Aquatic Nature Religion



Aquatic Nature Religion is an article by Bron Taylor published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion in 2007.  It argues that surfing can be seen as a new global religion, complete with its own rituals, idols, technology, terminology, symbols, and experiences.  While I disagree that surfing should be looked at as a religion, this article did help bring forth some ideas that have been percolating in the back of my mind for awhile now...



WHY WE SURF

I believe I can safely say that most surfers consider surfing to be not only different than other sports, but better as well.  But what separates surfing from other forms of sport?  Why do we spend so much time and effort for a few seconds of wave-riding?  In my humble opinion there are two possible hypothesis.  The first, and more complex, being that there is some deeper meaning behind surfing that cannot be found in other sports.  I will try to explain my theory on what this may be to the best of my abilities.  The second hypothesis is that surfing is simply a sport, and the benefits and reasons for being a surfer are no different than why people play tennis, golf, or climb mountains... 


Surfing: A Deep Connection to Nature

I am going to try my best not to ramble and turn this into some nonsensical bullshit, but that may very well be what this turns out as... So be it.  Here it is in a nutshell.  The universe has a strange tendency to "organize" small simple materials into more complex and larger pieces.  Atoms congregate into elements, elements into molecules, space dust into suns and planets, etc. etc.  It is really strange phenomenon when you think about it, how patterns and complexity seem to arise out of chaos.  This is mainly due to energy trying to find the most stable possible state, and that can be attributed to the laws of the universe (there are several competing theories as to why these laws are "setup" to allow even this to happen, but I won't bother to get into that...).  Humans and every other living thing (well, our genes actually) are direct results of this tendency towards organization.  Unfortunately, in most cases we cannot watch this organization happen in front of us, since it moves forward on a either a geologic timescale, or at a microscopic level.  One of the very few direct and observable illustrations of this organization from chaos is, of course, waves...

Every surfer has experienced the patterns and rhythms in the movement of waves (waiting for sets, the 2nd wave of the set is the best, etc.).  As I see it, waves are a direct connection to the universal tendency to make structure from chaos.  They are not simple static objects, but a fluid reflection of this tendency towards organization.  A wave is birthed from the chaos of a distant offshore storm (which come in patterns themselves), and slowly organizes into our familiar lines of swell.  By riding a wave, we are directly feeling and manipulating that energy.  This is not something that can happen in any other sport I can think of.  Waves are not just an example of this process, they are the process, and surfing allows us to plug into that energy. 

This may have been complete gibberish, but oh well...  I first stumbled on this outlandish hypothesis while reading Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, where he mentioned an example of how organization can come from chaos by looking at how rocks and pebbles are arranged into observable patterns on the beach by the chaos of the waves...



Surfing: A Sport Just Like the Rest

Surfing seems to go against many of our commonly held predispositions and fears, especially those regarding water.  The fear of the ocean, of drowning, of being buried alive, and so on.  Consequently, while we surf and ride waves we are saturating our brain with huge amounts of adrenaline (which can be a very addictive substance).  In my experience, the best waves you ever get are often the scariest!  Therefore, the "addiction" that is attributed to the act of surfing, may simply be our ever increasing need for the self produced stimulant, adrenaline.  There is no deep meaning behind the sport of surfing, it is simply a reflection of our need to pump our brains full of this addictive neurotransmitter, much like mountain climbers, dirt bike riders, or even golfers...

Surfing, like the aforementioned sports, also has other positive influences that keep us in the water.  Despite all the beer some of us drink, surfing is a very laborious activity, so it tends to keep us in relatively good shape.  It is well documented that those who exercise regularly tend to live fuller, longer, and happier lives than those who don't.  This keeps us in a good clean state of mind.  Furthermore, surfing helps us meet people and generate relationships with fellow wave-riders.  Surfers also spend a great deal of time enjoying nature and being outdoors.  In the end, surfing has many benefits, but there is nothing extraordinary about it.  We do it because of the adrenaline rush, the beneficial exercise, the time outdoors, and the social relationships that we generate.  It is only a sport.

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I am not sure which of these unsupported hypothesis I would consider myself a "believer" in.  There are probably a vast number of other reasons why people feel they surf, but these are the two that I think about the most.  I am not sure if anybody has ever thought about the reasons behind why they surf, or if I am just some kind of weirdo, but I find it fun to ponder things like this.

Or maybe I am just bored because the surf sucks...

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