While professional athletes get the most attention when they thank God for their successes and victories, athletes thanking God is not that uncommon. It is also not uncommon for this sort of thing to attract both negative and positive attention. As should come as no surprise, there are some matters of philosophical interest here.
I will begin in a somewhat non-philosophical vein by noting that I have no problems with people expressing their faith in the context of sports. When I ran in college,I noticed that quite a few of my fellow runners were religious-I distinctly remember seeing people praying before the start of a cross country race (on some courses, divine protection was something well worth having and flipping their crosses from the front to the back (also a good idea-racing downhill can result in a cross to the face). I was, at that time, an atheist. But, as a runner, I have a respect for devotion and faith. Plus, most of these people proved to be decent human beings and I certainly respect that.
When I race now, some races I compete in are put on my churches or have religious race directors. As such, I participate in races that often have a prayer before the start. While I am not known for my faith, I am generally fine with the prayers-they tend to be ones that express gratitude for the opportunity to be healthy and express the hope that the runners will be watched over and come to no harm. I agree with both sentiments. What I find to be a matter of potential concern is, of course, when athletes credit God with their successes and wins.
On the one hand, if someone does believe in God it does make sense to give God a general thanks. After all, if God did create the world and all that, then we would all owe him thanks for existing and having a universe in which we can compete in sports. There is also the fact that such thanks can be seen as being the sort of thing one does-just as one thanks the little people for one’s success in the movies or politics one should thank the Big Guy for His role in literally making it all possible.
On the other hand, an athlete thanking God for his or her specific success over others does raise some matters of philosophical interest that I will now explore.
One point of concern that is commonly raised is that it seems rather odd that God would intervene to, for example, help a pro-football player score a touchdown while He is allowing untold amounts of suffering to occur. If He can help push a ball into the hands of a quarterback why could he not deflect, just a bit, a bullet fired by a murderer? Why could He not just tweak a virus a bit so that it does not cause AIDS? The idea that God is so active in sports and so inactive in things that really matter would certainly raise questions about God’s benevolence and priorities.
Another point of concern is that to thank God for a victory is to indicate that God wanted the other side or other athletes to be defeated. While this would make sense if one was, for example, doing a marathon against demons or on the field against a team of devils, it seems less reasonable when one is just playing a game or running a race. When I beat people in a race, there seems to generally be no evidence that they are more wicked than I or any less morally or theologically deserving in the eyes of God (with some notable exceptions-you know who you are). It seems odd to think that God regards some teams or some athletes as His foes that must be defeated by His champions (I will, of course, make the obvious exception for the damn Yankees). So, if I beat you and I thank God for the victory, I would seem to be saying that God wanted you to lose. That would, of course, raise questions about why that would be the case. It seems to make more sense to say that I won because I ran faster rather than because God did something to bless me on the course or smite you.
The notion that God did something also raises an important moral point. A key part of athletic ethics is competing fairly without things like illegal performance enhancing drugs or outside intervention. If I win a race because I was blood doping and had people tackling other runners in the woods, then I would be a cheater and not a winner. If God steps into athletic events and starts intervening for one side or person, then God is cheating. Given that God is supposed to be God, surely He surely would not cheat and would thus allow the better team or athlete to win. He might, of course, act to offset or prevent cheating and be morally just. However, while Jesus turned water to wine,God generally does not seem to turn steroids into saline.
As a final point, there is also the rather broad matter of freedom. If our athletic victories are due to God (and also our losses-but no one praises God for those on TV), then it would seem that our agency is lacking in these contests. God would be like a child playing with action figures (“zoom, Mike surges ahead or the win!” or “zap, Jeremy blasts past the Kenyans to win the NYC marathon!”) and the athletes would no more deserve the credit or the blame than the action figures. After all, the agency of both is simply lacking and all agency lies with the one moving the figures about. As would be imagined, this lack of agency would seem to extend throughout life-if God is responsible for my 5K time, then He would also seem responsible for my publications and whether I stab someone in the face or not. This is, of course, a classic problem-only now in the context of sports. Naturally (or supernaturally), the universe could in fact work this way. Of course, this would also mean that the athletes who praise God would be like sock puppets worn by a puppeteer who is praising himself or herself.
Now, if God does actually intervene in sports, I would like to make a modest request: God, could you see fit to shave two minutes off my 5K time this coming year? Oh, and as always, smite the Yankees. The Gators, too.
You make some very good points in your blog and in general, I agree even though I am a Christian. The belief that God becomes directly involved in human contests is not new. In the Illiad by Homer, Athena directs arrows in battle; other gods also become involved. But it does seem more than slightly unreasonable to expect God to take sides in various contests. Probably it is best to admit that our understanding of God is very limited. I, for one, would be more inclined to pray for the moral fortitude to live in a fair and just manner than to pray for particular outcomes.
If one believes in God, it’s difficult not to ascribe physical successes or failures in sports to him. God creates some who are physically, emotionally, and mentally superior and some who are inferior in those respects. In general, humans can’t be trained to a level of performance beyond those initial limitations. That is, if I’m born with a maximum mental capacity of x, no amount of education will make me x+1 intelligent. If I’m coded to be 6 ft tall, no amount of nutrition will make me 6’1″. Interestingly enough, skimping on nutritional requirements may stunt my physical or intellectual growth. I would assume the same would apply to emotional development.
