The Scourge of Gratitude

We live in a world choked  by overpopulation and constantly threatened by nuclear proliferation.  Millions are perishing every year due to starvation and malnutrition, while the mass pollution streaming into our rivers and lakes is turning water, the essential ingredient for life on this planet, into an increasingly scarce resource.  Rising temperatures are undermining the entire oceanic ecosystem.  Radical terrorism is destabilizing our civilization.  We are staring down the chamber of Peak Oil as people stop wondering if our world will come undone and have simply begun hedging bets whether global warming or a global economic collapse will get the job done first.

But as I’ve read the musings of newspaper columnists, TV news pundits and the mass blogging community, it’s become clear to me that all of these present and potential calamities combined still pale in comparison to the impending and pervasive playing out on fields and in stadiums day in and day out.

Athletes are thanking God.

How dare they?  Who do these people think they are, giving thanks to a power greater than themselves?  Don’t they understand how bothersome it is for us to have to watch them display humility?  Do they not see that every ounce of talent, wherewithal, tenacity and focus they display germinates from nothing more than their own human efforts?  The sheer gall of the assumption that their creator bestowed upon them certain gifts allowing for these impressive display of athleticism!

Sarcasm aside, the ire around this subject just plain confuses me.  So much so, that I have a hard time locating whether it functions more as troubling or just plain laughable.

If the complaints centered only around atheists or agnostics feeling bugged watching a public display of faith, that would be one thing.  Although, it’s hard to see how that merits an entire article or report.  I mean, athletes bug me all the time.  When Rickey Henderson used to talk about himself in the third-person during post-game interviews, I would cringe.  Watching football players do end-zone dances lasting five minutes finds me wishing that the conclusion of the routine might end with a piano falling on their head.  Though, its difficult to see how I might stretch a whole blog post about these things.  I’m pretty sure that after writing the first sentence: “I am intolerant, impatient and critical- leading me to much annoyance when people do things I understand to be idiotic,” I’d have nowhere to go.

But the folks who rally against the practice of athletes thanking God, in large part, do not stop short in proclaiming that it bothers them.  In fact, from what I’ve watched and read, it seems that they understand the real problem to be located less in THAT they do it than in HOW and WHEN they do it.

Here’s a snippet from an article written by blogger David A. Black:

“I hate it when athletes thank God when they win. My reasons for hating it have nothing to do with my own atheism. I hate it because it’s narcissistic and because it’s theologically infantile.

If you win a game and then thank God, and do not thank God when you lose, you are going on record as believing that God wanted you to win, and that a victory by your opponent would have represented a thwarting of God’s plan.

But how do you know? Isn’t it possible that losing is what God has planned for you, and that it will do you good? Maybe losing will strengthen your character. Maybe your opponent needs the win (or the prize money) more than you do, and God somehow managed to figure that out in spite of being dazzled by your greatness. Maybe you should be thanking God for protecting you from the sin of pride by not letting you win a spiritually meaningless, entirely earthly contest.

But I’ve never seen an athlete drop to his or her knees and thank God after a loss. Why not? Because the ones who thank God when they win have a dinky, anthropomorphic conception of God. Their God is “the man upstairs,” the Santa Claus figure, the parent who may or may not give them the birthday present they want. And to hell with the other kids. Me, Me, Me.”

It seems the key element of the denial in this piece lies in the fact that the author believes that his atheism is not a factor in his opinion while, it appears to this author, that it is the prime factor.  And I don’t mean to infer that because he does not believe in God, he is inherently resentful of anyone who does.  It has been my experience that the average atheist, in addition to not believing in God, also does not understand the nature of prayer and giving thanks.

He claims that the actions of these athletes giving praise to their higher power for their accomplishments is “theologically infantile.”  Now, I can understand the thought that believing in  God is infantile.  I don’t agree with it, but I can grasp it as a concept.  But he must understand that the very nature of believing in God means to believe that you were created by, and have therefore been granted all your human assets, by this power.  So how could it be infantile to give thanks to someone or something that you believe granted you a gift?  It would be like saying that calling the electric company and having them turn on your power and then acknowledging that the power you are enjoying was provided by them is infantile.  Taking an action based on a belief, even if the belief is faulty, is about as non-infantile as it gets.  It is generally children who have beliefs that they are powerless to take action in response to.  For example, a child could believe that movies are awesome, but find that they do not have the money or the transportation or even the inclination to go to the video store and rent one.  If I have chosen to believe in God and find myself with the freedom and the wherewithal to respond to that belief by engaging in action that will foster it, I am acting like an adult.

