While the main focus on any athlete should be their athletic skill, let’s face it – athletes are public personas to a certain extent, and at a much more basic level, they’re people. While they might be superstars on the court, field, or whatever terrain their sport calls for, people are often interested in their daily lives. This encompasses everything from their marital status (as proven by countless list of the hottest single athletes) to their often impressive homes to their diet and fitness choices. Fans want to know how they live their lives, from what they eat when they wake up in the morning to what they do to unwind every day.
One significant aspect of an athlete’s personal life is his or her religious choices. Religion and sports have been a discussion for awhile. Just as some athletes have noteworthy celebration dances or pre-game rituals, many athletes give thanks to God or whatever religious entity they believe in, either to bring their focus to the task at hand or to show gratitude for a goal or point. The question came into even sharper focus when a certain ultra-religious quarterback by the name of Tim Tebow entered the NFL and took to on field prayers and introduced the world to “Tebowing.” Tebow was outspoken about his faith, but in a league where some teams even have team chaplains, his religion is certainly not the minority. Particularly in team sports where athletes may pray together in the locker room or have access to something such as a team chaplain, atheist athletes seem to make up the minority.
There are a scattering of atheist athletes across the athletic world, in sports from football to soccer to rock-climbing. Some have won immense athletic honors in the shape of cups or medals. Some are a bit more outspoken about their beliefs while others may keep them largely to themselves. Here is a list of fifteen athletes who identify as atheist.
15 Johan Cruyff
Cruyff, born Hendrik Johannes Cruijff, is a Dutch football player who achieved enormous success over the course of his career. He won the prestigious Ballon d’Or three times in the 1970s, an award colloquially referred to as the European Footballer of the Year award. An election by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics resulted in Cruyff being voted European Player of the Century in 1999, and he came in second only to Pele in the World Player of the Century category. He also has a spot on the FIFA 100 list of the world’s greatest living players. Cruyff once stated: “I'm not religious. In Spain all 22 players make the sign of the cross before they enter the pitch. If it works all matches must therefore end in a draw.”
14 Diana Nyad
Diana Nyad is a long-distance swimmer who came into great notoriety when she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage to aid her (and she did so at the age of 64!). The athlete had an interview with Oprah Winfrey in which the two came head to head, with Nyad explaining her strong atheist beliefs. Though Oprah stated that Nyad’s words seemed to match Winfrey’s own beliefs in God, Nyad simply re-asserted that she did not believe in a divine being. Several atheist leaders and organizations, as well as figures from the media at large, were upset with Winfrey’s statements in the interview and with how she treated Nyad's atheist beliefs. While Nyad’s athletic feat was remarkable, she also managed to draw a great deal of attention to how atheists are often perceived in the media.
13 Rafael Nadal
Nadal is a Spanish tennis player currently ranked number two in the world. Though raised in a Catholic household, Nadal has since deviated from his religious roots and views himself as more of an agnostic. While he has not publicly stated that he is an atheist, in a 2010 Sports Illustrated interview he replied to a question of whether he believes in God with the statement that “it’s a very difficult thing for me to believe.”
12 Lance Armstrong
Though Lance Armstrong has become a public figure and household name, the American cyclist certainly won’t be showing up to church on Sunday mornings. He has won countless accolades, though his tour de France titles were stripped due to his doping. Though, like many of the atheists on the list, he has expressed his beliefs in humanity and the obligation people have to be good, honest, compassionate human beings, he does not believe in any organized religion. The confirmed atheist even delivered a quote to ET Magazine that addressed both his religious beliefs and struggle with cancer: “if there was a god, I’d still have both nuts.”
11 Robert Smith
Robert Smith, a former running back for the Minnesota Vikings, is in a league where religion is particularly dominant. NFL fields sometimes see prayer circles erupt to celebrate a team’s victory, and the league has arranged for many religious services to be available to players. Smith spoke with Salon in 2006 about religion in the NFL, and his own beliefs. Though he himself is an atheist, Smith took no issue with the religious services the NFL provides. However, he disliked the way that evangelicals used sports stars as a platform to deliver their message.
10 Riccardo Montolivo
Montolivo, who was born in Caravaggio, Italy, is a soccer player currently playing for AC Milan. Though he comes from a country known for Catholicism, AC Milan's captain is an atheist and has publicly confirmed his beliefs. However, he shows good sportsmanship and respect for his religious team mates – when the Italian team met with Pope Francis, Montolivo attended the meeting and even shook hands with the religious figure.
