May 26th, 2014  |  Filed under Burning Book Club

Burning Book Club – preface – “Atheism isn’t as easy as it looks”

May 26th, 2014  |  Filed under Burning Book Club

Burning BooksRead more about Book Club and the book we’re reading.

According to the 2013 Blackrock City Census, 73% of Burning Man attendees say they belong to “No Religion.”  Of the remaining Burners, 6% claim to be Jewish, 5% Catholic, 5% “other Christian,” 4% other, 3% Protestant (although isn’t that “other Christian?”), and 2% each for Buddhism, Pastafarianism (although can’t we just call that “Atheism with a shtick?”), and Paganism.

Yet by the same count only 22% of Burners self-identify as Atheists, 49% of Burners say they are “spiritual,” and about as many Burners say they practice prayer/meditation/contemplation as Burners who say they don’t.

So while a majority of Burners clearly aren’t religious, neither have a majority of them abandoned the things that one generally looks to religion to provide.  We may not see religion as providing any answers about God, the spiritual aspect of reality, or a sense of connection to the world around us – but neither have we given up on those things.  A compelling argument can be made that we are looking for religion by another name.

This is precisely the condition of the world that Terry Eagleton examines in his book “Culture and the Death of God.”  This is not a book about whether God exists or religion is “correct” – it is a book asking the question:  “what does a culture that for thousands of years put religion at the center of morality, political authority, and epistemology, do when it has secularized?”

We have to ask the question because we still don’t have an answer.  As Eagleton notes in the preface:  “(D)espite the fact that art, Reason, culture and so on all had a thriving life of their own, they were also called on from time to time to shoulder this ideological burden, one to which they invariably proved unequal.  That none of these viceroys for God turned out to be very plausible is part of my story.”

There are a couple of points to note here, the first of which is that Eagleton does not in fact believe that our culture is really all that secular.  Indeed, a Harris poll conducted at the end of last year finds that 74% of American adults believe in God.  That’s down from 82%, but it’s still very clear that we are not a “secular” society in the common sense of the word.

  • 72% of Americans believe in miracles
  • 68% believe in heaven
  • 64% believe in the survival of the soul after death

Which … wait a minute … how is it possible that more Americans believe in heaven than believe in the survival of the soul after death?  Who are these 4% of Americans who believe in heaven but not an afterlife?  I’d kind of like to meet them.

Which I bring up not just for its own sake (although yes, that too) but to admit that there are inconsistencies in such data.  I have no doubt that if you design a survey properly and slice the answers up you can accurately say that the American people believe in anything you want them to believe, or not.

We can debate the question, then, of whether America (and the West as a whole) is really secular or not – the point is that Eagleton sees the evidence and believes that not only did God never really go away, he’s now making a comeback.

But among what we can call the “epistemological elites” – the people who get quoted in the mainstream media as impartial sources and whose opinions set the standard for what is respectable for social institutions – there has clearly been a move towards secularization, and indeed that is a dominant force driving Western culture today.  The “elite” (the word really deserves to be in quotes) are far different from the general populace on this point, and always have been.  Hence Eagleton’s statement (again, from the preface) that.:

“(R)eligion has proved easily the most tenacious and universal form of popular culture, though you would not suspect so by leafing through a few university cultural studies prospectuses.  The word ‘religion’ crops up in such literature about as often as the sentence ‘We must protect the values of a civilized elite from the grubby paws of the populace.’  Almost every cultural theorist today passes over in silence some of the most vital beliefs and activities of billions of ordinary men and women, simply because they happen not to be to their personal taste.  Most of them are also ardent opponents of prejudice.”

So the first major issue the book asks us to consider is the one I started with about Burning Man:  “how ‘secular’ is our society really?”

Some may suggest that this question is moot because, statistically, our society becomes more secular every year – slowly but inexorably.  Eagleton disputes that data, and indeed points out that according to the sociologists and futurists of the late 19th century, we should have stopped printing Bibles decades ago.  They were wrong then and he thinks they’re wrong now.  But let’s take this argument at face value for a moment:  let’s say we are getting gradually, inexorably, more secular.

It is at this point that Eagleton’s second issue kicks in:  how does a society, once it secularizes, deal with the impact of that change?

