Something like that, I thought. But no, it turned out to be something completely different.
"I can't stand Armstrong," Gary said. "He doesn't even believe in God. He only believes in himself."
"He doesn't?" I said, surprised.
"He said God had nothing to do with his getting over cancer. 'It was all my doctors and medical science. God didn't have anything to do with it.' "
Now, I've heard Gary pontificate on things like this in the past, and while his accuracy rate is pretty high, I've learned it's always best to check out what he has to say before buying into it. In the internet era, that's pretty easy to do. A few choice words in the search engine, and voila!
Now, there must be a web page on virtually any subject you like nowadays. Maybe you knew this, but I had no idea there was a site devoted to celebrity atheists. And sure enough, there's this entry on Lance Armstrong, putting him somewhere between atheist and agnostic.
They quote him in ET Magazine, for example, as saying, "If there was a god, I'd still have both nuts." In another place he's quoted thus: "You have to try and it won't always be easy but you try your best. I do not believe that because you are not prepared to submit yourself to a god or a higher being, that when you get to the end of the road, you will be sent down. I'm not prepared to believe that."
When noted by a Time Magazine interviewer (September 29, 2003) that he didn't seem to be very religious, Armstrong replied, "I don't have anything against organized religion per se. We all need something in our lives. I personally just have not accepted that belief. But I'm one of the few."
The authors of this site also note that Armstrong's ex-wife is a devout Catholic, and speculates that her growing faith may have contributed to their break-up.
Now, it's easy to take things out of context, to put two and two together and come up with five. Sometimes it's best to let the man's words speak for themselves, unfiltered by the interpretation of an interviewer. Therefore, let's look at what Lance Armstrong himself wrote on the subject:
The night before brain surgery, I thought about death. I searched out my larger values, and I asked myself, if I was going to die, did I want to do it fighting and clawing or in peaceful surrender? What sort of character did I hope to show? Was I content with myself and what I had done with my life so far? I decided that I was essentially a good person, although I could have been better--but at the same time I understood that the cancer didn't care.
I asked myself what I believed. I had never prayed a lot. I hoped hard, I wished hard, but I didn't pray. I had developed a certain distrust of organized religion growing up, but I felt I had the capacity to be a spiritual person, and to hold some fervent beliefs. Quite simply, I believed I had a responsiblity to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking, and honorable. If I did that, if I was good to my family, true to my friends, if I gave back to my community or to some cause, if I wasn't a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough. At the end of the day, if there was indeed some Body or presence standing there to judge me, I hoped I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life, not on whther I believed in a certain book, or whether I'd been baptized. If there was indeed a God at the end of my days, I hoped he didn't say, "But you were never a Christian, so you're going the other way from heaven." If so, I was going to reply, "You know what? You're right. Fine."
I believed, too, in the doctors and the medicine and the surgeries--I believed in that. I believed in them. A person like Dr. Einhorn [his oncologist], that's someone to believe in, I thought, a person with the mind to develop an experimental treatment 20 years ago that now could save my life. I believed in the hard currency of his intelligence and his research.
Beyond that, I had to idea where to draw the line between spiritual belief and science. But I knew this much: I believed in belief, for its own shining sake. To believe in the face of utter hopelessness, every article of evidence to the contrary, to ignore apparent catastrophe--what other choice was there? We do it every day, I realized. We are so much stronger than we imagine, and belief is one of the most valiant and long-lived human characteristics. To believe, when all along we humans know that nothing can cure the briefness of this life, that there is no remedy for our basic mortality, that is a form of bravery
From Lance Armstrong's book It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, published by G.P Putnam's Sons 2000. pp. 116-118
Well, it's kind of hard to argue with Gary when you read it right there in black and white. He believed in the doctors, the medicine, the surgeries. But not God. And while it's a good thing to believe in the doctors, the medicine, and the surgeries - especially if they're being used to try to save your life - how dangerous a path do we tread when we leave God out of the equation.
This doesn't make me angry; it makes me sad. Lance Armstrong has such an opportunity to witness to the faith; to show the power of offering our suffering, to show the enormous mercy of God, to show how He can bring good out of what seems to be even the bleakest situation. Most of all, to remind us once again of the miracle of human life - how sacred life is, how important the will to live is, how much the human body can achieve. Most of all, the truth that there is no such thing as a useless human being. It reminds me of Christopher Reeve, who impressed us with his courage, and would have impressed us even more if he had admitted that none of it would have been possible without God. The truth is that Armstrong and Reeve were both living examples of miracles, and their testimony could have made an even more dramatic impact on the lives of others if they had looked to the source of those miracles.
But of course, to them the only miracle was science, the only source was man.
As I said, what a waste.
I don't mean for a moment to disparage the incredible achievements of Armstrong. Perhaps it's not too much of a stretch to say that his life is a miracle. But someday Lance Armstrong will find out that there's more to life than athletic achievement, more to life than just living. In anticipation of that moment, we need to pray for people like him, because it's never too late. I think he does realize, deep down, that there may be something to this "God" thing, that it's dangerous to depend too much on the power of man and man-made knowledge. Maybe he's afraid to let go, to give up control. I can relate to that, since it's a problem I have as well. I do profess faith in God, even though my actions may often belie that declaration. Perhaps Lance Armstrong is more truthful than I, for he doesn't pretend to have that kind of faith. At least he's not a hypocrite.
But as long as I know what I'm supposed to believe, how that faith that I profess is supposed to translate into action, then there's still hope for me. There's still hope for Lance Armstrong too, and all the other secular humanists out there who have so much to offer, whose lives can provide us with so much inspiration and encouragement. It's up to them, but it's up to us as well. Not only must we include them in our prayers, we also must continue to pray for ourselves, that in serving as witnesses to our faith we may draw others closer to the truth, to the Light that illuminates all darkness, to the Life that has defeated death forever and asks us to join Him in a future where there will be no more pain, no more suffering, no more sadness.