I’ve lamented many times before that Christians seem to exalt celebrities who merely believe in God simply because they’re celebrities, not because they have something to contribute to the ongoing discussion. Because of my formerly expressed hatred for what my tribe does with celebrities, I feel I’m being consistent when I also express hatred when celebrity atheism is considered noteworthy, as well.
Yesterday, ESPN reported that the Houston Texan’s running back Arian Foster is an open-minded atheist who is working to help other non-religious persons to come out of the closet in the NFL . Now, before I go on, let me be clear: As an American who believes that belief should never be coerced, I’m regretful that Foster and others are afraid of the backlash for their non-belief. I wish that weren’t the case. I wish they didn’t have to be afraid of social marginalization. And I lament, as well, the weird mixture of the NFL, God, and country that sometimes arises. In other words, I support Arian’s right to disagree with me about God’s existence. And I support his right to help others feel free to express their beliefs as well.
Still, we must ask: Why is this even news? Yes, of course it’s news because the perception is that religion and sports go hand-in-hand (which begs the question why we aren’t spending more time considering that the real religion of America is sports). But the real news here is that a celebrity is an atheist.
But, again, why should I care about Arian Foster’s belief or non-belief? Is he contributing to the discussion in a helpful way? Or is he merely reinforcing tired old stereotypes about religious people? In other words, I’m asking – is this news because he has something important to say to the discussion, or is this news because he’s a celebrity?
Having acknowledged that it’s worth knowing there is a secularist voice in professional sports, I can’t help but note that the majority of the article is spent on Arian’s journey of toward “open minded atheism.”
Again, this would be of interest if he had something to contribute to the discussion. But it turns out, he doesn’t. The article, and Arian with it, fall back into the same tired old clichés – Religion is anti-science, religion is anti-intellectual, open-mindedness leads to non-belief. In fact, the article even goes on to assume that all Christians (or religious persons) believe God causes all things – good and bad. Arian – or the reporter – suggests that God’s judgment arbitrarily falls on one side of the road and not the other and that Arian, whose read the entire Bible, could not fathom why. Why didn’t occur to either of them that not all – indeed, not even most – Christians believe God causes evil.
The article even suggests that Arian rejects God because he can’t fathom a God who “created evil.” Well, guess what, neither can I. Nor does almost anyone else within the Christian (or, I assume, Muslim) tradition.
Even the questions of eternal damnation are raised as if Christians don’t have good answers – across our varied traditions – for these questions.
And then, of course, the classic and clichéd question of whether or not it’s blaspheme to question God. But if Arian knows the Bible from cover to cover as article suggests then he ought to be familiar with Ecclesiastes, Job, and the Psalms of Lament. Indeed, he should even be pretty familiar with Jesus’ own lamentations when he feels like God has forsaken him.
All this, then, tells me is that Arian Foster’s atheism isn’t news because he’s saying anything new (though he might be saying it a new setting), but because he’s a celebrity. And if we Americans worship anything, it is celebrities. Celebrities are our philosophers, priests, and politicians…whether they know what they’re talking about or not, whether they believe or not, or whether they can think or not.
I’m not saying Arian Foster should be silenced. I’m not even necessarily saying the article shouldn’t have been written. I’m merely saying that, whether it’s Arian Foster, Bill Maher, Justin Bieber, or Tim Tebow, celebrity status in itself doesn’t make someone a worthy spokesperson for philosophy, religion, or politics. Indeed, they’re actually hurtful to this important discussion when they rely on clichés and misnomers.
If Arian Foster wants to talk about how to hit the hole between two linemen, then let’s talk about it. I consider him an expert on the subject. If Bill Maher wants to talk about comedy, I’m all ears. I consider him an expert on the subject. If Justin Bieber wants to talk about being lame, I’m all for it. I consider him an expert on the subject. If Tim Tebow wants to talk about being a terrible quarterback, bring it on. I consider him an expert on the subject. But none of these persons are noteworthy in their belief or unbelief just because of their celebrity status, because they can score touchdowns, write one-liners, or sport wife-beaters and scrawny arms in a way that make twelve year olds faint. I love a good discussion on the existence of God. I’m all for it. I invite it. It matters immensely. But precisely because it matters immensely, we’ve got to have a real discussion, not just a discussion about what celebrities do or do not believe.