I’m not a New Atheist, and can’t speak for them, but there seems to be a pervasive sense among their published works that society can do away with religion and keep on going more-or-less exactly as it was:  that the “before” and “after” pictures are identical except insofar as everyone now supports a kind of middle class neo-liberalism that is the natural way to view the world once the scales of religion have fallen from our eyes.  The idea that a world without religion would experience upheavals broad enough to impact the academics, technorati, or middle class, seems to be entirely absent.

This was not a belief that the “old atheists” shared.  On the contrary, Nietzsche’s warning that we have killed God was precisely that:  a warning.  Human society cannot remain ordered as it was once God is dead.  In the absence of religion, if we don’t take succeed in becoming  ubermench, Nietzsche said, we’ll destroy ourselves.  Not being religious imposes necessary responsibilities to development and conduct.

Eagleton too rejects the notion that religion can fade quietly.  On the contrary:  the way power in society has been distributed for millennia was based on a religious epistemology.  Take that epistemology away, and everything will need to be re-examined:   from capitalism (“the Protestant Work Ethic”) and human rights (it was the churches, after all, that led the fight against slavery in both Europe and the New World, and against Jim Crow in the American civil rights movement) to education (the university system as we know it today was founded on an explicitly religious model) to political power.

Eagleton is NOT saying that you have to be religious to be a good person – not at all.  What he is saying is that the structure of the institutions we have was built on religious bedrock.  To the extent that these structures have not come tumbling down in favor of … what?  How does a secularized society organize itself if it doesn’t want to wear religion’s skin? … is exactly the extent to which we’re not really secularized.

Finally, there is the question of why we’re not actually so secularized.  There was a firm belief in the last century that religion would be dead in this one.  Yet even our epistemological elites, having firmly banished religion from their minds, constantly seek a replacement in the form of Culture, Art, and various “-isms.”   What is it that religion did (or does) that we keep feeling a lack of, and why haven’t we been able to replace it effectively?

“(A)theism is by no means as easy as it looks,”  Eagleton notes.

Which again, brings us back to Burning Man. While I have argued ardently that Burning Man cannot actually replace religion, and should not try, we would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t admit that many people come to Burning Man because there is a hole in their lives where religion might once have been.  They are looking for something that they believe religion can no longer provide – but they are still looking, and in that sense they are still believers.

You’ve met them.  Maybe you are them.

Like it or not, many people are looking to Burning Man as a stepping stone in the secularization of society – a way forward from the dilemma of what to do now that religion is gone.  Many others are looking at Burning Man to re-infuse spirit into the world:  to de-secularize it.  We can’t do both (can we?).  Maybe we can do neither.

What we can do is better understand the condition of the world we live in.  “Culture and the Death of God” sets out to do just that.  So we read.

Ladies, gentlemen, and others:  the comments section is open for discussion.  See you next week with chapter 1:  “The Limits of Enlightenment.”

Everyone is welcome to comment in this space, though only comments germane to the topic at hand will be kept.  To join the Burning Book Club, just say you want to join in the comments section and leave an accurate email in the “email” field.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com


15 Responses to “Burning Book Club – preface – “Atheism isn’t as easy as it looks””

  1. Air Freshener Says:

    Thanks Caveat for kicking off this massive topic!

    I would agree with Eagleton that God is making a huge comeback. I see Christianity, especially of the evangelical sort, very much on the rise in my own country Singapore. And many surveys would bear out the conclusion that in the near future, there will be more Muslims and Christians as a percentage of the world population.

    There’ll be times when I try to console myself with Daniel Dennett’s contention that the religiosity we see today is a watered down version of what it was in the past. I’d like to think that very few people profess to believe in a bearded old man in the sky. If pressed, they might fall back on the idea of some vague spiritual force in the universe, which is something even atheists could give lip service to.

    But the fact that religion maintains a massive presence in politics belies this fantasy. What’s scary about religious groups is their ability to organize rapidly around a single agenda. Sometimes I wonder if the appeal that individuals find in religion is not so much the result of an attachment to any specific metaphysical belief, but precisely in the collective bargaining power which it gives them.

    But if that were the case, then we should have an easy job converting people from Christianity to Burning Man. After all, Burning Man gives us that same thrill of pulling resources and collaborating towards a set of unified goals. And I’d like to think that it does so without requiring us to give up our ability to think critically!

    In any case, I’m not out to convert anyone, not even to Burning Man. Well, maybe … I’ve certainly been very enthusiastic in describing it and encouraging people to check it out. I’ve noticed that when I begin to self-identify as a Burner, I become a bit more prickly when someone challenges the ethos, almost like a Christian who is challenged on his or her beliefs.

