This post is from a guest contributer who wishes to remain anonymous.
This Tebow thing is really getting out of hand. I thought it might have ended when his winning streak ended and the Broncos lost to the Patriots, but in this weekend’s wild card game, it happened again. Tebow threw about a 10 yard pass through dropped coverage that was run 70 yards for a touchdown in the first play of overtime. This meant, given NFL rules, the Steelers wouldn’t even get a possession to try to answer, so the Broncos advanced into the playoffs…to play the Patriots, again.
As you probably know, Tebow is the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos. They have had a 'string of luck' lately—quite a few comeback, fourth quarter, and overtime wins. Of course, in the NFL, unlikely and quirky wins happen all the time. And when they do, people are usally critical. When teams win by barely beating teams with comebacks after quarters of terrible play, most people aren’t keen on singing your praises. Things, though, are different with Tebow. Why? Because he’s Christian. I mean really REALLY Christian. He was home schooled, so he has really had his religious beliefs beaten into him. He hosts an evangelically motivated website, 'wrote' similarly motivated books and has helped with his father’s missionary work in the Philippines... to help circumcise impoverished children. He also appeared in a pro-life commercial during the 2011 Super Bowl. When Tebow played for the Florida Gators, he wrote Bible verse references in his eye paint. Eye paint messages are not allowed in the NFL, but as a Bronco, Tebow has been regularly seen bowing down in petitionary prayer during games’ crucial moments and in prayers of gratitude right after touchdowns, often pointing up to heaven as he stands up, mouthing the words “thank you.” (This is now known as “Tebowing.”) As a result, many are inclined—without hyperbole—to attribute Bronco winning streaks to divine intervention.
The notion that the Bronco wins are a result of divine intervention has received a lot of attention. Saturday Night Live made fun of the notion the night before the Broncos lost to the Patriots in the regular season. Conan O’Brien reenacted the overtime pass against the Stealers with his peanut players having the hand of Jesus come down and guide the football into the receiver’s hand. ()
But to many—in fact to most—it’s not a joke; people who think that God is involved in Tebow’s wins are not joking and really think God is helping Tebow win. If you have any Christian football fans as Facebook friends, you know what I am talking about. If you watch a game, you will see many signs around the stadium that say “we believe.” Although they may simply have 'faith in their team,' the message seems to be more specific. They believe that Tebow has bestowed God’s favor onto the Broncos and that it will take them to the Super Bowl. Colorado pastor Wayne Hanson -- who has some connections to Tebow’s family -- just came right out and said it, “It’s not luck. Luck isn’t winning 6 games in a row. It’s favor. God’s favor.” Countless media outlets have echoed these thoughts.
The most recent game added to the hype. According to an ABC affiliate, Tebow passed for 316 yards, averaged 31.6 yards per completion, and the ratings for the game peaked at 31.6 at the very moment that Tebow threw the game winning touchdown. A Bible verse that Tebow often painted in his eye black when he was a Gator was (you guessed it) John 3:16. It is often considered the quintessential evangelical Bible verse. This has many seriously wondering whether God had a hand in the game’s stats. Since the NFL bans messages painted in eye black, could God be sending his own message? If so, it worked. “John 3:16,” according to the article, was the number one Google search on Monday, getting more hits than it ever has.
But does Tebow really think that God has a hand in his wins? Many Tebow fans want to deny this and say that he’s just thanking God for his talents while he is “Tebowing,” but it is quite difficult to maintain such a position given the evidence that Tebow gives us. When you always bow down in prayer during crucial moments of the games, and then when things go right you stand up, point to the sky, and say “thank you,” what else could you be doing but asking God for help and then thanking him once you get it? Why would you be thanking God for the chance to play or for your talents, in the most vital moments of the game? Is Tebow ecstatically jumping up and down after beating the Steelers, and then bowing down, thinking to himself “I’m so glad I’m talented. Thank Jesus?” In answer to a question about the Broncos' overtime win over Chicago, Tebow said, "I believe in a big God and special things can happen." Tebow may even believe that a Super Bowl win is preordained by God. "It's not necessarily prophesying, but sometimes you can feel God has a big plan,” he said. Tebow thinks God has a hand in his wins.
Bill O’Reilly, in an interview back in June, asked Tebow, “Do you pray for victory?” Tebow replied,
You know, I think He honestly does care about how we play on the field, more than anything more than win or lose our hearts on the field. On the field I'm trying to play for the glory of God but then also I'm trying to give everything I have and win and compete. And so I think more than just winning or losing, I think He cares about where our hearts are when we're playing.
Well, at least God has his priorities in order. According to Tebow, God cares more about 'Tebow’s heart' when he is playing than whether he wins. But he clearly still cares whether he wins. It’s really hard to deny that Tebow indeed does think God has a hand in his victories.
