One of my favorite blogs to read is Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog at Patheos. He is a wonderful voice in the atheist community, and I very much admire his focus on supporting young nonbelievers. Likewise, I have always appreciated his willingness to call out atheists when they overstate their point. I provide this introduction because I am going to call out Mr. Mehta for overstating his point.
Mehta wrote, today, about the post-game team talk from Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan. In his post Mehta asks, rhetorically, if Christianity is the official religion of the team. In this weekend’s game, the Redskins overcame the injury of their star quarterback to defeat the Baltimore Ravens in overtime. In his post-game talk, Shanahan gives out a couple game balls, congratulates the team, and then leads the team in the Lord’s Prayer.
Or, as Mehta puts it:
…and they all rejoiced and said the Lord’s Prayer.
Including, I presume, any number of players who aren’t Christian but who know they have to pray with the coach or face who-knows-what sort of consequence.
How does Mehta know this is why everyone prays with Shanahan? Well, he doesn’t. And this is where he is overstating the point. All we have is a clip of one post game team talk that ends with a number of voices joining the coach reciting the Lord’s Prayer. We know nothing about the prayer’s context or what the consequences are for not participating. For all we know, Coach Shanahan met with any non-Christians and came to an agreement about prayer in the team talk. The fact of the matter is, we do not know. As worded, Mehta’s post assumes the worst case scenario of a head coach forcing his religion on to everyone by abusing his place of authority.
Stating the Point
In fairness to Mehta, he is touching on something important regarding the experience of atheists (and anyone of a non-majority religion). If I were on the Redskins, and the head coach knelt and prayed, I would feel uncomfortable and a little out of place. Likewise, with most of the rest of the team joining in, I would feel excluded. Furthermore, if the coach threatened to not play me (at best) and to release me (at worst) for not wanting to participate in the expressly religious activity, I would feel discriminated against. This is Mehta’s point. However, to what extent any of this is actually happening, we do not know.
This scenario is a great opportunity to illustrate ways in which the assumptions of the religious can become discriminatory for the nonreligious. Let’s face it, this is a group of teammates celebrating their victory and recognizing their appreciation of God. This whole scenario is, in itself, not threatening to atheists. In fact, it can be recognized as a one of those great moments of humanity, the coming together of people in shared celebration.
However, though the whole event is meant to be positive and celebratory, if considerations are not made, it puts the atheist (or any non-Christian) in the position of being excluded from this specific form of shared celebration. “Go Team!” The atheist is there with you. “Go God!” Well, that’s kinda awkward. I can say it, but it would be disingenuous.
…Just Wanna Have Fun
It may be tempting to dismiss the atheist’s complaints as petty. If someone wants to express their religion in the work place for positive reasons, why stop it? Well, depending on the context, there may be no reason to stop it. But, in this scenario, you have an official team talk where one’s religion is not a prerequisite nor a factor in being a member of the team. As such, in official team oriented gatherings, expressly religious activities unduly exclude those not of that religion. If you care about the team, you should keep such activities to non-official gatherings.
What if everyone’s a Christian? Well, two things: (1) that does not mean they want to say your specific prayer. (2) are they actually Christian? Or, do they feel uncomfortable revealing they are a nonbeliever for fear of discrimination. This is why avoiding the topic in official team gatherings and meetings is the best default position. If a group of Christian teammates want to gather and celebrate God, there are plenty of opportunities to do this. Like, 20 seconds after the official team talk has ended.
God Likes My Team Better
Similarly, atheists may want to dismiss the entire practice of praying in a sports context. They often criticize the religious for thanking God when they win awards or championships. Does God actually care which team wins the Super Bowl? Probably not. The thing is, I don’t think a Christian (or any religious) athlete thanking God for the award or the victory intends the thanks to be understood as “God chose me.” They are meant as a general thanks: a recognition of God’s role in one’s life, an appreciation of God’s role in providing opportunity; a “giving the glory to God.”
Now look, I’m sure someone can point out a sect of Christianity that does believe God intervenes to such a degree. Likewise, I’m sure there are athletes who really do think God selected them to be rookie of the year. However, this sentiment is not universal. Nor is it likely a majority viewpoint. This critique is tired, overused, and seems to demonstrate an unwillingness to understand someone else’s lived experience. You don’t have to like the practice. You don’t have to condone the practice. But there’s no value in misrepresenting the practice.
Caveating a Dead Horse
The fact of the matter is Mr. Mehta is bringing this story up for the simple reason that it is illustrative of situations that exclude atheists in workplace settings, a topic worth addressing. In this specific blog post, he uses snark to make his point. The use of snark is meant for an atheist audience that has experienced being excluded. However, in his post, he accuses Mike Shanahan of having a policy of punishing anyone who does not participate in the team’s Christian prayer. I know he is not, actually, making this accusation, but the sarcastic overstatement hurts Mehta’s point. It minimizes the difference between the sentiment of the religious expression and the consequences of the context of the religious expression. It is an example worth exploring, but overstated accusations don’t help.