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Does God Decide the Super Bowl Winner? That's What Most Americans Believe.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

One of the perpetual ways to make fun of religion, at least in America, is to note that many of our countrymen believe that God takes an interest in sports, and can affect the outcome of games. He not only sees every sparrow fall, but can make a football fall into the hands of either a Seahawk or Broncos receiver in the Superbowl. Athletes like Tim Tebow give thanks to God for their achievements and their teams’ victories, and Americans regularly pray for the success of their teams. (I doubt that this happens much in Europe, but I’m sure it’s common in South America!).

Well, now there are data confirming the ubiquitous belief that God (or demons) somehow affect the outcome of sporting competitions. The confirmation comes from a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, and summarized in their report, “Half of American fans see supernatural forces at play in sports.”

This graph summarizes the data, with “average Americans” in tan, football fans in maroon, and other fans in olive. Now since the survey methodology reports a survey of 1,011 adults—not just sports fans—I assume that the data below represent a subset of those Americans who follow sports. But, according to the data, that is 89% of all Americans (I’m one of the other 11%).

Yes, exactly half of the fans (and 55% of football fans) see supernatural influences in sports.

Public Religion Research Institute
Some highlights from the survey, taken directly from the report (see the link above for more data, such as which areas of the U.S. see more influence of the supernatural):

Demons—or Satan!—afflict some teams:

  • One-in-four (25%) Americans who report being a fan of a particular team believe that their team has been cursed at some point in time.
  • More than one-quarter (26%) of sports fans report having prayed for God to help their team, while more than 7-in-10 (73%) say they have never done this.
  • Roughly 1-in-5 sports fans (19%) and similar numbers of all Americans (22%) believe that God plays a role in determining the outcomes of sporting events.

This is the best statistic (my emphasis):

  • Roughly 1-in-5 (21%) American sports fans report performing a ritual before or while watching their favorite team. Now wearing a jersey at a game, or even at home, can be simply an act of solidarity, not an attempt to propitiate God, but at least some cases border on the absurd:

“The majority (66%) of the rituals performed by fans involve wearing team jerseys or clothing with the team’s colors on them, though some fans report more creative apparel choices. One fan reports that he wears “a dirty pair of underwear … over my pants and then I put my jersey on.” [JAC: I weep for his wife—if he has one!] Roughly one-quarter (24%) of fans who report having a ritual describe some type of activity, such as dancing in a circle, sitting in the same seat, or talking to their television. Some activities are quite specific, like one fan’s report that he takes all the money out of his wallet and puts it in the right-hand pants pocket before every game.”

  • Football fans stand out in their belief in the supernatural. Compared to other fans, football fans are more likely to see supernatural forces at work in their favorite sport (55% vs. 44%).

The survey gives more data, like the proportion of Americans who watch the Superbowl, or who like soccer, but that’s not relevant for this post. The data reinforce the stereotype of the American as one who thinks God concerns Himself with who wins or loses a football game. And (I realize I’m harping on this), does this really comport with Sophisticated Theologians’ insistence that religious people see God not as an anthropomorphic being—or even a “being” that exists—bur rather as just a Ground of Being, the “meaning of meaning”? Damon Linker and David Bentley Hart take notice: 50% of Americans see God not as a Ground of Being, but a Gridiron of Being. 

Jerry A. Coyne is a Professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous websiteversion of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.