Monday, January 16, 2012

Tim Tebow, God, and Having it all Ways

So, for those of you who follow the NFL, or simply do not live in a cave, Tim Tebow and his upstart Denver Broncos have been dismantled by the perpetually badass New England Patriots 45-10. Tebow had been in the news, partly for turning around the Broncos' 1-4 start to the season after taking over as starting quarterback in week six, but mainly for his Bible-thumping fundamentalism and the concurrent fact that his supporters feel that his unlikely success (his football skills are limited and his statistics poor in key areas), including a wild card playoff victory against the favored Steelers, was the result of supernatural intervention.

For those of us in the skeptical and atheist communities, this is a stirring vindication of...nothing, really. A shitty quarterback and his .500 team were destroyed by a plainly superior squad. We assign no divine significance to the loss, just as  we assigned no divine significance to the previous wins, because we assigned no divine significance to Tebow and the Broncos' statistically unremarkable run of luck. Given enough games, an easy enough schedule, compensatory strengths elsewhere on the roster, and the sheer quirks of probability, a quarterback with lousy numbers will lead his team on a winning streak from time to time. Since we have all of those conditions in spades, the fact that Tebow is a fundie tool never really figured into the in-game analysis of anyone sane.

But the believers have a harder time of things, although you'd never know it based on the way that they silently move on after God gets his ass kicked. You see, Tebow's 316 (get it? 3:16) yards against the Steelers the week before were a sign directly sent from above, a message written in the Sunday biline (although one wonders why the Christian god was rewarding working on his holy day). A win for the Broncos was a win for the Almighty.

But a loss for the Broncos, mind you, is most emphatically not a loss for the Almighty. How does this work? It's easy. As the famed skeptic Michael Shermer has pointed out repeatedly, the garden variety of religious faith works on the same psychology as does victimization at the hands of cold-reading fortune tellers and spiritual mediums. People insufficiently trained or interested in skeptical thinking will invariably count the hits and discount the misses. When people pray for something (typically something scandalously ordinary like finding something lost) and it comes true--well, that's miracle central for you, even when those things happen all the time without any kind of a celestial assist. But whenever one prays for something and it doesn't happen, just as when the cold-reader makes a series of wrong guesses before stumbling upon a correct one, people dismiss it as uninteresting. It seems that we're wired for a particular kind of optimism that way, one that builds superstition faster than corn sugar builds cavities.

Sure, when pushed, the religious often lapse into a garden-variety theological sophism by which  God's plan becomes mysterious or incomprehensible the moment it effectively ceases working, but that simply makes one wonder why the plan is working when they are given what they ask. Could not, every time a prayer is answered, some demon be making them soft by staving off some character-building hardship that God had ticketed for them? Why is it that when people get what they want, simple explanations will suffice and only when they don't does the divine map become suddenly obscured? Really, if God giveth and taketh away irrespective of prayer, then what on Earth is the point of it in the first place?

So the question, then, for a certain flavor of believer is this: If God takes an active role in NFL games (while ignoring, in a curious distribution of priorities, widespread starvation in Africa), and the success of his Evangelical quarterback is evidence of his divine support, then how is the total failure of said player (and against a lousy pass defense, at that) and his team not the failure of God's intervention? One can't have it both ways.

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