Half of American fans think God (or demons) affect the outcome of sports

January 29, 2014 • 9:12 am

One of the perpetual ways to make fun of religion, at least in America, is to note that many Americans think that God takes an interest in sports. 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 showing that the belief that God (or demons) somehow affect the outcome of sporting competitions has been quantified by a survey—a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, and summarized int 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 are in maroon, and other fans are 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:


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!:

  • 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.

“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%).

There are 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 reinforces the stereotype of the American as one who thinks God concerns Himself with who wins or loses a football game. And (I know 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”?


115 thoughts on “Half of American fans think God (or demons) affect the outcome of sports

  1. The good news, according to these numbers, are that 44.5% of Americans doesn’t believe in any type of supernatural forces.

    1. On which side?
      (I was watching the game in between rounds at the pub quiz – and fervently caring not a damn for either side. So blame me. I forget – was it a severe drubbing or a total wipeout?)

  2. Wow.

    Closest to a “ritual” I can think of…since the SuperBowl is on Sunday and I’m usually over at Mom & Dad’s for dinner on Sundays anyway, it’s the once- or twice-a-year we have hot dogs. Mom makes the buns. The dogs are usually Boar’s Head…but, this year, they’re probably going to come from a Polish butcher in Scottsdale.

    Does that count?


    1. Hmmm. If it were Fenrir
      that you worshipped you just might have the only claim to a rational reason for eating your god.

      It makes perfect sense to eat him before he eats you!

  3. WTH?!? Even when I did believe in God, I didn’t think he have a rip about who won what game. In the big picture it didn’t seem all that important. And if he did affect the outcome of a game that meant that not only did he want team A to win, he ordained team B to lose. What? Are there no believers on team B? They must not have prayed as much.

    1. I would be curious if this situation is strong evidence for the fact that the only remaining believers in a God are those who would disregard logic when it comes to such reasoning.

      1. That might be hard to tease out if OCD premise holds. People with OCD realize the illogic of their rituals but do them anyway. You would need to separate OCD from non OCD people.

  4. This doesn’t pass the smell test. I really don’t see from the questions how they possibly get to 50 – 55% belief. I think it’d be more accurate to go to the last question, asking if God plays a role in the outcome of sporting events. Only 22% completely or mostly agreed with that statement.

    To say that pre-game rituals like wearing team jerseys reflect a belief in the supernatural is a HUGE stretch. Heck, you can even talk about, say, the curse of the Bambino (the Red Sox didn’t win the Series for a long time after trading Babe Ruth away to the Yankees) without believing that it’s true.

    1. To say that pre-game rituals like wearing team jerseys reflect a belief in the supernatural is a HUGE stretch.

      IF they don’t believe that they have some effect, then why do they do it?
      Ach, it’s team sports. Not worth the effort of ignoring.

      1. They do it for psychological comfort. And, in the jersey case, because it’s a relatively low cost method of signaling affiliation with the group/tribe/what have you.

        Somebody on this board or another once pointed out that praying is one of the very few socially acceptable public methods our society tolerates for dealing with stress. We don’t like it when people scream, cry, throws things, etc.. in public. Makes us uncomfortable. So it should really be no surprise when people – even agnostics or atheists – do something like pray when they feel stressed out or tense. This behavior should likely be seen not as a serious philosophical commitment to the existence of the prayed-to-being, but instead as a person using (one of the) the only socially approved venting mechanisms available to him/her. If soldiers pray in foxholes, why do they do it? Because praying is much less socially embarrasing than crying, is why.

    2. Agreed. I have a couple of game rituals that I do (mostly for the entertainment of my family, it appears) and no, I don’t truly believe it affects the outcome. It is, however, part of the game and makes it more fun. Who hasn’t seen a sports fan on the couch saying, “come on, come on…YES!”, wishing their team to score?

