I’m a big fan of Chuck Klosterman. He writes about pop culture and sports from a personal perspective, documenting what it truly feels like to participate in a media-saturated culture. But a recent column he wrote for Grantland about Tim Tebow didn’t impress me.
It starts with a promising thought experiment:
Imagine that you’re a detective, assigned to investigate a murder in a community of 1,000 people. There’s no established motive for this crime, and no one saw it happen. By the time you arrive, the body has already been cremated. There are no clues. There is no forensic evidence. You can’t find anything that sheds any light whatsoever on who committed this murder. But because there are only 1,000 people in town, you have the opportunity to interview everyone who lives there. And that process generates a bizarre consensus: Almost 800 of the 1,000 citizens believe the murderer is a local man named Timothy.
After six months of investigating, you return to your home office. Your supervisor asks what you unearthed. “Nothing,” you say. “I have no evidence of anything. I did not find a single clue.” The supervisor is flummoxed. He asks, “Well, do you have any leads?” You say, “Sort of. For reasons I cannot comprehend, 784 of the citizens believe the killer is a man named Timothy. But that’s all they have — their belief that Timothy is guilty.”
“That seems meaningful,” says your supervisor. “In the face of no evidence, the fact that 78.4 percent of the town strongly believes something seems like our best case. We can’t arrest him, but we can’t ignore that level of accord. It’s beyond a coincidence. Let’s keep the case open. I feel like we should continue investigating this Timothy fellow, even if our only reason for suspicion is the suspicion of other people.”
Do you agree with your supervisor’s argument?
78.4% is a significant figure — that’s how many Americans identify as Christian according to a survey by the Pew Forum. This problem that the detective faces — being failed by evidence and contending with massive assurance by those who claim none — is emblematic of large-scale societal conflict, and sheds light on what he deems “this Tebow Thing”
On one hand, he sees a group “who hate[s] him because he’s too much of an in-your-face good person” arguing with a group “who love[s] him because he succeeds at his job while being uniquely unskilled at its traditional requirements.” Both groups “see themselves as the oppressed minority who are fighting against dominant public opinion.”
Klosterman points out that it is very hard to argue against faith. In addition to the fact that it involves debating by different rules, he says there is no pejorative word for “faithful” — the closest phrase we have is “blind faith.” And the faith of Tebow fans seems to be paying off, because his recent success at winning games defies logic.
One of the things that makes Tebow a hard player to understand is that his personality (or at least his public persona) is inconsistent with his playing style. He is generally thought of as a good and decent person, but he is a tough player, whose wins are ugly. On the other hand, Ben Roethlisberger, who Klosterman calls “toughest quarterback in the NFL,“ is widely regarded as an awful person and is personally unpopular. But fans seem to be able to accept that his playing style matches his personality.
It is also difficult to make sense of Tebow’s current winning streak with statistics: he has only completed 47.5% of his passes this season. But the Broncos have gone 6-1 with him as a starter, and were 1-4 at the beginning of the season when he was not starting. Klosterman argues that, because of all this, Tebow “makes blind faith a viable option,” and that “he is making people wonder if they should try to believe things they don’t actually believe.”
I think the problem with Klosterman’s argument begins with his interpretation of what Tebow’s critics are actually annoyed about. I, for one, don’t care whether or not he wins games. I’ve never pored over his passing stats to determine whether or not he was overrated. I just object to his behavior and public statements.
I think the habit of kneeling in prayer after successful plays (leading to the “Tebowing” meme) is distasteful and irrational. It’s a very public statement, and it makes sense for me to express my disagreement. I disagree with his stance on abortion, too, but that’s not what makes me angry. What makes me angry is the Super Bowl ad he appeared in, which directed people the website of Focus on the Family, an organization with a vile and hateful agenda.
But maybe that’s just me. Are any of you Friendly Atheist readers also serious NFL fans having crises of skepticism as a result of the Broncos recent winning streak?