us on as we try to get further into it.

And there’s more than Festinger’s reasons in support of this crazy situation.

I remember well the moment I lost my religious faith. I was sitting in my window at Oxford reading Don Cupitt. His was a simple but unanswerable argument, which I accepted without anguish or demur. Five minutes into atheism, I asked myself whether there was anything I could now do that I hadn’t been able to do before, and decided that there wasn’t.

The question of church architecture, art, music and liturgy is a live one for atheists. Namely, what happens to so much beauty if everyone thinks like you? In Russia and China so much was destroyed by the atheist state that should have been part of our heritage today.

I love churches. No longer because I find God there, but because they are good in themselves, and because I feel a strong connection to past generations who have walked the same stones as I stand on during one of my Larkinesque visits.

When churches are decommissioned, the heart is ripped out of them. It’s rare to come across one in a different use that retains any real sense of itself.

In that way, the art of religion stands around it like some kind of equivalent to a human shield. Drop your faith, and all this is destroyed!

(This isn’t to say that there is anything special about religious art as opposed to non-religious. There isn’t: and that would be a philistine distinction anyway).

Football has hung its own kind of human shield around it. English footballing heroes – the ones that first come to mind – are always those men who most fulfill this rather gutted version of what makes for proper football. The brave, the heart-on-sleeve merchants, the showmen. No-nonsense characters. Stuart Pearce, Terry Butcher, Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne (not altogether for his skill), Steve Bull, John Terry.

Revision of our ideas about good football now – as would be represented by taking on board Simon Clifford or Trevor Brooking or any of the other Cassandras – means degrading today’s heroes, today’s players, and the “great names” of the recent past.

Very few people can name the great pre-1953 players. That’s in part because the “tradition” of English football has been artificially constructed since then, with all its fake good-old-days nostalgia: the game got on just fine for seventy years without the need for Halls of Fame and Local Heroes and The 50 Greatest England Goals and so forth.

That sort of comfort, and confidence in looking ahead instead of to the past, died in 1953-4, and the resulting mindset persists in football when much else in English life has put all the Merchant-Ivory stuff to bed.

Rushed, I’m afraid, so have at it. But do you see what I’m getting at?

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