Athletes & God

English: This cross-country race course in Sea...

Did God knock those guys down?

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.

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  1. s. wallerstein (amos)

    I don’t see why you consider it to be strange that God intervenes in sports.

    Are you insinuating that God is an unmanly wimp who is not into sports?

    In the Iliads the gods intervene all the time to favor their pals. Some doubt the existence of the Homeric gods, but actually, there is as much evidence for the existence of the Homeric gods as there is of the Biblical one.

    Actually, Yahweh intervenes all the time to help his friends: he saves Noah from the flood, dries the Red Sea and knocks down the walls of Jericho.

    In fact, one could make the case that Yahweh is a better friend than Zeus, since Zeus is often distracted (with women) or fickle, while Yahweh never sleeps, although he did rest (on the 7th day).

    Now, God is the most perfect example of masculinity (being the most perfect Being).

    All masculine beings love sports.

    Hence, God loves sports.

    Any sports lover wants his team to win.

    Hence, God wants His team to win.

    Therefore, given his perfect and infinite love for sports and for his team (God’s love is perfect and infinite), there is nothing surprising about God’s intervention in sports events to favor his team (God, as shown above, favors His pals.)

  2. Thanks Mike LaBossiere, an interesting post.

    Theodicy (i.e., why there’s evil in the world) and the Efficacy of Prayer, are amongst the toughest issues Theologians/Philosophers of Religion have to face. And you bring up both in your post.

    I think there are answers that are reasonable, and they reflect the kind of God religious folks might believe in.

    If you believe in a personal God that seeks the good for those that worship and are thankful for His grace, then you will often get those folks practicing personal petition based prayer (e.g., please grant me victory…). Those folks though, if the prayers are not granted, are left to reflect on the possibility that it was not good for them to win). If the prayer was from relief from pain, and it is not granted, they again have to think this is for their greater good. A problem arises with understanding the capricious nature of their God in answering some and not other prayers. However the problem for them arises when they may see other folks that are not religious, or even “good” in a sense that might be commonly agreed as such, win out in a relatively painless life. Why should these folks be rewarded by a good God? Many lose their faith in God due to such reflections. IMO the simplistic conception of God at the beginning of this para is the source of the problem in their understanding.

    Those theologians that, perhaps additionally, attribute to God the key nature of a “God of Love”, who loves all creation, in a fair, even-handed charitable manner, not preferring one “child” over another (irrespective of their beliefs), have an easier ride on Theodicy and Prayer-Efficacy. They understand that this Love is a kind of “pure” Love that does not favor one side over another, and is sometimes a very “tough-love”, that recognizes that in the Big Picture of life over many generations a certain amount of local pain is needed to achieve a “greater-good” end (a utilitarian perspective that is consequential on an omniscient God-like perspective, that humans do not have). In such a systematic theology a Leibnizian argument of “Best Possible Worlds” can be argued.

    It is hard for some religious types to accept that this God of Love, loves and cares for those that reciprocate/ignore this love equally, that sinners and righteous are not favored with material favor. However there is a reason to expect that in the nature of a true “Forgiving-Loving-Father” type God.

    Prayer types of: Adoration; Expiation; Thanksgiving; Petition and Love/Charity are all valid in this theology-of-love variant. Prayers may be considered all answered, in terms of being granted or not granted, for the greatest loving-good. Crucially the prayers need to be aligned to God’s Love and Will being done. Prayers for biased personal favor(e.g., let me win) may not be answered, on the basis that it is not fair to answer one side and not the other, and it is not loving/charitable to the other to ask for it.

    That said, if a prayer is offered for strength to run the race (actual or allegorical) as best as you can, then this Loving God might answer it positively in all circumstances, whilst the supplicant is genuine in his prayer and lives a life of love aligned to the will of God. Why? Because I think faith and prayer does help many cope with life’s difficult passages, it give them perspective and hope to transcend them. If their faith is strong and can help them from falling into depression and despair they can indeed play out the hand they are given with the least negative handicaps that those mentalities bring. A positive mental attitude can help a positive physical result as sports psychologists will readily agree to.

