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Tim Tebow and the Atheist’s Dilemma

Friday, January 20, 2012

Perhaps the only effective remedy for the all-too-human temptation to hubris among the spectacularly gifted, especially when they happen to be amazingly lucky as well, is the kind of humility that is invoked by faith in a God.

Many Americans today are pondering the same profound religious questions that confronted the great thinkers of the past, and all because of one highly successful and devoutly religious NFL quarterback. Ask virtually anyone you come across and they will be happy to tell you their opinion about Tim Tebow’s religious convictions, especially his belief that God not only has his eye on the sparrow, but on the ball as well—provided, of course, that Tebow is in the process of passing it many yards down a football field at crucial moments of a big game.

For many Christians, Tim Tebow has become a role model to be imitated, including his famous prayer stance. Tebow is clearly a man who believes not merely in a vague higher power, but in a living God. He is deeply convinced that God is willing and delighted to intervene in his own daily life. He is also quick to express his gratitude for the divine aid that has helped him through the ordeals of life—in Tebow’s case, through the quite harrowing ordeals of the NFL season.

To his evangelical fans, Tebow’s remarkable success is a self-evident mark of divine favor. But many other Americans see the matter quite differently. Some are hardened skeptics, some mild doubters, some strident scoffers. To all of them, even Tebow’s most amazing passes are simply a product of his native skill, his arduous training, and his immense self-discipline—naturally with a hefty dose of secular “good luck” mixed into the brew. Talent plus serendipity is a surefire winner. No need, they argue, to drag in the Almighty.

Atheists, of course, are the loudest in their denunciation of Tebow. But even here, among the ranks of the unfaithful, there are exceptions. David Silverman, president of the American Atheists, has even offered what the website ThePostGame.com has called “An Atheistic Defense of Tim Tebow.” And an odd defense it is.

We all have the same concept of Santa Claus, but do we all have the same concept of God? Not in the least.

Silverman’s argument is that Tebow, by attributing his own success to divine intervention, is casting himself in the role of “the victim.” When Tebow asserts that “he’s not doing it—God is doing it through him,” he is denying himself the credit for the hard work and years of practice that he took upon himself in order to become the great football player that he is. According to Silverman, Tebow should give up the God business and give credit where credit is really due—to himself.

In addition to explaining to Tebow why he is a victim of his own religious beliefs, Silverman also attacks Tebow’s views head on. He does this not by deriding Tebow’s belief as total nonsense, unworthy of a human being living in the 21st century, as other atheists might be inclined to do, but by offering an argument that is distinctly… well, theological. “The universe has a trillion stars. Ninety-five percent of it is dark matter. It’s hubris to think that the Creator of all that wants the Broncos to win a football game.”

Silverman’s argument could easily be made by someone who actually believes that there is a “Creator of all that.” Indeed, in the history of Western thought, there have been a number of philosophers who firmly believed in God the Creator, but did not think that their august God could possibly be interested in such a trivial matter as a football game. The great theistic philosophers Leibniz, Newton, and Malebranche would have seen eye to eye with Silverman on this point. But Silverman, as an atheist, is not making the argument that God does not concern himself with such minutiae. Instead, he is saying if there were a God, He would not stoop to involve himself with the outcome of forward passes. This statement is true only if we accept Silverman’s concept of God. But if Silverman is assuming that his concept of God is the only concept in town, he is simply and quite badly misinformed. Which brings us to the atheist’s dilemma.

When an atheist says, “I don’t believe in God,” he must first define the God in which (or in whom) he is not believing, i.e., the God he has in mind when he denies His existence. Prominent atheists are fond of saying that they don’t believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, elves, or God. But the difficulty with this approach should be quite obvious. We all agree on what Santa Claus would be like if he existed; ditto for elves and the Easter Bunny. They are very well defined imaginary objects, like Sherlock Holmes or Hamlet.

