Could Burning Man replace religion? For real?

Photo taken at Center Camp.

When Christian media first got wind of Burning Man, they accused it of being the latest fad in Satanism.

They still do that … apparently Satan’s had a slow decade … but now there are so many articles with the premise of “my time at Burning Man as a Christian” that it’s practically its own genre – and many of these articles posit that Burning Man is something the Church can learn from, and that there is a place for the Cross at the Man.

There’s Phil Wyman’s recent article in Christianity Today – along with numerous posts on his blog. Wyman, incidentally, also creates Christian themed art for the playa that fits in perfectly with the rest of our patented brand of madness. (I wrote about one of his pieces here, and he strongly disagreed with my take here, but there’s no question in my mind that his work contributes fittingly to our ethos.)

There’s Steve Matthews posting for The Worldview Center, which is mostly critical (and badly misinformed) but still asks “What the church can learn from Burning Man.” There’s a number of posts about Burning Man on the Sidewalk Theologian blog. And many more.

Which begs a question I’ve been wondering for a while: When exactly did a Cacophony sponsored trip to the desert to build art and shoot guns transform into a major spiritual pilgrimage for the Western world?

Whether or not it’s appropriate to think of Burning Man in those terms, there’s no question that many people do. The number of camps offering morning yoga has increased alarmingly in just the last few years. A number of people talk about Burning Man as though it were an alternative to mainstream religion – as, for example, this recent Huffington Post blog suggesting that because Burning Man fits Joseph Campell’s criteria for a religion it’s ready to hit the big leagues. And as a Volunteer Coordinator for Burning Man, I receive hundreds of volunteer applications every year that say something like this:

“I’ve never been to Burning Man but I’m so inspired by your spiritual energy and the way it has already transformed my karma that I can’t wait to come and open myself up to the vibrational harmonies of so many enlightened souls manifesting positivity until we visualize a new universe full of healing mindfulness!”

No, seriously. They say that over and over again. I don’t think it’s a joke.

The guns are gone. The morning yoga’s here to stay. The person serving your coffee is an enlightened soul manifesting positivity through his chakras. Is that who we are?

Could a temporary city full of bunny costumes and hula hoops really be a supplement – or a replacement – for traditional religion?

It’s an absurd question on its face, but from panicked Christians to optimistic new age shamans, people are asking it.

The fact of they’re asking it, though, has only a little to do with Burning Man. Western culture has been moving away from institutionalized forms of religion since the Enlightenment … or even the pre-Renaissance: if you want to argue that Petrarch prefigured Montaigne in crucial respects, I’ll respect you in the morning. But the watershed moment was when Nietzsche’s mad prophet declared “God is dead.”

For most atheists, that was a triumphant call – but they forget that for Nietzsche’s prophet it was also a harbinger of doom. For all our technical advances, there is still a god shaped hole in our culture. The western psyche has been in such a spiritual crisis that it’s latched on to everything from UFOs to anti-depressants and asked “are you my savior?”

“I find that contemporary therapy is almost entirely concerned, when all is surveyed, with the problem of the individual’s search for myths,” legendary therapist Rollo May wrote in 1991. “The fact that Western society has all but lost its myths was the main reason for the birth and development of psychoanalysis in the first place.”

The need for transcendent experiences has not gone away with belief in the divine. Instead that need has been transferred … most often to art.

It’s no accident that for the last 150 years western elites have tended to talk about art in the same terms priests and mystics used for divinity: art’s transcendent, art gives life meaning, art opens our eyes to new possibilities, art calls us to social justice … life even imitates it. As historian Jacques Barzun wrote in 1959 “For many people art, displacing religion, has become the justification of life, whether as the saving grace of an ugly civilization or as the pattern of the only noble career.”

