“Surfing is my religion.” You’ve seen that slogan in surf magazine ads and on bumper stickers. But first you have to ask yourself a question: What is religion? Last Judgment Soul Arch? You decide.

“Surfing is my religion.” You’ve seen that slogan in surf magazine ads and on bumper stickers. But first you have to ask yourself a question: What is religion? Last Judgment Soul Arch? You decide.


The Inertia

Editor’s Note: The following is the first in a three-part series by Ben Marcus exploring the idea of surfing as a religion. A version of this piece also appeared in Brazil’s Alma Surf.

“Surfing is my religion.” You’ve seen that slogan in surf magazine ads and on bumper stickers and t-shirts and you may or may not agree with that or think surfing as a religion is silly or dead serious.

But first you have to ask yourself a question: What is religion?

It’s a good question.

The word religion derives from the Latin  religionem which is defined as “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods,” or ”obligation, the bond between man and the gods.”

Patrick H McNamara, a professor of theology and author of many books on religion, said, “Try to define religion, and you invite an argument.”

That quote could be changed into “Go online to find a definition of religion and you will find sarcasm, crypticism, confusion and many different definitions.”

Saint Augustine of Hippo was cryptic: “If you do not ask me what time is, I know; if you ask me, I do not know.”

Huh?

George Bernard Shaw was sarcastic: “There is only one religion, though there are hundreds of versions of it.”

Karl Marx was critical and dubious: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature… a protest against real suffering… it is the opium of the people… the illusory sun which revolves around man for as long as he does not evolve around himself.”

Alfred White Northhead sounded a little like John Severson when he said: “Religion is what an individual does with his solitariness.”

Someone named Bradley took a crack at a non-opinionated definition: “Religion usually has to do with man’s relationship to the unseen world, to the world of spirits, demons, and gods. A second element common to all religions is the term salvation. All religions seek to help man find meaning in a universe which all too often appears to be hostile to his interests. The world salvation means, basically, health. It means one is saved from disaster, fear, hunger, and a meaningless life. It means one is saved for hope, love, security, and the fulfillment of purpose.”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines religion as: “Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power recognized as the creator and governor of the universe; A particular integrated system of this expression; The spiritual or emotional attitude of one who recognizes the existence of a superhuman power or powers.”

Comb those quotes and you will come up with words like “nature” and “reverence” and “health” and “solitude” and it’s not a stretch to find all these things in surfing. Hold surfing up to the filter of what is and what isn’t a religion, and it’s easy to make an argument that surfing qualifies.

Strangely, the website for Common Sense Atheism includes a good definition of what a religion must include:

1. interaction with the supernatural

2. a diagnosis of something essentially wrong with the human condition, and a prescription for salvation or liberation from it

3. regular, repeated behavior (ritual)

4. community practice

Some philosophers like Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson believe all arguments come from nature, and that religion is just the intellectualization of man’s original relationship with nature. Man needed it to rain, so he invented a rain God he could appeal to and appease with words, songs, behaviors and tributes.

As man became more sophisticated, his Gods and religions became more sophisticated.

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  • Guest

    It is not a religion, why even right a story on it…..cmon man and you were an editor at Surfer….wow!

    • ScottTX

      It could be considered a religion dependent on whether it meets criteria of a religion.  Such criteria could be very subjective and user-specified.  Why not “right” a story on it?…..cmon man you are a reader at TheInertia.com…..wow!

  • Anonymous

    Remember that one feature in Surfer mag that put that painting next to a photo of, uh, someone (from the ’70s) at Pipe who was striking a similar pose? It was from like 1995 or so. That was funny.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Marcus/610410184 Ben Marcus

      It was Herbie Fletcher with his arm held over his head.

  • Dawnpatrol

    I’m on a plane…and need to hit the reset button pronto!

  • wildrnes

    Is hiking a religion? Part of the “interactions with the physical universe” pantheon? Can we run hiking through the four points?

  • bert

    You can’t combine a “definition” of the term “religion” found on a website with what Thoreau or Emerson thought of what could be a religion, and then come and tell us you have a definition of what is a religion, in order to match with your vision of surfing.

