A thought occurred to me recently: If some malevolent being came into the world that forced us to close down the doors here at the Palace of Stoke, we could continue to fill editorial pages for two years solely with letters written by surfers to tell us of their spiritual quests in the waves. It’s a phenomenon, really. And it’s one, I believe, that is unique to surfing. I mean, do you think tennis players feel like they’re getting any spiritual fulfillment out of their daily matches? Does the mail department at Gun World have a hard time handling the letters from readers about the spirituality of firing a .357? Probably not.
But not surfers. Even the most cagey veteran on even the most meager day is apt to come out of the water feeling more content than when he went in. And I could spend literal hours every day reading mail about people who claim surfing as a salvation. So this sparked a debate here in the hallowed halls of surfdom: Could surfing be a bona fide religion? Is surfing a religion?
Depending on where you align yourself along the spiritual scale (1 being rotted-out, hollow-souled cynicism, 10 being free-flowing, feel-the-source, beauty-is-all-around-us believing), you’ll either define your personal pursuit of surfing as an ethereal pleasure designed to fill you with nothing but good, earthly sensations, or as an act of humility before a higher power, a way of connecting with your own personal almighty. (For the record, and by way of disclaimer, I rate myself a searching 3, having been raised Catholic and thus currently leading a conflicted and admittedly cynical existence.)
To get any sort of legitimate answer, I couldn’t just go out, Dictaphone in hand, and collect soundbites from Christian surfers and Buddhist surfers and write 2,500 words of fluff to illustrate that we can all, totally, get along. No. I had a point to prove: Surfing is a religion. To this end, I sought out a panel of religious experts: a Catholic Priest, a Christian Pastor, a Jewish Rabbi, a Buddhist monk. And I had an agenda: Convince these scholars to agree with me that surfing was a pursuit worthy of religious status.
I had plenty evidence to support my claim, given that in the beginning, there were Polynesians, and that the ancients had indeed viewed surfing as a spiritual pursuit unto itself. Before the Calvinists came to the islands beating their bibles and looking to save a few fresh souls from the horrors of surfing and nakedness (What Sloth! What Depravity!), Hawaiians had prayed over the trees from which they carved their boards, erected surfing temples, chanted for surf and appear to have viewed surfing, in and of itself, as a religious practice.
In modern times, surfing’s most renowned theologian was Tom Blake, who famously penned a 1969 article entitled Voice of the Wave, which examined the religious elements of surfing. Blake, who did a lot of thinking about surfing and religion (or at least philosophy), codified his own theory and eventually carved it, quite literally, into a slab of Wisconsin stone: Nature=God.
The Blake mode of inquiry persisted, even if the man himself went reclusive, and in the late-‘60s and early-‘70s, curious surfers began to espouse various Eastern philosophies, steeping themselves in yoga and meditative practices. Eventually, this esoteric relationship with the mystical waned, leaving in its wake a crew of surfers with a spiritual void that needed filling, and many of them became born-again Christians. This movement caught on, with Christian advertisements being taken out in SURFER, Christian movies like 1975’s Tales From the Tube being made, and less subtle injections of Christianity, like Murph the Surf’s brief deistic fling.