The latest, August 18 edition of ESPN Magazine, one of the most popular sports periodicals in the world, features a cover story titled “The Confession of Arian Foster” (which you can read in full online.) The article is a sort of “coming out” for NFL star Foster, running back for the Houston Texans, who admits he doesn’t believe in God. According to some pundits, his confession makes him “the first active professional athlete, let alone star, to ever stand up in support of gaining respect for secular Americans.”
The ESPN article claims that Openly Secular, an activist organization for which Foster campaigns, “initially approached ESPN about Foster’s willingness to share his story, but ESPN subsequently dealt directly with Foster, and Openly Secular had no involvement.” Yet, ironically, in the very next paragraph, the author quotes Todd Stiefel, chair of Openly Secular. It seems the organization had at least some influence in the article’s creation and positioning. The article admits that Openly Secular “plans to use his story to increase awareness and acceptance of nonbelievers, especially in sports.” In other words, the article is less about sports and more about promoting secularism.
Before addressing Foster’s comments about why he disbelieves in God, I want to first say that both atheists and Christians should applaud him for being unafraid to voice his convictions. As he admits, coming out as a non-believer in heavily evangelical Houston, home of Joel Osteen and the city that “helped put the mega in megachurch,” could be a costly move. He says, “You don’t want to ruin endorsements. People might say, ‘I don’t want an atheist representing my team.’…[but] just being me is more important than being sexy to Pepsi or whoever. After a while, what’s an extra dollar compared to the freedom of being you?” (A question similar to one proposed by a first-century Rabbi: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”)
It’s not clear if Foster himself actually accepts the atheist label. Near the end of the article, he says, “I’m not a picket-sign-atheist. I just want to be a happy human being and continue to learn.” But other quotes—such as the one above concerning endorsements above—show that he sometimes use the label.
Either way, whether he identifies as atheist or not, he doesn’t believe in God. And most atheists today prefer to define atheism as referring “a lack of belief in God.” So by that definition he fits the bill.
Foster’s atheism doesn’t make him a bad person, as the article goes to great lengths to affirm. It highlights Foster’s “modest” rental house, his one car in the driveway (“but no fleet”), and his clear devotion to his children. By the end of the article, most readers will likely come away thinking, “Huh. I guess you can be atheist and be a pretty good guy.” It seems the article’s main purpose is simply to normalize secularism, which is the shared mission of Openly Secular.
What I’d like to focus on, though, are not the article’s political or strategic motivations. I’m much more interested in the actual reasons why Foster disbelieves in God.
Unlike most American non-believers today, who were raised in Christian homes, Foster grew up Muslim. His father taught him to “pray five times a day, facing east” but also to “ask questions and challenge convention.” His mother, Bernadette, was raised Catholic and briefly converted to Islam, but she’s now agnostic. Foster’s parents divorced when he was a boy and he moved in with his father.
While in high school, the two moved to San Diego in order to enroll in a powerhouse football academy. They rented “a one-room shack,” which was all they could afford. His father remembered, “I lived literally four feet from my son for two years. He slept on one side of the room and I slept on the other.” It was in that shack that the seeds of Foster’s atheism began to grow.
Lying elbow to elbow with his father, Foster would often pray to God, “If you can, just get me out of this jam.” But God never did. Foster felt that nobody heard his desperate prayers. “Why is this relationship so one-sided?” he wondered, “Why would a loving God create evil? Why would he allow eternal damnation?”
All of these questions, which most people confront at some point in life, articulate the famous “problem of evil”—how could an all-loving, all-powerful God allow pain and suffering in this world?
But today, philosophers both atheist and theist generally agree that although the problem is serious and deeply felt, it doesn’t provide strong support for atheism. There is no logical contradiction between an all-loving, all-powerful God and the existence of evil for the simple fact that God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting certain pains and sufferings. In Foster’s case, he would probably agree that his difficult adolescence helped forge his character, made him more resilient, and helped him better appreciate the gifts he has now. If he grew up in a posh, upper-class neighborhood, perhaps he never would have developed the grit and work ethic needed to reach his dreams of the NFL. So it’s possible God allowed temporary suffering to produce greater good in his case, and I’m guessing if you asked Foster, he would say in retrospect that the difficulties were worth it; they made him into the man he is now.
The agnostic scholar Paul Draper admits “theists face no serious logical problem of evil.” And J.L. Mackie, long one of the most prominent atheist defenders of the problem of evil, said, “[W]e can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another.” This doesn’t prevent the “problem of evil” stops being an emotional issue for many people. But it means that it poses no logical argument against God and no rational support for atheism.
After seeing Foster struggle with the “problem of evil”, we glimpse another angle of his atheism in the article when he interacts with his 6-year old daughter, Zeniah, who attends a Catholic elementary school. “Every once in a while she’ll mention Jesus or God,” Foster says. “One time she likened God and Jesus to Zeus and Hercules. She did it on her own. She said something along the lines of, ‘They’re the same. They’re both stories.’ I thought it was brilliant on her part to be able to distinguish it.”
We can gather from this that another reason Foster disbelieves in God is because Jesus and God the Father are “the same” as Hercules and Zeus, respectively, or at the least the same in regards to being non-existent myths.
If you’ve read any of the “New Atheist’ authors, this won’t be a new idea. The comparison of Jesus to pagan deities is neither new or uncommon. In fact, a quick Google search for “atheist memes” returns several polemical images dedicated to the idea. But is the comparison apt? Foster thinks so, and calls his daughter’s insight “brilliant.” Yet it faces several problems.
First, Jesus is a well-attested historical figure, one who lived in a specific place at a specific time, whom even contemporary atheist historians agree existed (and have written whole books defending.) On the other hand, nobody thinks Hercules was a real, historical figure. He has always been acknowledged as a myth. Another difference is that Jesus is fully God and fully man, whereas Hercules is half-mortal, half-immortal.