Even if Tebow doesn’t believe, his teammates do—teammates like Wesley Woodyard. He recounted to Mark Kiszla at the Denver Post Tebow’s message to him.
Tebow came to me and said, 'Don't worry about a thing,' because God has spoken to him." After Woodyard ripped the ball from Chicago's Marion Barber’s hand to prevent him from winning the game, Woodyard believes too. "I gave him a big hug,” said Woodyard, “and told him thank you. God speaks to people to reach other people.
If you want to think that Tebow doesn’t believe that God has a hand in his wins, fine. I’ve said enough about that, but it’s undeniable that a number of people do believe. They think that God is altering the outcome of his games—right down to the number of yards he passes for, to make people Google John 3:16. It’s this issue I want to examine. Is it rational to believe that God intervenes in Tim Tebow’s football games?
The simple answer is a resounding no. In fact, such a belief is about as irrational as you can get. Let’s talk about those “316” stats first.
They are interesting, but not remarkable. From what I can tell, they are accurate. He did throw for 316 yards. But he also completed 10/21 passes. Divide 316 by 10, and you get 31.6. So it’s not really two different independent occurrences of “316” because one derives from the other. But, although the overnight household ratings for the game were 25.9/46, the game did peak at 31.6/46 from 8:00-8:15 PM, ET. Although, Tebow was making his pass around that time, I highly doubt that the ratings spike happened at the moment that Tebow made the pass, as was reported above. It was probably after, when the 'Twitterverse' lit up with 9000 tweets a second, and more people tuned in as a result.
Thinking the “316” coincidences entail divine intervention is thinking at its most uncritical. What are the odds that Tebow would pass for exactly 316? Not that great. Chances the ratings would peak at 31.6 on the same night? Even lower. But, given the number of games that Tebow has played, will play, and the number of stats that are kept in NFL games, it is a guarantee that eventually one of his stats would equal some number that people would find significant. Maybe he could complete 4/16 passes in homage to Philippians 4:16, another bible verse that Tebow has painted in his eye black. (I hadn’t heard anyone claiming 3:16 is his favorite verse until now.) And it wouldn’t be too hard to find another instance of those numbers hiding in the slew of stats for any given game.
The fallacy involved in this kind of thinking involves anomaly hunting and a selection bias—we look for something remarkable, remember what we found, and forget all the unremarkable things we passed over. Sure, 316 yards is interesting…but how many stats, over all the games, have been completely insignificant? We don’t remember those. Just like when a psychic medium gets something right, and we remember it—and we forget the twenty other things that she just said that have nothing to do with anything. Keep looking and eventually you’ll find what you want.
But something else is very wrong with the “316 yards—it’s a sign!” mentality. Think about what it really entails. To get Tebow to throw exactly 316 yards, God would have had to control every minute detail of the game. Anyone going anywhere they are not supposed to, catching a throw they are not supposed to catch, or where they are not supposed to catch it, would ruin it all. The idea that God reaches down from heaven to make sure that Tebow’s pass gets to the receiver to win the game is already ridiculous enough—so ridiculous that when Conan portrays it literally on his show, we laugh out loud. But to think that God is directing every little aspect of a football game to make sure that Tebow gets 316 yards in exactly 10 throws [so when it’s divided by 10 the numbers don’t change] is just so stupid.
Not to mention—is God making everyone turn their TV on so that he gets exactly the 31.6 rating that he wants? Whatever happened to free will?
Many religious people will argue that, indeed, God does control every aspect of the game—and that he did make you turn on your TV. Why? Because God controls everything. So the idea that God has a hand in Tebow’s wins, and the 316 stats, is not crazy at all. Instead, it simply follows logically from the fact that God exists, they suggest.
But this is a highly controversial and widely criticized view of God and his nature. The idea that God predestines everything that occurs (including who goes to heaven, and who goes to hell) was argued for by John Calvin. But the idea runs afoul of many bible verses, not to mention many Christian ideas—like the fact that we are morally responsible for what we do. If everything I do, I do merely because God preordained—predetermined—that I would do it, then how is anything I do my fault? I can’t do anything but what God ordained I would do and the reason I do it ultimately has nothing to do with me or my decisions. If God makes me do it, then I’m not morally responsible. We usually wouldn’t think that you are morally responsible if you had to do something because someone had a gun pointed at your head. How much more so if God is literally controlling you like a puppet?
This idea also runs afoul of a common Christian apologetic move. The problem of evil asks how God could exist when there is so much evil in the world. A common reply is that the evil in the world is not the work of God—it is our work. We cause evil by our own free choices. Not all evil is the result of our free choices—no one has ever caused a tornado. So this solution doesn’t completely answer the problem. But it can’t solve anything if all our actions are predetermined by God. We can’t cause any evil if God makes us do what we do—if he does all our causing for us. Certainly, you can’t shift any blame off of God, onto us, for the evil in the world, if God predetermines all of it to happen.
