The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

Sports and Spirituality: Part III

It's offical, surfing is a religion, and the Reformation is at hand.

As defined by scholars, a nature religion is any set of beliefs which treats the earth as sacred and the act of being outdoors as sacred communion. While a more detailed investigation of the “mystical experiences” that underpin this notion will be saved for later, it’s first helpful to understand what Taylor calls “the religious elements of surfing.” He breaks those into a number of categories, beginning with the presence of a “scared story, including gurus and saints,” and moves through “a variety of ritualized behaviors” which mostly center around “attending the ‘Church’ of ‘Mother Ocean.’” Along the way, he points out that the rough count of all the surfers in the world, as estimated by the International World Games Association, is twenty million. Other tallies push that number closer to twenty-five million. Certainly, not all of these wave riders feel surfing is actually religion, but even by cutting that figure in half we get a congregation that exceeds the numbers of ten of the world’s twenty-two major religions.

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So large and coherent a group are those that consider surfing their religion, that when the aforementioned Matt Walker wrote about this research in his Surfing magazine cover story: “Nature=God: It’s Official: Surfing is a Religion,” he points out that “Taylor’s manifesto…is the greatest validation of surfing’s spiritual value by outside sources, a trend that’s been on the rise for the past ten to fifteen years, as more new humans enter the water seeking another action sport thrill—and find themselves leaving somehow reborn.” But more than that, and perhaps more importantly, Walker believes that not only is surfing a religion, but it’s been one for long enough that a reformation is at hand.

The core component of all reformations, be them Catholicism’s 1517 Martin Luther-inspired Protestant split, or the Eighteenth Century Hasidic break with traditional Orthodox Judaism, centers on bringing magic to the masses, to form, what University of Virginia associate professor of religion and JAAR editor, Charles Mathewes calls: “a priesthood of all believers.” Walker’s point is that anything that ups one’s access to the divine ignites this fervor. “What’s a forecast saying “Waves coming Friday” but a revealing of well-hidden secrets—especially for those of us who’ve spent a lifetime studying a specific area’s weather patterns and choosing jobs with loose hours?”

What he means is that back in the Sixties, when these spiritual trends were first solidifying, weather forecasting was an art, not a science, and predicting which spots would get the best waves was so difficult that those waves often remained protected from the laity. Even something as seemingly simple as getting a functional surfboard required both locating a great shaper and the months of patience it often took to deal with that shaper. Today one can buy a machine-made version at Costco. Worse, this new breed of surfers who ride such boards don’t seem to understand the sport’s long unspoken rule that gives the most waves to the best surfers. “In the incoming flood you get cultural instability,” says Mathewes. “Where before you had the criteria of excellence created by virtuosi—the experts—when you have a mass emerging, the criteria is entirely up for grabs.”

Walker’s issue is not just that there are too many surfers in the water, but that thanks to easy access to good waves and even better equipment, these surfers aren’t going home anytime soon. “If you believe that surfing is a religion—and I don’t think that question’s really up for debate any longer—than the real gripe is that these new surfer’s access to the divine isn’t earned, it’s store-bought and mass marketed.”

Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.

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