    The key, I think, is to embrace multiple, overlapping identities. I don’t have an issue with friends or colleagues who are religious, as long as that religious identity is not the sole, dominating identity in their lives. But the same goes with anything else. A banker is tolerable who is at the same time a good father, a jazz hobbyist, an avid traveler, a reader of good books, an empathic listener. A banker whose overriding goal is the increase of capital is another matter. I’ll have to say that even Burners could fall into the same trap of making one core identity an all-consuming obsession to the exclusion of all else.

    Fortunately, at Burning Man, we are constantly reminded of how multiple our selves really are. So I guess that gives Burning Man the potential to be the most resourceful post-modern response to religion. It challenges the notion that any one single belief system can capture who we are.

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  2. The Grue Says:

    I have now gone back and read the preamble more closely, and I see three claims about what religion provides to human society.
    (1) Political sovereignty.
    (2) Transcendence.
    (3) Unification of opposites.

    He leaves “transcendence” entirely undefined, except to imply that humanity could not do without it. What he means by that is the first thing I’ll be looking for as I read.

    Second, I want to know what he means by, “culture, in the broad rather than narrow sense of the term.”

    The third thing I’ll be reading for is a lot less concrete. Shortly after beginning this book I became enamoured of a personal thesis, which I’m going to test against the ideas laid out herein: Culture is by nature participatory. That belonging to a culture is at its essence not something you can buy or observe — although you can buy an artefact or observe a ceremony — but is the collection of things that you do with other members of that culture. Furthermore, I theorize quietly to myself, culture cannot be self-taught, but must be learned by example or instruction (or most likely both) from another person, and once you do it you may feel compelled to teach it to others. Culture is what happens when a group of humans who feel connected to one another (by kin or community) say “this is how we do.” And then, I am interested in how “this is how we do” spills over into “this is what we believe.”

    There. Now I got that off my chest.

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  3. The Grue Says:

    Air, I am really interested in this sentence:

    “Fortunately, at Burning Man, we are constantly reminded of how multiple our selves really are. So I guess that gives Burning Man the potential to be the most resourceful post-modern response to religion. It challenges the notion that any one single belief system can capture who we are.”

    I challenge you to describe how this is true at Black Rock City moreso than any other human city.

    (I bet we’re gonna wish we had threaded comments…in 3…2…1….)

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  4. RexSpec Says:

    @The Grue

    By setting Burning Man up as an alternative response to religion, they are able to bring in all those people who consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Those spiritual seekers find a home at Burning Man. And much like any church organization, that sentiment can be harnessed for profit and free labor. The promise of enlightenment through participation.

    I suppose the difference between BM and any other city (church), is in the level of cynical hypocrisy. There’s less of it in the church(s), as there are more true-believers in leadership positions (they know not what they do).

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  5. The Grue Says:

    //By setting Burning Man up as an alternative response to religion, they are able to bring in all those people who consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious.

    Is that what we’re doing? From reading Caveat’s perspective on the topic, I got the impression that this is very much not what we are doing. Aside: I am always suspicious of the plural indefinite pronoun reference “they.” Who is your “they” in your statement?

    //Those spiritual seekers find a home at Burning Man. And much like any church organization, that sentiment can be harnessed for profit and free labor. The promise of enlightenment through participation.

    Agreed.

    //I suppose the difference between BM and any other city (church), is in the level of cynical hypocrisy. There’s less of it in the church(s), as there are more true-believers in leadership positions (they know not what they do).

    I think I have been misunderstood. I’m not asking how BRC is different from any other church, BRC is not a church; I’m asking how it’s different from any other city. Specifically, what makes the experience (or discovery) of the multi-faceted self in BRC unique from San Francisco or Minneapolis? My thrust is that I suspect what @Air has described is a phenomenon of urbanization, not of Burning Man specifically.

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  6. Caveat Magister Says:

    Wow – lot here. Yeah, threaded comments would be very helpful. Dammit.

    I want to start by addressing The Grue’s thesis about culture – that it is necessarily participatory. I think this is exactly right, and an incredibly important point. One of my favorite theorists of culture, Philip Rieff, spent a great deal of time investigating this point. One of his conclusions: “Culture belongs to those who submit to it.”

