Expressions of religiosity are common in professional sports, as athletes and fans frequently attribute touchdowns, home runs, and victories to divine intervention. (This is yet another area where God gets all the credit but none of the blame. When’s the last time you saw the losing team blame God for the loss?)
Expressions of secularity in professional sports, however, are so rare that they are apparently newsworthy. A case in point is that of Oakland Raiders punter Chris Kluwe, who made headlines simply by agreeing to speak at next year’s national conference of American Atheists. Somehow even in the twenty-first century, major American media outlets find open religious skepticism sufficiently controversial to merit headlines.
“By speaking at an atheist convention, Kluwe is putting himself pretty far outside the NFL mainstream,” reported NBC Sports, which pointed out that coaches frequently lead their teams in pre-game locker-room prayers. The Blaze went even further, calling Kluwe “controversial” and the “anti-Tebow,” and declaring that the atheist speaking gig “may be his most divisive step yet.” (Among Kluwe’s other “divisive” actions, according to the Blaze, were his endorsement of Obama and his support for same-sex marriage.)
Interestingly, Kluwe identifies not as an atheist, but as "cheerfully agnostic," and in making the distinction he echoes a common misunderstanding. “Atheists confuse me,” he reportedly writes, going on to suggest that atheists are too sure of themselves. “It takes just as much faith to claim something unknowable isn’t real as it does to proclaim that it’s real.” Certainty on such questions is impossible, he says, so the atheist’s position would seem just as flawed as the believer's.
Kluwe's perception of atheism and agnosticism is a popular one, but it isn't quite accurate. The view that atheists claim to “know for certain” that gods don’t exist (the implication being that agnosticism is a more humble and reasonable position) is mistaken, because to be an atheist is to simply not believe in any gods – period. To be an atheist, it is not necessary to proclaim with any degree of certainty that God does not exist.
Unfortunately, the notion that atheists are so sure of themselves is not only incorrect, it also contributes to negative attitudes toward atheists. If atheists are so certain that God doesn't exist, it shouldn't surprise us that the public associates adjectives such as "arrogant" and "militant" with the atheist identity. (Even though, ironically, most nonbelievers are rather hesitant to openly express their skepticism!) Little wonder that so many atheists nevertheless avoid the identity.
Contrary to popular understanding, agnosticism is not really an alternative position to atheism. Whereas atheism addresses the singular issue of belief (“I do not believe in a god”), agnosticism addresses the wholly distinguishable issue of knowledge (“The question of a god is unknowable”). As such, agnosticism is not a more moderate position on the spectrum of belief, but instead is a position that does not even directly address the issue of belief at all. One can simultaneously be an agnostic and an atheist: “The question of a god is unknowable, but, as for myself, I don’t believe.”
In fact, with this framework, we can see that most agnostics are in fact atheists, whether they choose to identify that way or not. For many who identify as agnostic, including apparently Kluwe, the identity has an image of being less ardent, less certain, more humble. Perhaps such agnostics are trying to avoid the label “militant.” They should realize, however, that whether they choose to identify as atheist or not, if they do not in fact hold a god-belief, they are members of the club.
Dave on Twitter: @ahadave
David Niose’s book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, is available here.
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