    So in terms of your post’s context, pray for the best side/person to win, and that your side/self plays to their/your best ability.

    Hoping all your readers have a merry and safe New Years!

  3. Well, if God wants to help propel me around the Boston Marathon, I’ve got to say I’m quite happy to be his sock puppet. I’ll even wear a Sooty outfit, if that helps!

  4. Not at all. If God exists, He surely loves sports.

    True-the Greek gods were said to get involved quite regularly. However, these gods were local gods and did have clear sides. In the case of God, He is not supposed to be the God of Athens or New York, but the God of everything. As such, He is not on a side other than His own (to steal from Lincoln: it is not about having God on one’s side, it is about being on God’s side).

    If God is good, then He would not cheat at sports-even for a team He might (for some reason) favor.

    Now, if God is not good but rather simply sides with the folks He likes regardless of the ethics, then He would no doubt cheat for His team. Of course, this would indicate that He changes His mind quite a bit as to what his favorite team might be. Or, to borrow from Napoleon, perhaps God is always on the side of the best team.

  5. Martin,

    Based on my own experience in sports, I would be inclined to go with the idea of the “fair” God in that He does not intervene for one athlete or another, but rather simply lets the event play out based on the abilities of the athletes (plus the usual luck). In the case of sports, this would seem to be the morally right approach-after all, it is not a contest to settle matters of good and evil, but a contest between humans to see who has brought the best game. As God does not rob us of free will, surely He would not rob us of free play.

  6. Jeremy,

    I just got of the celestial phone with God’s agent-he said “deal.”

  7. The Bible has several things to say about prayer. I’m sure other books of religion would too. Maybe we should consult some of those?

  8. Mike,
    Lucky you. You’re able to do two things you obviously enjoy very much in one shot. (Talking about) sports and philosophy.
    I got stuck on your non-philosophical thoughts:
    “I was, at that time, an atheist. But, as a runner, I have a respect for devotion and faith.”
    Why in particular as a runner, and more generally, respect someone for their (religious) devotion and faith? Do you respect a libertarian for their devotion and faith? Or a determinist? From what I’ve seen, a person’s devotion and faith in practically anything screws up their ability to think logically, if at all.
    In my opinion the question of whether, in fact, it does make sense to give God thanks for one’s existence, assuming a belief in God in the first place, is a pretty hefty philosophical question, for which you take the affirmative for granted. Does believing in God require a feeling of owing Him something? What if your life for one reason or another is not worth a damn, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to curse Him?

  9. I shall have to think a bit more about this one. I am a follower of Boxing and Tennis and I have strange reaction when I see a player or competitor making religious gestures before a match or after as a winner. It is a feeling of discomfiture mingled with disappointment; a sort of O! dear he/she is not the man/woman I thought he/she was. To try to make my feeling clearer it is a little bit like the reaction one would have on witnessing the winner make a vulgar gesture at the defeated. The feeling fades fairly quickly and does not prejudice me against the player in any way. I guess I think the player is undervaluing themselves. I feel like saying “no you did all that as a result of years of hard work and dedication it is all down to you be proud of that. I would love to do as well.”
    I am aware that someone is going to say that from ancient times there has been a religious aspect to many sports. In Sumo for instance, salt is thrown around before a bout as means of spiritual cleansing. I suppose if by tradition a sport has a religious aspect then I am not bothered, and I would probably go through the motions myself, if I decided to compete therein.
    I describe myself as a threshold atheist and agree with Dawkins who says God ALMOST certainly does not exist. I think the door should always be left marginally open in perhaps all judgements, just in the event, that other be the case.

  10. Zen in the Art of Archery (Eugen Herrigel) was an influencial book; melting sport, art, and spirituality into one.

  11. Interesting post all around. I did want to comment on one specific claim you made: that God probably wouldn’t make other people win and you lose because they are not theologically or morally good. Are we sure that is the only kind of good God would care about? God may have a vested interest in excellence of all varieties.