Furthermore, what of the presumption that these athletes only believe that God is present or acting on their behalf when they succeed?  How is it that he believes that he is correct in this assumption?  He has no evidence to support the theory.  The only data he has been provided is what that athlete chooses to publicly demonstrate when winning or succeeding.  He has no idea what goes inside that athletes heart and mind when losing or failing.  Interestingly, in spite of himself, he is demonstrating the very thing that he is rallying against.  Faith is the process of believing in something that you cannot concretely prove.  So, if in the absence of any concrete evidence to prove how these athletes digest failure, he can publicly proclaim with assurance that they believe their failures to be “a thwarting of God’s plan,” then why can’t the athletes, in the absence of any concrete evidence that God exists, publicly proclaim love and thanks for him?

Does he really believe that these men of faith have never considered that losing might be in keeping with God’s plan for them?  Is he holding that the concept of having your character strengthened by failure has never occurred to any of these men?  Like somehow in all of the services and sermons that these men have attended in their lives, the only message they ever picked up was, “When God does what you want him to do, that’s when we know he is there.  When he doesn’t, he’s obviously taken a coffee break”  How is that not infantile thinking?  Does it not appear that Mr. Black is projecting his own dinky, anthropomorphic conception of God onto these believers?

I cannot say that I have any more information about the inner lives of these athletes than Mr. Black does, though, as a man of deep faith myself, I would offer the following about my own journey.  I believe that God has granted me particular characteristics and skills which allow me to thrive in this world.  When those characteristics and skills serve to afford me some brand of success, I often vocally thank God for that gift; sometimes in the presence of others.  I also know that God made me imperfect, and knows that pain and failure and disappointment are a necessity for me in my growth as a human that I may have humility, and not run strictly on my ego.

So, when things don’t work out the way I want them to, I don’t tell myself that God isn’t paying attention or that there aren’t real reasons that things did not go how I’d wished them to.  But that doesn’t mean that I like it.  I can correspondingly hold that the challenging experience before me is BOTH God’s work and a bummer.  Holding two seemingly antithetical feelings simultaneously is called a “both/and” schematic (or a dialectical one).   Again, the opposite of infantile.  Infantile thinking is limited and generally shows up through an either/or schematic.  A baby is either happy or sad; hungry or sated; sleepy or awake.  All things to an infant are either bad or good.  To experience an event through a “both/and” schematic demands a developed brain.

Has it never occurred to Mr. Black that these spiritual or religious athletes, after a crushing loss or a mistake leading them to be the game’s goat, might go back to the locker room, hit their knees, and say something like,

“God, that was painful.  Losing hurts, and my fear is telling me that I am not enough- and that people will think less of me for not rising to the top.  I know that these are ego-based thoughts.  Relieve me of my small thinking and help me remember that I need not see the mechanics of your plan to believe that it is perfect and has me taken care of and headed where I am supposed to go.  Please help me heal quickly from the anguish that I may rise to meet the next challenge before me, and give my all to my fans and fellow teammates without being held down by today’s disappointment.  Amen.”

Of course, I do not know that I am correct about their dealings with failure any more than Mr. Black does.  Yet, I wonder how Mr. Black tells himself that he would be able to spot an athlete who publicly thanks God for his successes but also knows that his failures are just as God-ordained?

Is his expectation that a wide receiver might do an elaborate touch-down dance after missing a hail-mary pass?  That his awareness that the clumsy route he took to the ball leading to his teams loss is a God- given character-builder should lead him to point to the sky in front of all the crushed fans and despondent teammates, and announce, “God, you are the man!  Thank you for granting me growth and healing through the gift of a pass two inches longer than my arms could reach.  I see that it is a metaphor that my reach could never be as long as yours and is not meant to be.  Praise Jesus!”

Has he considered that the reason that these men publicly thank God for a win has something to do with wanting to celebrate their faith with their fans and teammates, though, in failure, chooses not to celebrate his faith at the expense of them?

I’m not absent to the fact that there are all kinds of faith demonstrations that read as over-the-top, cheesy or even obnoxious.  I come in contact with those sorts of things all the time.  But with scads of athletes lost in alcoholism and drug addiction; loading up their bodies with steroids; perpetuating predatorial and sexual indiscretion; destroying families and placing them above the commoners by expecting a free pass to do so- do we really need to take the time and the space to chastise the guys who love God?

Even is they’re wrong, who are they hurting?  Mr. Black is writing as if he is standing for a principle.  He’s not.  He just annoyed.  And if you don’t have the capacity to whether a bit of annoyance in response to something that you clearly don’t understand, you might want to look up and revisit the word infantile.

  1. #1 by dzweifler on August 27, 2012 - 1:15 pm

    You’re just jealous that the almighty doesn’t take time out of his busy day to shine glory down upon you, as he does for me when my blistering forehand return gives some slack-jawed infidel whiplash at the baseline as my Wilson flies past in a flash of divine light. Not saying thanks would be a scourge of ingratitude if you as me.

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