Neil Elliot, a priest at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Trail, British Columbia, has become the first person in the world to earn a doctorate in ‘snowboarding’, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Already a Master of Arts in theology and Islamic studies, Elliot submitted a dissertation that examines the ‘spirituality’ of the winter sport to Kingston University in London, England. Elliott first formulated his research topic after discovering the term ‘soul-riding’ on the internet, which led him to reflect on the various ways in which individuals might have “transcending experiences”. From there, he conducted ethnographic research with snowboarders in both Canada and the UK in an attempt to identify the ‘spirituality of snowboarding’.
In an interview on the CBC’s website, Elliot describes ‘soul-riding’ as the quasi-transcendent experience of being completely focused and completely ‘in the moment’ while snowboarding – something akin, I would think, to psychologist Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of ‘flow’ – an attitude which transfers into regular life as well. He concludes that spirituality and snowboarding could be argued to intersect and that, for many, snowboarding constitutes a “religion”, to use the words of his research subjects. Elliot hopes that his project will contribute to a continuing discussion in the sociology of religion that tries to make sense of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd. Defining spirituality in the interview as “a way of looking at the world that includes there being something more than just the material”, Elliot argues that snowboarding can serve as both spirituality and religion. The two need not be different, he suggests, but can work together. He hopes that this message will help serve clergy struggling to fill their pews.
While I have yet to read Elliot’s dissertation, the way in which the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘religion/religious’ are used in the article seems to me problematic. I can certainly respect Elliot’s desire to look into the ‘spiritual but not religious’ issue, in which individuals often set up a facile dichotomy between institutional and personal religion, elevating the one and degrading the other in a manner that artificially separates public and private. If the public is private and the private is public, as many – including, most recently, Craig Martin, in his Masking Hegemony (2010) – have argued, then ‘spiritual but not religious’ becomes a difficult statement to make. Elliot seems to recognise some of these problems. At the same time, I am left with the feeling that, for Elliot, religion is something ‘special’. Why, for example, should we consider snowboarding a religion, confining experiences of the transcendent to religious bounds by expanding the category of ‘religion’ itself, rather than separating religion and the transcendent? Could we not say that snowboarding involves some sort of ‘oceanic feeling’, as Romain Rolland once put it in a letter to Freud, without bringing religion into the mix? I do not see why religion should maintain a monopoly over transcendent experience.
The same problem arises with Elliot’s definition of spirituality, which involves any worldview that looks beyond the material. By that definition, surely we are all spiritual! ‘Spirituality’ grows to encompass political beliefs, ethical convictions… any kind of ideology, really. I have nothing against expanding categories. Beyond a certain point, however, I do think that we need to ask ourselves how we continue to justify a given category’s existence. Is ‘spirituality’ a useful category, or are we just too hesitant to jettison a familiar notion? Part of the disagreement here comes from what I suspect to be Elliot’s methodological commitment as an ethnographer to represent and work within the categories used by his research subjects, a commitment which I, as a critic of categories, do not share.
Old habits are hard to change, especially when it comes down to our ways of thinking. But that does not mean that the challenge is not worth taking up.
On Spirituality: Natural and Non-natural
Thomas B. Ellis (PDF)
Religious Decline or Religious Change? Making Sense of Secularization in Europe
Todd Green (PDF)
The Anthropology of Christianity
Jon Bialecki, Naomi Haynes, Joel Robbins (PDF)