    I’m thinking here of Aristotle’s argument in Nic. Ethics I that the good flutist is the one that does the characteristic activity of a flute-player well. It does not seem such a great leap to me to think that God would rationally desire for the runner who best exemplifies the characteristic function of running to actually get the proper recognition for that. So, yes, there is not a difference in moral goodness, but it seems that there is a very real difference in other kinds of goodness, and if God exists it’s right and proper that God should see that the best racer is in fact recognized and rewarded as such. I can see a runner thanking God for allowing that to happen.

    One other interesting point is to consider your concept of “cheating.” Is it less cheating for God to, say, design the track a certain way so one runner’s body is more suited to it than another, than it would be if your friends tackled other runners in the woods? it’s less direct (and perhaps less directed), but God’s fingertip is there, and certainly an omniscient God would recognize that having the track possess some characteristics rather than others would give Jack an advantage over Bob, or whatever.

    All in all, very thought-provoking. Thank’ee!

  12. In Christianity, God is said to dwell “inside”: Jesus said he would send “a good counselor” to whoever believes/asks for it. Since the spirit dwells in each person, it can be (locally) totally supportive of each person, inspiring each person to “do their best”. So yes, Jeremy, God will help you run a marathon if you put your trust in Him (that your pain is temporary and will be taken away, that you can continue to run skillfully as you have been taught, that you can deal with accidents and incidents, that He wants you to do well) and run with a sense that the Glory belongs to God (that you run with a body animated by a life that you didn’t create by yourself).

    Optional: if a Scooty outfit (?) helps you stay focused that’s OK, but many would prefer simple jewelry or a ritual gesture.

    If you think God works by tipping the ball, then you are stuck in pagan thinking … idolatry … where Vulcan is for Athens, Zeus is for Corinth. Many places in the Bible say that worshiping Gods “made by hands” is forbidden … of course the ancient Israelites were generally confused on the point (see the Golden Calf episode) so your misunderstanding has a long history. As you say the Christian god is on everybody’s side, so he can only work by inspiring individuals. And if the Thrill of Victory belongs to God, then so will the Agony of Defeat. The Glory of God is there either way.

    Still, as we know from Evolution, “only a remnant will be saved.” So it goes.

  13. If you believe that God has a will,(a desire, work to be done etc.)you should not be surprised that he might accomplish it through the use of a certain team or athlete. The event may be meaningless to him but the work he could do through it could be substantial.

  14. Marta,

    Thanks for the comments. I would agree that God should have an interest in excellence and He should want the best runner to win (if it even makes sense for God to want). However, this would seem to exclude His intervention, at least on my view of running. Having been getting somewhat faster in the past year (I tore my quadriceps apart in 2009) I have been back to beating people who were beating me before-but this often varies from race to race. For example, I finished ahead of my friend Katie in a 6K, but she was a bit ahead of me in the 10 mile race a while back. This sort of thing makes me think that being the better runner can be something that changes from race to race and is defined in terms of performance (and also other factors). Rather than intervene on behalf of the better runner, it seems that God would allow the running of the race to decide who was better-at least on that day, on that course and under those conditions. Being the better runner overall would seem to be a matter of assessing many races and taking into account things like whether one was hurt, sick, or just doing a training run rather than racing.

    Good point about God designing the places people run. As you note, people have favored conditions. In my case, I am very good on downhills and on rough trails, but weak on the uphill. I run great in the cold, far less so in the heat. Other people excel on the uphill and do well in warm weather. But, this all seems to even out (mostly). For every uphill, there is usually a downhill. For each hot race, there is usually a race that is cooler. So, it could be said that God gives everyone a chance to do well. The folks who design the courses, well that can sometimes be another story.

  15. “If God exists, He surely loves sports.”
    As has been suggested God, amongst other things, also controls Sporting occasions. Why is it from time to time he kills a marathon runner or a boxer? Other times he will orchestrate a massive fatal pile up of racing cars. Even animals do not get away with it. Bulls are given virtually no chance against their human tormentors and horses are sometimes hunted and raced to destruction. Who would I wonder, actually employ God to run a business, or any other serious venture. I would not trust him to run a rag and bone shop :roll: .
    Don’t worry though he does not exist; just be careful and compassionate; your destiny is largely in your own hands 😀 .