      1. Players also have a ton of rituals they perform, though I think they are mainly distractive coping exercises to stay focussed and try to play without letting the nerves get to them. I have been studying up on this to help the mental side of my tennis game and having a standard routine/procedure to follow is a pretty big element in whether not a player gets rattled in stressful moments. In short- you can’t control the outcome of any given point/game/set/match so control the only thing you can, which is the process. Doing that gives you an edge over time. It seems to be true based on my experience and I hear the commentators on TennisChannel say similar things all the time.

        As a fan I think we can easily cross our fingers or whatever while still not having any trace of a belief that it makes a difference. It’s an outlet for the nervous energy and a bit of wishful thinking. Just like we can utter things like “go deep, throw a cutter, serve it out wide” etc., while knowing that the players can’t hear us.

  5. You can draw many parallels with sports fanaticism and religion. For example, why do I cheer for the Steelers, despite growing up in Michigan? Childhood indoctrination of the preferences of my parents. In this case, I am grateful.

      1. Childhood indoctrination of the preferences of my parents.

        Because they’re the one true team?

        Isn’t that a tautology?

    1. Well maybe not this season 😉 (fellow Steeler fan here.)

      Sports team loyalty can also be something we choose for identification purposes. I loved the Yankees as a child because my Grandfather was a hardcore fan (he even had a ball signed by the Murder’s Row squad.) I lost interest in baseball generally during high school and didn’t pay any attention to it again until well after college. At that point I was faced with the decision of who to root for. I had grown up in Boston (though I was now living in LA), the Sox were still suffering from the Curse, and I had been around enough Yankee fans during their 90’s heyday to know that it was time to become a full-bore Red Sox fan. So my decision was based partly on nostalgia for my adolescent environment, partly on my love of underdogs and partly on my desire to root against an obnoxious fanbase (by joining an equally obnoxious one, I know, but what can you do ;))

      1. well, don’t you know that the Steelers have a magnificent unknowable plan and that’s why they didn’t go the Super Bowl this year. It’s not that they couldn’t have, they didn’t want to! 😉

  6. NB: Tan bar is “all fans” not “average Americans.”

    Attachment to outcome over which we have no tangible influence tends to engender superstitious rituals. Not always the same as invoking God. My sister is an atheist, normally rational, and a big sports fan who employs all sorts of gris-gris. cf. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.

    Anyway, Seahawks fans are about to learn for the second time that it’s Goodell, not God, who manipulates the outcome of the SB.

  7. “Dear Praying People,

    This is God. I’m sorry but I can’t answer your prayers right now. The Kountze cheerleaders are fervently praying for Me to help their team win their next game, and they look so cute in those short skirts and when they do that Tebow thing that I can’t resist. I created teenage girl ass for just this reason.

    Your prayer is very important to Me. Please stay on your knees and the next angel, saint or deceased relative will be on the line to intercede for you, and I’m really sorry for any deaths, illnesses or natural disasters that happen during the game.”

  8. 1) Wearing team apparel or colors is not superstitious in itself — it can be a social bonding exercise. I’ve done the both on many occasions, without any expectation of influencing the outcome of the game;

    2) Are those researchers really oblivious to the correlation between “[t]here is substantially greater interest in the World Cup among Catholics (42%)” and “[m]ore than half (56%) of Hispanic Americans say they are very or somewhat likely to watch the World Cup”?

    1. To elaborate: when I went to see my friend’s horse run for the first time, I asked beforehand what were his silks, then wore those colors to the track — to show support for my friend and enhance the festive atmosphere.

    1. I liked that series. Specially Sally. “Howcome I got to be the woman?” “You lost!”

      Some of the episodes are on Youtube now. Another series I’ll never have time to watch…

  9. This is further evidence that religion is really just formalized OCD. I’m starting to realize that the OCD mind is more common that thought & that we just don’t count it when it comes to religion.

  10. I have proof that prayer works. I have been praying fervently that Tim Tebow would never play football in the NFL again. Thank you Ceiling Cat.

  11. lol.

    Well it’s not surprising since your country’s leaders, including your President, also think that God takes interest in matters of economy and wars.

