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In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Cornerback

One thing I’m somewhat of a corporate lackey for is the NFL. I’m a football fan. In the past, I’ve been a Denver Broncos fan, a holdover for having lived in Denver for ten years during John Elway’s heyday. I still follow them despite having left Denver in 1995, and given all the changes that have occurred since then the team bears little resemblance to what they were in the glory days of the late ’90s.

One huge problem I have with football (one that certainly crops up elsewhere in our society) is the preponderance of players and coaches who continually invoke the Almighty as a major force in their lives, and in the progress of their careers. Certainly if they’re hell-bent, so to speak, on deluding themselves about the nature of the universe and their place in it, that’s their own affair. But at the start of the 2009 season, I noticed yet another reminder about the level many football players (and other athletes, to be sure) are willing to take this nonsense to.

If you’re not a fan, or if you happened to miss it, Denver beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the first week of the 2009 regular season by virtue of a pass that was broken up by Leon Hall, the Cincinnati cornerback, who tipped it high into the air. Improbably, the ball fell right into the arms of Denver receiver Brandon Stokely, who was not the intended target of the pass, but who happened to be in the neighborhood. He caught the ball with no defenders in front of him, and raced 87 yards down the field for the winning touchdown, astutely wasting four or five seconds by running parallel to the goal line before crossing it, ensuring Cincinnati would have minimal time left on the clock to try to retaliate.

That’s all well and good; an exciting, highly unlikely finish to an otherwise mundane game. To my great dismay, however, Stokely, during his post-game interviews, professed his amazement that it had actually happened the way it did, and digressed into the all too familiar refrain that “god” must have had a hand in his great good fortune. Perhaps he was caught up in the excitement of the moment and didn’t really mean it, or was trying to be humble by giving god credit for his catch instead of himself, but even if that were true in this case you hear that story after a big win with alarming frequency. I find this profoundly depressing, primarily because it is so common in sporting events. Who do these people think they are that the almighty creator of the universe would take the time to bat a ball in their direction? Is that humility? And how just high and mighty is their deity if he sits around on Sunday afternoons altering the outcomes of football games to help someone out? Isn’t that supposed to be his day off? I suppose he has to do something with his spare time. Never mind that supernova going off next to an inhabited planet over in NGC35.

Here’s something for Mr. B.S. and so many others (Kurt Warner, recently retired from the Cardinals, comes to mind) to think about: many of your opponents are just as pious and faithful as you are. You cannot help one side without harming the other. The people in Cincinnati were pretty bummed. How does god go about choosing who to reward and who to punish? A coin toss? Does he look back over the previous week to see who behaved better than the other? What about each of their teammates? What if the cornerback sinned that week, but all his other pious teammates did great good works? Should they all suffer because the cornerback erred? What if Stokely had been good, but many of the Broncos had committed reprehensible acts? (Some of their games this past season fall into that category.) It can get pretty confusing. Is there some point system that god uses? Maybe he counts the number of people who prayed in church that morning in each of the cities. It would be easier to understand if god simply had a standard fantasy team, and needed a few points from Stokely if he was going to beat Michael the Archangel in this week’s matchup. (I’ll bet that’s one p.o.’d angel.)

How many of these athletes truly believe that divine intervention occurs in their sporting events? How can one credibly explain that the outcome of a purely arbitrary recreational diversion is of greater concern than the waging of a war many consider unjust, in which tens of thousands of innocent people are killed? How are the standings of a sports team more worthy of attention than a hurricane like Katrina devastating a large city, resulting in the deaths of thousands and the misery of hundreds of thousands? Either their god has a lot of explaining to do about his or her priorities, or they themselves have a lot of explaining to do why their game is so important.

Perhaps their god’s not so mighty after all. Hurricanes are too tough. A football, though, can be handled. Either that, or for some reason we deserve wars and natural disasters. God lets them occur on purpose. This is, repugnantly, a line of logic not uncommon among those of fundamentalist faith. When 200,000 people were wiped out by the tsunami of December 24, 2004, there were Muslims who explained that god allowed this to happen because the people there must have been decadent and have committed grievous offense. Never mind that thousands upon thousands of the victims were innocent young children who would have had scant opportunity to commit offense in their short lives, or that most of the people killed were themselves people of faith. They had to have done something to deserve their fate, otherwise it wouldn’t have happened.

