Last year, NFL punter Chris Kluwe made headlines because of his atheism. The reason for his newsworthiness, as the writer of this Psychology Today report on Kluwe notes, is that “open secularity is rare in pro sports.” This is something that has puzzled me since writing my atheism book several years ago. Why are atheist athletes rare?
You can find all sorts of atheist lists on the Internet. These include such categories as famous atheists, celebrity atheists, and top atheists in the world. And it isn’t just atheist apologists that provide these lists. There are also prodigious Wikipedia lists of atheists in various fields, including politics and law, science and technology, and arts and entertainment.
But try finding a similarly expansive list of atheist athletes. Here’s the best I could do: 19 Famous Athletes Who are Atheist. This is a classic case of exceptions proving the rule. Pretty slim pickings. I found it interesting, for starters, that they couldn’t even find one more to make it an even twenty. (They should add Kluwe, since he’s not included.) And it is supposedly a list of “famous” athletes. Yet, as an avid sports buff, I only recognized five people on the list. Moreover, some of these reach way back, such as to an Italian cyclist from 70 years ago. And another is a WWE wrestler—isn’t that better categorized as acting? After reading through this disappointing list, I discovered the Top 15 Athletes Who are Atheist. But it largely overlaps with the list of 19 “famous” atheists above.
So why are atheists so rare in professional sports? I have a theory, but to explain it I’ll need to start by discussing the primary rationale that atheists and religious skeptics give for not believing in God. This is the problem of evil. Lance Armstrong has been quoted as saying, “If there was a God, I’d still have both nuts.” This statement encapsulates a common intuition about human suffering and religious belief, which essentially constitutes an atheistic argument: God would not want humans to suffer significantly. However, there is a lot of suffering in the world. Therefore, God must not exist. If you were to interview all of the atheists listed in the sites above and ask them why they reject theism, most if not all of them would cite suffering as a major reason. But these men and women are not unique in their awareness of suffering. All serious athletes are well acquainted with pain. And here may lie the clue to understanding why atheist athletes are rare.
To do intense athletic training is to welcome a degree of suffering. Athletes understand the usefulness of pain as a means to physical conditioning and mental toughness, which ultimately means success. No pain no gain, as the saying goes. Consequently, we should expect athletes to be less inclined to see suffering as antithetical to good ends. And to become accustomed to linking these two things—pain and gain—is to gain a deeper existential awareness of how suffering is essential for growth in all of life, not just athletics.
This in turn will enable the athlete to recognize that God can work through painful experiences generally to bring about greater goods in people’s lives. So he or she will be more ready to affirm with the prophet Isaiah that it is good how God gives us “the bread of adversity and the water of affliction” (Isa. 30:20). And just as the difficulties and challenges one faces on the court, diamond or gridiron make one better, the athlete will be likely to affirm with the apostle James that our trials in life have a constructive end, namely to make us “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas. 1:4). Such an attitude might not create a perfect immunity to atheism or religious skepticism, but it certainly could prevent one’s faith from being undermined by the problem of evil. And this might explain why atheist athletes are so rare.