­­­­Burning Man – Postmodern Pa­­­­­­gan Paradigm for a New Society


It seems that everyone you talk to now has either heard of Burning Man or knows someone who has been to it or at least knows about it. Reports are made on news outlets and stories are told of the many celebrities and cultural leaders who attend Burning Man, an event which does not advertise and that does everything by word of mouth.

Some of the celebrities who have or who regularly attend Burning Man are musicians Sting (solo artist formerly of the band The Police), Adam Lambert (American Idol runner-up), Perry Farrell (founder of the annual Lollapalooza music festival and vocalist for band Jane’s Addiction), Joan Baez, Michael Franti, Todd Rungren (solo artist and member of band Utopia), actors Robin Williams, Rosario Dawson and Amy Smart, as well as a number of others. Some of those in the billionaires club that are or who have been involved in Burning Man include many who have made their fortunes from technology and the Internet. Google founders and billionaires Larry Page and Sergey Brin are said to be such enthusiastic “burners” that they reportedly chose Eric Schmidt (another multi-billionaire) to become the CEO of Google based on his involvement in Burning Mani. Billionaire Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, has also attended “the burn”, and billionaire and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz still pitches his own tent every year. Chris Bently of San Francisco based Bently Holdings is an active member of the Burning Man Project and Burning Man’s Black Rock Arts Foundation. Several European companies have sent their executives to “the burn” for training in creativityii.

What is Burning Man?

So what is Burning Man? As anyone who has attended the event will tell you, it is very hard to explain to someone who has never been there. An explanation of the event found on the Burning Man website states that,

Burning Man is an annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance.iii

Although a challenge to describe, a good single sentence definition of it might be:

Burning Man is an annual week long festival where people from all over the world go to build a temporary city in a harsh desert environment in order to participate in creating and experiencing art, community and spirituality, all with radical self-expression without judgment.iv

The Burning Man festival is held in the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada every year throughout the week before Labor Day. “Burners” come from all over the world (from twenty-three countries this past year) and for the week of the event create a temporary city that disappears without a trace when the event is over. “Black Rock City” covers seven square miles and is a fully functional city with a post office, a fire department, emergency services, daily newspapers and radio stations, and even its own municipal airport. Black Rock City is arranged like a huge horseshoe and is composed of the tents, motorhomes, and geodesic domes of its citizens who set up camp for the week. The event takes place on “the playa,” a 400 square mile dry flat alkaline lakebed encircled a ring of mountains, and where temperatures can vary between 40 degrees at night to well beyond 100 degrees in the daytime. This harsh environment is the eerie and otherworldly backdrop for this unique and fascinating annual gathering where a giant wooden Man is burned in front of tens of thousands of people on the Saturday evening of the annual event in the center of the futuristic Black Rock City.

Attendance for the event has grown steadily since its humble beginnings on a San Francisco Beach to a projected attendance of over well over 60,000 people for Burning Man 2013 and 70,000 by 2016v. Although the event has for a long time had a capped attendance limit imposed by the federal government agency the Bureau of Land Management, the event has never sold out until 2011, and since that time the sellouts have caused a ticketing frenzy (at hugely inflated prices) by those desperate to attend, on websites like eBay and Craig’s List. Most of the tickets for the sold-out Burning Man 2013 were made available for $380, with a few thousand pre-sale tickets available for $650 each, and a limited number of low income tickets being sold for $190. The last available financial chart for the 2012 burn reported expenditures of over $22 million, but with increased ticket prices and more tickets available this figure is all but guaranteed to increase with this year’s burn. There is no transfer of money at the event (the only two things that are sold are ice and coffee) and everything functions on the basis of a “gift economy.”

As Burning Man has continued to evolve and grow in popularity, significant changes have taken place to what began as a small local event but which has now become a thriving international movement. Apart from the big annual event, Burning Man has a network of Regional Groups which meet on five continents in over twenty countries and in 160 locations. In the past year the parent company (Black Rock City, LLC) has commenced a transition of the company into becoming a new non-profit organization known as the Burning Man Projectvi, which has aggressive plans to take the movement and its principles around the world. With the fanatical popularity of the event and movement, one can only be assured of a steadily continuing growth in the future of this movement.

