Category Archives: Football

Football, Atheism & The Problem of Evil

What do football commentators and atheists have in common?

Watching the World Cup I’ve noticed that commentators and pundits suffer from the same confusions that many atheists suffer from. Let me explain.

It’s half time in the match and the pundits are in the studio drooling, ready to share their wealth of footie wisdom with viewers. And in loads of games so far I’ve noticed that one particular irritating habit that seems to afflict even the most experienced and sensible pundit (say, the ones with an IQ above 80) is the tendency to add up all the chances a particular team had during that half – say 5 chances – and declare that the score could therefore be 5-0 by now. Arrrrgh!! No! no! no! no! no! Don’t they teach you anything about causation in Commentary College?!

“If Holland had taken all their chances they would have been 3-0 up by now.”

Whilst the average footie fan might be nodding in agreement, this claim should strike the more philosophical footie fan as patently fallacious. Let’s say Holland missed easy goal scoring opportunities at 5 minutes, then after 7 minutes and then again at 45 minutes, right before the end of the first half. Is it the case that Holland really should be 3-0 up by now? I don’t see how we can make that claim at all. If Holland had scored in the 5th minute the game will have turned out very different. The set of events leading up to Holland’s chance after 7 minutes is dependent on earlier events – which included the miss after 5 minutes. Had Holland scored in the 5th minute then the stream of events leading to the chance in the 7th minute would not have occurred. In fact, maybe scoring so early would have caused a change of tactics in the opposition such that it’s very possible that had Holland scored in the 5th minute they may have actually conceded several goals shortly after. We have no way whatsoever of knowing given the complicated matrix of events. Every writer of science fiction understands this point: you change something in the past then you change – often radically – how events pan out after that point.

What has this got to do with atheism? Well, it’s related to an approach some atheists take to the problem of evil. If only God had removed all the Ebola viruses or all the flu viruses, or all the hurricanes. He’s all good and all-powerful, right? Then couldn’t he quite easily remove some evils at least and therefore make the world a better place?

This sort of all too frequent comment makes the same mistake as the football pundits. It assumes that you can make some change and that everything else will just continue on as it would have without the changes. If Holland had scored in the 5th minute they still would have had the same opportunities in the 7th and the 45th – If God removed the Ebola virus everything else would be just as good and we have the added bonus of no Ebola virus. But of course, we have no way to know this at all. If we have two different worlds – W1 and W2 – and God removes the Ebola virus from W1 in 2002, then W1 is now a radically different world from W2. The changes that now occur in W1 makes it impossible to say whether this world is better than W2, and only a simplistic football commentator approach to causation and the interconnection of events could lead us to claim that it is. Just as its possible that Holland scoring in the 5th minute could have lead to their defeat, so it’s possible that by removing the Ebola virus from W1 actually leads to a worse world.

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Football, Atheism, and the Meaning of Life

As I enjoy a break from my writing projects to watch the World Cup I’ve taken to spending my evenings after my son goes to bed lying on the sofa watching 22 grown men running around after a piece of inflated leather. My wife thinks it’s really rather pointless, lacking any important goal. What does it matter? Who really cares who wins? Will it make any difference to the world whether Brazil or Argentina or Holland wins?

Good questions, and worth tackling. What is the meaning of football? What’s the point of it? People get paid millions play, but isn’t it all so pointless? “Yay my team won!” So? “They got a trophy!” So? “They’re now the most successful team in the world!” So? Does it really amount to anything? Records are broken. Even legends will be eventually forgotten – witness the growing number of young people who haven’t got a clue who The Beatles are, who have substituted the Fab Four for One Direction.

And of course there seems to be something innate in us which makes us ask this very question of our own existence and take a shot at an answer. We’re born. We engage in years of intensive education. We try to get the best job we can, earning as much money as we can, and get a bit of enjoyment along the way. All the time we age, our bodies weaken, and before we know it it’s nearly all over and all that’s left is a young person inside an old body wondering what the hell happened. Before we know it our lives have taken a dive and we’re in a box. And is that it? Are we just worm food after that? What if atheism is true and there is no greater purpose to life? If atheism is true isn’t life just as meaningless and purposeless as watching 22 grown men chasing a ball?

What if atheism is true……..