Scholar James Davison Hunter noted, in an introduction to the thought of sociologist Philip Rieff: “In the material culture, art once addressed to sacred order is liberated from theological reference and now addresses only itself. Accordingly, in the structure of social authority, the artist replaces the prophet, the therapist replaces the priest, and so it goes.”

Or as Rieff himself wrote: “The faith instinct reappear(s) (in modernity) only on condition of its denial.” We’ll deny religion at every turn but we’ll treat art, psychology, and science with exactly the same reverence and expectations, and look to it for both miracles and existential answers.

Not all art, however, is equally suited to the task: the New York MOMA may get donations worthy of a Renaissance cathedral (no accident) but it probably hasn’t inspired as many “spiritual” experiences in its entire history as Burning Man did last year. What’s going on?

In her 2007 paper “Religion and the Arts in America,” Camille Paglia …

… Can I just stop and say I have always wanted to cite both Philip Rieff and Camille Paglia in the same essay? This is kind of a dream of mine. Let me take just a moment to savor it …

Camille Paglia – an unapologetic atheist and libertarian – argues that only religion can save the arts. When intellectual and religious culture divided, Paglia posits, secular intellectualism took High Art with it, but religion kept the passion that had served as Art’s life blood. Thus most high art in the modern era is … bloodless. Passionless. More devoted to being clever and having a catalogue description with the right buzzwords than with inspiring genuine feeling – let alone transcendence – among its audience. (Music was once the great exception to this, as the “low art” forms of music for much of the 20th century were oceans of passion. I would suggest, however, that the technical advances in pop music have squeezed most of the passion out of that form as well.)

Without passion for the transcendent, art is hobbled and far less effective at inspiring spiritual experiences.

“For the fine arts to revive, they must recover their spiritual center,” she writes. “The New Age movement, to which I belong, was a distillation of the 1960s’ multicultural attraction to world religions, but it has failed thus far to produce important work in the visual arts.”

I would say this is true – except at Burning Man, which has created and curated an extraordinary new visual aesthetic now unmatched anywhere else in the world.

What makes Burning Man the exception to Paglia’s verdict is precisely that Burning Man reunites passion for the transcendent in art – often through an unapologetically spiritual approach. (We burn a giant man in a massive bacchanalia, and then we solemnly burn a temple, for crying out loud.) In an era when people are turning to Art to fill the void left by their refusal to be “religious” in any conventional sense, Burning Man returns the spiritual passion to Art that it needs to effectively fill that role.

Thus Burning Man became, somewhat in spite of itself, a spiritual beacon and pilgrimage site. Not on the order of Jerusalem, Rome, or Mecca (let’s keep perspective here), but significant all the same.

This has nothing to do with the reasons so many Christian groups condemn Burning Man: honestly they’ll condemn anything that hints of estrogen. But it is exactly the reason so many Christians are now looking at us and wondering: “what are they doing right, and why don’t we have a piece of it?”

Because for many in the western, post-modern, world, religion hasn’t been doing the job of finding transcendence any better than Art – and the churches and synagogues feel it. They are experimenting wildly, trying to appeal to the next generation of post-modern individualists, incorporating text messages into services and other terrible, terrible, ideas in the hope that something will stick.

Some of them think Burning Man has discovered the magic formula. The implication being that Burning Man could act as a supplement to, or even a replacement for, traditional religion.

Could it? Could Burning Man do that job?

No.

Burning Man can never – is constitutionally incapable of – filling the role traditional religion wants to fill, and used to fill: providing a universal world-view and sense of identity which can mediate the entirety of one’s interactions with the world.

