On the 17th March 2012, Fabrice Muamba, the now ex-Bolton Wanderers footballer, suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch during an F.A. Cup quarter final fixture against Tottenham Hotspurs at White Hart Lane, Tottenham’s home ground. It was a truly shocking incident, played out live in front of 35,000 supporters at the game and millions of viewers watching on TV at home. We all sat there pale faced, hoping that a combination of the strength and fitness of Muamba, and the remarkable skills and knowledge of the medics at hand, would be enough to save the life of this talented individual and seemingly all round nice guy.
At least that is what I assumed was happening at the time. Sadly however, this is not the story that has since been detailed in the media – nor even more sadly, by Fabrice Muamba himself, after indeed being saved by the brilliant actions of the many people of science at the ground, in the ambulance, and at the London Chest hospital in the days and weeks that followed. The first hints of an alternative narrative came from the all too often non-thinking world of professional football itself. The campaign ‘Pray for Muamba’ was launched whilst the player’s life still hung in the balance. I had initially hoped the wording was just representative of the poverty of our language, but very quickly it became clear this awful event was being hijacked by religious people in order to forward their own agendas.
The snide swipes at those of us who have not been convinced by the non-existent evidence for anything supernatural began, predictably, over Twitter with the Tottenham player Kyle Walker writing; “…Doesn’t matter if you are not religious. Pray for Muamba.” I concede that it is possible that Kyle Walker just doesn’t quite understand that to someone who is not religious, praying is as pointless as an ashtray on a motorbike – or in other words, precisely as effective as not praying at all. However, I think he was really implying that it would be mean if we atheists failed to pray for Muamba. I think he was suggesting that whilst it’s ok to offer philosophical alternatives to scripture in a debating hall, now that someone’s life is at stake, atheists should stop the nonsense and implore God to help. Wrapped up in this is the rather conceited claim that believers somehow have access to knowledge or a ‘gift of faith’ that non-believers do not, and so as such praying is definitely necessary and righteous – atheists just cannot see it. Due to this presumably god given handicap, atheists need to be educated and guided by those who are blessed (in this case Kyle Walker) and thereafter any atheist still stubborn enough to refrain from praying is guilty of not caring by failing to help in this mass call to arms to the almighty.
Despite the media’s apparent new found love affair with proselytising sportsmen in the wake of this awful event, one still assumed that once Muamba was out of harm’s way, the true heroes of the day would be honoured accordingly. But then Fabrice Muamba began to talk. The important fact that we learnt was that this man is a devout Christian. The rest of his irrelevant thoughts on the matter can be garnered from a recent interview published in The Times newspaper. The article contains hardly a single sentence that anyone with a critical mind can take seriously, but the highlights are as follows; Muamba is welcoming, even encouraging the title ‘The Miracle Man’. He is quoted as saying, “Science played a part but God played the main part” and “He (God) decided I should live.” He also lies to enhance his boasts of supernatural intervention and selection by claiming that he went “without oxygen for 78 minutes.”
Let’s start with the latter. My first thought was to wonder where I had seen this sort of behaviour before. Then it came to me – it was here: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/this-must-be-heaven. In short, a Christian neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander, contracted meningitis and fell into a coma, during which he claims he visited heaven. If you don’t have the time to read the whole article, here is the key summary, as provided by Mark Cohen, a neurologist and pioneer in the field of neuroimaging. He wrote:
“…coma does not equate to ‘inactivation of the cerebral cortex’ or ‘higher-order brain functions totally offline’ or ‘neurons of my cortex stunned into complete inactivity’. These describe brain death, a one hundred percent lethal condition.”
Likewise, the human body cannot survive without oxygen for more than a few minutes. What Fabrice Muamba really means is that his heart did not work on its own for 78 minutes. He was of course having oxygen pumped into his lungs and having his heart helped along by a variety of procedures I won’t pretend to understand. This is not even close to what Muamba is claiming and it is impossible to imagine he doesn’t know it. But he also knows that such lies may convince some people of the power of Jesus Christ. It is easy at first to be shocked and surprised at the thought of someone in a privileged position lying to people who may not know any better, but then one realises that this is what many religious people do every single day when they label and indoctrinate children. It is quite literally their life’s work. In what other context would such a job description or character trait not be considered outrageous by everyone?
However, in terms of my own disgust, I rank this third of Muamba’s crimes. The runner-up is his apathy and lack of appreciation towards those who really did save his life. He does begrudgingly acknowledge that science played a role – but what he really wants you to get moist around the eyes over is the part that God played, according to him. The truth is that there are very few places that this could have happened where there would have been any hope of survival. If this had occurred, for example, at his home or during training, Fabrice Muamba would almost certainly have died. Yet he gives the impression of being completely unaware of just how fortunate he was that his cardiac arrest took place in an environment where he was surrounded by medical people (including a heart specialist in the crowd who came onto the pitch to assist) and where an ambulance was already present. With this latter point in mind, Muamba ought to have saved at least some of his gratitude for Jose Mourinho, whose actions 5 years ago resulted in an ambulance being placed on standby at every game. Mourinho reacted angrily, and subsequently made an official complaint to the FA, after one of his players had to wait 30 minutes for an ambulance after suffering a head injury. “This is much more important than football” he famously said. Those seven words, unfashionable in the world of football which still loves to swoon over the irresponsible ramblings of Bill Shankly (Shankly once claimed that football was much more important than life and death), were the true catalyst to saving Fabrice Muamba’s life – not God tinkering with the laws of nature. What would Muamba’s fate have been had Mourinho simply put his own player’s survival down to God’s will?
By far and away the most disgraceful element of this sorry tale though, is Fabrice Muamba’s utter lack of humility and its accompanying sinister implications. He claims that God chose him. I’d be happy even to set aside the astounding arrogance of this conclusion. What one simply cannot ignore however, is the corollary to this; that those who suffer death from similar experiences (or any experience) are not special enough to be saved. Are all the babies who are dying of starvation or dehydration around the world at the very moment you are reading this sentence simply unworthy of God’s love? How could any truly moral person say such a thing? What would one have to believe about themselves or the nature of reality to even entertain those thoughts? Therein lies the horror show that is organised religion, for there is no way out of this moral catastrophe other than to say that the lord works in mysterious ways. For some of us, this falls way short of adequate.
(The title for this essay ‘Ego Masquerading As Humility’ is taken from a quote by the comedian and outspoken atheist Bill Maher)