Monday, September 17, 2007

Sports, God and Prayer

As many of you know, I am a die-hard New England sports fan. Much of the week, of course, has been taken up by Cameragate or Spygate or whatever other noun-gate combination you want to throw out there, culminating in the Patriots' thoroughly dominant trashing of the San Diego Chargers last night. Which was nice. But this is not a sports blog, so I will leave the Patriots talk elsewhere.

No, what I wanted to comment on was this little article, and the very irritating trend it represents.

To summarize, briefly: Jon Kitna was hit very hard in yesterday's Lions game, and suffered a nasty concussion. Despite this, he returned and led his team on a key drive, and is now apparently suffering basically no symptoms from his concussion. He attributes this to a 'miracle'.

Now, this isn't to jump on Jon Kitna personally - obviously, it's unusual to recover as quickly as he did from the kind of concussion he had, and I'm very impressed that he was able to get back in the game and perform the way he did. But his explanation is just one more in a long line of comments by athletes attributing their successes, achievements, and luck to God. And it drives me completely up the wall.

My big problem with this is that it is often portrayed as an example of humility. Really? Saying "God let me throw that touchdown pass" is humble? "God helped us win tonight" is humble? In fact, I find that a lot more arrogant than being truthful and saying "we worked our asses off, and it paid off, and we won" (luckily, many athletes do this as well).

Putting aside all concerns about the existence of God, what you're basically claiming when you say something like that is that the creator of the entire universe is deeply concerned about your personal achievements on the football field (or the basketball court, or the baseball field, or whatever). So concerned, in fact, that he ignored all of the prayers by the other team and helped you win instead. Notice how nobody ever talks about God when they lose? "Oh, I guess God wanted those other guys to win tonight instead of us. Shame." No, it's only something that gets brought out when after victories.

And this also ignores the fact that if God answered your prayers for football victory, then he did so while manifestly ignoring many, many worthier prayers from people dying of hunger, disease, natural disasters, or any number of other causes. Sports is a great thing, but even the most die-hard of sports fans (and I'm up there) will admit that there are many issues that are far more important than what team wins on a given night, no matter how much it feels otherwise at the time. There simply isn't any way to successfully argue that your sports-related prayers were answered without painting your God as a callous, arbitrary figure who is willing to ignore the massive amounts of suffering going on worldwide to point his attention - and power of intervention - at a contest involving men in uniforms and a ball.

Even thanking God for the genetic gifts that led you to play pro sports seems arrogant. If he specifically meddled with your genes so that you would turn out to be an athletic specimen, then what is he doing with all of those children who aren't special, or who suffer from crippling or fatal birth defects? Does he not care? You are not only making the (from my view, absurd and arrogant) statement that you are the personal recipient of the positive intervention of the creator of the entire universe, but you are claiming that you are somehow more deserving of this than everyone else, including many people which it would be extraordinarily hard to argue this point against.

If you make the case that God does answer prayers, you're standing on very shaky ground already if you want to continue painting him as a benevolent force - a quick examination of all of the horrors that have been perpetrated over the course of human history, and all of the natural disasters that have claimed millions of lives will show you that quite easily. Of course, people still claim he saves lives here and heals people there, and at least that kind of thing would be a positive miracle if such things existed (they don't). But to claim that he takes sides in a football game? Over all the other things he could be turning his attention to in the entire universe?

My advice to professional athletes, not that they'll listen to it, is this: Take a step back, be grateful you won the genetic lottery, be proud of the hard work you put into getting where you are, and stop pretending the creator of the universe is somehow personally involved with everything you do on the field.


Megalomania! said...


Okay, bad joke. As a sports fan, I agree. It's so great when the guy being interviewed says the "we worked our asses off" thing rather than mumble about luck and/or god. Especially when they do it coherently.

Anonymous said...

youre obviously a full atheist already. sadly im still an agnostic. even though i still use the expression 'on my god' so damn much. im some sort of ditzy cheerleader, wahha.

Jessica said...

I couldn't agree more with all you wrote. If God even exists, it certainly wouldn't meddle with such tiny things as a football match and let millions of people die in extreme misery and pain.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, your arguments are rational, but I think you constantly mix up the concept of religion and the concept that some force has created us. Religion is now a bunch of theories that have been proven false, and obviously it is now irrational to believe in these. The concept of a higher force creating reality, however, has not been proven false. Of course, to define this higher force as an all knowing, forgiving, benevolent, kind deity seems a little illogical,. But, the reality is, we have not figured out what created us. There is no evidence disproving the existence of the creator of the universe, call this god. Sure, orthodox religious beliefs seem to be a threat to rationality, but so are orthodox atheist beliefs.