  16. Don,

    God knows what the crowd really wants and sometimes acts to please them?

    You do raise an interesting point about how much lies in chance and how much lies in God’s hands. I’d be inclined to say that the car pileup is due to the driver(s) and that the death of a runner is a matter of chance. On many accounts of God, though, there can be no chance (Spinoza’s view, for example). If God does plan and set everything, then it would seem correct to thank God for victory (and defeat) in sports. Of course, the thanking would also be planned by God.

  17. Re:-Mike LaBossiere December 30, 2011 at 10:02 am
    “God knows what the crowd really wants and sometimes acts to please them?”
    Yes I can understand that response. However to my mind (and that is not to say much) it rather lets God off the hook. Additionally If God knows what the crowd wants then he must also know what they do not want. They want A to win but not because of, or together with the death of B. Why praise him for all the good things in life and assume it is not down to him so far as the bad things go? Could it not be the case that God has in fact created everything given it an initial push and now just lays back observing the results, a massive system of causation, seemingly for his own amusement. That is what it looks like. Why give man free will and then punish him for using it, Why threaten and frighten simple people into belief. These are the acts of an evil dictator. If I have perfect ability to make motor cars and I deliberately or knowingly make some which malfunction is it not incongruous for me to blame the cars and not myself.
    I can understand arguments based on certain well known qualities/attributes which God is supposed to have. This can lead to profound interesting intellectual discussions provided one sticks to the basic definitions, or say, assumes they are false, and reasons therefrom. I can go along with that and possibly accept God really knows what the crowd really wants. However this for me is no more than a sophisticated philosophical game.. I do not really believe all those attributes and rules and qualities are true outside of the universe of discourse which has the name Religion.
    May I ask? Do you really believe, or say have faith, that “God Knows what the crowd really wants?” If you are going to say you believe it I must ask for the grounds of your belief, because maybe there is something here I am missing. If you just claim Faith then that I can accept and respect that but can not envisage how I could engage more fruitfully in discussion.

  18. I hesitate to say anything theological lest someone from continuum tell me to shutup. I wonder if the pursuit of knowing God started with the ancient Greeks. We ask whether we “believe” in God. Belief is emphasized since I am not sure if it means knowledge of, hold faith, celebrate, have shared values, experience, have discussions with, or some other cross-purpose definition. I am sure the question is sometimes asked with the purpose of exposing barbarians in some cultures, so it is dangerous to reply other than yes to belief. I have no problem believing in God. It is people I have a hard time believing in. That is not skepticism about God, just cynicism about people.

  19. Don,

    On some views, all things come from God-good or bad. This view seems to often come with the additional view that God should be praised for all of this. This always struck me as odd (why thank someone for doing harm?), but it seems somehow consistent.

    As far as God knowing what the crowd wants, if He does exist, then He presumably knows this (or is lacking epistemically). Whether He elects to grant the crowd what it wants would be another story.

    The evidence seems to be that if God exists, then He seems to largely leave us on our own. If He does intervene, then He does so in ways that are indiscernible from what seems to be the natural order (as opposed to supernatural intervention). Of course, the stock reply is that God has set the world up so it unfolds in accord with His will, so He does not need to tinker with it (well, except way in the past when miracles allegedly occurred).

    I am, I afraid, rather lacking in faith.

  20. Mike, interesting pov!

    Of course, one can always characterise praying as a request (demand?) for divine victory/triumph/protection for oneself. And I have no doubt that many of us have mixed motives when our own status/success are involved.

    But I would argue (as a Christian) that praying before and after sports event is consistent with humbly serving the Lord to whom one has invited to rule in one’s life.