  12. As the Bud Lite commercials keep on telling us “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work”

    The commercials are funny – but I want a beer with a football game, not the reduced content fermented rice beverage that they are trying to sell me.

    1. Butttt . . . you can drink 6 Bud Lites and it feels only as if you have had one real beer! “Drinkability” baby!

      It is a sad commentary on the state of US culture that the most effective marketing tactic for selling beer is to brag about how close to water you have managed to make your beer, so that you can drink more of it.

      1. These comments about beers remind me of a time long ago when an ‘merican beer brand who shall remain nameless introduced a beer they called Killian’s Red. Since I don’t watch TV, I had no clue about it. My local beer store, for reasons opaque to me, had it in their imported beer section. I though “Oh, an Irish beer I haven’t seen before — I’ll try it” I got the six pack home, opened a can, took a sip and said (near as I can recall) “Shit, this has so little taste, it’s just like f*ing Coors!” When I looked at the label carefully, I saw why!

        1. I’ve been on a personal boycott of all products Anheuser-Busch for the last 32¼ years. I once bought a bottle of a beer called Red Wolf, thinking it was one of the then-emergent craft beers. When I got it home and read the fine print on the label, I discovered that it was an A-B product – an obvious attempt to mislead craft beer fans. The only decision left was whether to pour it down the sink or the toilet.

          1. Here in Tempe, Arizona, the city doesn’t want that sort of noxious chemical introduced into the wastewater system. Instead, the city runs an hazardous household products collection service. There’s a place you can drop off that sort of thing on Fridays and Saturdays. They also hold events several times a year where those dropping off such waste can get a free bag of compost or other types of goodies.

            If your local municipality doesn’t offer that type of service, take it up at the next city council (or equivalent) meeting. And I know for a fact that the people who run the Tempe program would be absolutely thrilled to share their experiences and expertise. They’re justifiably proud of what they do. More information here:




  13. Ah, the Sophisticated Theologians (TM). Heh. Isn’t there a saying, supposedly by someone that they pay a lot of attention to, involving “planks” and “eyes”?

  14. I looked at the questionnaire, and it looks like they’re really stretching their interpretation of the results. For example, I would answer yes to questions 5 & 6 (Have you ever prayed for God to help your team? Do you have a ritual that you perform before or during games, such as wearing a favorite jersey?), but the prayer was years ago when I was still a Christian, and the second is something I know is just a habit that comforts me, without any effect on the game. The questions never asked if you thought your ‘superstitious’ actions actually affected on the game.

    And I agree with others that ‘cursed’ is not always used in a supernatural context.

    1. Yes, the people who wrote this questionnaire really should have done a better job with their questions. There’s far too much ambiguity.

    2. Rituals and habits are very complex and intrinsically important for fans and athletes. And there are pronounced differenced in what motivates fans from forming rituals or beliefs. Some fans simply idolize their team. Others believe they share an existence with their team. Some believe they are capable of doing things which are similar in physical talent, even if they cannot, to their favorite team members.

      You need much better studies than these to disentangle prerogatives of individuals for adopting rituals or habits associated with events they participate in or are active-spectators.

      1. A lot of superstitions and rituals are self-consciously acted out as bits of fun or whimsy, a sort of let’s-pretend. People who holler at the t.v. aren’t secretly thinking the players can magically hear them and a “lucky hat” doesn’t necessarily mean the wearer thinks it will work. We playact all sorts of things which have their roots in anthropomorphism or supernaturalism or essentialism. Sentimentality isn’t necessarily associated with magical thinking — that is, taking magical thinking seriously.

        1. Agree. I’d add further that our society is pretty puritanical when it comes to adults playing pretend. Is it all that surprising that, in a society where one of the very few socially acceptable times to play dress up and charades in public is at a football game, you’re going to find a bunch of adults playing dress up and charades at football games?

