A Hail Mary pass

Super Bowl Sunday

An atheist prays for this football to defy gravity.

An atheist prays for this football to defy gravity.

I’m not quite sure how to back into this rumination on prayer except to tell it like it is. I wanted to write about the 6 p.m. “Super Sunday” evening service at the Greater Light Christian Center over on Sutro Street, but when I arrived there, the service had been cancelled in favor of the Super Bowl. (The Super Sunday service happens on the first Sunday of the month; the other Sunday evenings are a 7 p.m. Hispanic service). I’ll tell you now, I intend to return to the Greater Light Christian Center because what I saw there looked exactly like the kind of community I like to write about, but for now—since I’m faced with a deadline and no backup plan—I’m going to write about the nature of prayer and sports.

Every type of religious and spiritual service I’ve attended has some sort of prayer attached. I think it’s one of the defining aspects of religion: That the “greater power"—be it God or karma or the power of positive thinking—is accessible to the individual. Those who have only participated with one religious group might not see the parallels. For example, Catholics might not recognize a Buddhist chant as a prayer. But for the sake of argument, please accept the assumption that I see it this way. About the only exception I can think of might be atheists, who would be unlikely to pray to gravity to modify its pull. Even humanists would say that a sustained call to a large enough group of humans could change the world—they’re just more likely to do it through technology than other groups.

But I would be willing to bet that more people asked for the intervention of a higher power in Super Bowl XLIII than ever said a prayer for our soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan or the homeless or victims of a natural disaster. And I’m not talking about something that most people would consider “good,” like asking that all the members of both the teams make it through the game in good health, but things like for Ben Roethlisberger to connect with Santonio Holmes in the closing minute of the game. And there were probably just as many prayers for the ball to go high. (OK, just for that one second, I wonder how many atheists might have sent up a silent thought for gravity to pause for an instant.)

And I’m not talking the reflex, “Oh god, don’t let him catch that ball,” but the completely conscious, “Oh, God, if you’ll make him miss that ball, I promise to go to church every Sunday” bargaining kind of prayer. Out of around 90 million people, I’ll bet there were even a few, “Please, God, don’t let him get up from that tackle.”

I’m coming to the point here. In my view, nearly everyone believes in the power of prayer, as either a path to inner improvement or as a method of manipulating the universe in ways beyond our own power. I can tell you as a matter of personal experience, when I’ve used meditation as a way to visualize an outcome in my life, I have been able to achieve some things that would have been beyond me without that meditation. And I can name quite a few people in my experience who would say they’ve had God’s direct intercession in matters of health and guidance. I’ve even heard in various sermons that prayer has brought things like wealth to the faithful.

But isn’t it ironic—and I mean ironic in its honest-to-goodness dictionary meaning—that more people would ask for God’s intercession in a football game than would ask his help in a case of war or natural disaster? I mean, while God may know all the people involved, I can’t imagine that he would have a dog in the fight of Super Bowl XLIII. And how would God pick which team’s fans to root for?