I hate it when athletes thank God when they win. My reasons for hating it have nothing to do with my own atheism. I hate it because it’s narcissistic and because it’s theologically infantile.

If you win a game and then thank God, and do not thank God when you lose, you are going on record as believing that God wanted you to win, and that a victory by your opponent would have represented a thwarting of God’s plan.

But how do you know? Isn’t it possible that losing is what God has planned for you, and that it will do you good? Maybe losing will strengthen your character. Maybe your opponent needs the win (or the prize money) more than you do, and God somehow managed to figure that out in spite of being dazzled by your greatness. Maybe you should be thanking God for protecting you from the sin of pride by not letting you win a spiritually meaningless, entirely earthly contest.

But I’ve never seen an athlete drop to his or her knees and thank God after a loss. Why not? Because the ones who thank God when they win have a dinky, anthropomorphic conception of God. Their God is “the man upstairs,” the Santa Claus figure, the parent who may or may not give them the birthday present they want. And to hell with the other kids. Me, Me, Me.

So what gives? Where does this all come from? Whose big idea was it to thank God only for bringing about what they themselves wanted to happen anyway?

Let’s go back to ancient times. Things were different with respect to thanking gods, because there were lots of gods and the gods took sides in the contest. It made sense for the Greeks to thank Athena for the victory over the Trojans because Athena was, at some Olympian level, duking it out with Ares and Aphrodite. The Greeks’ powerful friends prevailed over the Trojans’ powerful friends. And the Greeks understood that someone had actually made an effort on their behalf, faced uncertainty, and prevailed. So they thanked her.

Dear athlete: Do you think that God faces uncertainty when you play a tennis match?

Do you think that God has to make an effort on your behalf to make sure you win?

Do you think that God’s enemy is rooting for your opponent?

And if you don’t think all that, what exactly are you thanking God for when you win? I mean exactly. Not just vaguely that you’re happy, and happiness feels good, so it must come from God. That’s theological babytalk.

The best thing that can be said about thanking God for an athletic victory and not for a loss is that it’s an ignorant corruption of what was a perfectly reasonable pagan practice. If you’re a monotheist and thank God for a win, you’re making a statement about your own inherent worth, and what you believe is God’s opinion of that worth, in comparison to the inherent worth of your opponent. You’re asserting that your victory is of the Lord to an extent that a victory by your opponent would not have been. And you’re implying unmistakeably that your opponent is in league with God’s enemy.

In other words, thanking God for an athletic victory is stupid, uninformed, thoughtless, self-absorbed, and about as far from anything religious or spiritual as you can get. I understand the whole thing about religion not being the same as rational thought. But this isn’t even the same as religious thought. It’s just vanity.

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