  15. And I’m still a little surprised that some of the people here are surprised at the fact that people who say they believe in God actually believe God does things. That’s what theism is all about. They believe God can/does affect everything, from coin tosses to the weather. Why would it be a surprise that they believe God would favor the team with the more devout followers?

    1. Exactly – the consistent statement for any believer to make is that of course God affects sports, since he is entirely responsible for every single thing that ever happens. The Christians who _don’t_ think he affects the outcome apparently don’t understand this.

    2. It would interesting to see how many theists would be willing to agree with “God has no interest or influence in sports.” Particularly if it was surrounded by prompts like “God is everywhere: yes or no?”

      Near as I can tell you’re supposed to carry God’s presence around in your head like it’s a second consciousness. This is not limited to traditional Christians.

      1. The bland answer: God’s ways are mysterious. Its grace is not to be understood by us. So the final answer is: No a religious person can make up whatever crap they want about wether their God thinks or cares about the outcome of games.

  16. I’m a rugby fan in South Africa, and it annoys the hell out of me when rugby players, particularly the Afrikaans and Black players constantly thank “God” for their talent, and kneel down and pray before a game starts. They also point to the sky, thanking “God” if they score any points.
    Some SA cricketers are also into this nonsense.

    1. I’m always curious about the physics of intervention.

      Does God adjust the trajectory of a cricket ball?

      Does he make a defensive tackle stumble at an inopportune time, allowing the religious running back to blow by him?

      Does he manipulate the synapses of the soccer striker, allowing her to head the ball in at the key moment?

  17. If a person believes in an interventionist God, then why not?

    I think that it’s more incumbent upon the practitioners of sophisticated religion to explain why God does NOT concern himself with major sporting events. After all, people make their living at these games. Sports like football, in particular, pose the risk of grave bodily harm. They are clearly of the utmost importance for SOME people. Why wouldn’t these events then meet the Threshold For Divine Intervention?

    It seems that a sophisticated Christian will agree that God does indeed intervene in human affairs, but apparently only for a certain set of affairs.

    How do they know this? And how can they identify cases of bona fide supernatural intervention?

  18. I would love a prominent player to ‘come out’ publicly as an atheist in the NFL…

    I think Arian Foster is probably the top player to make a public statement to this effect. (And Kluwe obviously. I think Pat Tillman was also openly atheist but he met tragedy before turning pro.)

    So sick of all the praying. The new tend seems to be to crowd around an injured player and pray for him while the trainers are attending to his injury. As if he is magically going to be healed. Its so silly!!

    SNL did great skit about Tebow.

    1. So is combat. Soldiers are imbued with ritual and habit and beliefs, not only to keep them alive, but, in many cases, to keep them sane while having to kill other humans…taught to think of them as ‘others’, i.e., not human.

  19. I agree with Jeff Lewis: I too sometimes wear a team jersey but that is just part of the fun.

    Ironically some famous coaches have said something concerning divine help for football teams: they said something like “God is on the side of the team with the faster, stronger players”

  20. The problem is, God always seems to make his intervention in human affairs indistinguishable from the results of human effort, the laws of physics, and chance.

    When a twenty-something athlete thanks God for scoring a touchdown, why can’t we just attribute that feat to the results of thousands of hours of training + innate athleticism?

    1. One of these days I want to see a player go up to the mic and thank his coaches, his teammates, his superior genetics, and a lifetime of grueling effort.

      If you are one of the best athletes on the planet, give yourself some credit. You earned it, God didn’t give it to you.

      1. Bill Cosby had a joke like this! He said the Dad spends hours playing catch with his son, driving him to games etc… and then as soon as the son wins a big game on TV he thanks his mom!!

        Well it’s gotten worse, they all thank god now! Never mind the 100s of thousands of paying fans, the coaches, referees, people working everywhere to make your sport a reality…

        Mysterious ways I guess….

  21. I seem to recall Steve Johnson blasted Yahweh on Tw*tt*r back in November of 2010 after he dropped a potentially game-winning pass. Not sure if he got any feedback.

