Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Confounding the Wise: A crisis of faith

This is slowly, but surely, becoming one of our favorite recurring themes.  This time it is the question of faith.

First, Daniel Engber wrote in Slate this week that "Tim Tebow is making me question my atheism."  It is a snarky overview of what most football purists and atheists feel watching Tebow play. (Excerpt below, full story here.)

One of the great and widely acknowledged joys of watching the Tebocalypse is the statistical meltdown that comes with it. How does a mediocre quarterback with poor mechanics win six of seven games? Check the numbers for Sunday: He completed 67 percent of his passes but otherwise was barely average. One study from a few weeks ago concluded that the Broncos were winning on defense (until they gave up 32 points to the Vikings). Another noted that despite his ugly throwing motion and meager stats, Tebow ranked among the very best quarterbacks in the league in terms of adjusted yards per touch. Then a pair of researchers at Harvard—a college sophomore and a business-school student, it turns out—made the widely cited finding that, according to the numbers, Tebow had been very, very lucky.

If you're a fan of the hapless Vikings—or the Chargers, or, like me, the Jets—it's all enough to give you a crisis of faith in reverse. Here I am, sitting on this dung heap of an NFL campaign, when a Tebovian whirlwind comes along in the fourth quarter and knocks me on my ass. Could it be that prayer circles work? Is there a God, after all—a jerky, loud-mouthed, sports-bar God? I know what you're thinking, fellow skeptics: Lots of football players pray, so if there is a God, why would He choose Tebow instead of Ponder as the vessel for His divine game-winning drive?...why would He choose a guy named Tim over a guy named Christian? Maybe good works triumph over faith after all.

Yet, Chuck Klosterman, former writer for Spin and current contributor to Grantland, has a more thoughtful and reasoned exploration of "The People Who Hate Tim Tebow."  For Klosterman it all comes down to a question of faith, which is something frightening and dangerous in the modern world. (Excerpt below, full story here.)

It's difficult to take an "anti-faith" position. There's no pejorative connotation of the word faithful. The only time "faith" seems negative is when it's prefaced by the word "blind." But blind faith is the only kind of faith there is. In order for someone's faith to be meaningful, it has to be blind. Anyone can believe a hard fact that everyone already accepts. That's easy. If you can see something, you don't need faith. Faith in the seeable is meaningless. But meaningful faith is dangerous. It simplifies things that aren't simple. Throughout the 20th century, there were only two presidents who won reelection with a bad economy and high unemployment: FDR in 1936 and Reagan in 1984. In both cases, the incumbent presidents were able to argue that their preexisting plans for jump-starting the economy were better than the hypothetical plans of their opponents (Alf Landon and Walter Mondale, respectively). Both incumbents made a better case for what they intended to do, and both enjoyed decisive victories. In 2012, Barack Obama will face a similar situation. But what will happen if his ultimate opponent provides no plan for him to refute? What if his opponent merely says, "Have faith in me. Have faith that I will figure everything out and that I can fix the economy, because I have faith in the American people. Together, we have faith in each other."
How do you refute the non-argument of meaningful faith?
You (usually) don't. You (usually) lose.
Since Tebow was installed as the Broncos' starter, they are 6-1.
Trust the insane?
The crux here, the issue driving this whole "Tebow Thing," is the matter of faith. It's the ongoing choice between embracing a warm feeling that makes no sense or a cold pragmatism that's probably true. And with Tebow, that illogical warm feeling keeps working out. It pays off. The upside to secular thinking is that — in theory — your skepticism will prove correct. Your rightness might be emotionally unsatisfying, but it confirms a stable understanding of the universe. Sports fans who love statistics fall into this camp. People who reject cognitive dissonance build this camp and find the firewood. But Tebow wrecks all that, because he makes blind faith a viable option. His faith in God, his followers' faith in him — it all defies modernity. This is why people care so much. He is making people wonder if they should try to believe things they don't actually believe.

Photo: Denver Post