Proof of this lies in the fact that when an adult takes his child to visit the Santa Claus in his local mall, the adult is perfectly aware that he is dealing with a fake Santa, and not the “real” Santa. The “real” Santa must be able to do a vast number of things that no fake Santa could hope to do, such as visiting every house in the world and delivering desirable presents to its children. Furthermore, he must know how to guide his sleigh through the chilly winter night and how to get the best mileage out of his ensemble of flying reindeer. He must likewise organize an efficient staff of elves in order to produce the appropriate Christmas presents; read and file all the various letters he receives from children around the world expressing their Christmas wishes; and, last but not least, make the difficult moral determinations whether each individual boy or girl had been naughty or nice during the previous year.

To nonbelievers, Tebow’s most amazing passes are simply a product of his native skill, his arduous training, and his immense self-discipline—naturally with a hefty dose of secular ‘good luck’ mixed into the brew.

We all have the same concept of Santa Claus, but do we all have the same concept of God? Not in the least. Mormons believe that God has a body and a wife and that what God once was we one day will be. In sharp contrast, the Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that God was pure thought, blissfully unaware of the contemptible universe that aspired to approach His perfection. The great iconoclast philosopher Spinoza believed that God was the totality of all that is and that everything was perfect. Leibniz, who strived to refute Spinoza, believed that God was the Supreme Monad (whatever that means) who created the best of all possible worlds, but certainly not a perfect world. The French deists, like Voltaire, imagined their God to be a celestial engineer who constructed our universe and then left it to go its own way. St. Thomas Aquinas believed that God was immutable—what is perfect cannot change except by becoming imperfect, and thus God could not change. Alfred North Whitehead, in contrast, argued for a God that was in process, always representing the possible best Being at any given state of the universe. On a less intellectually exalted scale, there are those who think that God is an old man with a long white beard who sits on a golden throne floating somewhere above the stars. Or a witty old codger smoking a fat cigar, like George Burns.

When an atheist says he doesn’t believe in God, which God is he talking about? Obviously, he can only reject the idea of God that he has in his own mind—or, more likely, the various ideas and concepts of God that he has encountered. But how can he know for sure that he has encountered every possible conception of God? It is easy, as we have seen, to make up our mind about the existence of Santa Claus. But God is much trickier. For how is it possible to be certain that you would reject every possible candidate for Godhood until you have thought about them all—and even then, how can you ever know that you have thought about them all, even if you had spent your entire life reading every work of philosophy or theology that touched on the subject? What about the concepts of God that are still waiting in the wings of time?

Silverman seems to believe that he has debunked Tebow’s concept of God by arguing that his own (i.e., Silverman’s) concept of God would not permit his (i.e., Silverman’s) God to interfere in one of Tebow’s games. But what if Tebow’s concept of God matches that favored by great nineteenth-century American philosopher William James?

William James was not entirely certain that he believed in God, but he argued that any God worth worshipping should be the kind of God that Tebow prays to—namely, a God who is responsive to the sufferings and aspirations of mankind, and who is prepared to make decisive interventions in the course of human affairs in order to help us with the trials and challenges of our lives, no matter how trifling. James even argued that a God who was not willing to perform outright “miracles” for our sake did not greatly interest him, no matter how many proofs of His existence might be offered. What “cash value” in our lives could such a cold, frigid, abstract God possibly have? What difference could this bloodless entity make in our happiness, or in the quality of our moral, spiritual, or physical life, if we knew ahead of time that He wouldn’t lift a finger to help us when we needed it?

In the history of Western thought, there have been a number of philosophers who firmly believed in God the Creator, but did not think that their august God could possibly be interested in such a trivial matter as a football game.

Tim Tebow’s idea of God is obviously far closer to that of William James’s than to that of Leibniz, Newton, or Silverman. But this very fact raises a question that makes today’s evangelical atheists acutely uncomfortable. It is obvious that no atheist can ever accept Tebow’s view that God actually helps him make his dazzling passes. But why can’t an open-minded atheist admit that Tebow’s mistaken religious beliefs might nevertheless play an important role in making him the wonderful quarterback that he is?

