Praying for your team to win: how does it work?

September 25, 2015 • 11:00 am

In January of last year I reported a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute showing that a sizable percentage of American sports fans think that supernatural intervention occurs in sporting contests (50%), pray to God to help their team (26%), think that their favorite team has sometimes been cursed (25%), and perform rituals (like wearing the appropriate colors) that they think will help their team.  All of this, of course, invokes either God or the supernatural.

Here’s a breakdown of the data, showing that, on all counts, football fans (U.S. football!) are more faith-ridden than fans in general:


So here’s my question.  Let’s take a traditional football rivalry involving teams from religious states, say, a game between Louisana State University (LSU) and Texas A&M. Surely there are many fans—and players—at that game praying for a favorable outcome. But of course what outcome is “favorable” depends on what team you favor.

Then ask those fans who admit to praying how they think it works.

If they claim that they don’t think it does work, then ask them why they’re praying. In such a case they can’t offer the usual excuse that their prayers are simply a form of meditation or one way-communication with God, for that simply doesn’t make sense.

If they claim that praying does work, then ask them how it’s supposed to work.  Presumably God Himself doesn’t really care about the outcome of the game, but somehow responds to the totality of prayers. How does that work?

Does He simply count up the number of prayers on one side, and then let the team with the most “votes” win? If that were the case, the home team would nearly always win—unless you count remote prayers before a television set! Or does the quality of the prayer or the piety of the prayer-giver also matter? And does God affect the entire outcome of the game (presumably He would, since He knows all things in advance), or just weight the results, like causing one team to have more incomplete passes or interceptions?

Yes, I’d love to see those who pray for their teams answer these questions, but I don’t know of anyone who ever has. But one thing is for sure: this practice assumes—as does all prayer—that God is a huge egomaniac, propitiated by toadies who ask him for something.

 If anybody knows of interview of individuals who pray for their teams, I’d be delighted to hear about it.

54 thoughts on “Praying for your team to win: how does it work?

    1. Years ago, after Red Sox right fielder Trot Nixon hit a game-winning home run in the playoffs, he said during an interview, “That wasn’t me out there swinging the bat, it was the Lord Jesus Christ.” Whereupon I commented to my wife that we’d learned one thing about the Lord Jesus Christ that evening: He couldn’t hit left-handed pitching.

  1. For those who pray for victory in any endeavor I have to think they are participating in a kind of unconscious egotiism common to religion, one where they give no thought to the larger implications, of their prayers. I am minded of Mark Twain’s apropos story of the War Prayer.

    1. During the last Iraq War (or was it the first?), one of my family members was praying aloud for the safety of the troops and I muttered “…and make sure we kill a lot of Iraqis”, for which I got a few titters. I thought my comment highlighted the hypocrisy of praying for success in war.

      What’s interesting is the sort of thing that isn’t prayed for. Why didn’t my family member just pray for the war to instantly stop, the troops be teleported home, all the dead raised back to life, and the Iraq government to be replaced with a Democratically elected one? I presume because the failure of that prayer would have been instantly recognizable, whereas the one praying for the safety of the troops asked for an outcome that was poorly defined, enabling one to convince oneself that it worked.

      1. “…and make sure we kill a lot of Iraqis”

        That is, of course, entirely consistent with the message of the Old Testament.

        Nobody ever prays for minimum casualties on both sides.


  2. The topic reminds me of a bit from Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad,” when the pilgrims headed toward the Holy Land petition for divine intervention. Twain quotes the executive officer:
    “There they are, down there every night at eight bells, praying for fair winds—when they know as well as I do that this is the only ship going east this time of the year, but there’s a thousand coming west—what’s a fair wind for us is a head wind to them—the Almighty’s blowing a fair wind for a thousand vessels, and this tribe wants him to turn it clear around so as to accommodate one—and she a steamship at that! It ain’t good sense, it ain’t good reason, it ain’t good Christianity, it ain’t common human charity. Avast with such nonsense!”

    1. A friend of mine accompanied his wife, as usual, to mass in their local RC church. Some of the congregation were about to embark on a trip abroad (I think to Rome) and the priest prayed, amongst other things, for a good exchange rate. Same problem for God as with your ships; if he gives in to the prayer from one group for a good exchange rate, then he favours them ahead of those traveling in the reverse direction.