Second, the Christian God is radically distinct from Zeus, or any other pantheistic deity. Zeus is just one, contingent creature among many—the son of Cronus and Rhea, also contingent beings. Unlike the Christian God, Zeus is not self-existent, nor the ultimate uncaused cause, which necessarily grounds the universe. Zeus is merely a creature, albeit divine, while God is the pure creator.
So even though all four figures (Jesus, God, Hercules, and Zeus) were worshipped as deities, and even though they share some traits in common like supernatural abilities, they are radically different on the level of ontology, or being. Equating them as “the same” may be defensible for a 6-year-old girl, but not for a mature, “free-thinking” man. The comparison is less “brilliant” and more confused.
The ESPN article next moves away from Foster’s personal and family life and into the NFL locker room. Football, like most sports in America, has a long relationship with religion. Players openly discuss God, join each other for church, and pray before games. Typically, Foster doesn’t participate. As his teammates kneel in the locker room, asking God to keep them safe during the game, Foster “sits at his locker…facing the wall, the music in his headphones internalizing his preparation.”
Foster wonders, “If God is helping you win, isn’t he by definition ensuring that the other guy loses?…If there is a God and he’s watching football, there are so many other things he could be doing…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.”
It’s worth pointing out that the article never mentions any players begging God to help them win games, only to keep them safe. So it’s not clear who Foster is complaining about.
But here we see another reason for Foster’s disbelief. How could he believe in a God who is concerned with petty football games over more pressing needs in the world?
Foster is of course right that God probably doesn’t care about wins and losses, at least for their own sake (in his providential governing of the universe, no detail is insignificant). So Foster’s intuition is right that praying for wins is selfish and misguided. But the existence of misguided prayers doesn’t support atheism. The fact that some people make selfish or inconsequential requests to God doesn’t mean prayer itself is impotent or, worse, that God doesn’t exist. The conclusion just doesn’t follow. Foster may think it “weird” that football players ask for God’s help, but that’s no justification for atheism.
Foster’s reaction also betrays another serious confusion about God, that God is somehow limited by time or space and so his attention must be constricted to one thing at a time: he must choose between watching a football game from heaven or helping hungry children. To Foster, it’s a zero-sum game. But for Catholics, and followers of every major theistic tradition, God transcends both time and space. To God, the past, present, and future are, in the words of one theologian, “the eternal present.” God can attend to every event, and every person, without having to divert attention from somewhere or someone else. So even if it were true that God cared about wins and losses, that wouldn’t preclude him from both attending to football games and to hungry children.
Next in the ESPN article, Foster turns to the topic of Jesus, saying, “If you look at the teachings of Jesus and understand the man and character that he is, that’s a good dude. I’ve got no problem with Jesus.” This view is fairly common today, and not only among atheists. Even many Christians say they love Jesus, but hate religion.
One is reminded of C.S. Lewis’ famous reply to this view in Mere Christianity. Lewis, who only a few years before was a staunch atheist, wrote:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Ironically, Foster’s first name (Arian) originally referred to someone who adhered to the teachings of Arius, a fourth-century priest remembered as one of history’s most notorious heretics. Like Foster, Arius held that Jesus was a good man but that he wasn’t fully divine. Arius believed Christ was the noblest of all created beings, but still a creature. This view spread to almost the entire Church—the majority of bishops and Church leaders were swayed by Arius’ claims. But through several early Church councils, most notably the Council of Nicaea in 325, the Church discerned it was a distorted view of Jesus. That council affirmed that Jesus is co-eternal and con-substantial with the Father, meaning he is just as much God as the Father is. Nicaea and Lewis both agree that the one thing Jesus cannot be is just “a good dude.” If we assume the Biblical accounts of Jesus are reliable (as Foster seems to), then Jesus must be either a liar, a lunatic, or God.
Next we find what is probably the most directly atheistic quote in the article. As Foster comforts his troubled mother, he affirms her religious doubts, saying, “We’ve been to the moon, and there’s no heaven up there. We’ve dug in the dirt, there’s no devil down there. It’s OK to think what you think.”
This is the strongest support Foster offers for his atheism, at least in this article. But once again, as with the Zeus/Hercules comparison and his confusions about prayer and God, Foster badly misunderstands the Christian view. He sees God as some anthropomorphic superman, one being among many in the universe. He imagines that heaven has actual geographical coordinates in our universe, a physical place that has so far evaded our discovery (perhaps it’s somewhere on the moon?), but if we could only fly far enough or fast enough, we’ll one day find it. Foster also confuses metaphorical depictions of hell as “below” or “under the earth” for literal descriptions, with the devil as a physical creature living somewhere beneath the earth’s crust.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if 6-year old Zeniah believed these things, but it’s a bit shocking that Foster holds them. Most people, both Christian and atheist, abandon these immature and underdeveloped ideas as they grow up and learn to distinguish between metaphor and literal descriptions of spiritual realities.
For Catholics, heaven is indeed a place but not a particular space within our own universe. It’s a state of utter and absolute fulfillment in God, not a travel destination on the moon. Similarly, contra Foster, the devil is not a human living under the earth’s crust but a fallen angel, without a body, meaning he could never be directly seen anywhere in the universe, much less “in the dirt” of earth.
Near the end of the article, Foster says, “I used to try to argue people down and show them the fallacies in their own religion. That used to be a big deal to me, but now that doesn’t serve my ethos at all.”
In a major article championing atheism, it would have been nice to know more about those fallacies and arguments, at least ones that didn’t wither upon examination.
Openly Secular may have achieved its goal of normalizing secularism, at least for athletes. But it did little to show that atheism is warranted or reasonable.