Burning Man, religion and politics
I didn’t understand how religion worked until I experienced Burning Man. That isn’t to say I fully understand now how religion works, but I do have certain insight, and in the current United States’ political climate, maybe I can say something of value about the intersection of Burning Man, religion and politics.
Burning Man does many things to emphasize similarities among participants in the ways other religions do. These are also the methods politicians use to create divisions within communities that have more similarities than differences.
Shared labor at BM: At Burning Man, everyone works to create Black Rock City. There’s a difference between moving into a new town where you move into an already constructed house and one where you build a home.
Shared labor at church: At church, people often come together to create things, be it a pancake breakfast, a fish fry, a charitable event, or a ministry like feeding the homeless.
Divided labor at politics: People work to get their candidate or political party elected over their fellow citizens’ choices. They take joy in opposing party members’ failures, even when those failures make their own lives worse, like the Democrats’ joy in the way the Bush administration destroyed the economy and gave them a path to political control.
Shared ritual at BM: Burn the Man.
Shared ritual at church: The very act of worship, of coming together at regular intervals to a regular place to perform an act that honors something greater than the individual being is a ritual. No need to even mention pretend cannibalism or group prayer or gestures (group kneeling or bowing or the sign of the cross).
Divided ritual at politics: Politics has no ritual to honor something greater, just utilitarian behaviors required for the practice of politics.
Shared similarity at BM: There’s a reason costumes have become so important at Burning Man. They emphasize the outer similarity of an integrated group, particularly in comparison to the habit of the default world. And everyone looks the same under a layer of playa dust.
Shared similarity at church: Our view of god or acceptance of all gods is perfect when practiced perfectly. Members are often homogenous in style of dress, preferred religious music, even level of fellowship. In fact, religious institutions are the least integrative communities in our culture.
Emphasis of difference in politics: We’re a Christian nation. Black president. Immigration. Gay marriage. Politics always tends to emphasize our superficial differences by playing those differences against each other with racism, sexism, genderism, economic status, even though Americans have to look pretty hard to find real, practical differences between the parties’ policies.
Shared suffering at Burning Man: The harsh environment creates a group experience. The weather is outside of participants’ control, and it’s humbling.
Shared suffering at church: The effects of the world on our inner beings—things like sin or a bad economy—creates mutual suffering within the church. It’s outside of participants’ control, and it’s humbling.
Unequal suffering in politics: People who share another political view cause suffering. Harry Reid caused my house to lose half its value. Sharron Angle is going to take my Social Security so I’ll have to starve or work as a greeter at Walmart. Immigrants take my health care. Participants believe they have control over the things that make them afraid.
Despite what organizers say, Burning Man is religion. It has ritual, hierarchy, spirituality and dogma. There are many religions that don’t worship a god but that do have a sacrifice. Politicians cynically takes some of the components of religion—shared morality, perceived enemies, saviors—and perverts them to sew seeds of hatred, distrust and discord.