Many cultures come together to form Burning Man culture - rave culture, tech culture, primitive culture, New Age culture, hippie culture, nudist culture, business culture, Pagan culture, queer culture and so on. Burning Man organizers often refer to the event as “an experiment in temporary community” and as a “Petri dish” where people can escape from their ordinary lives and take on a new identity for a week and experience and create art, community, and spirituality. Around the clock there are endless parties, dances, art exhibits, workshops, and spiritual gatherings. Art is everywhere from the costumes of the participants to specially constructed “art cars” and “mutant vehicles” to the art installations and the “theme camps” scattered throughout the playa. Every year an “annual theme” is chosen for the event (e.g. “Cargo Cult” is the 2013 theme, while “Fertility 2.0” was the theme of 2012 and “Rites of Passage” was the previous year’s theme) that is used to guide the creativity and the art on the playa.

Many who attend Burning Man describe it as “transformative”, “empowering”, or even “life-changing.” Since the leadership describes it as a “spiritual movement” and because of the large place that spirituality has in the event, an evaluation of Burning Man is merited.

How it All Began

The official story of the beginnings of the movement promoted by the Burning Man organization today is that one day in 1986 Larry Harvey and his carpenter friend Jerry James decided to build a wooden man for spontaneous reasons that needed no justification and burn him on San Francisco’s Baker Beach on the night of the summer solstice. A handful of those close to them came to watch the then 8 foot “Man” burn, but it wasn’t long before a few people who were at the beach also came over to watch what they were doing. Harvey and Jones decided to repeat the ritual again the following year (the Man now being 15 feet tall) and more people came to watch and participate. Things changed radically in 1988 as around 200 people gathered to watch the burning of the Man who had now grown to 40 feet, and which had now as well drawn the attention of the local police. This burn was also attended by many members of the Cacophony Societyvii, a “prank group” of “free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.” The Cacophony Society would become an incalculable influence upon Burning Man as they became burners and as the burners became Cacophonists. Evidence of this can be seen by the fact that all of the six owners who form the current Board of Directors are all former Cacophonists. Virtually all of the significant people who have been involved with Burning Man history have also been involved with the Cacophony Society.

When the burners gathered on the summer solstice to burn the Man in 1990, the police once again appeared but this time did not allow the Man to be burned. The party and the event seemed to be over until members of the Cacophony Society decided to move the event to the Black Rock Desert on the Labor Day weekend of that same year. Burning Man has enjoyed its home on the playa and has continued to grow ever since.

How it All REALLY Began?

A study of the true origins of Burning Man show that the official story of its beginnings are nothing more than a mere creation myth. Executive Director Larry Harvey is generally portrayed as the sole creative mind behind Burning Man, but history shows that he was influenced by a number of people and groups most of whom he has never given credit or who have been completely written out of the history of the movement.

The influence of the Cacophony Society has already been noted, but a summary of some of the other sources are:
Burning art on Baker Beach - San Francisco artist Mary Grauberger
Burning a human figure - The Golden Bough book & The Wicker Man movie
Moving the event to the Playa - The Cacophony Society & William Binzen
Zone Trips - The Cacophonists & author Hakim Bey
The “Leave No Trace” principle - The Suicide Club (forerunner to Cacophony) & Desert Siteworks
Temporary Community - William Binzen & Desert Siteworks
Making the event an art festival - William Binzen & Desert Siteworks Center Camp & the concentric circle design of Black Rock City – William Binzen

Furthermore, according to Michael “Flash” Hopkins the very foundations of the Burning Man movement are built upon a lie. Hopkins worked with Harvey, lived with him as a roommate, and helped to build the first Man. According to Hopkins,

