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.
I loved this. But, I have to ask: What about the drive to get help where ever you can? I’m a believer, but I think anyone on my team would have prayed to some vague sense of God before tapping the luck of an unwashed [fill-in-the-blank] 24/7. Not that they wouldn’t have done both. and me too a little. 🙂
Interesting question, Ben. They say “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Apparently, there are just a few atheists on sidelines. My sense, though, is that there’s a bit of difference in terms of the stress, fear, and desperation that those two life-circumstances generate, notwithstanding the war rhetoric that pervades professional sports (e.g., “hail Mary pass,” “our team is going to battle” and “we are soldiers on this team”).
Another interesting question to look at in terms of those lists of Atheist athletes: How many of those were “team” athletes versus “individual” athletes? In other words, what role does a person’s view of team/community play in a person’s comprehension of a relational God?
There are a few main reasons there are basically no atheists in sports: the way in which they grow up(poverty vs wealth, good education vs poor, diverse parents vs strictly one religion, geographic location, and who the person’s main mentors were and their personalities/faith). The people that surround our favorite athletes often have all the character traits of very religious people so what other option do they have? If they have little income they maybe praying for a better future and that God may grant them supreme skill so they can make it from minors to majors in MLB or CBA to NBA or College to NFL. If they live in a poorer area, often communities flock to the churches every weekend and that also sets them up for a poorer education because schools in those areas are poorly funded. I’m not saying all our athletes come from poorer backgrounds but many do and many had to fight to get to where they are. If you are practicing all day long do you think you have time to learn about magnetics, evolution, and black holes? Many wouldn’t care about that at all. Unless you are Chris Bosh. He might be agnostic, I’m not sure I can’t remember. But he is one of the few coding NBA players for sure. Also, and lastly, if you are an NBA player living the dream with millions of dollars wouldn’t you feel “blessed”? If I were, I probably would still go to church and feel as though I have a one way ticket to heaven.
You have nailed it. For those who are willing to accept it, in athletics (and really in all of life) short term pain leads to long term gain. This truth must be embraced for success on and off the field. Off the field we see this principle rear its head in the lives of human beings all over the place. We see it when mothers endure labor for the sake of giving life to a newborn child, we see it as entrepreneurs struggle to stick with their ventures in order to make a profit, and we see it even in the vaccination process as immune systems strengthen and better handle foreign invaders by enduring small quantities in order to build up resistance. It’s as though this principle is embedded in the “fabric” of our universe. In addition, as was the case with the war against Adolf Hitler and his Nazi thugs, embracing this principle is a prerequisite for the eradication of the manifestations of suffering itself.
What I find compelling is that when atheists reject God (specifically the God of Christian Theism) on the basis of the presence of suffering in the world, they reject not only God himself, but they specifically are rejecting the means by which God is trying to save them. Is it fair to say then that in some sense, to reject God is to reject the value of suffering?
The community explains it all. It has nothing to do with pain and suffering. Nothing to do with scripture or the bible. If a religious community gets all the kids interested in football there will be a greater chance of any very talented untapped athlete becoming discovered. If the entire community devoted itself to chess champions, that would mine the community for that particular talent.
Simply put, the greater number of people interested in an activity, the more likely one of them will become successful. Religiosity or lack thereof has zero bearing on athletic prowess.
After all, all it takes to run the experiment is to have these so-called religious athletes renounce their god, right? Or have a born again christian compare his pre and post revelation stats! We all know the outcome of that experiment.
The premise of a religious belief leading to elite athleticism is faulty. Basically it’s like saying blacks in the USA are getting worse at baseball because there are fewer black MLB players than in years past. We can all see it is a function of community interest. Nothing more, nothing less.
Vin, you seem to have missed my point, which has nothing to do with the idea that religious belief increasing athleticism. Rather, my point has to do with the fact that committed athletes are more accustomed than non-athletes to the benefits of suffering. And this in turn impacts their perspective on the problem of evil, thus making it less likely for them to see suffering as evidence against theism.