It’s easy for people outside Burning Man to look at everything we do – the sprawling, colorful, thumping, mess of it – and ask “what does it MEAN?” and not realize that we don’t have an answer. But we don’t – and in that we fail the very first duty of a religion: there is little to no sense of shared meaning. We may appropriate the symbols of religion … and frequently do … but having a Buddha or cross at Burning Man doesn’t make it any more of a religious event than having a crucifix made Piss Christ a piece of Catholic memorabilia.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, Burners flock to Burning Man precisely because we don’t impose a common meaning on our activities. Principle me no 10 Principles: they are widely respected but largely unknown – most Burners can’t name more than a few, and have no common agreement on how to interpret them, and don’t feel any need to change that.  What does the “Man” mean?  No one has any standing to tell you.  “Burning” is a verb, not a noun, let alone a philosophy: we will band together tightly to do what we do, but never to agree on what it means.  For a religion, that’s heresy – for us, it’s a feature.

Burning Man can never replace or even adequately supplement religion in its historical role: we don’t have it in us, and are successful precisely because we don’t try.

Burning Man often looks like a religion in spite of its incapacity to fill that role because in addition to providing an active link to transcendent experiences it accomplishes something else that modernity desperately needs: it gets people from vastly different backgrounds to sublimate to a common cause. Not a common belief, but a common cause. This is one of the most desperate challenges of a post-modern era: a common culture requires sublimation to it (Philip Rieff: “culture belongs to those who will submit to it”). Otherwise it’s every man for himself, the law becomes legalism, and everyone assumes the system is rigged and no one supports it. Sound familiar?

But at Burning Man, people willingly give freely of their money, time, and possessions. Far from a celebration of individual liberty, Burning Man can legitimately be seen as the iron shackle of art and culture. We give to it – we gift it – without asking what’s in it for ourselves, because we experience something transcendent and that is good enough on its own terms. We bow, to one degree or another, to its demands not for a salary or gain but because we know that by pitching in we make the thing work.

That’s nothing new:  in fact, it’s how medieval communities built cathedrals.  But at Burning Man, we do it without a shared meaning. That may be unique.  It also may be essential to the survival of a post-modern culture where people can’t agree on anything.

That’s not religion … and never will be … but two out of three ain’t bad. In fact, it’s damn good.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. He is not an official representative of Burning Man, or even an employee, and does not speak for the organization. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com

25 thoughts on “Could Burning Man replace religion? For real?

  • I agree with some of your viewpoints, Magister, but it may be worth adding to the discussion that the “watershed moment” in all this actually came many years before Nietzsche’s building recognition that “God is dead.” The asundering awareness came in the late 18th century and developed into the 19th, when the then rather vexing question arose in philosophy, politics, and art (and pretty much everything else) as to perhaps there *may* very well never be a universally demonstratable connection between experience, knowledge, truth, and art (or some other universal such as God, state, or bacon). Every ideology (including science and atheism) that said otherwise, before or since, has not adequately, if at all, answered that question. We very much are still wandering the very same frontier that was traversed by those that brought us the French Revolution and Romanticism, and their aftermath The thing about Burning Man is, we all get to experiment with this question more-or-less as we wish on a vast and growing scale, which is thusfar not possible or practical in so many other contexts and cultures.

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  • I don’t think that the lack of a dogma or an articulable consensus worldview is enough to disqualify Burning Man from being a religion. The large religions already have a crisis of dogma, where there are so many offshoots and sects and reforms and reinterpretations and disagreements and schisms that there isn’t really much you can point to for certain that defines the boundaries of their worldview. Think of the Unitarians or the Quakers – other than a few vague principles about the nature of the divine and some suggestions about how people should be kind to each other, they assert very little to be certainly true. And if you try to take all of Christianity as a single concept, you’ll find so many incompatible beliefs that there will be very little left to say “this is the Christian worldview”. Buddhism, over time, has shed most of its beliefs (in some sects, at least) – with some secular Buddhists advocating for the abolishment of the belief in reincarnation – intentionally trying to purify the religion into a philosophy without beliefs. I really am not sure what Burner…ism is lacking that these older religions have. But I am sure that this is a conversation we’re going to be having for a long time – more people on-playa used the word “church” to describe the City to me than ever before.