    Anyone can join – but the price of joining is *joining.* One of Rieff’s central concerns about modernity was that we have lost the ability to truly join anything: that identity has become something we fluidly put on when it’s convenient and take off when it’s inconvenient, to the point where most of us wouldn’t know how to truly believe something … in that old fashioned non-post-modern way … even if we wanted to. He saw this as a seismic shift, and wondered what happened to culture next.

    Which is to say that what Air Freshener identifies as the solution (the ability to have multiple, contradictory, selves operating at once) Rieff identified as the problem. How can you form a culture – let alone an ethical one – when the highest cultural principles are seen as something you might or might not believe on any given day?

    (Those wanting to read a short summary of Rieff can find it here: http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/35346/sociologist-philip-rieff-haunts-us-from-the-grave/ )

    I think that what Air Freshener identifies as religion’s uncanny power to organize people around agendas is a by-product of this point: religion can organize people because religious people believe in something enough to submit to it. That’s can be dangerous, yes, but we see the benefits when we ask “why can’t America’s congress just agree on something basic?” Or “why can’t people organize to save the planet?” Post-modern, multiple identity, ironic, views of the world are great for deconstructing oppressive institutions but lousy at motivating people to put a common good first.

    In some ways I think Burning Man may be an answer. But that’s an experiment we’re still running.

    That said, I absolutely reject (as I have above) the idea that Burning Man is trying to set itself up as a substitute for religion. What makes Burning Man so interesting is precisely that it doesn’t fit any such established categories well – and couldn’t function as them even if it tried. My working hypothesis is precisely that Burning Man is a (relatively) new phenomenon in culture, a collective work-around (or work-through) of the cultural issues identified by Rieff and Eagleton.

    Trying to map Burning Man onto pre-modern cultural constructs (and vise-versa) misses the point of both what it is and what its participants want out of it. If they wanted religion, it would be easy to find. (For that matter, some have religion and still want Burning Man.)

    So in a round-about way, the more we learn about the crisis of (post)modern culture, the more we’ll understand the ocean Burning Man is swimming in.

    That’s my thesis, anyway – which may be a terrible one given that it mixes water and fire metaphors.

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  7. Air Freshener Says:

    In response to Grue’s question about how Burning Man brings out multiple identities more so than other cities, I guess my litmus test is how often the question, “What do you do for a living?” comes up in conversation. In most cities, that question comes up fairly often, and many people don’t even know how to engage with a stranger at a cocktail party without initiating something along those lines. But at Burning Man, that question is never the first one asked, and seldom even comes up. You just don’t assume that there’s one role (a person’s job) that is the most important defining thing about him or her. I’ll admit this is a very crude measure.

    Regarding whether post-modern multiple identities is a problem or a solution … the book that made me aware of it as a solution is Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence. In the book, he documents how violence throughout history has largely been the result of people caught up in single identities which end up clashing with others: Catholics vs Protestants, Hutus vs Tutsis, Sunni vs Shiite, Hindus vs Muslims (On the partition of India and Pakistan: “I recollect the speed with which the broad human beings of January were suddenly transformed into the ruthless Hindus and fierce Muslims of July.”)

    The key point that Amartya Sen makes is that identities are great when they are freely chosen, rather than imposed on an individual from without. “A Hutu laborer from Kigali may be pressured to see himself only as a Hutu and incited to kill Tutsis, and yet he is not only a Hutu, but also a Kigalian, a Rwandan, an African, a laborer, and a human being.” Individuals should be free to determine which of their identities is most relevant to any particular situation.

    I like the thread about culture, starting with Grue’s interesting theory about it. My own pet view of culture is that it is how a community defines happiness: whether it’s food, architecture, social customs. If that’s the case, then a particular culture is not so much something I submit to, but a medium through which I express myself. The fact that culture is necessarily participatory may have something to do with mirror neurons (see Vilayanur Ramachandran). We learn by imitation. And furthermore, we may experience pleasure whenever we exercise our mirror neurons.

    I’m also curious to see if Eagleton is able to define terms like “culture”, “transcendence”, and “reason”. Although 2000 years of philosophers trying to define things hasn’t led anywhere, so maybe Wittgenstein was right and you can’t do philosophy through definitions.

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  8. Air Freshener Says:

    Just read the Phillip Rieff summary. It’s great. I like the concept of “deathwork”, and I can see how Burning Man could be seen as the deathwork of American capitalist culture.