  22. I’m in that 11%. One of the reasons (albeit a minor one) that I went to the U of Chicago was that sports was not required of undergraduates and it had no football team. That was in the time of RMH…

  23. Some reporter should pointedly ask Peyton Manning and other Golden Boy quarterbacks whether The Author of the Universe gives a hoot who wins bloody football game.

  24. When I’m watching sport, I often have feelings that the supernatural is at play. Specifically, that if I’m watching it, somehow the outcome will be different. Intellectually I know that’s nonsense, but it’s hard to shake the feeling at times.

  25. And (I know 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”?

    People praying to God to help their team wins comports very closely with the way STs view God on Sundays, but not with the way STs view God on Mondays.

  26. Hey guys,
    Does Prof Coyne have Roolz about bringing an article to his attention?

    I don’t want to post suggestions on wrong thread etc…But I have an article I think he will really enjoy to share with everyone here.

    1. Hi Sean.

      Jerry’s email info is available top left side under “Research Interests”.

      But I wouldn’t mind reading it too. Got a link? 🙂

          1. I constantly have to remind myself that I’m left-handed and right-legged in order to remember it.

            It’s a pain, but my theory is that it leaves a bit of headroom for other very important* things

            *Importance may vary.

  27. I’m no expert on sports, but isn’t Divine Intervention against the rules?

    Also, I want to see an interview where the team blames their loss on some guy in East Oxnard who didn’t wear his lucky socks.

  28. “…the Ground of Being, the “meaning of meaning”…

    The obsession has to do with an overpowering sense of self-importance, or what’s a god good for? It’s something like the obsession behind gambling: if ‘lady luck’ can’t be persuaded to positively fall in your favor (read choosing you at the expense of the losers), why bother courting ‘her’ with superstitious rituals (read petition the ‘Ground of Being’ through prayer for suspending itself in order to acquire an advantage in contest). Incidentally? That smacks of deep-seated cheater mentality, not to mention a pathetic estimation of one’s skills compared to those of one’s opponent. Its a WEAK mind that wants magic means to win with, and a narcissistic one that basks in its glow because they believe they have been specially chosen to receive it.

  29. I usually find that if I support a team, it loses. Which just proves of course that G*d knows I’m an atheist so he lets the other side win.

    EXCEPT… I eventually took cognisance of the last America’s Cup (it’s a boat race) and perversely started supporting Oracle when they were 8 races to one down with one to go (first one to 9 wins the series, for those who don’t know). I think I was prompted as usual by distaste for all the pseudo-patriotic Kiwis supporting Team New Zealand. And then bloody Oracle went and scored eight straight wins! You beauties! I was ecstatic. I nearly got lynched. I do so love pissing off patriots… 🙂

  30. I happy to be on of the 11%. Although, there was a time when entire weekends were wasted (and me) on sports. I find dedication to sports, and teams, one of the more curious human behaviors.

  31. Looks like there could be an Atheist ad in the Superbowl.

    Can already hear the religious up in arms about this…. Although none of the people complaining now, complained about Ray Lewis proselytizing constantly or Tebow and his Mom running prolife commercials (Which I think was eventually cancelled)

    Here is the ad, and it doesn’t seem particularly funny, or smart:


    Maybe they should show some terrible pictures of children being gassed in Syria and ask why god prefers to help Mmllionaire athletes like Russel Wilson win a football game.

  32. I have occasionally had the thought, having watched my team lose, that if I had not watched, they might have won. Very strange!

  33. I didn’t read all the comments, so maybe my sentiments have already been voiced here. I do not think this is fun or funny. At all. That these people are so close-minded and arrogant to think that their God has a vested interest in heavily advertised adult recess borders on the psychopathic. Our daily news showcases horrors the world over. From people torturing and beating their toddlers to death to the atrocities occurring in the Congo or Syria to the rapid environmental decline there are far more important things they should be begging their God to pay attention to.

  34. An article I wrote on sports as a religion is up for being published on MadMike’sAmerica. As soon as it goes online, I’ll post a link to it.

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