We know that eventually our sun will burn up our planet. We know also that the universe itself will “die” as, in all probability, it expands and becomes more dilute, cold, desolate and pitch black. All the genius of humanity will be forgotten. Every witty invention will have gone to the wall. Everyone cured of illness by the finely honed skills of a doctor will have succumbed to death, and their doctors along with them. Every piece of art destroyed. Every building turned to dust and scattered. Every river dried up. Every mountain flattened. Every star burned out. The Milky Way galaxy will have spiralled out of existence. The sombrero galaxy will be ripped apart and broken. The Big Dipper will have dipped. Taurus hunted down and destroyed. The Gemini twins torn asunder never to be reunited. The universe will end in blind pitiless indifference to everything humanity ever was or did or saw. And there is no one to save us.

Of course, this rather foul picture is true on atheism only. This will almost certainly be the end of all things if there is no God to intervene. I’m no fan of atheist and therefore I don’t believe this will be how it all ends. But what if atheism is true? Is life therefore meaningless, purposeless and valueless? Can we do nothing but despair? So much of existentialist literature can be summarized as the despondent cry “God does not exist! What on earth are we to do now?!”

Some theists even attempt to make arguments from the meaning of life to the existence of God, which typically take the form:

1. If God does not exist then life does not have any meaning.
2. Life does have meaning.
3. Therefore God exists.

As a theist whose belief in the existence of God is amongst the strongest beliefs I hold I have to confess I don’t find arguments concerning the meaning of life to be of much value. The first half of this argument doesn’t appeal to me. True enough if God does not exist then there is no “transcendent” meaning, no eternal purpose to life. If, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” then in the absence of God our lives no longer have this purpose. But what is supposed to follow from this? Does it follow that nothing has any meaning or purpose or value? William Lane Craig reckons that because – on atheism – man ends in nothing then he is nothing. But is that correct?

It strikes this theist as flat out false to say that if atheism is true then nothing has any meaning, purpose or value. I can imagine someday waking up after an argument with the World’s Most Intelligent Atheist” who has managed to help me see the error of my theistic ways. I pay the penalty of the encounter and I’m forced to admit that there is no God after all. Now, would it follow that in this new universe I inhabit that nothing has any meaning or value or purpose? I really don’t see how. On my first day on team atheist I wake up and go to see my son in his bedroom. He’s no longer fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, but he’s still my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. I read him the next thrilling chapter in Harry Potter and the enjoyment we both get from that time together remains just as strong. I don’t see why such moments require an external source to give them meaning or value or purpose.

It seems to me that much of what we experience in the world is experienced by us as intrinsically good; meaning good for its own sake and not for some end. I might go for a stroll along a sunny seaside. I walk on particles of sand scattered randomly by a universe that didn’t have the pleasures of my feet in mind when it threw the beach into existence. The sun warming my skin isn’t there for my benefit. The wind blowing through my hair doesn’t care if I find it annoying or pleasant. And yet as I stroll along the experience may well be an incredibly pleasurable one. Moreover, this isn’t an experience for some end. It’s not that there’s some transcendent meaning behind it. It’s simply pleasurable. It’s enjoyable. I like it.

In the same way if atheism is true and there is no greater purpose to our life, nothing that stretches into eternity, no divinely given mission or goal, there still remains this phenomenon which we might call the joy of mere being. This is the enjoyment we derive simply from being alive, from living in and enjoying our little corner of the universe. From watching a sun-set, or hiking up a hill. It’s the sheer intrinsic pleasure of sitting with my son in a tent in the back garden and listening to the rain outside while we eat chocolates and sweets in abundance. We have an entire universe at which to marvel, and no prohibition on the extent to which we may explore it.

Moreover most of us are blessed with family and friendships. I’d hazard a guess that for the vast majority of human beings on the planet the greatest moments in life are shared with other people. And again, these experiences needn’t have any transcendent meaning. We simply enjoy them for their own sake. I don’t see why such experiences would be meaningless or somehow devoid of meaning or value in an atheistic universe. Most of these experiences are completely self-contained – they don’t require anything external to them to make meaningful or valuable.

And whilst it’s true on atheism that some day it will all end and be forgotten, it is still very real to each of us. As Marcus Aurelius reminds us we live only in the present; the past has gone, the future is not yet with us. All we ever really possess is the present moment and thus it doesn’t matter whether we live for eternity or merely 70 years. Even if one day I will be extinct and forgotten by a universe that doesn’t care, my life now is worthwhile – to me and to many others. Life is worth living for its own sake.

Which brings me back to the World Cup. It might be nothing more than a bit of rather pointless play. But like life itself it’s enjoyable, it’s engaging, and even inspiring. So even if it might all really be for nothing in the end it was worth it at the time, and if you’re reading this you can be glad that the final whistle has not yet sounded.

Stephen J. Graham

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For a meaningless task try to spot the football references/terms in the article 🙂

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