I love surveys that ask Americans to comment on religion: they often yield contradictory answers from a pluralistic society. Along these lines, and perhaps inspired by a series of Bud Light ads, this survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute recently asked Americans about the role of faith and superstition in the life of a sports fan. From a broad range of topics, two seemingly-inconsistent results stuck out.
First, “More than one-quarter (26%) of sports fans report having prayed for God to help their team, while more than 7-in-10 (73%) say they have never done this.” Second, only “1-in-5 sports fans (19%) and similar numbers of all Americans (22%) believe that God plays a role in determining the outcomes of sporting events.”
Huh? Why is there such a big gap between the percentage of people who have prayed for wins and the percentage of people who actually believe God intervenes? I think it’s because: (1) the first result came in response to a question asking if the fan has ever prayed for his team to win and (2) the second result reflects the realization of the irrationality of God intervening in something as contrived as sports.
I’ll admit that I’ve prayed many times for my teams, knowing that God’s got his hands full with more important things like ending famine, disease, and warfare. At one point in my life I figured, “He’s omnipotent and He can multitask. Please let Eli Manning fumble now.” However, I think the survey shows sports fans reconciling their faith with either simple logic or their own experiential understanding of sports. Sports have a zero-sum outcome, meaning that someone has to lose, and there are men and women of faith on both teams. (Well, not always.)
There were other surprises in the survey, however. Digging deeper, only 21% of Catholics reported praying for their team to win. That’s it!? I find that number shockingly low considering (a) the number of Catholic universities and colleges engaged in high-level athletics and (b) the number of Catholics who watch and play sports at any level. Philip Rivers’ family alone makes that number seem under-representative of reality.
As a Catholic, and in light of the evolving understanding of concussions, I’ve begun praying for the continued health of all players at the start of any game I’m watching. God may not care who wins the Super Bowl, but I believe He’d like to see all of His creatures get off the field in one piece.