IS SKATEBOARDING A RELIGION?

Discourse on Why It Is for Some and Its Ties to Conservatism

Published in 2019, author Paul O’Connor details in his book Skateboarding and Religion the parallels between organized worship and the practice of skateboarding. In a snackable piece for Jenkem Magazine (2019), O’Connor offers a primer to his theory, laying out skateboarding as a bit of cult, where pros become deities, where ritual is key to its existence, the myth-making throughout its history and other weighty, yet conversational points. Originally from the UK and having lived for many years in Hong Kong and now Prague, his view of skateboarding is global and he frames skateboarding as a religion in an extremely convincing and engaging way throughout the text.

O’Connor’s work came to mind when I was listening to a recent episode of a Vox podcast with conservative author Tim Carney titled “What Trump Got Right about White America.” Since I’m sure none of the readers who haven’t heard The Ezra Klein Show—this particular episode was hosted by Jane Coaston—will be compelled to click and listen, I wanted to extract a few points from the show that were insightful and compelling. 

Before I get into this, I’d like to mention that my interest in listening to Carney was because of the research he did for his own book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, was out of my wheelhouse and as he describes, very reflective of why certain people—especially Christian Evangelicals—were drawn to Trump. Furthermore, Carney himself is a registered Republican and Catholic but didn’t vote for Trump in the primary and cast a protest vote in the general election. 

Carney appears to be who liberals believe who a Trump supporter is but through his book and the character studies within it, he clearly delineates between his beliefs and the perspective of those who embrace Trump. One of his key observations in the battleground states of the 2016 election was that the average white working-class voter who Trump appealed too isn’t actually that religious in that they don’t really attend church. They consider themselves conservatives and identify with religion because of their values but what’s informing those values has more to do with perception rather than reality.

Carney breaks it down this way: Yes, many old whites believe things were “better back then,” as far as their wages or the states of their neighborhoods but that’s a mirage. “Better” was mostly because of workplace inequality, pay gaps, oppressed immigration, and a lack of diversity. In other words, the jobs and wages were there for white men without much competition. 

OK, fuck, how can we turn this back to skateboarding or whatever this “blog” is about? Give me a minute. Thank you.

I want to throw out one more point that Carney makes about the role of religion in modern society. In the past, going to a place of worship was as much about community as it was about the morals preached within it and that does exist today but in a much different form. Community has actually fragmented due to the digital world we live in. We curate our communities based on global access to what we feel we are and those who embody that. For example, if you are a Flat Earther who thinks birds aren’t real, you don’t have to find like minds at the mall, at church, or at school, you simply follow different communities online, on social media, or on apps and boom, you’re connected.

Also, in theory, these places are “free” (guess what? They aren’t) whereas in many organized religions there’s constant fundraising pressure. Most importantly, the “religions” we create on social media are exact mirrors of what we want them to be—in theory, you can find a home with little compromise if any.

Carney’s appearance on the podcast was interesting to me because his take as a Catholic is that he embraces religion for community and even agreed with Hillary Clinton’s “It takes a village to raise a child,” statement. He’s a 42-year-old married, conservative journalist and a pretty regular dude as far as interests and profile. Church is where he feels like he’s part of some social good that ties in with his morals. Look, I don’t care if he’s full of shit, I’m just getting inside his head.

So what was compelling to me was how his experience directly related to me because I’m quick to admit I can be selfish. I thought back to why I hated my few years at parochial school, attending church every weekday and then having to go back on Sundays with my parents. I hated having the weird-ass head priest or whatever the fuck, named Father Terranova over for dinner wearing his brown padre outfit (not the professional baseball team, mind you). I really disliked the nuns who taught me and how they directly told me heavy metal was devil music and that comic books were the tools of Satan because they depicted men and women as Gods. 

As a kid and later a teenager, religion didn’t offer me anything, especially community. I wanted nothing to do with helping wash dishes at a ham and bean supper in the basement of a church or selling stale chocolates to raise money to repair stained glass. It wasn’t that the idea of charity work was a turnoff, just that I was young, selfish, and wanted to ride a skateboard and go see bands play music. That would later change as everything does as you get older my aversion to organized religion has yet to waver.

Skating and hardcore were the community I wanted and sought out and it was never one community. The friends I made skating were different sects as much as those I met going to different independent music shows. In the ‘90s, the indie rock community was much different than the crust punk community or underground hip-hop or art-rock or noise in a way that doesn’t exist anymore. Sure, those scenes all operate now but you can also meet a 27-year-old that has a band or project for each of those scenes—few people really feel defined by one thing. It’s all so much bigger—not better or worse, just bigger.

Finding those communities that many mislabel as “tribes” is a form of religion. That got me thinking back to the Trump supporters Carney details. Perhaps some of them have a community that exists online but what they wanted badly was someone to say, “Everything is wrong and I’m going to make it right–I’ll make it the 20s or 30s or 50s or whatever again.” That’s actually what Make America Great Again means to so many and that’s… gross. In a sense, they wanted Trump to change their physical communities without making them actually engage with it.