    After all, as a businessman I used to pray each day that I would act justly, that the business I was involved in would prosper and that most of all, God’s will should prevail. So why should a sportsperson not ask that they should do their best in a fair competition, and that God should be glorified in the outcome? Perhaps merely giving the witness you saw is a positive side of the outcome.

    As to winning, we all want to win, but that’s up to God (and our own preparation); but the cameras don’t show the losers giving thanks to God for their position! You only notice the winners! javascript:grin(‘:lol:’)

    Sometimes failure is God’s will for us; we can often learn more from failure than success – even humility sometimes!

    Many atheists I encounter think that I and my co-religionists use God as a talisman. God isn’t magic; He’s a way of life!

    May I wish you – without irony – a blessed New Year!


  21. Mike D.

    If one believes in a good God, it would seem to make sense to pray to Him to be one’s best in an endeavor (being just, running, etc.). Granting such prayers would seem to be consistent with God being good. Prayer’s to beat other runners or make a profit over a competitor probably would not be the sort of things that good and just God would answer (that sort of stuff seems more in line with the pagan conception of gods).

    Some folks contend that one should not ask God for anything, since God will always do what is best. Rather, prayer is to thank God for what He has done.

  22. “Some folks contend that one should not ask God for anything, since God will always do what is best. Rather, prayer is to thank God for what He has done.”
    I agree here. I have never understood why people pray. If god is all knowing, all powerful, omnipresent etc it seems more than likely he knows more about ourselves that we do. He will know what we want, how we feel, and the degree of our attachment to him and more importantly what he is going to do about it all. He will will know the extent of gratitude long before it is uttered it to him, so there is no need for that. This of course would be a very unsatisfactory state of affairs something akin to the behaviour of an atheist. So to solidify what is for me a pretence, believers accordingly go through the praying process with no thought that God is one step up on them all the time i.e. they only utter what he already knows.

  23. Don,

    That seems quite reasonable. In one of my books I have an essay, “Powerless Prayer”, that discusses the matter of prayer. One part of my discussion is that (as you note) God does not need to be informed (so prayer cannot be informative in nature) and God would do what is best anyway (so asking makes no sense). The only rational aspect to prayer would be to say “thanks.” While God would know that people are grateful (or not), it is always polite to thank someone for the good they do even if they do what they would do anyway.

    Leibniz also makes an interesting point that God needs us for His glory: if we did not praise Him, then He would not have that attribute (or He would, but his Glory score would be 0). This, one might argue, need not be a flaw of Gods. After all, He creates us to praise Him, so he takes care of it Himself.

  24. I thought the same when I saw Rick Santorum thank God for his vote tally in Iowa.
    – First of all, how presumptions to claim that he is God’s chosen candidate.
    – Second, who will he blame when he loses the next primary?

  25. Sometimes i dont know how to pray. I want the words to come from my heart and not sound cheese, but when I do prayer publicly I want it to sound good and professional. for example, I am the Chaplin on my athletic team. Which means I have to pray before every game. How do I get inspiration for a good prayer

  26. Chanel WIlliams

    I just wanted to comment on the last few statements of this article. The author states, “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.”

    A biblical reference suggests that God does not intervene in sports but rather rewards athletes for their faith in him, their faith in their ability to achieve their goal, and their hard work. James 2:14-26 claims that faith without work is dead. Verses 20 to 24 state

    “20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead. 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works, faith was made perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”[d] And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.?

    So, asking God if he would see fit to shave two minutes off of your 5k isn’t enough. You can pray to God asking for this time reduction and believe that he will do it. That takes care of the faith piece. But until you put in the mileage and the hard work that prayer to God will not be evident in your 5k time. I know that many may respond and say that they work hard and they pray for God to help them in their athletic performances. That’s great! But I believe that God requires more from us than we actually require of ourselves. When one has reached the threshold of work ethic that is necessary, and for Abraham that was nearly sacrificing his son, then our work along with our faith will be made evident in our athletic performance.

  27. Chanel Williams,

    Wouldn’t a reward for faith (in the form of improved performance) be an intervention in sports? After all, if God helps make me faster, He would seem to be intervening in my races.

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