Belief and a Change of Fortune

In February 2007 famed British athlete and born-again Christian Jonathan Edwards resigned from Songs of Praise, BBC television’s flagship religious program. The reason? According to the June 27 Times of London, he’d come to the conclusion “that his inner sense of God’s presence was fictitious; that the decisions he had taken in life were based on a false premise; that the Bible is not literal truth but literal falsehood.”

Edwards had been one of the most prominent Protestant evangelicals in the United Kingdom because of the credit he’d given his faith for a record-breaking athletic career, capped by his gold medal win in the triple jump at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. But now he was an agnostic. How had it happened?

Edwards told the Times that soon after he retired he experienced a deflation of his sense of identity. He’d been the best in the world at something but now it was over. So who was he, really? Asking this led to questioning his religion, “and, from there, there was no stopping.”

The intensity of his drive for athletic excellence had also ended. While he’d previously been “so preoccupied with training and competing” that he’d lacked the leisure or interest to think, this had all changed. He still concludes that his religious beliefs were a necessary component of his athletic success, but he knows that this doesn’t make them true, only a species of sports psychology.

Stories like this, of course, make one wonder. Did Edwards finally discover the truth? Or had concern with truth not really mattered to him? Edwards leans toward the latter, admitting that, during his life as a Christian he’d taken his childhood beliefs for granted and simply gone on to live blissfully in a world of those who shared them.

Such candor led some Christian readers to charge Edwards with initial insincerity and superficiality. Posting to the online version of the Times article, one wrote that Edwards had built his faith “on God’s provision of competitive success. . . . When the competition was removed he no longer needed God.” This view isn’t incompatible with that of atheists who call religion a crutch–when no longer needed, it can be thrown away.

I remember in the late 1960s working in San Diego with a bright born-again Christian who acknowledged that he’d come to his faith after feeling depressed about his life. He was a starving artist with aspirations of becoming noted for his paintings. Though the two of us engaged in friendly sparring about the truth claims of religion, we failed to make a dent in each other’s conclusions. Then I ran into him a few years later and dared to ask, “Do you still believe that religious stuff?” He laughed and shook his head. It had all been abandoned after two major events in his life: he’d divorced his born-again wife after learning of her long-term infidelity and he’d started selling his paintings. Clearly, my brilliant intellectual arguments hadn’t played a part!

If people can lose a faith merely because it no longer serves them, however, can they lose a secular outlook the same way? The answer appears to be yes. One example will suffice.

A California surfer had long been looking for that perfect wave when one day he saw it coming. Paddling swiftly and popping up, he caught the wave perfectly. Then he rode it all the way into the shore. It had been the surfing experience of his dreams.

But as he sat on the beach afterwards, he realized there’d never be another wave as great. He’d achieved his goal and reached the end of the road. Shortly afterward, while in the limbo of a life stripped of purpose, he met a proselytizer who brought him to Jesus.

For most people, success or failure in the pursuit of ambitions has had more to do with religious and secular choices than abstract reasoning. The philosophical purists among us would prefer that all worldviews be chosen in hermetically-sealed intellectual containers, with all worldly bias isolated out. But in the real world of people and their ideas, a change of fortune can be more telling than the best steel-trap logic.

This is why the top achievers in business and other fields seem to believe whatever they began with, whether in religion, politics, or other subjects. Achievement is their primary focus. It takes up all their time. Other ideas, or questioning present beliefs, must take a back seat, often until retirement or some career plateau or slump.

In light of this, intellectuals would do well to recognize that the pursuit of philosophical integrity isn’t going to top most people’s lists. This is why changing most hearts and minds is so difficult. Unless a challenging philosophical concept or moral principle is clearly useful, right now, it isn’t going to gain easy acceptance.

Fred Edwords is director of communications for the American Humanist Association.

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