The comparison in skateboarding is direct. As I introduced in “Skateboarding Is Not Progressive,” there are some in skateboarding who not only feel it was “better” at some point but wish to tune out what they perceive as its push to be more political or at the least, to address inequalities, completely ignoring that as a system and “religion,” it was always quite conservative.

In thinking back to O’Connor’s text, I wanted to get his thoughts on the idea of “religion” in skateboarding directly speaking to community since his work did such a fantastic job of connecting the idea of framing the devotion aspects of skateboarding.

“I mainly have looked at the way people derive meaning out of skateboarding and the ritual elements or even how it can be used politically and strategically,” O’Connor said via email. “I like the community and ritual aspect as this is in my mind part of what transforms philosophy to religion. But the connection to sects and the little different affiliations is a ripe subject that I didn't develop very much. It is probably most evident in the ritual chapter where I talk about diacritic marks...

Micro rituals are similar to what anthropologist John Bowen (2012, p. 54) describes as diacritic actions, particular performances used to communicate with, and understood by, only a select group. For Bowen these actions and motifs are like indexes by which others can infer a wealth of codified information. We learn through this chapter that skateboarders have a ritual life that is layered with such symbolic meaning. (p 181)

But the more straightforward analogous relationship between skateboarders and sects has actually been discussed by Scott Bourne (yes he of Consolidated) in a short story in the collection Life and Limb... he goes on to refer to denominations. I took a quick photo of one page and it is attached e.g. Pool denomination, rail denomination... etc. I loved this passage and I always planned to use it in the book. I think the reason I omitted it was because it is a very binary way to think about religion and skateboarding, like for like, trying to make it fit tidily.”

O’Connor’s analysis, as well as Bourne’s observations, hit on something interesting—the idea that each “type” of skateboarding was its own micro-religion. 

It made me think back to my initial introduction to skateboarding and hardcore punk in the ‘80s and how they both seemed to be fully cohesive subcultures with some variance within them. In skating, you had freestyle, pools, vert, street, and to a much lesser degree at that time, slalom/downhill skating. In punk, the scene I was exposed to a mix of UK punk fans still dressing as if it were the ‘70s, faux-working class Oi! enthusiasts, heavy metal crossover kids, straight edge people, and miscellaneous individuals.

Both seemed united under the blanket of skating or punk but the longer you were immersed in these worlds, the divisions and differences became apparent. Like myself, many of my peers would gravitate towards a smaller part of the whole based on our interests only to slowly begin the cycle of disillusionment again. Despite realizing that there was no utopian subculture, you could filter it down to where you felt the most comfortable, understanding that no matter where you land it’s a place navigated and orchestrated by other humans who are equally as fucked up or motivated by things other than fostering community.

“The axe I often grind in my work on skate academia is that skateboarding is conservative,” O’Connor says. “It was conservative and exclusive when we had our little cliques. Like you say the punk rock mentality was a nice exclusive club. Subculture is cozy and comfortable for those in it, exclusive for those outside. However, as skateboarding has become a culture it has lost its niche feel and has become more bland and generic to some of the old guard. The truth, however, is that culture is brutal and it always demands people conform to some sorts of ideals. In skateboarding right now there seems to be a move towards ethics of social justice and also the ardent belief that skateboarding is a tool to save the world. While I am much more aligned with these views than the Surf Nazi doctrine of old SoCal skateboarding, it is a top-down doctrine from the broader society, 'this is how to behave now'... I think in the subcultural phase we were more tolerant of differences within skateboarding, and now we are more tolerant of everything outside of skateboarding, the stuff that in truth isn't about skateboarding at all. It has kind of flipped. But in my mind skateboarding is still conservative, it is no longer radical to be pro-LGBTQ and anti-racist—sure many people are opposed to these views but they are part of our vernacular. Skateboarding is still conservative, it is just following the pack.’

O’Connor’s comments offer many talking points in a few sentences—sweeping ideas and analysis that’s only begun to be dissected in academia and small circles in skateboarding. I understand that this has little value to those only interested in the “act” of skateboarding but there is worth in understanding the ways people embrace skateboarding as their personal religion because it offers insight into how we can collectively and individually address what “it” is.  

Like O’Connor, my views lean toward the progressive side of things, much more so than the “SoCal” culture he mentions—that’s a key delineation. At one point I thought everyone in skating or punk shared a world view. Wrong. We see it in current culture, that everyone in punk, skating, hip-hop, right or left, and basically any faction we find lacks a unified view, simply because all these things have grown to be so massive. Because of this, there should be no expectation that just because you ride a skateboard you subscribe to an ideology.