      It’s actually quite difficult to think of a prayer being answered in this way that doesn’t have a flip side to it.

      1. “the priest prayed, amongst other things, for a good exchange rate.”

        That totally cracked me up. Obviously the priest had no sense of the absurd.

        In any zero-sum game, if both sides pray, the net result of the prayers should be exactly nothing.

        (And if they pray to different gods… )


  3. And, if God can and does tip the scales (by whatever means) such that a certain team wins…why can’t or won’t he call 9-1-1 after one of his priests rapes his umpteenth child victim?


  4. If anyone needs confirmation on the lack of efficacy of prayer, they need only look at the Chicago Cubs. Of course, one cannot eliminate the alternate possibility that they have been cursed for over a century. 😉

    1. Same could be said for the Toronto Maple Leafs…..
      Maybe their lack of success is because Canadians are less religious and don’t pray as much!

    1. Exactly what I was thinking when I read this piece. Aaron Rodgers had a good zinger there. I do think in this context, it was more in response to Wilson’s blubbering about G*d intervening to beat the Packers in last year’s NFC championship, more so than the Superbowl interception. Either way, Wilson’s ‘G*d is my number-one-fan’ crap embarrasses me.

  5. I am a Bradley Basketball and an Illinois football fan.

    Yes, you might say that I perform a ritual of sorts: I think about the game, wonder what is the best strategy for my team to follow, leave the house at a certain time, pick up a game program, get to my seat, cheer for the school fight song, boo the referees when they make a call that goes against “my” team, etc.

    But that has nothing to do with anything supernatural.

    Now if *I* were to go out there and be able to credibly compete with those athletes…THAT would be strong evidence for a miracle (I am way beyond performance enhancing drugs doing me any good at all. 🙂 )

  6. Thanks to the influx of American players into the Canadian game (CFL) We now have a prayer circle at the conclusion of every game. A ritual we didn’t need.

  7. I’m reminded of actress Scarlett Johannsen’s comment about how she feels when a celebrity thanks God at an awards ceremony “Oh, that’s why the world is so phuqued up, because God has been focusing on your career.”

    A kind of parody of football prayer done apparently without a sense of irony was posted here. (Scroll down to the jpeg of the prayer opening “Our Papa who art a bear”)

    1. Good for Johansson! I found a source and the emphasis of “keep your mouth shut” [!]:

      “Scarlett Johansson has slammed stars who thank God when they win an award.The … actress claims movie stars who mention God or Jesus in their acceptance speech are an embarrassment to the profession. She said: “Some people can be so goofy, especially the ones that say, ‘I’d like to thank our Lord Jesus up above!’ I’m like, ‘For the love of God, keep your mouth shut. That’s why the world is so f***ed up because God is focusing solely on your career.'”

      [ ]

    2. I didn’t know about that. My respect for Scarlett Johannsen just went up an order of magnitude!

      By the way, does anyone know why so many ‘merican foot ball fans seem to think god likes their team more than other sports fans do? And does anyone know of similar data for real football (soccer to the Yanks) fans think. Does someone think that some god guides the ball into the net without help from Newton’s laws of motion?

  8. Of course prayer works. God makes half the teams win each week and half lose. He is an equal opportunity deity. God listens to the Las Vegas book makers and decides outcomes based on the behavior of the bookies.

    1. As a sign of His love for the worshipful adoration of home-team fans, He makes both owners and players millionaires, win or lose. This blessing is bestowed equally on crooks and creeps. What greater proof is needed for the power of prayer?

  9. My favorite quote on prayer:

    To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.

    Ambrose Bierce

  10. If number of prayers offered was the only criterion to determine the winner, the Indian cricket team would have won every world cup post-1983.

    But it seems, it’s the Aussies who know how to say an effective prayer

  11. If these fans think prayer does work, then how is it not cheating? How is asking God to tilt the playing field in your favor any different than bribing a ref to do it?

    Also, if the outcome hinges on prayer, why bother to play the game? Just pray for the coin toss to come up in your team’s favor, and then call it a day.

  12. Prayer only makes sense if you keep the story very small, preferably confined to the fascinating little tale of how God is constantly watching and paying attention to you, only you, and the earthshaking importance of your relationship to God. All prayers are answered according to what you need. The image is that of a hyper vigilant and concerned mother with a first and only baby — only this Mommy is Perfect.