“Larry and Jerry and I built the first one…It’s not a man, it’s a woman and her name is Patricia. And Larry was upset that she wasn’t letting him see his child…He was really upset with it, so he decided to build an effigy of Pat and burn her, and we decided it wouldn’t be good to do it out in front of her house. We decided it would be better if we brought it down to the beach and did it down at the beach. So we burned her, because Mary Grauberger at the time was down there doing this sort of witchy-poo kind of rituals down there, sort of a Wicker Man style spring thing there, and so we decided to bring it down there and burn it down there. And it’s never been a man, it’s always been a woman. And you can just look at the shape of it and you’ll notice that it’s has, like, really shapely hips. It’s always been a secret joke with us, because it’s never been a man, it was always a woman. But, you know, we realized though that if we ever said it was a Burning Woman…you’d never have any women out there…they’d think that we were just, you know, he-man women haters. And so by calling it Burning Man, I mean, girls were definitely into that. They were, like…“Oh yeah, burn the Man!” As long as the Man isn’t named, you know, Matthew or something, you know, it’s like...“Hey, I don’t care who it is, burn him!”…It was a kind of a funny way to do it… calling it a Burning Man…It was much more sociably acceptable, especially in San Francisco. So, it was kind of a joke, and it was a joke to begin with…In one respect it wasn’t the sacredness of it all, or the spiritualness of it all…We weren’t on a journey to the sacred, he was just a little upset with Patricia and decided that he should, you know, burn her and this would get it out of his soul or whatever…another way of venting his anger, so we built Patricia…in my mother in law’s basement, and took it out to the beach and burnt it where Mary was burning her stuff…It didn’t even look like the Wicker Man. Mary was building something that looked like the Wicker Man, but we built something that looked like Pat.viii

According to Hopkins who continues to be friends with Harvey’s ex-wife Pat, Larry has allegedly made her sign a paper promising that she would not speak about this to the media.

The Worldview and Teachings of Burning Man

The Burning Man organization does not promote any specific dogma, but does strongly promote what they call “The Ten Principles.” They are: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy.
The nudity, drugs, alcohol, sexual deviancy, and immorality that take place at Burning Man have been well publicized, but these are outgrowths of the “radical self-expression” which is the experiment which is Burning Man. Although the organization does not condone the use of illegal drugs or even many of the spiritual and other things which take place at the event, it is this “radical self-expression without judgment” that allows these types of things to flourish in Burning Man culture. Burning Man culture is extreme counterculturalism – they are generally against all traditional Western institutions be it the government, the church, the medical establishment, capitalism and the free market economy, etc. Burners thus tend to be complete moral relativists bordering on complete social and moral anarchy. There is no right or wrong and everyone should be able to do whatever they want without any judgment from anyone. Like morality, truth is completely relative and here also anything goes!

Burners have their own vocabulary and will often call the playa their “home” and describe their normal every day lives as taking place in the “default world,” thus turning their view of everyday normal reality on its head.

Burning Man Spirituality

The spirituality of Burning Man would be best described as a fusion of postmodernism, Paganism, and New Age thinking. After the move to the playa, the most significant and defining event in the history of the movement was the introduction of The Temple at the 2000 burn. Since then every year a Temple has been built and brought to the playa where it is burned on Sunday evening, the closing night of the event. Unlike the party atmosphere that surrounds the burning of the Man on the previous night, the mood is very different and is one of complete and utter silence and is meant to be a time of somber spiritual reflection. The Temples are very large and generally very beautiful buildings and have become the spiritual heart of Burning Man. Visitors to the Temple speak in hushed tones and act very reverently while there. Throughout the week many Temple visitors will place objects from those that they have lost (whether from the end of a love relationship or from a death of someone near them) in the Temple or will write cathartic messages on its walls. Such objects might include a suicide note, the favorite toy of a dead child, or a picture of a recently lost loved one. When the Temple is burned, burners seek healing by projecting the pain associated with those objects onto them which are then consumed and sealed away by the destruction of the flames.
Burning Man spirituality although generally Eastern and pantheistic, is very diverse and tolerant of just about anything but monotheism and Christianity. Apart from the Temple, much of the spirituality at Burning Man takes place at the workshops which go on throughout the week. These workshops are entirely created by the attendees of the event, and not by the organization which allows them to take place as part of the principle of radical self-expression.

While many of the events and workshops are centered around a very outrageous and extreme sexual deviancy, many deal with spiritual topics. Favorite spiritual themes among these workshops tend to be yoga, tantra, shamanism, and meditation. Examples of workshops from the 2011 lineup included:

On Attaining Buddhahood in this Lifetime. The potential for Buddhahood exists within everyone. Come join us for a discussion about a Buddhist practice that opens this door for all personsix.

