Beliefs Culture Institutions

Arian Foster: Can you be an atheist in the NFL? (COMMENTARY)

Houston Texans running back Arian Foster celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals during the third quarter of their NFL AFC wildcard playoff football game in Houston, Texas on January 5, 2013. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tim Sharp  *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-TURNER-COLUMN, originally transmitted on August 11, 2015.

Houston Texans running back Arian Foster celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals during the third quarter of their NFL AFC wild-card playoff football game in Houston on Jan. 5, 2013. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Tim Sharp
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-TURNER-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Aug. 11, 2015.

(RNS) Professional football isn’t known for being a place that encourages deep intellectual reflection. With its history of silence on head injuries, locker-room harassment and macho culture, the NFL would be the last place you would expect to find a philosopher and a poet — and an atheist to boot.

But all of those things come together in Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, who is the subject of a feature in ESPN The Magazine’s Aug. 18 College Football Preview Issue, published late last week. He revealed that he didn’t believe in God. That’s unusual in a league where players regularly point to the sky (never mind the questionable theology behind the assumption that heaven is somewhere up in the sky) and meet for regular Bible studies.

Foster, raised in New Mexico and San Diego, played for the University of Tennessee Volunteers before entering the NFL in 2009. His father was Muslim, and Foster grew up in that tradition, praying five times a day and asking God for help when he was in a difficult situation.

He eventually garnered the courage to tell his father that he didn’t believe in God, and instead of a lecture, Foster’s father told him to “go find your truth.”

So he set off to do that: Foster majored in philosophy at the University of Tennessee, where, as a member of the football team, he was also required to attend church services as a form of “team-building.” The team didn’t go to any majority-black churches, Foster noted, and he felt a chasm develop between himself and his teammates. Even the ones who weren’t devoutly religious accepted the terms on which they had to belong to the team, things such as attending Bible study and chapel outside of practice.

Like many people who don’t adhere to a religion, Foster’s disbelief in God stems from intellectual objections to the existence of an omnipotent, loving being.

“There’s no dogma in science itself,” he said. “But religion can be like, ‘We’re right, and if you’re not in the boat, you’re going to hell.'”

One of the deep-seated issues with evangelical culture is the way Christians love to claim celebrities as their own. We like to point to famous people and say, “See? They’re one of us! They’re influencing the culture for good.”

When Shia LaBeouf commented last fall that he had “found God” during the filming of “Fury,” Christian outlets across the Internet were quick to pick it up. When I — after initially falling for it, too! — wrote that I thought he had been talking about method acting and not a personal experience of religious conversion, I got some of the meanest, most blistering comments I’ve ever had the pleasure of receiving. (Sample: “God will judge you for your judgment. How dare you put words into anyone’s mouth.”)


READ: Shia LaBeouf fooled us all 


It’s only been a few days since the ESPN article came out, and Foster will face plenty of obstacles on the road ahead. His wife filed for divorce in July — they are the parents of two young children — and he settled a lawsuit out of court last year with Brittany Norwood, a woman who claimed Foster tried to pressure her into having an abortion after he cheated on his wife with her.

The reaction from Christians on social media to Foster’s atheist revelation has been varied.

One person called Foster a “fool,” citing Psalm 14:1: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.” Several have lamented the fact that Foster has been praised for his courage in talking about atheism but that Tim Tebow was “slandered” for being vocally Christian. Many, though, have been kind, even conciliatory:

https://twitter.com/timmermanmatt/status/629438804449980416

Is it possible that Christians are making America a better, more tolerant place for pluralism? Or are we making it worse?

Probably the answer is both, because Christians, just like everyone else, can be both obnoxious and wonderful people.

Laura Turner

Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. She is interested in the intersection of church and popular culture. Photo courtesy of Laura Turner

Containing multitudes is what the story is about — it’s how Foster can have the word “COEXIST,” made up of symbols of the world’s religions, tattooed on his muscular forearm, and still be an atheist. It’s how he can make meaningful friendships with people of different faiths.

The NFL will have to add religious diversity to its ever-increasing list of issues to tackle.

(Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. She is interested in the intersection of church and popular culture.)

LM END TURNER

About the author

Laura Turner

Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. In addition to being a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s “Her.meneutics” blog, she has also written for publications such as Books & Culture and The Bold Italic. She is interested in the intersection of church and culture.

9 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • I agree with the Psalm 14 quote, which is also in Psalm 53: “The fool has said in his heart, there is no God”. God calls them fools, and I agree with God. Really, the most foolish people on the planet. These so called “wise” of our day are really the most foolish of all. That’s why I am so shocked when I see people who listen to godless atheists spew out their theories of the universe, which never include God. Remember Solomon wrote: “bad company corrupts good morals”. If you are hanging around people who think this way, or are reading books and articles by them, you will be affected by their godless world view. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse shows forth His handiwork.” … Psalms also. amen to that one. Most people can see God in His handiwork. Those who refuse to see Him there are without excuse…Romans 1. Turn away from such folly, and sin, receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Study His Word, and know His peace. God Bless

  • Re: “Is it possible that Christians are making America a better, more tolerant place for pluralism? Or are we making it worse?”

    Since many of them wonder aloud whether or not an atheist is qualified to play professional football, I’d say you got your answer right there.

  • Mark it is so true of Psalms and we must Repent not get shocking drunks and to Repent every day of our sins of the universe. God will not suffer drunken fools so Repent of morals and Solomon his handiwork suffers. Those you refuse him bad company Lord theories shall Repent drunks but they shall with shocked Romans reading books Repent drunks!

  • He can’t be a real atheist until he starts eating babies. That’s what the preachers all say, right?

    I find it amusing how bent out of shape evangelicals get when they try to demonizing people who do not believe as they do. Of course the irony is such extreme nonsense is also a major reason why people leave such faiths and become ardent atheists/anti-theists.

    The more they defame, lie and engage in hysterical caterwauling, the more people they drive away from their rather unpleasant version of belief and in many cases all forms of religious belief.

  • As an ‘out of the closet’ atheist, I’m happy to see Arian Foster proudly stating his nonbelief. I was a believer for close to 40 years, and it wasn’t until I truly examined my faith, reading every book I could get my hands on for 3 full years, that I came to see there’s no difference between Christianity and any other religion. They all come down to faith, as none can stand up to the light of reason and evidence. I will never again worship a god who appeals to credulity rather than skepticism.

  • Threats of the non-existent and pairing dogmatic literature doesn’t dissuade those of us who see through the charade of popular religion.

ADVERTISEMENTs