'Burning Man' Is America’s Largest Religious Gathering

There's nothing new under the Nevada sun.

David McNew / Getty

Seventy thousand weirdos descend on the Nevada desert this week to bump uglies, welter in filth, and worship Moloch during America’s largest annual religious gathering: Burning Man. The festival began as a summer solstice bonfire ritual in 1986, when Bay Area artists “spontaneously” burned an eight-foot-tall wooden man, as well as a smaller wooden dog, in effigy. Where one spontaneously discovers a giant wicker man, and why one subsequently chooses to incinerate him is anybody’s guess. The ritual mirrored an identical ancient Druidic sacrifice described by Julius Caesar in his Commentary on the Gallic War, though Burning Man’s founders claim ignorance as to the custom’s origin. Today that solstice bonfire has grown into a week-long, annual bacchanal of sex, drugs, and pagan spirituality.

History repeats itself, per Marx, first as tragedy, then as farce. In the ancient tragedy, pagan Celts filled a giant wicker dummy with living men and burned them all alive. In the modern farce, besotted hippies ignite an empty wooden figure, a fitting symbol for an empty culture. Burning Man’s organizers describe the wooden statue, which they house “in a temple that is dedicated to the Golden Spike,” as being “like every one of us.” Ironically, festival organizers describe the man’s incineration as an act of “radical self-expression,” when in fact the ritual amounts to radical self-annihilation.

Religious language pervades the entire festival. Burning Man founder Larry Harvey describes the event in terms ripped from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. “This may be the essential genius of Burning Man,” he explains. “Out of nothing, we created everything.” Harvey laid out the festival’s Ten Principles in 2004, which include “radical inclusion,” “radical self-reliance,” “radical self-expression” — anyone notice a pattern? — as well as “gifting” and “decommodification.” The exchange of money is prohibited at Burning Man, which costs between $390 and $1,200 per person to enter. Rounding out the list of principles are “participation” and “immediacy.” Harvey explains, “No idea can substitute for this experience.” Burning Man is not for Gnostics; it demands not just mind but body too.

Revelers attain the height of bodily participation inside Burning Man’s Orgy Dome, where an estimated 5,000 dirty druggies dance the Paphian jig each year. The sexual imprudence at Burning Man reflects a broader trend throughout the United States, which just last year diagnosed a record-high 2.3 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and incredibly, syphilis. The explosion of venereal disease despite the ubiquity of sexual education and inexpensive prophylactics has puzzled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which seeks a scientific explanation to a religious question.

Seventy thousand predominantly affluent, educated, thirty-something pilgrims are trekking great distances to worship sensuality before a burning idol in the desert. According to Burning Man’s “Afterburn” reports, less than 16% of those attendees consider themselves religious. Nearly a quarter describe themselves as atheistic, just one percent identify as deistic, nearly 16% call themselves agnostic, and an additional 8% answered, “I don’t know,” presumably having never before encountered the word “agnostic.” The lion’s share of survey respondents consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” which is code for the faddish modern paganism that admits metaphysical reality but refuses to be inconvenienced by it.

There is nothing new under the sun, even in the Nevada desert. Blazing idols and sacred prostitution have existed since man’s earliest days. The Epic of Gilgamesh credits the sacred prostitute Shamhat with raising a savage man to civilization. Judah lies with Tamar. According to Herodotus, ancient Babylonians demanded sacred prostitution, and the Code of Hammurabi offered explicit protection to such rituals. Similar practices existed among the Hittites, Sumerians, and Corinthians.

The Romans only gave up their sensuous rituals when Emperor Constantine ended the rite in the fourth century, during which period Christianity displaced paganism as the dominant religion in the empire. Seventeen centuries later, that religious trend has reversed throughout the West, which burns in effigy this week.

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