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  • @ G
    I’m strictly an amateur – but I appreciate the question! I didn’t study this stuff at the graduate level after I realized that too often advanced schooling in America only serves to kill the object of study.

    @Nathan Aaron Heller
    I agree completely that Nietzsche had influences and historical precedent – people were thinking this prior to him. But the overall ethos of the 17th and 18th centuries still held out hope (in the minds of ordinary people, if not the philosophers) for a clearly knowable universe based on rational principles descended from first causes – Deism fit perfectly. I think “God is Dead” has stuck in modern consciousness in a way that, say, David Hume and Montaigne have not, because it is a symbolically powerful watershed moment. The moment the dam burst, if you will. By by and large you’re correct.

    @Confused
    The point with religions is precisely that a crisis in dogma is settled by a schism that draws up new lines of authority. The Catholics and the Protestants didn’t continue to worship together: they formed separate churches which held different beliefs and recognized different sources of legitimacy. The same thing happened when Protestants splint into dozens of different groups. Puritans and Anglicans didn’t pray with each other, or recognize each others’ ecclesiastical leaders.

    This is exactly what doesn’t happen at Burning Man – with the possible (and fascinating) exception of BORG2, the fact that we disagree about how to apply the 10 principles doesn’t mean we can’t attend the same Burn. Thunderdome and Otic Oasis don’t form separate events because they like to burn differently: and if they did, it would be seen as an expansion of the culture (hey, new regionals!) than a break away from Burning Man. Their members would likely continue to attend both, and nobody would think it strange.

    This is because religion has Authority – perhaps in the form of a divine presence (God) or a set of fundamental principles. This is the case in Buddhism: when (non-devotional) Buddhists want to appeal to authority they appeal to a set of philosophical and epistemological arguments that … and this is key … they believe can be worked out rationally into the correct doctrine. That’s what secular Buddhists are trying to do: appealing to first epistemological principles and logic in order to come to authoritative conclusions. Buddhists who are “intentionally trying to purify the religion in a philosophy without beliefs” are very much making an appeal to Authority. Just not a divine authority.

    Burning Man doesn’t impose Authority: if I think that Radical Self-Expression is more important than Community, and you think Community is more important, and G. says they’re equally important, there is no authority we can turn to that will settle this argument. Not Larry Harvey, not a book about Burning Man, not the Burning Man website, not pure logic – nothing. We could agree on an authority to settle it between the three of us, but that would have no binding power over any other Burners.

    That’s a big part of what makes Burning Man different from a religion.

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  • This may be an off hand and ignorant thing to say, but here goes. Burning Man has no sacred scriptures. All of the religions (that would be the major ones) I know of do.
    If someone proceeds to write a “Book Of Burning Man” to spin a mythology, and proscribe how one should live, particularly in Defaultia, that would be a real red flag.

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  • It’s a temporary gathering, a festival, an event, a pilgrimage. The religion analogy is a bit tenuous because of that. Maybe saying BM is similar to Kumbh Mela or other such spiritual events is more valid. Then the question becomes, what is the “religion” that drives people to the desert every year? Possibly the lack of? At any rate, this is really great writing, one of the best pieces I’ve read that gets to the heart of our beloved event.

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  • Caveat,
    we met and talked about this for a brief minute on Tuesday after the burn this year.
    I know everyone runs together when you meet a ton of folks on the playa though.
    Are there any statistics on which religions are present at burning man?
    I met a Sheikh from India at burning man this year and it piqued my interest about
    which religions and groups are present.
    Your article was beautifully written.
    Reid

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  • Fascinating thoughts, as always CM.
    As an atheist (it’s not something that one should need to apologise for, by the way!) and advocate of not needing religion, I do find Burning Man (both event and principles) to be the closest thing I’d want to any religion or religous experiences.
    I don’t think it matters what religion or lack-of that you have, The Temple and the way that has evolved has the power to affect people (me, certainly) in a way that no other temple or religious place I’ve been too (and that’s a lot, all over the world).
    I found the BBC video piece (part of a world tour of religous places) that showed the correspondent at Burning Man and specifically the Temple to be very true.
    From 1:28 in:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ok-eguBjqhs