9 Frank Mir
Frank Mir is notorious in the MMA world. He holds the record for most victories and submissions in the history of the UFC Heavyweight division and has two UFC Heavyweight Champion titles to his name. He also has the distinction of being the only openly atheist fighter in a major fight organization. Mir is a confessed huge fan of atheist brainiacs Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and hopes to go into color commentating after his UFC retirement.
8 Jason Miller
Jason “Mayhem” Miller is an athlete, but he’s also an entertainer, through and through. The professional MMA fighter was so known for his goofy dances into the ring and showy entrances that MTV called on him to host the reality television show Bully Beatdown. Miller has described himself as a devout atheist who does not believe in God or the conception of a higher power. As may be expected from someone with the moniker of “Mayhem,” Miller says he disregards any negativity that may come his way for expressing his atheist beliefs.
7 Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee was a phenomenal athlete, and he also became a worldwide icon before his death at the young age of 32. He was raised in a religiously diverse household, with his mother practising Catholicism and his father Buddhism. However, once he was an adult himself, Lee opted out of any organized religion and declared himself to be an atheist. Though he expressed no belief in a higher power the way that religious organizations conceive one, Lee was known to be very spiritual.
6 Alex Honnold
American rock climber Alex Honnold is known for his free solo ascents on rock walls – or more simply, he climbs tall rock walls with no harness, no protection, nothing. He was the only solo climber known to have taken on the Yosemite Triple crown, and is also famous for his speed. As won a “Golden Piton” for his climbing and was one of the interviews included on a CBS 60 Minutes program with Lara Logan. Honnold describes himself as a militant atheist who experiences a kind of non-religious “sublime bliss” when he’s climbing a mountain.
5 Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan David Edwards is a British triple jumper who competed at countless international events and has held the world record for the triple jump event for almost twenty years, since 1995. Since his retirement Edwards worked as a sports commentator for BBC television. Edwards’ religious beliefs are interesting because of the extreme switch he made. The triple jumper was once known for being an extremely devout Christian, to the point where he refused to compete on Sundays, even costing himself a chance to participate in the 1991 World Championships. Edwards shocked the public by announcing in 2007 that he had lost his faith in God – the former devout Christian said that “it does seem incredibly improbably that there is a good” in an interview with The Times. Though the shift seems radical, and did affect his still-Christian wife Alison and their family dynamics, Edwards states that he is happy with his decisions and his life.
4 Fausto Coppi
Fausto Coppi, the Italian cyclist, received countless accolades for his athletic performances including five Giro d’Italia and two Tour de France wins. Though his life contained its fair share of scandal, due to his falling in love with the married Giulia Occhini, Coppi was a supreme athlete. His rivalry with cyclist Gino Bartali was amplified by their religious differences, as the media portrayed the duel as one between the religious Bartali and the atheist Coppi. The rivalry even included the Vatican, as Pope Pius XII named himself a Bartali supporter who would not bless a race that included the atheist Coppi as one of its competitors.
3 CM Punk
Philip Jack Brooks is more known for his wrestling moniker CM Punk. Brooks, as CM Punk, is a seven-time world champion, and he is certainly not one to keep his opinion to himself. Brooks’ atheist views often take centre stage when he’s in the ring, as he heckles the crowd with his beliefs in a preachy way that has upset many Christians. Lest anyone think it’s merely an act, Brooks has been outspoken about the way he lives his life outside the ring – he’s in the Straight Edge movement and while he partakes in no alcohol, drugs, or promiscuity, something his Christian opponents may agree with, he also does not believe in any form of a higher power.
2 Fernando Alonso
Spanish-born Fernando Alonso Diaz is a Formula One racing driver who currently races for Scuderia Ferrari. Alonso is a two-time World Champion who won his first title at the young age of 24. He shares a religious background with some of the Italian atheists on this list, as he has spoken in interviews about the overwhelmingly Catholic orientation in his native Spain. However, he has confirmed his atheism in interviews by explicitly stating that he does not believe in God or any superior entity.
1 Chris Kluwe
In an organization that is comprised of players and managers with predominantly Christian beliefs, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe stands out like a sore thumb because of how outspoken he is about his religious beliefs – or lack of, to be more accurate. Kluwe caused quite a controversy and garnered a lot of public attention when it became known that he was to be one of the speakers at an American Atheists event in Salt Lake City, Utah. Even NBC Sports acknowledged the religiosity of the NFL and stated that the decision meant Kluwe was placing himself “pretty far outside the NFL mainstream.” Though it seems easy to align him with atheism if he’s agreed to speak at an atheist convention, religion isn’t quite that simple for Kluwe – he calls himself “cheerfully agnostic” and states in his book Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies that doubt is his religion.