27 percent of Americans think God will decide the Super Bowl – how do the rest think it works?
A survey this week reported that 27% of Americans believe that the result of sporting events like the Super Bowl will be determined by God, which has stirred up a lot of comment on the extraordinary beliefs of the American public.
The survey allowed the responses “Completely agree”, “Mostly agree”, “Mostly disagree” and “Completely disagree”, plus a “Don’t know/Refused” option, but while that makes the true picture a little more complicated than the “Agree/disagree” dichotomy that’s been presented in most reports, I don’t think it loses too much detail to aggregate the figures in this way. This is not only a belief with no evidence offered in support, but it makes no prediction about God’s preference or even His criteria for choosing.
Even though I don’t believe God has anything to do with the course of the Superbowl (you won’t be surprised to hear), the detail of how He allegedly decides isn’t a trivial issue. If you think the outcome of the game will be dependent on God’s preference, but make no claim about how that preference is reached, your belief can’t be disproved and you’re free to engage in ad hoc justification after the event.
In the light of Chris Culliver’s comments on gay players, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that a 49ers victory is likely to be claimed in some quarters as divine approval of his outspoken homophobia, but that doesn’t mean the opposite’s true. Given the sort of Christians who generally believe in God the Celestial Spot-Fixer, a Ravens win is unlikely to be seen as supporting Brendan Ayanbadejo’s gay rights campaign.
Most likely, a Baltimore victory would be explained with reference to some other issue, or if all else fails, the universal cop-out “God works in mysterious ways”. The joy of attributing every event to an unseen agent who remains unavailable for questioning is that any result can easily be twisted to suit a particular agenda. But however conveniently slippery it is, believing God’s in control of those games is consistent with Christian theology. I’m more interested in the people who don’t believe it.
As well as the 27% figure which has captured a lot of attention, we also know from the survey that 53% believe that “God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success”. That’s more than the total respondents who are likely to attend church on any Sunday (47%), and twice as many as those who expect God to determine the winner of a game, within the survey’s margin of error.
So the people who believe God has favourites and intervenes in their favour in one context (personal health and success) are split evenly on a question that ought to be the same in principle (who wins an event), and some of the 53% who think God rewards believing athletes must have been in the 49% who “completely” disagreed that “God plays a role” in determining sporting results.
These people evidently believe in an interventionist God – the question is specifically worded as a positive act of rewarding – so why would they think God sticks his nose into sporting performance in one way but not in another? To put in in starker terms, if there’s an omnipotent, omniscient deity who intervenes in our lives, how can he be said to play no role in any aspect of our existence, even down to how we take our coffee? Even non-intervention is a conscious and deliberate choice to such a being.
The answer, I believe, is boringly prosaic. These people don’t have any grand theological model which allows them to divide the world into “God’s Patch” and “Random”, they just can’t clear the extra cognitive hurdle of viewing sporting contests as a product of God’s will as much as any measure of athletic prowess.
It’s easy to say that God looks after those who are faithful to Him, and it’s something that’s often emphasised in Christian circles. But when presented with the logical conclusion of that belief – that God has a hand in who wins on any given Sunday – the belief becomes harder to sustain.
The disconnect between the two positions is reminiscent of a common distinction between theory and practice. It’s easy to be in favour of a proposition like supporting those less fortunate than ourselves in theory, but you’d see much less support if you asked whether respondents wanted 100 asylum seekers to move into their neighbourhood. Similarly, the idea of personal divine approval feels theoretical, but sporting events are concrete and (dare I say it) sacred.
What does this all mean? Take your pick. Christians can be inconsistent, but so can we all. A huge number believe in theory that God intervenes – no huge surprise there. Speculatively, like the asylum parallel above, this may indicate that what people believe is less about a rational weighing of evidence than what they would like to be true.
In any case, while the 27% figure that everyone’s latched onto may be the most immediately shocking result of the survey, I don’t think it’s the most interesting.