Losing My Religion. Religious dogma can serve to uplift and inspire or separate and control. This ritual will help you to strip away the confining, controlling aspectsx.

Atheist/Agnostic Soiree at Uli Babas. We invite all hedonists, heretics, infidels and cosmically confused to a holy communion of His Noodly Body and savory blood of blended herbsxi.

Channeling Voices from Other Dimensions. Hear, feel, experience other dimensions, learn to channel from different sources. Contact spirits for healingsxii.


Analyzing the events and workshops and the spirituality associated with the Temple, we find the spirituality of Burning Man generally to be cultic, occultic, hedonistic, or steeped in Eastern mysticism.

The Failure of Postmodernism

Postmodernism is the school of thought which was popular in academia in the latter half of the 20th Century and which stated that all truth and morality are relative. There is no metanarrative (“big story”), but everyone has their own story and own truth. “If it’s true for you, then it’s true!” While postmodernism as an interpretive system is no longer commonly accepted in our institutions of higher learning, this type of thinking is still unfortunately still prevalent in general culture and even in the church. Why did postmodernism fail in our universities? Simply because it does not work! People intuitively do believe in a moral sense of right and wrong, and it is impossible and foolish to try to reconcile opposing truth claims. To attempt to say that there is no such thing as “truth” leaves us in an unlivable nihilism, and to state that opposites can be simultaneously true forces us to abandon the laws of logic and non-contradiction. We cannot and must not abandon these rules in the physical world, so why should we forsake them in the spiritual or metaphysical world?

Problems with Paganism

Not all burners would identify themselves as being Pagans (even though huge numbers of Pagans and Neopagan Wiccans do attend), but the spirituality of Burning Man tends to be that of a general Paganism (as opposed to the more specific Pagan traditions of Neopaganism, Shamanism, or Druidism). Paganism is pantheistic (and usually polytheistic) and is about the worship of nature. The divine is often expressed as feminine and Pagans concern themselves with the seasons, fertility, and relating with the interconnectedness of all living things within nature. God is not over and apart from creation, but is to be identified with nature itself.
Paganism does not satisfactorily answer life’s great questions, and as a worldview often leads to other problematic concerns.

