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.”
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.