For all the media attention lavished on Tim Tebow about his very public religious rituals on the field, have you noticed that it’s rarely mentioned that as an NFL quarterback he is actually quite mediocre? If he takes a knee before the game to ask his deity of choice for being able to win the game, about half the time the answer is a rather resounding no according to the final scores. Amazingly, according to a Fox News poll, around 43% of viewers thought that God was helping Tebow win games, which would mean that not only does a deity in charge of a universe cares about one particular human playing one particular game in one particular country at one highly specific time period, but that he’s also exceedingly fickle in his support. On top of that, that also implies that a football game somehow plays into some grand divine plan for the universe itself. But of course this isn’t really some sort of statement about football or Tebow, but a statement about the place religion has in contemporary American society, how it’s put on a pedestal and gets used to justify narcissism, arrogance, and medicority.
Now, this isn’t even about one’s personal beliefs. As both civil decency and the law say, you should be free to believe what you want and have the right to voice your beliefs and practice them on private property without the police showing up at your doorstep telling you to cut it out. Of course insisting that your religious practices tell you to force everyone around you to participate in your rituals or threaten them with violence or arrest is a very, very different matter altogether as does using your professed faith to imply that you’re somehow a better, more moral person that those who don’t ascribe to your beliefs, and that by default, you have more say in what goes on around you. Unfortunately all too often, Americans allow professions of faith become professions of power and selfless charity while they’re being used as anything but. Rather than going to the poor, the homeless and the temporarily needy, large chunks of budgets for numerous churches go towards staff and maintenance. In vast megachurches, millions are spent on advertising, performance pieces, and the relentless self-promotion by pastors turned religious rock stars building their own brands and selling their books filled with inspirational fluff cribbed from self help books and peppered with Biblical quotes to make sure they sell quickly.
When sports writers talk about someone like Tebow in unflattering terms based on the fact that he is not that great of a quarterback, they cite a torrent of angry e-mails accusing them of hating a Christian athlete, as if no other quarterback in the NFL also considers himself a Christian or doesn’t thank his deity of choice after a win when being interviewed by the media. The cultural message seems to be “let’s overlook that Tebow is at best mediocre and used his outward, broadly-televised fundamentalism to build his brand, look at how much of a devoted Christian he is! He came from a very religious home, he must be a great person!” Why? It’s not like a less public profession allows one to use religion as an excuse for average performance. At work, I never hear phrases in the same vein as “his code is often buggy and he violates a number of key architectural rules, but doesn’t it just inspire you when he prays before he starts banging on the keyboard?” And odds are that I never will because we’re judged by what we produce, not how devoted to our personal beliefs we are. Other athletes in the league also know how to separate their faith from their work and wait until they win to thank their deities, rather than make a huge show of their religiosity, knowing that if anything, it cheapens the faith.
Displays of very public piety don’t say that you’re devoted to your faith. They say “here, look at me, look how I’m such a devoted member of a religious group” in much the same way a self-appointed pick up artist peacocks at a nightclub. It’s far more impressive when one’s devotion comes out in quiet actions and a willingness to sit down and hold discussions which test their beliefs. Many of my religious friends are well aware that I’m an atheist and read this blog. None of them insist that I come to church with them, that being Christian somehow makes them more moral or charitable than those around them, and ask me questions about evolution, AI, and any other topic which has philosophical implications for their beliefs. And they also get annoyed at really flashy displays of piety for show. They are a much better testament to incorporating faith into one’s life to be a better, more charitable person than any self-promoting spokesperson who uses religion to cover up his greed or his mediocrity under an untouchable, cultural third rail so he and his supporters can rush to accuse you of bigotry and discrimination should you dare to offer an objective critique of what he does and how he does it. And this is why we need less Tebows and Focus on the Family types, and more curious, open-minded moderates.