ESPN The Magazine recently published an article, The Confession of Arian Foster, that explores the NFL pro bowlers admission to being an atheist, although a term, according to Foster, he shies away from due to his staunch dislike of labels. Regardless of how he chooses to identify himself formally, he remains someone without a belief in God.
It’s a very thought-provoking and interesting article about a man who is rightfully adamant about his identity as someone who is much more than “just a football player.” Foster comes off as empathetic, thoughtful, well-intentioned, and charming. He seems like a nice enough guy, and despite his own personal creed, he harbors a deep respect for those with faith. The article also touches on the difficulty of being a non-Christian in the NFL, a league that has religion woven deeply within the fabric of its core.
It is hardly surprising that the article opens up with the routine pitting of God against the problem of evil. It sounds—at least to some significant degree—that Foster’s own beliefs have been formed by his struggle to accept a god that fits into a world rife with evil and suffering. He takes this further in mildly humorous fashion, wondering why a god of this sort (one without the agency or willingness to rid the world of evil) would empower one football team to win and the other to lose, as if god’s decision to influence the game is based on the team that grovels with the most convincing vehemence:
But if God is helping you win, Foster wonders, isn’t he by definition ensuring that the other guy loses? As is the case with Foster’s (flooded) street, the water must choose a side. “If there is a God and he’s watching football, there are so many other things he could be doing,” he says. “There are hungry children and diseases and famine and so much important stuff going on in the world, and he’s really blessed your team? It’s just weird to me.”
His points are well taken. It would be insensitive and dishonest to discount the problem of evil, one that requires a deep level of faith and trust in God’s purposes in order to accept. However, we see again the natural expectation for God to fix our world, or to a larger extent, have prevented it from needing fixing. This, of course, becomes problematic in a world that presupposes freewill—one that bestows humans with real responsibility and power within the confines of a material existence. According to the NFL, last year 205 million American watched at least one NFL game. And so, it should make us pause to think deeply about the sentiment of Foster’s question: If there are millions of people in this country and we’re watching football, aren’t there so many other things we can be doing to address the problem of poverty and famine in the world?
I do not mean to criticize Mr. Foster, as again, I have respect for him as both a football player and a man. It seems, at least according to the article, that he is sincerely searching for truth. In fact, at one point he shares his openness to the possibility of not being an atheist one day:
Foster stops short of calling himself an atheist, not because he isn’t — his language is the language of the atheist — but because someday he might not be. “I have an open mind,” he says. “I’m not a picket-sign atheist. I just want to be a happy human being and continue to learn.”
I can also understand why it’s hard for certain atheists, perhaps like Foster, to commit to a belief in God for various reasons. Some of them reject a religion that I myself reject—one that is based solely on superstition, wishful thinking and an irrational, nonsensical faith. Often times there is a misunderstanding between what we mean by God (being itself) as opposed to god (a supreme being among other, inferior beings).
And so, it is understandable—perhaps even commendable—that some reject such a religion that is contrary to human reason. I also know that some atheists have been treated poorly and without love from supposed “Christians.” We all have been cratered with deep wounds, and if representatives of a specific religion carved some of these wounds, then it makes sense that someone would be conditioned to avoid whatever religion spawned such an individual and their actions. In some cases the word Christianity elicits unpleasant physical symptoms. In fact, if such is the case, for these individuals, God has been concealed as opposed to revealed.
“Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2125
Then we have those who never take the time to explore one or any given religion. They are non-believers because it’s how they were raised, similar to any Christian, Muslim, Jew and so on, believing what they do because of what their family imparted to them since birth. I don’t in any way criticize such a person, as I can in no way know if I would have been compelled to seek the truth if certain things hadn’t happened in my life, and of course, if I wasn’t raised with a basic fundamental understanding of Christianity.
My question, though, has always been why someone would not at least, on some level, want there to be a God? Someone may not be able to submit to a belief in an immaterial being that gave rise to all material existence, but why don’t they even want there to be such a being?
Some view that saying, “yes” to God is saying, “no” to man, a concept that many atheists have posited. If God were a rival, a cruel, unjust ruler (or like Foster muses, a lazy, inept, football-watching God), then yes, it would be awful if such a God existed. Yet, what if God allowed the flourishing of the “thinking man,” and rendered man more able to uncover the mysteries of the universe—in all facets of the sciences—as opposed to less? What if the existence of God wasn’t set against the paradigm of a zero sum game?
Those who see God as cruel, abusive and cold, most likely do so because they’ve been handed a poor representation of God. There are times when I wince over hearing certain, well intentioned believers, say things that are blatantly false, foolish or ignorant with respect to the faith, based on an improper understanding of scripture or tradition. There are moments throughout the article where we have reason to believe that perhaps Foster wasn’t handed down a very well thought out and accurate representation of Christianity. It’s obvious the desire for a Draconian deity of this sort would be absent. But what if this God that we proclaim was not that God? What if he was love? And not that feel good, shallow sentiment that comes and goes like the seasons, but a love that ferociously desires our ultimate good, and nothing else, for our own sake?
And still others may see it as a condition of weakness, and that despite humanity’s collective desire for justice, peace, truth and goodness, sooner or later, we need to swap out the fairy tale for reality—to wake up and put religion to bed. In other words, believers are the weak, ignorant and backward who continue to listen to the music of misbelief while the progressives set their hands to the helm of human progress and flourishing. Or, as Karl Marx said:
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
I understand why one wouldn’t want a God that demands the abandonment of reason to worship and please him. Or a God that is cruel, demanding, exclusive and temperamental. But what about a God who truly is the source of beauty, goodness, wisdom, truth and, of course, love? Would it not be better, given the option between this God, and that of no God, to choose the former?
I think the fact that many—many, but by no means most—people don’t want there to be a God at all speaks to a failure on our part to paint an accurate picture of what we mean when we say God.
I’m not exonerating all those who lack a belief in God. We all have the freedom to reject knowingly God with our actions and the life we live. And so there is greater need for us to know the true God, in order to reveal Him to others. It requires us to know what we believe about God—that he is reasonable, not nonsensical, that he is compassionate, not corrupt and that he is ultimately for us, not against us. It comes from study, community with others, and most importantly, prayer—the willingness to sit at the table of the quiet, and listen to the inner voice of love.
One of the most powerful sections of the article is when Foster talks of his relationship with the Christian NFL running back Justin Forsett. Forsett, the son of a preacher, engages and challenges Foster in a way that doesn’t deal condemnation or condescension, but instead that strives to form a friendship that is built around seeking the truth. Foster disagrees with much of Forsett’s beliefs, but he is undeniably struck by Forsett’s disinterested love for him:
“Here’s what I respect about him: Justin was never like, ‘Hey, man, you’re going to go to hell.’ He was like, ‘This is what I believe is the right way, and I’ll pray for you.’ I never feel arrogance or judgment. He never acted like he had something I don’t have. He said, ‘I would love for you to experience this,’ which is more divine than anything I’ve ever come across.”
It’s a deeply telling statement on Foster’s part. He is right, the love Forsett has for Foster, regardless of their difference in beliefs or way of life, speaks to something Divine. In fact, it’s the love that is Divine.
“You can only seek God when you have already found God. The desire for God’s unconditional love is the fruit of having been touched by that love.”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love