1. Paganism often leads to the occult – Seeing an interconnectedness of nature that is at its heart essentially pantheistic, Paganism blots out the idea of a transcendent God who provides any revelation from outside of nature. All truth is immanent and to be discovered and experienced within nature. Since ultimate truth is hidden (aside from special revelation), using occult methods and techniques to acquire knowledge within this framework is a logical consequence. Thus forms of divination such as contacting spirit entities, achieving trance states, and the performing of ceremonial magic are frequently to be found within Pagan communities.
2. Paganism denies the dignity of man – With nature being the absolute and man being a part of nature, you lose man and you lose God within nature. If all is divine and sacred, man is on an equal par with everything else, and he is essentially the same as trees, animals, and garbage. The body of man is no more sacred than anything else, and is just his vehicle to experience the world around him. This concept is very evident at Burning Man with the displays of nudity and the sexual deviancies that take place throughout the playa in terms of free sexuality, orgies, S & M theme camps, etc. When man is seen in his proper place as having dignity and not being merely equal with the rest of creation, his sexuality has dignity and is to be regarded as sacred and not common or cheap.
3. Paganism leads to hedonism and self-indulgence – When man loses his dignity and his body is reduced to an object merely to experience his world, pleasure quickly becomes his highest good. Burning Man is unlike anywhere else in terms of the availability and people’s willingness to indulge in all manners of deviant behavior without any imaginable limitations. It is a place to give in to our carnal, sinful nature and feed and indulge it, and never be judged or held accountable. Our sacredness and dignity are to be found in our ability to deny and limit ourselves of certain pleasures, unlike animals.
4. Paganism cannot provide us with knowledge about the nature of reality – Pagan beliefs and “truths” differ from one community to the next, with different gods, goddesses, and spirits living in different areas. There is no such thing as dogma in paganism, but we learn all things through stories and experience, which can differ radically in both content and in interpretation. If there are many truths, there really is no such thing as truth at all. Paganism fails us in the same way that postmodernism fails us by telling us that there are no real answers to any question asked.
5. Paganism worships the creation in the place of the Creator – The Apostle Paul warns us about those who would do this (Rom. 1: 20 – 25). This is a form of idolatry, because it does not acknowledge God as Creator and give Him His rightful place as Lord of creation. Our problem is not our alienation from nature as the Pagan would tell us, but rather from the Creator of that creation. We do not only have to look for inner harmony by connecting with nature, but we must also seek to find ultimate harmony with that Mind that designed nature.
6. Paganism tries to empower the world around us with the use of words – We know the world around us already exists, so to call it “God” or “divine” does not really change anything at all – it only gives it a new name. This is just a game of “word magic.” To say that everything is God is really saying that there is no God. In actuality, we need to appeal to a God that is above and beyond nature to explain the origin, the complexity, and the beauty of that nature.
7. Paganism ignores the problem of evil – Paganism affirms that “all is sacred,” but nature itself can be evil. The relief group “Burners Without Borders” was formed as a response to Hurricane Katrina during the 2007 burn, and the devastation wreaked upon that community is hard to forget. Just as nature is broken and fallen, so too is man. One only needs to look inside of one’s self to see the dark nature that co-exists with our dignified nature given to us by our Creator. At Burning Man 2011, I learned of several rapes, fights, thefts (such as vehicles and tents broken into) as well as the usual instances of drug overdoses, drunkenness, promiscuity, transmissions of sexual diseases, orgies, etc. Of all other religions, philosophies and worldviews, only the Bible gets it right – that man is incredibly valuable, spiritual, and beautiful, but at the same time has a side that is selfish, self-justifying, and capable of tremendous moral evil. To deny this is to deny reality.
8. In Paganism life has little or no meaning – Paganism (like postmodernism) inevitably leads to a nihilistic existence. Life is far more than just living in harmony with the environment. What is the purpose of life? What is the meaning of history and where is it going? Will good ultimately triumph over evil? Do sickness and death have any meaning? Is there “right” and “wrong” and are there consequences for how we live our lives? Paganism does nothing to answer these deeper questions.

When contrasting Paganism and other worldviews with the God of the Bible we discover a serious problem in regards to the ideas of the immanence and transcendence of the Divine.

Only the God of the Bible as one who is both immanent and transcendent can satisfactorily explain the role of the Divine in our world and in our lives. A transcendent deity can answer how He can be over all creation and able to judge all moral actions which occur within cultures and individuals. He is separate from mankind as the Creator, and is providential and sovereign over that creation. His immanence and transcendence allow Him to hear our cries and then intervene in our lives. His immanence allows Him to be involved in the affairs of men. The God who is described in the Bible is clearly the most rational explanation of the Divine, as the one which best fits the facts in both our experience and in our minds.

Morality Matters

Burning Man is certainly not for everyone, and especially not for children. Apart from the difficulty and unpleasantness of surviving in the desert for a week without easy access to electricity, water, telephones, the Internet, and other comforts, the “radical self-expression” on the playa leads to a lot of nudity, profanity, sacrilege, irreverence, partying, drugs, alcohol, perversion, deviancy, and other things which will offend all but the most desensitized moral relativist. Black Rock City is clearly the most pagan (in the common sense of the word) place on Earth. There are rapes, fights, cars and tents broken into, drug overdoses, occultism, sexual promiscuity and reckless living.

Although some Christians have gone to Burning Man, any sensible Christian should be very cautious about going to the event. If one was to attend it, it should be after much prayer and direction from the Lord, and with tremendous accountability. If a Christian were to decide to attend, he or she should not go alone but should go with other believers for support and accountability.