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  9. The Grue Says:

    @Air

    //In response to Grue’s question about how Burning Man brings out multiple identities more so than other cities, I guess my litmus test is how often the question, “What do you do for a living?” comes up in conversation. In most cities, that question comes up fairly often, and many people don’t even know how to engage with a stranger at a cocktail party without initiating something along those lines. But at Burning Man, that question is never the first one asked, and seldom even comes up. You just don’t assume that there’s one role (a person’s job) that is the most important defining thing about him or her. I’ll admit this is a very crude measure.

    I hate that question, and it’s true that I have never been asked which capitalist teat I suckle from while at Burning Man. But here’s a thing: are you certain that this question hasn’t simply been replaced with another? Are we /really/ imagining each other more complexly? Or just more quirkily? I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not trying to pick on your measure, I’m just trying to suss out the distinction between meaningful and meaningless differences. I think this is worth exploring further.

    //I’m also curious to see if Eagleton is able to define terms like “culture”, “transcendence”, and “reason”. Although 2000 years of philosophers trying to define things hasn’t led anywhere, so maybe Wittgenstein was right and you can’t do philosophy through definitions.

    I think about this totally differently. Trying to define things is the first critical act of philosophical dialogue, but any single definition does not extend beyond the proof in which it exists (necessarily). We need to agree upon definitions before we can have an intelligent exchange of ideas, but once that exchange is over the definitions do not have to persist. To claim that they must or they have failed is a bit like claiming that the lack of a Grand Unified Theory demonstrates that physics has nothing useful to teach us. But I am unfamiliar with Wittgenstein, so it’s possible that I have misread your intent.

    [Aside: I am having so much fun!]

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  10. Syd Says:

    A little history: I wasn’t raised with any kind of religious background. Never went to church; celebrated Christmas and Easter but in a pretty much secular way (except the Christmas carols, which always managed to make me teary-eyed even though I had no idea “what Child is this”, if you’ll pardon the phrase). Grade school (K-6) was private but not parochial. My first exposure to religion began when mom put me in a Lutheran school from 7th grade through high school. I did what I was supposed to do, learned all the things, read the Bible cover to cover…and when I got into college, I pretty much left it all behind as not very useful. I certainly didn’t find anything inspirational of belief, although if you’d asked me at the time, I’d have said of course I believed!

    It just didn’t stick once I didn’t have a need to be visibly religious.

    Also, this will be my first year at Burning Man, so I don’t have that experience to draw on for comparison. Yet. :)

    It’s seemed to me, for a long time, that there are actually differences between some pairs of words that society tends to use interchangeably. For example, I think there’s a huge difference between being spiritual and being religious, in that I see the former as an internal state and the latter as primarily an external one. In the same way, I think morality is what you do when someone else is watching, i.e., imposed from without, while ethics is what you do when nobody else can see.

    Which is why this topic is so interesting to me: building a society that’s ethical without needing to be religious makes a lot more sense to me than the hodgepodge we have currently. Because of course, when you bring religion into it, you have to define whose religion will be the foundation, and whose is going to be left out, since there are so many variations even under the tent that generally calls itself Christianity.

    All of which is preface to say that I’ve read the preface twice but I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. I’ll be back after I’ve read it again…then I’ll read the comments as well.

    And thank you, Caveat, for putting this together. It’s already fascinating.

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  11. Air Freshener Says:

    Here’s an interesting poll from the most recent Harper’s Index:

    Percentage of Egyptians who say it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person: 95

    Percentage of Americans who do: 53

    Of Chinese: 14

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  12. Caveat Magister Says:

    @Syd

    No one involved in this discussion so far (and certainly not Eagleton) would suggest that you need to be religious to be a good person – although as Air Freshener points out, that’s certainly a common conception in much of the world.

    But as we’ll see in the next chapter (coming soon!), there are a whole lot of people who don’t believe in God but who are anxious to defend the moral and ethical systems that emerged out of the Judeo-Christian worldview: indeed, even a significant number of the Enlightenment thinkers who didn’t believe in God actually supported orthodox religion in public because they were afraid of what would happen if society did go back and try to start from first principles. Some (such as Hume and Kant) actually said you can’t do it – that there’s no way to rationally come up with a conception of “the good” that people can agree on. There has to be some kind of a priori sense of “the good” for reason to work with.

    Again, stay tuned for a lot more on this from the next chapter (and the rest of the book).

