Golf as Religion: The Functional Approach

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf

The Golf Gods: Towards a Religious Philosophy of Golf

Golf as Religion: The Functional Approach

Some may think that the portrayal of Golf as a religion trivializes life and people’s experience with God. Non-golfers, in particular, may not understand the metaphors of Golf for life, and they may find talk of a Golf God or gods to be just plain silly. While I can understand their lack of enthusiasm for Golf as a religion, I do not agree.

The psychologist Erich Fromm (1900-1980) defined religion as “any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.”[1] Golf, as I have tried to argue, provides its players with an object of devotion (God or Energy-itself in a quest for beauty) and a framework for orienting their lives. As Mark Frost writes, expressing the view of Francis Ouiment, Golf encourages “physical and mental discipline, ethical rectitude, and, in order to excel [demands] skills, resolve, and courage” that serve humans “superbly in any walk of life.”[2] Swayed by the value of beauty, golfers cultivate responsibility, decorum, integrity, adeptness, confidence, and other important virtues

Moreover, Fromm contends, “the study of man permits us to recognize that the need for a common system of orientation and for an object of devotion is deeply rooted in the conditions of human existence.”[3] Humans want to make sense of their universe, and religion provides the means by which that can be done. If searching golfers can find in Golf “a frame of orientation and an object of devotion,” then it qualifies as a religion.

Peter Berger, a sociologist of religion, writes that “Religion is the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established. Put differently, religion is cosmization in a sacred mode.”[4] By “cosmization in a sacred mode,” Berger is referring to the process by which meaning is rendered to the universe through sacred constructs. For Berger then, religion is the human effort to construct a sacred cosmos, a meaningful view of reality. I see no reason why players cannot mingle sacred constructs and the language of Golf to understand the reality around them. I see no reason why Golf cannot be “cosmization in a sacred mode.”

J. Milton Yinger, a sociologist of religion writes, “religion is an effort to perform certain functions for man.” What functions? For Yinger, religion performs the function of enabling humanity to struggle through the trials and tribulations of life. “Religion,” he writes, “can be defined as a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with … ultimate problems of human life.” Religion helps one cope with death, frustration, despair, and hostility. Religion “is an attempt to explain what cannot otherwise be explained; to achieve power, all other powers having failed us; to establish poise and serenity in the face of evil and suffering that other efforts have failed to eliminate.”[5] If Golf can be utilized as a means to struggle with the “ultimate problems of human life” or “explain what cannot otherwise be explain,” then it can be considered religion.

Religion, I contend, is an enterprise by means of which visions of ultimate meaning are sought, disclosed, and maintained. Religion is a process or “enterprise,” not a thing like a chair or a book. There are religious persons, but there actually is no such “thing” as religion. With “visions of ultimate meaning” I am referring to that comprehension of reality to which all others are subordinate in importance or significance. I am referring to that which answers such questions as, “Why is there something and not nothing?” “Why are we here?” “Why is there evil in the world?” “How should we live?” “Where are we going?” I am referring to that understanding of reality without which one may not choose to live, that which is of more value to a person than anything else in the universe. By arguing that ultimate meaning is “sought,” I intend to emphasize the fact that religion is humanity’s plea for purpose in life or for meaningful existence. Humanity searches for that which makes life worthwhile. When I contend that ultimate meaning is “disclosed,” I mean two things. First, the data upon which a vision of ultimate meaning is based impinges upon humanity for interpretation. The data discloses itself to its interpreters and, thereby, suggests a vision of meaning. Secondly, persons who interpret the data as ultimately meaningful project or disclose the nature of their interpretation to their conscious selves and to others. Finally, by referring to the “maintenance” of ultimate meaning, I intend to indicate the various practices and structures which serve as reinforcements and supports for ultimate meaning. Educational practices, communal observances, individual disciplines, and the like all function as supports for maintaining the visions of ultimate meaning which are sought and disclosed.

Golf, as much as any other more established or more traditional religion, can be an enterprise by means of which visions of ultimate meaning are sought, disclosed, and maintained. Golf, like any other religious tradition, can be a symbol complex upon which players know their world and act therein.

All communication takes place symbolically, and religious communication is no exception. When one throws the letters “d,” “G,” and “o” together in the manner of “God,” one is using symbols to create another symbol which carries meaning — different meanings to different people perhaps, but, nevertheless, meaning. All those who believe in God or gods relate to their God or gods through a communication (language, music, ritual, gesture, et cetera) which by its very nature is symbolic.

Religions function as symbol systems by means of which humans understand and deal with the reality around them. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, the Baha’i faith, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, et cetera, all utilize symbols to comprehend reality. Christian symbols, for Christians, make sense of and provide the means to deal with the universe. Jewish symbols, for Jews, structure reality and enable them to cope. The same is true for all other religions and their followers.

Golf can function as a symbol system by means of which players understand or cope with their world. Golf could be a religion. The goal, here, is not to trivialize religion. On the contrary, the goal is to elevate Golf.

For a related article see Golf as Religion: The Family Traits Approach.

[1] Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950, pp. 21-22.

[2] Frost, The Greatest Game Ever Played, p. 64.

[3] Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion, pp. 21-22.

[4] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1969, pp. 25-28.

[5] J. Milton Yinger, Religion, Society and the Individual: An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1957, p. 8-10.

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf

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