Truth Matters

Perhaps the greatest practical matter with those who attend Burning Man is the desensitization that occurs while there. There are many unique and interesting things that can be seen at the event, but the problem is that most of those who attend will accept the entire package as a whole and will not have the wisdom or the discernment to be critical of certain aspects of things that happen there. The typical burner is overwhelmed with a myriad of experiences and throughout the week will become desensitized to things (like even nudity, for example) and becomes transformed to believe in an “anything goes” attitude. The radical self-expression promoted by Burning Man is designed to have a transformative power, especially for those that are not grounded in an absolutist worldview before attending. The hedonism and sensuality that is everywhere at Burning Man naturally appeals to the darker side of man’s nature, and true spirituality is not so much concerned with indulgence but rather with denying and restricting oneself from carnal pleasures .

True Spirituality

The spirituality promoted by many of those at Burning Man is confused at best and misguided at worst. The smorgasbord of available teachings and practices not only can be contradictory with conflicting worldviews, but are generally only truth claims not backed up by any evidences. The pervading fallacy of the spirituality of the majority of burners is that they spend all of their time looking within (themselves) instead of looking up (to the One who made them).

Furthermore seeing the Temple as an instrument of healing when its contents are burned within it is in reality more of an opportunity for emotional release and healing than one of spiritual growth. Burners, like many others, all too often commit the fallacy of confusing emotional growth with spiritual growth. One can be very emotionally healthy but very spiritually sick. True spiritual growth is achieved only by growing closer in his spirit to his Creator, rather than by getting over some painful emotional experience from his past. Thus burners are self-deceived when they look within and mistake emotional growth for spiritual growth.

What the Church Can Learn from Burning Man

Despite the rampant hedonism, immorality, and Pagan spirituality that take place at Burning Man, there are many things that they get right.

1 - The Church needs to be a loving, welcoming, inclusive community. Burners are big on this point. They invite participation of peoples from all cultures and subcultures and encourage their participation into their community.
2 - We need to stress the immanency of God, and not just His transcendence. All too often believers tend to speak of God as way “out there” or wholly separate and heavenly, and not in terms of being directly involved and being in relationship with us and His creation. Such a misplaced emphasis on His attributes makes such a God irrelevant to people such as those in the Burning Man community. They want immediacy and a God who is involved in their lives and in His creation.
3 - Many burners are very anti-consumerist and decry the greed that has lead to the exploitation and damaging of our environment. They are correct in caring for our environment, and we need to adjust and balance our personal perspectives and those of our corporations and nations so that we are not only concerned with making money at the expense our fragile ecosystem. The principle of Leaving No Trace Behind is taken seriously and is commendable.
4 - We need to foster creativity in all people. Our society tells us that being an artist and being creative is just for children and those that we designate as “artists,” but for those in the Burning Man community it is a given that everyone has a creative side to them and that this must be only be encouraged. At Burning Man everyone gets the chance to be an artist. God is a creative God, and we are all made in His image. We bring glory to our Creator when we help others to be creative.


There is a lot of good (art, events, and community) but also a lot of evil (rampant immorality, indulgence, and pagan spirituality) at Burning Man. There is much to appreciate and a lot that we can learn from this movement, but unfortunately there are some serious concerns that we have and that just cannot be overlooked. The problem is that the Burning Man organization is encouraging Burning Man culture to do anything and everything in the name of radical self-expression, and the ensuing amorality and moral relativism is not a good paradigm for a new society. The indulgence, hedonism, and lawlessness are an affront to a moral Lawgiver and there is nothing spiritual about it. The real answer lies not in the Man who is sacrificed every year in the desert, but in Him who was sacrificed two thousand years ago “once for all” (Heb. 10:10).


ii [ii] Professor Fred Turner. Burning Man at Google: A Cultural Infrastructure for New Media. Stanford University, on iTunes, 2011.

iv Burning Man: Preview to an Alternative Pagan Social Order in SCP Journal, Volume 36, 2012, p.44 by the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, Berkeley, CA.

viii Telephone interview with Michael Hopkins on March 28, 2012. In defense of his claim Hopkins also states, “Just think about it - Men don’t burn men, they burn women.” Even though the identity of the Man has always been a kind of an inside joke, Hopkins states that in his opinion Larry Harvey had “no co-founders” and it was him and only him behind the beginnings of Burning Man.

ix What Where When, p. 63. This is the event and workshop listing guide given to attendees when they enter “the Gate” to the playa.

x Ibid., 157.

xi Ibid., 89.

xii Ibid., 73.