This, after all, was the very point that William James made in his famous essay, “The Will to Believe.” You don’t have to believe in God in order to recognize that other people’s belief in God can have a beneficial effect on their personal lives. But this is also the very point that today’s evangelical atheists, like David Silverman, wish to dispute. They are not content with the position taken by the modest atheist, namely that belief in God is an illusion. They are also committed to arguing that this illusion is both dangerous to society and damaging to those individuals who are caught up in it. Hence, it is not enough for Silverman merely to discredit Tebow’s belief as an illusion. He must also deny that Tebow’s illusion is beneficial to him in any way. Indeed, Silverman goes much further, arguing that Tebow’s religious convictions are actually harming his performance as a player. Because Tebow is not giving the credit to himself, where it is due, he is short-changing both himself and his team. Or, to put this another way (my own, not Silverman’s) Tebow would have higher “self-esteem” if he were to stop thanking his illusionary God for his remarkable success.

No doubt it is very likely that a self-congratulating Tim Tebow would have higher self-esteem. He would begin to think, “Hey, I’m the one who’s so wonderful. Not God. He had nothing to do with it. It’s all about me, me, me!” But does high “self-esteem” really translate into better performances, either on the football field or in the classroom, or in any other environment for that matter?

Not so long ago, many well-intentioned individuals believed that they could cure the problems of the world by encouraging children from an early age to have more self-esteem. The “self-esteem” movement was both popular and superficially plausible, but it was based upon a profoundly misguided understanding of human nature. Today, we know from the work of psychologists such as Martin Seligman and Roy Baumeister that improving “self-esteem” does not improve performance. On the contrary, individuals with high self-esteem tend to think that they do not need to work very hard, feeling that their inherent sense of self-worth entitles them to the rich rewards that can only come from dedication, perseverance, and sheer all-out effort. It is now sadly obvious that too much self-esteem is more likely to be a prescription for failure than a recipe for outstanding performance.

According to Silverman, Tebow should give up the God business and give credit where credit is really due—to himself.

From these findings it is possible for a philosophic pragmatist, i.e., a follower of William James, to construct an interesting counter-argument to Silverman’s advice that Tebow could improve his playing by going godless, to wit: Tebow is by nature an outstanding player. He excels in his field. He is idolized. What could be more natural than that such talent and adulation should go to his head? Under such circumstances, who could resist coming to the conclusion: “Boy, I am really something! I am invincible, unmatchable. Who can touch me?” The temptation here to the Greek sin of hubris, i.e., overweening and inevitably self-destructive pride, is self-evident. Indeed, the greater the talent and skill, the greater the temptation.

How is it possible for any highly talented individual to avoid these dangerous and so often fatal delusions of grandeur, especially when he is also the beneficiary of a great deal of good luck? Tebow has obviously found the answer. It is God—or, if you would permit, the zealously embraced illusion of God. Not the God who has created trillions of stars and who is indifferent to the petty doings of mere man, but the God who is said to have his eye on the sparrow, the laughably incoherent and inconsistent God who leads an obscure tribe from bondage simply because he has chosen them, who performs silly miracles liking turning water into wine simply because the wine has run out, and who answers the heart-felt prayers of a Tim Tebow when the clock is about to do the same.

Silverman argues that “it’s hubris to think that the Creator of all that wants the Broncos to win a football game.” But it is far more probable that the only effective remedy for the all-too-human temptation to hubris among the spectacularly gifted and exceptionally talented, especially when they happen to be amazingly lucky as well, is the kind of humility that is invoked by faith in a God to whom we can give gratitude and praise for those accomplishments that we are most inclined to boast of as our own.

If Tim Tebow’s famous prayer stance can remind us of this grave human truth, then we all have reason to thank him, atheists as well as believers, fans of the Saints as well as fans of the Broncos.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, as well as Civilization and Its Enemies and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Jay Richards writes “The Immateriality of Wealth” and “Did Physics Kill God?” Nick Schulz reveals “How the Progressives Almost Killed Football.” Jonah Goldberg asserts that “Santa's Not Pagan.” Christina Hoff Sommers chronicles the efforts of feminists to “Take Back the Sports Page” while David Archer discusses “Sports and the Market.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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