“Does God ‘Got Game’?” Hits All the Right Buttons

"In America it is sport that is the opiate of the masses."

--Russell Baker


"Pro football is like nuclear warfare.  There are no wionners, only survivors."

--Frank Gifford


"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play.  It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasures in witnesssing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting."

--George Orwell


"All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politicians, and ridiculous to the philosopher."



Every now and then, when I leave A/N and visit the real world, I get a cold splash of reality, and I understand what, despite all our blogs, portals, books, conferences and collegiality (and even our efforts to influence the political process), we are up against.

Such a moment came when I read of pre-Super Bowl poll results that reveal that more than half of all Americans believe that “God rewards athletes who have faith, with good health and success.”

Read the whole thing, fellow atheists. http://publicreligion.org/research/2013/01/january-2013-tracking-po...  More than a quarter of the fans believe the Super Bowl is influenced by divine intervention.  Higher percentages in the South, predictably, and lower in the Northeast.

Earlier posts have noted the many similarities between sports and religion:

--over-identification (e.g., elaborate parsing of statistics, call-in sports shows, reenactment of religious events); includes attaching to the team’s narrative (the Cubs’ 105 years without a World Series victory – it’s like waiting for Jesus);

--body painting and special insignia;

--color coded-regalia (Jerry Seinfeld observed that sports is mainly about haberdashery: you root for the team that wears the right colored uniforms, even though you have little or no knowledge of the men who wear them);

--organized vocal and motor activity (cheers, waves, prayers, kneeling);

--magic symbols; e.g., players write Biblical verses on their game-day gear (an example of both the similaarity between sports and religion AND of the melding of the two).

So sports is much like religion, the only difference being that you don’t bet on religions.

 And, of course, religion infuses sports.  When that happens, certain ideas and conceits are regularly on display, and the article reflects them all.

1. “God cares about me and answers my prayers.”  Kurt Warner is quoted as thanking Jesus for his Super Bowl win in 1989.  This is one of the earliest myths sold to children, and insofar as one’s mind accepts it, one is still a child.  Every nanosecond, a gazillion bazillion events occur in the universe.  God’s behind all those? 

Mel Brooks says God doesn’t get everything right because he’s as busy as a Chinese waiter.  And then he’s got to alter all his universe-events – including the outcome of every sporting event – to accord with the number of prayers he gets?  How does he handle all the conflicting prayers he must get?  Don‘t any religious people ever think about this?

2. Smart/dumb.  Goes with #1.  I can’t recall who said it, but his point was that a football player or coach has to be smart enough to memorize hundreds of plays – but dumb enough to think it’s important. The same applies to all athletes’ childish and magical thinking about God.  (I suppose that whatever the coach’s beliefs, he doesn’t care if the players believe in Thor or Zeus, as long as they win.)  

This particular willful irrationality/immaturity leads to…

3. Perfection of God.  The Ravens’ Ray Lewis said that “God doesn’t make mistakes.  He’s never made one mistake…God is so amazing.”

Ray, Ray, Ray.  Cancer, birth defects, killer viruses, millions of creatures being eaten alive every minute, earthquakes, volcanoes, starvation and murder of children…I could fill a whole page.  As George Carlin said, this isn’t the work of a deity but of “an office temp with a bad attitude.”  Even my 7-year-old stepson is beginning to ask questions about God’s performance.

If those aren’t mistakes, what are they? I know, part of the inscrutable divine plan.  If you sustain a career-ending injury…was that God’s mistake?

4. Just-so reasoning.  Lewis said that “you can never see God’s will before it happens…you can only see it at the end.”  So everything comes out just as it’s supposed to.  Well, how do we know when it’s over?  At the end of the game? Does God work according to the four-quarter clock?  Or is he still at work after the game, and it’s never over?

5. God’s on my side/Exclusion of the loser.  Lewis thanks God for, in the writer’s words, “the Ravens’ improbable run” to the Super Bowl.  Gimme a break.  If there’s one thing that’s probable in sports, it’s the improbable.  Maybe the Ravens were underrated.  Or they got lucky; other teams made mistakes.  Or individual players had a great year. No doubt they got good coaching and practiced hard.  Case closed.

Not one reporter had the balls to ask: what if the Ravens lose the Super Bowl?  What of your great God then, Ray?  Didn’t the other team have faith?  (OK, the Ravens won, but still, what about the 49ers’ faith?  I guarantee you, there was no post-game interview with 49ers grumbling about God not hearing their prayers; when teams lose, they blame themselves or credit the other team, as they should.) 

6.  Embarrassing absence of journalistic balance.  The others, (1)-(5), make me roll my eyes. This one pisses me off.   

If only half of the poll respondents supported the players’ religiosity, why don’t we hear from the other half?  Why wasn’t there an official statement from a secular organization, declaring that both teams deserved to be there and that the quality of play (and of refereeing) would determine the winner? 

Who would dare say to the press that a team of equally talented atheists might or might not defeat a team of believers?  It would depend on the players and coaches, not God.

But nobody thought to contact the other side – standard journalistic practice – because there is no other side.  Religion is immune to public criticism or even questioning.  We are edited out.  Our point of view does not officially exist.

While $27 million can be collected to build a Museum of Creationism and an equal sum raised to build a life-sized Ark, our economic and financial power is negligible.  Insofar as there is no powerful secular/atheist voice publicly reaching multitudes the way Robert Ingersoll did in the 19th – repeat, NINETEENTH – century (or the way Glen Beck and televangelists do today), we have no presence in the public marketplace of ideas. 

We may be the last minority that people stop hating, the last to elect a President (if ever).

That, friends, is what we are up against. 

But it’s not just a philosophical argument.  Given that the dominant organized religions, because of their penchant for constant violent conflict and their man-over-nature ideology, are one of the most clear and present dangers to the health of our planet and the survival of our species…isn’t it time to be questioning religion publicly?

(PS. The CFI will be holding a seminar in April, entitled Why Tolerate Religion? It’s based on Brian Leiter’s book of the same name.)

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Comment by Alan Perlman on February 8, 2013 at 1:20pm

Right on, James, and thanks for the kind words. 

To me, it's a glass-half-full/half-empty situation.  There are reasons for hope, but religion is a noxious weed, always on the offense.  Europe's getting more and more secular, but the Muslim (and most of the Third) world remains rooted in the Middle Ages. 

I used to think that economic progress and better education would push religion to the margins of society, but that hasn't happened in America.  As long as religion is immune to public criticism and all politicians believe they must go through the motions regardless of their beliefs (don't tell me Obama's not a closet atheist), it's going to be "Christian nation" and "in God we trust," as far out as I can see.

Comment by James Yount on February 7, 2013 at 3:40pm

There have been some huge leaps towards atheism among the youth and pop-culture.  Christianity is a candle that is brightly flickering before it burns out.  It's just a waiting game.  That thought gives me comfort when I think about the things that you mentioned.  Excellent, thoughtful blog as usual Alan.

Comment by Alan Perlman on February 5, 2013 at 3:50pm

Thanks, Lillie.  This a Buzz topic on A/N, and I find that many atheists, by middle age or sooner, are fed up with religion's public approval.  It would be OK if they kept it in their homes and houses of worship.  But they must NOT try to take over societies, governments, or educational systems. Plus, only atheists see religion as dangerous IMHO, so we are also fed up with people ignoring the obvious.

Comment by Lillie on February 4, 2013 at 8:59pm

I used to tolerate religion but no more.  Not that it has ever been not dangerous but it has become much more dangerous lately especially in the US and Middle East.

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