Do you think the Southern Californian men in their 50s riding a bowl, who have families, are Christian, and own business vote the same way the inner-city raised people and transplants that traverse LES Coleman Park in New York City day-in and day-out? You’re joking, right? In New York, many of the skaters aren’t voting age and you could surmise that many don’t—not by any fault of their own—know the importance of engaging in the political process. And yes, you have plenty of people of all ages that believe it’s all rigged so they’re agnostic to it all. Even that’s a belief though. 

I often catch myself in odd exchanges with people I’m friendly with or in work situations where I’m asked how I know someone and answer is often: Oh, yeah, I’ve known them for years through skating and or music. That’s really odd to what we’ll call “civilians.” Most people, even those who have strong interests from recreational sports to video games, rarely engage and befriend people the way you do in skateboarding. We can think of their communities as “passive” in that they have an internal belief structure that rarely is outward-facing, save if they share something political on social media. Most “civilians” would rather keep their politics personal and use their free time for actual recreation but when presented with an option that speaks to those politics, they can feel energized by the potential of the passive becoming active.

Unlike punk, skateboarding is a thing built on activity not sound. You don’t need to play music to be punk but to identify as a skateboarder, you had to have rolled for some portion of your life. Punk is also mostly a non-profit world, which makes its structure much more akin to religion, whereas the moment skateboards became mass-produced, it shifted to a profit model. Yes, DIY has always been a component of skateboarding but if the average person had to 3D print trucks in their living room because the industry died and there were no corporations or larger core companies to fund it, we’d obviously see skating shrink to a fraction of its current size. 

If we removed all the factions of skateboarding and simply looked at it as one ideology, we can use the post-X-Games boom up to the American Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 as a major learning of skateboarding’s leanings. During that period—when outside money was flowing, video games were selling, television coverage was booming, and anyone thought they could be the next Jackass—skateboarding wasn’t building community or looking internally. In fact, it was operating as typical capitalism—conservative capitalism. Outside investors were brought in, production moved to places with cheaper labor, unions were shunned, and the industry as a whole was privatized. Edgy graphics gave way to ones that leaned towards tweens or type-based motifs that looked sterile on sporting goods store racks. Of course, these trends weren’t absolute but they were the larger model. In a sense, skateboarding became a Mega Church… until it wasn’t.

Once the money dried up, ideology and to a degree, philanthropy was introduced back into skateboarding in the late-2000s, not prior. That’s because progressivism was never a part of the larger religion and as O’Connor surmises, evidence of it being conservative. 

This recent timeline introduces and emboldens two things: 1.) Skateboarding is not a religion. 2.) Skateboarding is not progressive.

Therefore, those who opine for the “better” time in skateboarding or culture at large are relying on perception more than reality. Skateboarding’s money boom of the ‘90s-2000s mirrored the US Housing Bubble—it was never real and shouldn’t be viewed as anything more than market manipulation. The “good old days” of the ‘80s or ‘90s may have been the entry point and salad days for some but we cannot forget the flaws and warts that still linger. 

Hearing people talk about how “they wish skating could go back to how it was” is as cringy as Democrats who want the United States to go “back to normal.” Sorry, “normal” sucked and also, what “normal” are we referring to? The “normal” of the AIDS epidemic, Rodney King beating and riots, bombings on US soil by its citizens, the false invasion of Iraq, the taunting of Al Gore’s call for attention to climate change that actually lost him votes, the ongoing school shootings and antiquated gun laws, the opioid crisis, the struggle for same-sex marriage to be legal, gender inequality, the “War on Drugs” or allowing tech companies to exploit personal data? 

“Normal” is never enough and turning back the clock, especially during the Trump Presidency has proven to do nothing for progress but damage the advances prior to it. Looking backward can provide a path to move forward but living in the past is pretty much terrifying and counter to productivity. Understanding the mindset of those who wish to time travel may not do much other than highlight their stance as obsolete and jaded.

At the least, it allows anyone who is moving to challenge the power structure a window into the roadblocks and, hopefully, offers some tools to build an off-ramp. Skateboarding is a religion to some, one that can be meditative, one that can be fanatical, and in the case of Christian Skate Ministries and Ponzi Scheme YouTube companies, one that’s terrifying. It’s also deeply personal and complex in that anyone who identifies as a “skateboarder” is acknowledging something greater.

Skateboarding is neither a singular religion or a two-party system, therefore, there’s nothing to worship or win. O’Connor’s book description sums this up:

Drawing on scholarship from the sociology of religion and the cultural politics of lifestyle sports, this work combines ethnographic research with media analysis to argue that the rituals of skateboarding provide participants with a rich cultural canvas for emotional and spiritual engagement. Paul O’Connor contends that religious identification in skateboarding is set to increase as participants pursue ways to both control and engage meaningfully with an activity that has become an increasingly mainstream and institutionalized sport. Religion is explored through the themes of myth, celebrity, iconography, pilgrimage, evangelism, cults, and self-help.

To be honest, I’ve always been fine with just being a person that rides one.