Burning Man just moved one step closer to becoming a religion

Burners call Black Rock City “home.”
Burners call Black Rock City “home.”
Image: Jim Urquhart/Reuters
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Burning Man, the Nevada desert festival that draws some 60,000 revelers every year, is an annual pilgrimage that resembles religious ritual: It requires travel to a far-off place in the desert, 10 guiding social laws intended to catalyze self-actualization, and the burning of an effigy.

Yesterday (December 6) the festival’s co-founder Larry Harvey made clear that Burning Man is now closer to becoming a religion than ever before. In a blogpost, he announced that the 2017 theme would be “Radical Ritual,” writing that “beyond the dogmas, creeds, and metaphysical ideas of religion, there is immediate experience. It is from this primal world that living faith arises. In 2017, we will invite participants to create interactive rites, ritual processions, elaborate images, shrines, icons, temples, and visions.”

Harvey explained that for the first time, the effigy for which Burning Man is named would be enclosed in a temple structure and reach up toward the sky with a spire: “Passing through the spine of Burning Man, this axis will continue upward, emerging high above the temple as a golden spire. Participants are invited to contribute to this shrine, and to the hundred niches that will penetrate the temple’s walls.”

While some Burners (the shorthand term for Burning Man attendees) praised the festival theme, there has been pushback. Here are a few from the comments section under Harvey’s announcement:

Moralcompassthatpointstowardsin says: December 6, 2016 at 12:36 pm
Moving the man into a temple seems like the next logical next step to create a new-age religion. Can we have a separation between church and my burn please?

Everyone’s thinking it says: December 6, 2016 at 10:40 pm
This is so contrived.

Maid Marian says: December 6, 2016 at 12:28 pm
Please accept our apologies. This item went to print prematurely with placeholder text.

We are proud to announce the 2017 theme: Phoning It In

The Temple is historically a separate structure created to honor the dead, which goes up in flames on a Sunday. In the comments, Harvey appeared to explain that the temple in which the Burning Man effigy would be housed was distinct from the traditional Temple:

Larry Harvey says: December 6, 2016 at 12:52 pm
Combining the Burning Man and the Temple is indeed a terrible idea — that is why we are not doing this. The Temple will recur as always; that is the nature of ritual. In recent years many other different kinds of temples have sprung up on the playa, all of which have a unique intention, and we are hoping this year’s art theme will spawn many more.

Burning Man began in 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco. It started as a get-together among friends and members of the anarchist Cacophony Society. As the event moved to the Nevada desert and became more mainstream, it became a draw for celebrities and tech billionaires, causing frustration over “turnkey” camps in recent years and the growing socioeconomic divide at the festival. In 2016, these tensions bubbled to the surface when the popular and well-funded White Ocean camp was vandalized.

Against that backdrop, perhaps Harvey’s theme is intended to bring about a cohesiveness again amidst recent years’ angst. When everyone subscribes to the same religion, there’s at least a common bond.

Quartz has reached out to the festival organizers for comment.