When I was in mountain bike races which involved stream crossings, some crossed with ease while others had to put a foot down once or twice to complete the crossing. Some were blessed, if you will, with quicker reactions, more daring, etc. Others with so much less of all that and more that no amount of training would have made them sharper, quicker, or braver.
So, it’s entirely conceivable, if one believes in God, that the Denver Broncos, headed by Tebow, are, in the above sense, God’s team. Until another team comes along that God has blessed with more..
Michael LaBossiere says
God, I think, would not rig events. Otherwise, that would be robbing us of our fair share of the glory (and defeat).
“If I’m coded to be 6 ft tall, no amount of nutrition will make me 6’1″”
– No, but surgery will http://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/a-painful-way-to-grow-taller/
“So, it’s entirely conceivable, if one believes in God, that the Denver Broncos, headed by Tebow, are, in the above sense, God’s team. ”
– Can god bless a member of the defense (of an opposing team) and have that team be “god’s team” instead? Would you consider Tebow’s team “god’s team” simply because he plays offense instead of defense? Is it beause the quarterback acts as the leader for offense (even though he himself has a leader (the coach) on the sideline). If Tebow was a place kicker or punter would his team still be “god’s team”?
1/ Your link deserves a smiley: 🙂
The process will give a whole new meaning to the phrase “stretch marks”.
I can’t wait for the breaking news headline: “Ex-dwarf dunks basketball. So what?”
2/ a)Sure, why not?
b)No. Have you ever seen him play defense?
c)NA, since I answered “No” to ‘b’
d)Depends. How many times has that place kicker scored game winning points -and not necessarily just at the end of a game? Did that punter contribute to many wins by changing field position when he (she? 🙂 ) pinned the opposing team deep in its own territory?
Troy Polamalu crosses himself after crucial plays.
Roethlisberger points to the sky after scores, but that’s to honor his dead mother. Perhaps God approves of that and gives Big Ben an advantage– but only when Ben’s healthy.
Apologies, but I have to leave the track for a moment to share this from the “Doc I wanted to get numb, but I farted instead ” Department.
Now back to your regularly scheduled blog.
Hmm…even if God would obviously think higher of a fair-playing team (over a cheating one), this does not mean he will necessarily make the ‘good’ team win. I’d say the eternal mistake would be to project ourselves on God, and to imagine ourselves in his place, when we’re lightyears away from understanding him. Since he knows everything and we do not, it seems logical that he makes things turn out different than we would have imagined. This also works for the question of why God would help anyone win a race rather than help someone with AIDS, though of course it does sound like an easy answer.
Other than that, without being into sports (at all^^I’m a lazy bum) , I think it’s fair to thank God in any case, so long as it’s humble. Praying, “God, thank you for blessing me with this joy of having all my efforts recompensed, even if I didn’t deserve it anymore than the others” is actually more respectable than snorting “Pff, I don’t need to thank God, these guys sucked, I could crush them in any case”.
Michael LaBossiere says
I agree-thanking God in that matter is fine. Thinking that God handed one a victory over the other team because one is a righteous tool of God is less fine. Unless, of course, one is playing against Team Evil and on the side of Team Good.
Douglas Moore says
Why are only bad things “important” but things that bring us joy, “trivial”. Sports are important because they bring joy.
Michael LaBossiere says
I’d say sports are both important and trivial. They are important in terms of the enjoyment, the character building and so on. However, the actual significance of the victory is in many ways a trivial thing. I do admit that I love to win, but winning a race is not on par with defeating evil, curing cancer, or saving a life.
Former Corner says
Did Tebow thank God specifically for his wins?
That may be obvious for all of you, but I live outside America, so I (gladly) miss 90% of all the hype. The only relevant thing I’ve read is a report quoting him saying he thanked God after the game-winning TD last weekend. Now, I realize that “Thank you Lord” seconds after a TD pass in overtime seems to imply “thank you for this result”, but that doesn’t *have* to be the case just because it seems to, right?
Anyway, I think the whole idea that Tebow wins games for the Broncos because God likes him is easy to refute. Being a QB, by definition he can’t win games: he can only sell tickets. Everybody knows it. [grins]
Ah, well… ok teacher, you can call that a fallacy if you like. 🙂
(Great blog by the way!)
Michael LaBossiere says
Tebow does seem grateful for his victories. Plus I’m sure he feels the same about good ticket sales. 🙂
Former Corner says
He seems grateful indeed. And maybe he should be, since the opposite would be arrogance (as Phaethon points out). But the point is, does he believe/claim that God makes his team win specifically because he’s more deserving than someone else?
I ask the question because I’ve never heard him say so. But then I don’t have lots of information about what exactly he has or hasn’t said. Maybe he’s made some clearer statement that hasn’t crossed the Atlantic.
I certainly agree with your post. I just think it’s a case of not enough evidence for the purpose of this discussion. Also, if Tebow really believed to be God’s Champion and kept on making it clear in every interview, then I would expect that his teammates would be the first to be annoyed at his stance: surely they would see the oddities you highlight in your piece, and football is a team sport after all.
Michael LaBossiere says
So far, the evidence is that he is a sincere person in his faith. As far as I can tell, it is the folks in the media who cast him as saying that God is on his side, as opposed to what he seems to be doing-namely just expressing gratitude. In any case, this is certainly better than having quarterbacks who have dog fights or use drugs. 🙂