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  13. Nathan Heller Says:

    Having read the Preface, off the bat I feel the book is imprecise and was perhaps as well subject to far too much editing, making it far too easy for misinterpretation and therefore very, very light and dry in persuasive argument or thoughtful provocation.

    I look forward to the rest of the book, but I’ll be frank and say I am concerned the author may not be addressing more current and deeper questions.

    Having said this, it is always current for anyone and everyone to question the role of any belief system, experience, idea, image, art and culture across societies and in one’s own view and makeup, and therefore the author and we as everyone can and will always make fruitful progress in arguing endlessly the role of God, religion, reason and science (and maybe even Burning Man) in our lives (and perhaps those of others). And therefore I thank you Caveat for kicking this conversation up and challenging us (as everyone) to addressing them anew .. as burners (and burgins, burner curious, burner ignorant, non-burners and anti-burners).

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  14. The Grue Says:

    This falls under miscellany, but with this discussion of community v. isolation, constancy v. chameleonism, and subjugation v. freedom…I just watched “Fight Club” again. One of my partners had never seen it. I waited to mention this until we had a new post to comment on, since this is really just a derail but…damn. I really recommend watching it again with all these themes kept firmly in mind…and then /listen for how often religion comes up/, totally without context, touched on lightly and then forgotten. It’s incredible.

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  15. Captain Goldstar Says:

    What a great discussion.

    I am currently nearing the end of my masters thesis, which is focused on Burning Man and its regional events, and this thread hits close to home. I was a volunteer on the temple in 2012, participated with the academics group, and built a theme camp with my friends (The Mollusk Nation – we are a tiny, unregistered clan of mollusk-friendly types, and we make great tequila caesars that we call Bloody Clams). My thesis work does not specifically tackle the ‘is burning man religious/spiritual?’ question, but having worked on the temple, I came to know many people having rather spiritual experiences. To offer you the short-form of my thoughts/thesis about what is happening at burning man, I’ll ground this all in a few brief references.

    First, is the book Homo Ludens – a study of the play-element in culture, by Johan Huizinga. Huizinga argued that play is not just a ‘part’ of culture, but that all culture is play (hence the title – Homo Ludens, Man the Player). He went on to suggest that rituals and rites are simply more elaborate forms of play, and that they can be understood as the collective imaginings of cultures.

    Burning Man is the largest space of play I have encountered in my lifetime. It’s a place where people go to play really hard. It’s a place that not just permits, but encourages play. Throw in the temporal aspect of the event, and you have an iterative play process. We can see in the things that people build for the festival, that it’s not all just about one-offs. The Man has been burned 28 times. Center Camp has pretty much been around since 1990, as informal as it was then. There have been more than a dozen temples. And how many times has the midnight popcorn palace been there? Each of these things is built (and sometimes burned) because the play of the festival permits that story to be told, built, and sometimes burned. So as a prolific producer of new stories, new games and new rituals, Burning Man is producing a whole lot of culture in its space of play.

    Now I’ll turn to the work of Joseph Campbell, who argued that we have lost our mythology in Western culture. While we encounter a great diversity in systems of belief here in North America, we no longer hold a unified vision of how to understand our reality anymore. The statistics in this blog post speak to that. Campbell suggested we are finding new myths in works of art, literature, movies – they are all part of the new myths that are emerging in our culture.

    So by making a space of play that produces all this art and architecture, Burning Man is permitting new stories to be told, and those stories can be understood as part of a new mythology. Works of art, architecture, the man, temples, orgy-domes – they all tell stories that might speak to attempts to participate in, and understand, this reality.

    It may be a stretch to say that Burning Man is religious, or spiritual (and I won’t, because I see those answers as personal truths, not collective ones), but I will argue that regardless of its religiosity, what is happening at Burning Man is a part of contemporary mythology (whether for better or for worse). The gestures that gain the most traction (The Man, the Temple, etc.) are the most prominent myths, and interestingly enough, it seems to me that those symbols are age-old. At a time when religion has become a personal commitment within our culture, I find it fascinating that a new tradition is emerging in which archetypal symbols are being revisited.

    My masters thesis is an account of my experiences at the festival, and reflections on what I speculate the significance of those experiences to be. The thesis is grounded in the spatial/architectural gestures the festivals produce, and aims to enrich the study and practice of architecture by learning from the festival. I look forward to soon sharing my thesis work with the Burning Man community, and hope it can stimulate further discussions towards understanding the questions of what we are creating for ourselves with this whole business of playing on an empty desert.

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