Now, of course, football players’ performances are most often morally neutral—they aren’t out there causing good or evil. But here’s the thing. Christians maintain that when God doesn’t intervene in our free will decisions to prevent evil, like 9/11, it’s because free will is important. It must be protected and preserved. What, then, are we to make of the suggestion that God interferes with the free will of football players to make sure that a particular team wins? We must think it is absurd. If preventing 9/11 is not more important than preserving free will, certainly a football win is not either—no, not even a Tebow win. Not even if the win is a means by which God draws attention to himself or a bible verse.
To make things worse, the kind of reasoning that people are employing to conclude that God is helping Tebow is the worst kind. In a nutshell, it is an appeal to ignorance. An appeal to ignorance occurs when one interjects a supernatural explanation for something that they can’t explain. This happens when people conclude that Criss Angel is magic because they can’t explain how he does his tricks. [Criss Angel is actually very honest about the fact that he is an illusionist, and has no supernatural powers—just like all magicians don’t.] But what’s more likely: no natural explanation or that you simply can’t think of one?
But it’s worse than that because the events for which people are invoking supernatural explanations don’t even need supernatural explanations. They are not miraculous; they are not violations of the natural order. If one of Tebow’s passes had disappeared in mid-air and then just appeared in the arms of a receiver in the end zone—then you might have something. But fourth quarter comebacks and overtime wins happen all the time—not to mention 316 yard stats. (Just Google it and see how many other 316 yard passing games you can find.)
Concluding that Tebow threw 316 yards because God made him is like concluding that prime empty spot in a parking lot is a result of divine intervention. Sure, it’s possible that God could have caused whoever parked there to cut their shopping trip to Wal-Mart short so they would leave and vacate a spot just when you needed it. But what’s more likely—divine intervention or the simple fact that someone with a good spot left Wal-Mart of their own accord around the time that you arrived? It is more likely that God intervened in the game to make sure that Tebow threw exactly 316 yards or that, just like hundreds of quarterbacks before him, Tebow simply threw for 316 yards?
The fact that people are really taking this seriously, I’m afraid, only reveals the childishness of religious thinking. Non-religious people are not drawing this conclusion. And, to be fair, not all religious people are either. (Rev. Alan Rundick denies it, but also thinks that Tebow denies it too. But there is a particular brand of religious person who takes this seriously and I think this demonstrates the kind of childish thinking that is involved in this kind of religion. Children think magicians are magic, adults know they are illusionists. Children are fascinated by history channel specials on Nostradamus, adults know that it’s all retrodiction. Children can be fascinated by the fact that Tebow threw for 316 yards, but adults should not.
But I also think this reveals the kind of god that these people worship. For the god that they revere, given the kind of things they think he does, it makes perfect sense to them that God would make Tebow throw for 316 yards. It also probably makes sense to them that God would free up a spot in the parking lot for them. Nietzsche spoke of such a god in his work, “The Antichrist.”
…what shall we do when [believers]… use the finger of God to convert their miser ably commonplace and huggermugger existence into a miracle of grace, a providence and an experience of salvation? The most modest exercise of the intellect, not to say of decency, should certainly be enough to convince these interpreters of the perfect childishness and unworthiness of such a misuse of the divine digital dexterity. However small our piety, if we ever encountered a god who always cured us of a cold in the head at just the right time, or got us into our carriage at the very instant heavy rain began to fall, he would seem so absurd a god that he’d have to be abolished even if he existed. God as a domestic ser vant, as a letter carrier, as an almanac-manat bottom, he is a mere name for the stupidest sort of chance....
If he were writing today, Nietzsche would have also mentioned football games.
A god who simply stands in for explanations of chance occurrences—especially chance occurrences that are bound to happen eventually anyway—is a childish invention, unworthy of worship. Christians who invoke God to explain Tebow’s success, who think that God even cares about football games, much less intervenes in them, do themselves and their entire religion a disservice. They trivialize God, trivialize religious belief, and they revitalize Tebow’s success.
P.S. Some have suggested that Tebow, and those like him,don’t pray to win—they just pray for everyone in the game to be safe and injury-free. There are three things to say about this: (1) He’s not doing that when he is bowing down on the sideline as the kicker lines up for the winning field goal. (2) God’s doing a pretty crappy job of keeping everyone safe, given the rise of concussions in football and the average survival rate of NFL players. (3) Praying for everyone in the game to be safe makes just about as much sense as praying for a win. Players are injured by the actions of others players. To keep everyone safe, God would have to make all the players be just where he wanted them to be—in other words, we would have to interfere with their free will. And, as we discussed above, he doesn’t do that. Unless you are asking God to not snap the cables of the overhead camera and make it fall on someone for shits and giggles, praying for safety at a football game doesn’t make much sense.