    Most of your assumptions in the piece are subject to discussion, if not refutation. (“god=nature”; “What’s wrong with the human condition is we are stressed out”; calling “rituals” what could be a simple necessity…)

    A religion is not so easily defined, and I guess there are plenty of ways to enjoy surfing.
    That’s what came out of the beginning of your text, when you explained how difficult it is to define the term “religion”. And that’ what should come out of your text when you try to explain what the usual behaviour of a surfer could be.

    It does not diminish the value of what you wrote, but maybe it would have been better to show that for a lot of people, surfing could be close to some kind of pantheism, for instance, without “shooting too far”.

  • Jason

    Surfing is a divine experience for many reasons. God is not nature as the article says. God created nature and it points us toward Himself. God is, however, light. And light is a wave. Therefore God is a wave, and the waves all around us in nature points us toward Him and His eternal principles.
    Jesus Christ walked on water in the midst of a stormy sea, with waves all around him. Jesus taught us to love others as ourselves; to serve and submit to others, and to live knowing that “the last will be first.” Consider how a wave works, and you’ll see the lesson visually. The point of the teaching is that if you submit to others then, later, they are going to submit to your needs and put your needs above their own. It is like a wave where the trough becomes the crest. Humble yourself and God will raise you up. Surfers experience this lesson kinetically every time they go out, and I suspect that is why surfers tend to be open minded and spiritual.
    Or maybe I’m just high. But then again, Jesus Christ also anointed himself with kanehbosm and probably inhaled it as incense, and surfers tend to do the same despite the pro surf tour’s war against (some) drugs.

  • Vacantkoala

    Could be. Religion is just a word created by man to describe something created by man which attempted to capture something that may or may not be created by man. Could just as easily write an article titled ‘is surfing a cheesecake?’. It’s all the same. Religion isn’t really anything to with God. Believe in what you want!

  • wildrnes

    interesting points on why surfing is a religion.

    however, most religions have a story of how everything in our great universe came into existence. in essence, a back story of our existence albeit made from mud or carried on a sea turtle’s back. there is also a reluctant hero, prophet, or messiah. jesus, muhammad, buddha to name a few. then there is a god(s) who is defined and not scientifically categorized as a generalized phenomenon such nature. god(s) are usually distinctly separate of nature. maybe up the next rung.

    surfing is a way of life, maybe a religion to some. the definition is too foggy. we need some phd’s to set this argument straight.

    another thought, if some believe that there really is nothing, nothing supernatural that is, then surfing is just a action. that is action for nothing.

    surfing is religion
    religion is nothing
    therefore, surfing is nothing

    cheers ben. are you listening to bill callahan?

    thanks for firing up our neurotransmitters!

  • Surfshrink

    Surfing is clearly a form of play.  The vast majority of people engage in surfing as a hobby, sport, diversion from work/relationships, etc.   For some folks, it may seem like an occupation, therapy, religion, obsession or drug, among other things.  However, the essence of surfing is play- that’s why one gets that feeling of being a child again in the water.   
    The act of Surfing does not struggle with the big, often existential questions as does religion.  Why are we here? How did we get here?  Is there life after death?  What actions are moral, good vs bad?  Why is there evil in the world?  Why do bad things happen to ‘good’ people? How do we comprehend the cosmos? 
    One could surf for years, read surf mags, watch videos, go to surf expos and never find consistent answers to these questions.  99% of the time these sort of questions are not even discussed among surfers- hence the exceedingly rare article such as yours.  Surfing (play)  is really just an escape from all that heavy crap.    
    To illustrate this further, it would be odd/rare for someone new to surfing to head off to the beach asking existential questions of surfers. Yet at just about any religious establishment, you will find these questions arise naturally and are often answered.  
    Let surfing be play, that is enough.  Could there be anything better?

    • http://twitter.com/abohannon Adam Bohannon

      But why can’t surfing deal with these questions? I think it’s uniquely suited to do so. Regardless of your opinions of the man, this interview with Timothy Leary about surfing is really (ahem) enlightening and, at least to me, shows how surfing can be used as a way to grapple with the existential questions you mention here. To each his own, though, I suppose.

    • http://twitter.com/abohannon Adam Bohannon

      But why can’t surfing deal with these questions? I think it’s uniquely suited to do so. Regardless of your opinions of the man, this interview with Timothy Leary about surfing is really (ahem) enlightening and, at least to me, shows how surfing can be used as a way to grapple with the existential questions you mention here. To each his own, though, I suppose.