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  • In “Variety of Religious Experience” William James speaks of primal religion (the connections we feel inside without understanding their origin) and second hand religion (what we are told about from others). All experiences are religious in the sense that all experiences reveal ourselves and expose our connections to the extent we seek to know them. Burning Man is every day experience on steroids and is therefore a more intense religious experience than daily life. Even the most ardent atheist is going to have a religious experience at Burning Man, unless he or she is hopelessly jaded. Burning Man will never replace everyday big “R” religion, because that is just a structure to form a society around and has nothing to do with actual understanding of “The Thing”. What Burning Man provides is a long-term living koan, which trips the mind out of everyday thought and creates space for ecstatic experience.

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  • A beautiful post – well done!

    I’ve spent some time recently thinking about wether Burning Man could be considered a cult. One of my good friends, when asked by me if he was going this year, replied. “I always go. It’s my religion.” I’ve also read the posts by a few Christians about the “satanic” rituals. I’ve personally experienced Burning Man only once so far. I’ll throw out a few thoughts that come to mind:

    1. A cult is just what large religions call small ones.

    2. Burning man meets some of the definitions of a religion or cult but lacks a very major one – rather than telling you what you should or should not do, it tells you to do what you want to do. In that respect, a typical corporate office, where everyone dresses in suits or slacks, is more cultish than Burning Man. Burning Man is in that respect the anti-cult.

    3. I was amazed that at Burning Man I found the desire and willingness to help your fellow man present in a way that all religions strive for but none seem to achieve.

    4. I finally figured out how to explain the Man Burn itself. It’s not a religious ritual. It’s the dropping of the ball on New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Nothing more and nothing less. You want to be there to be part of it. It’s just a symbol of itself. (On the other hand, I found the Temple Burn very emotional, having lost a relative 9 days prior, and written a memorial to him on the Temple).

    5. Most of the press sensationalizes the “nudity and drug use”. Of course anyone who has actually been there would probably estimate that 1% of people are nude, and that drug use is far less prevalent than alcohol use. On the other hand, at your neighborhood bar alcohol use is typiclly close to 100%.

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  • Nonsense!

    Absolute nonsense!

    We don’t need a new religion. We’ve had quite enough of that for the last couple thousand years.

    Wars, centuries of dogmatic idiocy, and legions of bobble headed millions to commit murder and suicide?

    How about we don’t do that!

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  • @ NoAngel

    It is a common misconception that all our woes have been caused by religion. In fact all those things you speak of are really about those in power using religion for control of resources and the retention of power and wealth. Religion has given us figures like Gandhi, Martin Luther king, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, etc. Some of the history’s most beautiful concepts of tolerance and acceptance have their roots in religion. Religion is a vital source for good when not wielded for cynical means. Dogmas and doctrines are fairly useless, but every act of creativity is inherently religious because it is an attempt to comprehend the abstract.

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  • You said: “Burning” is a verb, not a noun, let alone a philosophy. I thought it was an adjective.
    I should hope it’s not a religion; dat’s duppy shit. All religion was started by satang anyway cept possibly da jews cos they was worshippin already before he became satang. Wot da petty religionist need to realise is creation did not happen cos some narrow minded being of low-mentality required a horde of worshippers. Worship is definitely (by definition it’s an act of fear not love eg supplication) da constitutive act of satang. Existentially we are survival constructs built by our genes over years of evolutionary benchmarking. Only when they gave us bi-hemispherical brains did we become aware of ourselves. I am not really Matoka – I jus think I am. Conversely I am not really a separate individual from any of da rest of you or even from da desert plain(?) upon which you burn da man. Where is BRC anyway? loveLOVE

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