Burning Man, Paganism, and the Study of Religion

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  June 20, 2010 — 1 Comment

Greetings Wildhunt readers and thank you, Jason, for sharing this forum with me for a day.

I’ve just published a book called Theater in a Crowded Fire that sets out to examine what people say, do, and think around questions of religion, ritual, and spirituality at the Burning Man festival. I could pepper readers here with dozens of lively stories about ecstatic bonfires, dusty temples, and wild propane hunts (and some of these tales are told in the book). (If by chance you’re not familiar with Burning Man, this is as a good place as any to start.) But instead, I hope you’ll bear with me while I put on my professor’s hat for a spell and wax academic about the links between Burning Man and Paganism, and in turn what I think this teaches us about the nature of religion and culture.

No one I’ve ever spoken to (and I’ve been attending and researching this event since 1996) has ever come right out and called Burning Man a religion–Pagan or otherwise–and the event’s organizers have repeatedly stated as much for years. However, I think in some ways it can be considered to be a pagan (note the lower case) phenomenon. In this meaning, I see the uppercase term “Pagan” as referring to our various Neopagan traditions–that is the sets of practices, beliefs, and communities that are seen as (albeit loosely) constituting our family of religions–while I use the lowercase term “pagan” as a more general adjective.

In this sense, I am thinking of Michael York’s concept of “root religion,” which identifies paganism as a set of shared–yet diversely constituted–primal religious tendencies that broadly underlie all global religions. As he stated, “inasmuch as paganism is the root of religion, it confronts the earliest, the most immediate, and the least processed apprehensions of the sacred. This is the experiential level on which paganism in both its indigenous and contemporary forms wishes to concentrate.” (see York’s Pagan Theology)

Burning Man has a similarly embodied, experiential, and ritualized quality. This feeling is in part engendered by the encounter with nature in Nevada’s Black Rock desert. In the beauty and essential simplicity of this vast dusty arena–as well as in the visceral physical experience of its arid and demanding environment–many participants encounter a sense of the transformative and numinous.

This sense is also nurtured by the festival’s extravagant ritualism. Just as Pagans gather seasonally to consecrate the rhythms of life, Burners annually create their event in order to celebrate catharsis and ecstasy. In addition to the central and definitive ritual bonfire, there are numerous other rites that have transpired at the festival over the years–massive ephemeral temples dedicated to memory and mourning, anti-consumerist parodies of Christian evangelism, operatic performances invoking Vodou lwas, Shabbat services conducted in the skeleton of a gothic cathedral, yoga and meditation classes, reiki attunement sessions, Balinese monkey chant –the list could go on and on. All of this speaks to the persistence and importance of ritual as meaning making device. While Burning Man explicitly lacks any avowed theology and consistently ducks easy classification as “religion” (in an uppercase sense), it displays numerous ritualistic elements and motifs that echo this underlying root paganism.

Of course, some Burning Man participants are explicitly Pagan. However, one of the somewhat surprising finds of my research (I interviewed or surveyed over 300 participants) was that the number who stated specific affiliations with Christianity or Judaism was slightly higher than the number who directly identified with less “mainstream” traditions (in the U.S., at any rate), such as Paganism and Buddhism. This could be an accident of my sample, but it generally seems that Burning Man typically draws those who adhere to no tradition, or who speak of themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” (I delve further into and critique this notion in the book.)

As expressions of “root religion,” one of the things that both Burning Man and contemporary Paganism have in common is their use of diverse cultural symbols in their rites. Questions of cultural appropriation and authenticity are, I realize, sensitive issues in Pagan and Indigenous communities. But ultimately history shows that religions are not static and that hybridity and syncretism are key forces in cultural change, as processes of both defining and transgressing boundaries. As diverse traditions and cultures come into contact across contexts, they inevitably borrow from and occasionally merge into one another, while also retaining or rejecting certain core elements. In this sense, both Burning Man and Paganism point to the ways in which religious and cultural systems are at once mutable, dynamic, and creative, as well as conservative and enduring through their use of various ancient, mythic, and “pagan” symbols.

Ultimately, I think Burning Man is a fascinating case study of some of the ways in which what we call (for lack of better terms) religion and spirituality is evolving in what we call (again, for lack of better terms) postmodern culture. As with the contemporary Pagan movement, Burning Man blurs the boundaries as to what is generally considered to be “religion.” For many (though by no means all) participants, Burning Man satisfies a set of desires similar to those conventionally fulfilled by religions, but which increasingly seeps outside of clearly demarcated institutions and doctrines.

Finally, in addition to the book, on the chance that anyone is eager to dig more deeply into my thoughts on these topics, readers might also be interested in my occasional posts on Burning Man’s Blog as well as a recent interview on Religion Dispatches. And if you’re interested in following my ongoing work on Burning Man, I’d be delighted to be able to keep up with you via facebook.

Lee Gilmore is a Lecturer in Religious Studies and Anthropology at California State University, Northridge. The author of Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual & Spirituality at Burning Man, she has been in, out, around, and studying the Pagan community (mostly Feri traditions) for the better part of 20 years.

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  • Hussain Saka

    That was great sum of up what I believed The Burning Man stood for absolutely great perspective and valid points