The atheist Tebow?

by Barnabas Piper

Posted on Friday, August 14, 2015, at 10:22 am

Arian Foster doesn’t believe in God. And an ESPN The Magazine feature story titled  “The Confession of Arian Foster” is framed as the Houston Texans Pro Bowl running back’s coming out as an atheist.

Raised Muslim by a well-read and freethinking father, Foster was encouraged to “go find his truth,” and what he settled on was atheism. His exploration of the Bible, the Quran, and other religious books left him empty. He maintained his unbelief in a sport, the article argues, inextricably linked to Christianity: during pre- and post-game prayers in high school, in the heart of the Bible belt at the University of Tennessee, and while playing in overwhelmingly churched Houston. Foster is portrayed as articulate, thoughtful, independent, and offbeat in a “conservative and image-obsessed” league.

If religion and football help bring gargantuan ratings to ESPN, might non-religion bring the same? That appears to be the purpose of the article, originally pitched to ESPN by a group called Openly Secular, which seeks to “end discrimination against secular people.” ESPN devoted countless hours to covering Christian football poster boy Tim Tebow. Could it re-create that fervor, or at least imitate it with an atheist version? Could there be two sides to the religious coin (and the viewers it garners)?

The answer is no. ESPN misunderstood both the entertainment value and the religious distinctives.

Religion is not, in fact, a football characteristic. Yes, football success is next to godliness across the American South, but in cities like Philadelphia, Seattle, New York, or Minneapolis, there is absolutely no connection. While a subset of fans really cares about players who are openly Christian, virtually no one cares about players who proclaim they’re not. Teammates don’t care, so there’s no conflict on which to report. Coaches don’t care. Even the media hasn’t concerned itself with unbelievers, until now. What somebody doesn’t believe is a non-story. What fans want to know is whether Foster will recover from his groin injury in time to help their fantasy team, or whether Houston has any shot at the playoffs this year. (The answer to both is “probably not.”)

We shouldn’t expect a sports and entertainment company like ESPN to understand the particulars of Christianity. People are bound by what they believe in, whether it’s a common cause or faith. While some atheists see unbelief as a cause, for most it’s simply a vacuum—it’s nothing. For Christians, though, there’s an uncommon familial bond. Our faith is the antitheses of a nothing—it’s our everything. That’s why so many Christian sports fans attach themselves to athletes who are professing believers, even to the point of going a bit overboard.  

No matter how good a media outlet is—and ESPN is excellent—it cannot create a story where one doesn’t exist. A dozen excellent articles could have been written about Arian Foster. He is smart, interesting, and a great football player, after all. But he cannot be made into the atheist Tebow. Nobody can. It just won’t work. 

Barnabas Piper

Barnabas works for Lifeway Christian Resources and is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He and his wife live in the Nashville area with their two daughters. Follow Barnabas on Twitter @BarnabasPiper.

Read more from this writer