  13. Given my friends who are sports fans, I would have thought for sure that baseball had football beat on superstitions and rituals – not necessarily religious ones, but still silly. Things like rally caps or not talking about a no hitter.

  14. According to the Old Testament, God helped Israel to win in battle. A sports team is like an army surrogate. The gridiron is the battleground surrogate. The fans take sides. It’s sublimated war, so it makes sense that a believer in supernatural forces would think that praying might influence the outcome.

    There’s a difference, though; It was common for biblical tribes to worship different gods, so the outcome of battles was also proof of which gods were stronger. Today’s sports fans would worship the same god, so god would have to take sides if he truly could influence the outcome. Maybe he uses a complicated formula based on player stats, and the moral purity of the individual players.

  15. A much more interesting question is how does God decide between conflicting prayers for the SAME team: either to win or simply to cover the point spread. Is God the Fan or the Gambler or the Bookie?

  16. ” If anybody knows of interview of individuals who pray for their teas, I’d be delighted to hear about it.”

    Well, I pray for my tea all the time. Dear FSM, please make this water boil faster, and let me not oversteep the holy leaves, or put too much honey in.

    But on the subject of teams, I can’t help you there. Though I do recall that while living in Philadelphia I randomly overheard a fellow passer-by talking about how he knew God was on the side of the Phillies and they’d win their next game. They lost, shockingly enough. I never got a chance to find the man again and ask him for his thoughts on the fickle nature of divine grace.

  17. God has a plan, which has always been there and goes unknown years into the future. Why would he change it for a prayer, no matter how small? Butterfly wings etc.

    It’s one of his best cons that he has all these people worshipping him and praying to him when the plan is already in place. As Ben says, we know he’s not going to call 9-1-1.

    1. “Le Dieu est toujours pour les gros bataillons”

      I just googled Napoleon, he was nominally catholic but apparently not a very devout one. (As one might expect from that quote). Pity he turned into a megalomaniac.


  18. I’ve often heard the answer to prayer is that God let’s both teams play to the beat of their ability and have a safe and fair match. Of course, why prayer is needed for this is left unexplained…

    1. Actually it would be rather refreshing to hear the winning team say “We couldn’t have done it without Jesus staying the hell out of it and letting us play to the best of our abilities.”

  19. Come on ignorant atheists get with it! How can you not agree that the Green Bay Packers are sitting at the right hand of our holy, just and righteous father. No doubt our god has all these qualities for he, not she, is a Packers fan. All you atheists wishing to align yourselves with evil incarnate look no further that the Chicago Bears. Amen

  20. Here is my all purpose prayer:

    O Lord, please suspend the natural laws of the universe for my personal convenience.

  21. The idea that there is a God that willfully intervenes and changes reality on a devotee’s behalf is pretty illogical to me. And this isn’t about whether you believe in God or not because the logic leads to the same conclusion in either case.

    It goes like this.
    If; there is a God that answers a prayer, a single prayer, such as; “Dear God save my child”.

    Then; if God saves this child, who is responsible for this child’s cause and effect sequence going into the future?

    It’s a pretty simple question really. So this kid now lives and goes on through life, becoming a part of the bubbling cauldron of reality. All of the effects that permeate from his existence,
    good or bad, teachers in intersections when they would not have been, etc, all of this is now on God’s head? And that would be infinite in complexity until the end of time. And all this for only one prayer answered. Now, Imagine a God that answers many prayers. The entire future of reality would be on his watch because through his divine intervention has now changed everything that is to come. And so, people will die and more prayers will be served up, and God
    would be caught in an endless feedback loop of managing his own cause and effect reality.
    Yikes! You’d hate to be caught without a chair when the music stops.
    Now ask yourself, why would an omnipotent God do that to himself?
    And if you do believe that there is a God that created our universe along with this cause and effect quality, then why not see it as perfect just the way it is? Why should we ask him
    incessantly to change things in our favor at the expense of others. And why would we expect
    that he’d do it?
    Like I said, it doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not. Honoring the process and accepting all that is “as it is” should be the goal in either case.

  22. I have an old lady friend who for years belonged to an informal, “prayer group”- they finally had to give it up because most of their members died of cancer! I told her, “You were praying for the wrong people.”

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