There is quite possibly no more dangerous line of reasoning to follow than that. If natural disasters occur, then they must have been part of god’s plan. It’s an easy extrapolation to extend that reasoning to the actions of people. This line of thought is a remarkably handy mechanism for justifying any sort of behavior whatsoever. A little research shows that virtually every individual caught committing an act of terrorism against abortion clinics in the United States—Michael Griffin, Rev. Paul Jennings Hill, John Salvi, Eric Rudolph, James Kopp, Shelly Shannon, Clayton Wagner, and others—professed fundamentalist Christian faith. (I understand the abortion debate as a whole is far more complex than this, and am neither espousing nor commenting on pro-choice or pro-life. I’m merely pointing out that the statistics linking fundamentalist beliefs with violence in these cases are overwhelming.) If I believe fervently that I am following god’s plan, than anything I do must be justified as well. My conscious won’t bother me one bit if I kill three people while blowing up a health clinic that performs abortions, or murder a doctor in cold blood for the same reason. Indeed, it is my moral obligation to act because I believe this is what god wants me to do. It would be sacrilege to question it. I don’t need to struggle with the hypocrisy of murdering someone I believe to be a murderer. The core problem here is that the highly dubious standard for what actually qualifies as being part of god’s plan is left as an assignment to the reader.

Terribly flawed logic of this sort isn’t as limited to the lunatic fringe as one might hope. Look to the genocidal actions of the Spanish conquistadors in early America. Look to the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans during the ’90s. Look to the despicable treatment of female rape victims in many Muslim countries today. In history or in modern times, whole societies have shown themselves perfectly willing to institutionalize religiously inspired rationalization of their brutal treatment of others into their accepted cultural norms.

Every time we try to explain natural phenomena, or our own behavior, as the result of divine intervention or guidance of one sort or another, the logical conundrums come fast and furious. If this were simply an intellectual exercise it might be excusable, even entertaining. Clearly, though, it is not. The path from “god was on our side today” on a football field to “god is on our side” in a war is a short and slippery one. If god blessed your football team, you were meant to be happy and your opponent dejected. If god is on your side in a war, it is your righteous duty to slaughter your enemy and win the engagement at any cost. If god allowed thousands to die in a natural disaster, we have no real responsibility to try to help them; it’s not our problem. Nor are we required to explain how an all-powerful deity who values human life possessed both the full knowledge that such a calamity was going to occur, and the ability to prevent it, and yet chose not to act.

This last escape clause, I think, is the most valuable and convenient for any of the faithful struggling to explain the “logic” of their thinking. It simply isn’t possible to resolve why horrible things happen to good people, or to other innocent creatures and our precious surroundings, if an all-knowing, all-powerful deity, who made us in his own image and loves us, actually exists. Out of desperation the faithful will either claim that somehow the victims deserved what they got, or even less satisfyingly, fall back on the nebulous claim that god has some mysterious “plan” that we can’t always understand.

No kidding; we can’t understand it. It seems easier to swallow that their god has a pretty wicked sense of humor. I suppose that’s to be expected when the ultimate list of do’s and don’ts this entity came up with is only ten items long, and the first three or four of them (different sects divvy them up differently) are all variants of “don’t mess with me.” This god of theirs doesn’t seem so infallible as an author.

We, as members of a responsible, pluralistic society, have a duty to deal with facts—not some cosmic, unverifiable “truth,” but facts. And the facts are that hurricanes, earthquakes and droughts are forces of nature well-explained by science, victims are not sinners, but victims, who need and deserve our help, and wars and murders are choices that people themselves make. So, Mr. Stokely, be thankful for your luck, and take credit for your own alertness and skill. If you want to believe something, believe this: the only hand of intervention in that play and the Broncos’ win was Leon Hall’s.