The American Atheists have erected a “pro-atheist billboard” near Metlife Stadium where this year’s Superbowl, between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks, will be played on Feb. 2, 2014. It features a silly looking Catholic priest “thumb upping” the slogan “A ‘Hail Mary’ only works in football. Enjoy the game.” This raises a number of interesting issues worth pondering.

First of all, is this an effective message? Other billboards put out by the American Atheists have been more about getting "closeted atheists" to go public and perhaps join the organization. “Don't believe in God? Join the club." It seems that such billboards could actually be effective in accomplishing that goal. The "Hail Mary" billboard, however, seems to be directed at making fun of religious belief, with the goal of getting people to abandon belief in the effectiveness of prayer. But it seems unlikely that this billboard (or any billboard) could accomplish this goal. Religious beliefs are often too entrenched for a single slogan, or even argument, to dislodge them. And the favored status they have makes people too willing to make excuses to keep them. (It’s usually only after years of education and self-reflection that religious beliefs are abandoned.)

For example, back in 2011, when people were thinking that God was helping Tebow get to the Super Bowl, we wrote a blog that pointed out that it follows from the Christian’s own definition of God that God doesn’t answer prayer. God is by definition the perfect being, and as such he must always do the best thing. But for any given thing or event that you might pray for, it is either best that it happens or it is not. If it is best, then God is going to make it happen regardless of whether you pray for it or not. And if it is not the best, then God is not going to allow it to happen regardless of whether you pray for it or not. No amount of "human pleading" could ever convince a perfect being that he should do a worse thing, or shouldn't do the best thing. So, regardless, prayer does nothing.

This argument is logically valid (its conclusion follows from its premises) and each of its premises seems obviously true. If so, the argument is sound, and rationality dictates that we accept the conclusion of all sound arguments. But do you think that anyone who believed in the effectiveness of prayer was convinced by this argument? Likely not. Despite the fact that one could not find anything wrong with the argument, it was likely simply ignored. The same will probably happen with the American Atheist Super Bowl billboard. (Although, I suppose, it could start a process of deliberation that lead some to eventually reject religious belief.)

That being said, I would still like to offer up an argument (that will likely be ignored by everyone who disagrees) that the intended message of the billboard is correct. David Silverman, president of American Atheists, clarified the message: “It’s 2014; it’s time to stop believing that prayer works…Give credit where credit is due and celebrate what this is really about—coming together to cheer on hard-working athletes doing what they do best.” Part of the point seems to be the one I already made: petitionary prayer does not work. But another point seems to be this: It’s silly to believe that God intervenes in athletic competitions.

According to the Huffington Post, half of Americans believe that the supernatural is involved in determining the outcome of sporting events, especially football and the Super Bowl. About half of them (a quarter of all Americans) think that supernatural force is God. This is less than the 43% who thought that God was helping Tebow get to the Super Bowl. (Notice that this belief likely didn't change despite the fact that Tebow didn't actually get to the Super Bowl.) But this is still disturbing news for those of us who care about how rational our nation is (or isn’t).

But it should also be disturbing news for Christians. There seems to be a growing number of athletes whose answer, when asked in interviews about how they “won the game,” goes something like this: "I've got to give God all the credit." Christians should be, in droves, criticizing these answers. They should not tacitly endorse the idea that the Christian God interferes with the outcome of sporting events, or the performance of players.

First of all, it makes God a moral monster. If God is willing to suspend the laws of physics in order to determine the outcome of a football game, why didn't he do so to prevent that car accident, or stop that assassination? Why didn't he give Hitler a heart attack? A God who cares about sporting events but not starving children or amputees is not a God worth worshiping.

Second of all, it cheapens God. Basically, thinking that praying to God has a causal effect and can determine the outcome on a football game is no different than thinking that wearing your lucky shirt can have a causal effect and determine the outcome of a football game. Basically, “football prayers” turn God into a "lucky charm” that one invokes when one has no control. As Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out, invoking God to explain mundane and chances occurrences cheapens God, making him a "domestic servant... a mere name for the stupidest sort of chance." The same is true when you ask him to help your team win.

Thirdly, it makes your entire religion look stupid. Despite the Bud Light ad campaign, it's not "only crazy if it doesn't work." I’m reluctant to even bother to point this out, but…the fact that your desired result was followed immediately by you participating in your superstition does not mean that your superstition caused that result. Such thinking is literally childish, invoking a logical fallacy called "Post hoc ergo propter hoc.” The fact that this is followed by that does not entail that this caused that. The fact that you pray for your team and then they won does not mean that your prayer caused them to win.

ESPN reporter Doris Burke recently caught some heat when she laughed after Kevin Durant’s answer to her question regarding what Kevin has done to get to the “level” he has been at for the “last twelve games.” He said, “Man, God. That’s all I can say. Jesus Christ.” She defended her reaction by saying that she too is a believer and was merely surprised by his “incredible demonstration of humility.”

I kind of doubt it.

Even if you are a believer, the idea that one of the world’s best athletes got to where he was merely by praying, or solely because God just decided to put him there, is ludicrous. Did God just put him there according his divine plan? Does God have a divine plan that places everyone everywhere God wants them every second? If so, then humans have no free will and the very concept of moral responsibility is nonsense. If not, and humans do have free will, then it wasn’t just God that is responsible for Kevin being at the level he is. So did Kevin just pray really hard and God granted him his wish—and Kevin’s training, hard work, and self-sacrifice had nothing to do with it?  And since that is “all he can say,” I guess nothing else but God deserves credit. So his parents, past and present coaches, and his teammates don’t deserve any thanks.

I know that Christians simply want to praise Kevin for the “courage” he displayed in not being afraid to publically express his faith. But does it really take courage to say you’re a Christian in a country where are no laws against doing so, where every president (and almost every elected official) has been a Christian, and 78% of people are Christians? Were those who praised his courage also praising the courage it took Oklahoman Rebecca Vitsmun to admit to Wolf Blitzer (as well as the entire nation, and her family for the first time) that she was an atheist, after he asked her if she “thanked the lord” for surviving a tornado? After all, only 1.6% of Americans admit to being atheists, and they are America’s most distrusted and hated group.  Didn’t that take even more courage?

Truth be told, most of those who sided with Kevin likely didn’t really think about what he said, or what it entailed, or what it meant. Just like they will this Sunday, they were just rooting for their team. He said something that sounded “pro-Christian” and they said “yeah!”  But when it’s all said and done, regardless of whether you are a believer or not, the idea that God is involved at all in sports really does deserve a good laugh.


David Kyle Johnson

About the Authors

David Kyle Johnson Ph.D.

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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