By: Larry Zhang, Senior Editor
Today, pro NFL player Arian Foster stunned American sports enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike. The 28 year-old runningback “came out” to publicly declare his nonreligious beliefs, beliefs which are disproportionately prevalent in the profession of gridiron football. In fact, Todd Stiefel, chair of the nonprofit, Openly Secular, claims Arian’s revelations are “unprecedented. He is the first active professional athlete, let alone star, to ever stand up in support of gaining respect for secular Americans.”
But in a sport already seemingly inseparable from God and prayers, along with the fact that Foster has spent his whole football career in the Bible Belt (first with college at Tennessee, and then pro ball for the Houston Texans), some may wonder, what happened?
The reality is, nothing “happened.” Although Foster himself was raised a Muslim in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and says he “prayed five times a day, facing east,” his father was a “free thinker, very intelligent, knows the Bible front and back,” and encouraged his children to think for themselves. “We raised our kids to be free thinkers. We wanted them to be their own people,” says Carl Foster, Arian’s father. And that’s exactly what Arian Foster grew up to be: a free thinker.
“Everybody always says the same thing: You have to have faith,” he says. “That’s my whole thing: Faith isn’t enough for me. For people who are struggling with that, they’re nervous about telling their families or afraid of the backlash … man, don’t be afraid to be you. I was, for years.”
With this, Foster realizes the potential consequences that he and other secularists (particularly those who are high-profile) face. “People might say, ‘I don’t want an atheist representing my team.’ Now, though, I’m established in this league, and as I’m digging deeper into myself and my truth, just being me is more important than being sexy to Pepsi or whoever. After a while, what’s an extra dollar compared to the freedom of being you? That’s the choice I made.”
After “coming out,” others on social media approved of the runningback’s declarations. Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist and author of his most famous work, “The God Delusion,” tweeted out: “Please let Arian Foster know that his courageous willingness to be openly secular gives voice to what millions of others secretly feel.” Another user, though not quite as well known as Dawkins, tweeted: “Hey Arian Foster, I don’t know football but I know a friend and a sibling when I see one. Thanks for going public. It means the world!” Indeed, Foster’s public revelations are a large step forward for the recognition of secular Americans across the country and abroad. Others, however, don’t quite feel the same way.
Although a recent Pew Research Center study estimated the number of Americans unaffiliated with any organized religion to be at an all time high of 22.8% of total Americans, another poll shows that only 54% of Americans would vote for an atheist president.
This number is lower than for a Muslim (58%), a gay or lesbian (68%), and much lower than a Mormon (80%). What’s clear is that Americans still have a lower perception of the nonreligious than many other groups that have also been historically marginalized. Another study by the Center asked the American public to rate various religious groups on a “feeling thermometer” from 0-100, with 0 indicating the most negative feelings, and 100 indicating the most positive ones. The results aren’t surprising. Jews, Catholics, and Evangelical Christians are viewed quite warmly at 63, 62, and 61 degrees, respectively. On the bottom of the spectrum, Atheists are second to last—clocking in at 41 degrees, only a degree higher than of that given to Muslims.
In addition to the prejudice they face, atheists, agnostics, and other secularists encounter a lot of confusion about their beliefs. “I get the devil-worship thing a lot. They’ll ask me, ‘You worship the devil?’” says Foster. “No, bro, I don’t believe there’s a God, why would I believe there’s a devil? There’s a lot of ignorance about nonbelief. I don’t mean a negative connotation of ignorance. I just mean a lack of understanding, a lack of knowledge, lack of exposure to people like me.”
And that’s exactly what it is: a lack of understanding. This doesn’t prevent Arian Foster from believing what he does about religion and the concept of God, though. “If there is a God and he’s watching football, there are so many other things he could be doing,” he says. “There are hungry children and diseases and famine and so much important stuff going on in the world, and he’s really blessed your team? It’s just weird to me.” What isn’t weird, however, is the support of those sharing Foster’s beliefs. Foster joins the growing 3.1% of Americans who declare themselves as “atheist,” a term I hope eventually loses its negative stigma for the benefit of both religious and nonreligious alike.