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Burning Man and the rise of paganism

The festival shows the spiritual yearnings of the supposedly secular


Vehicles line up to leave the Burning Man festival in Black Rock Desert, Nev., on Sept. 5. Monique Sady via Associated Press

Burning Man and the rise of paganism
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Nevada’s annual hippie festival, Burning Man, made news this year when it was flooded by uncharacteristic rainstorms, leaving attendees literally stuck in the mud, unable to come or go from the makeshift city for days. 

Despite the setbacks, devoted “Burners” expressed their delight to be present and promised to return. As one writer put it, festival devotees “think of themselves as co-creators of an experience at the whim of Mother Nature.” Thus, the mud was all part of the plan. Indeed, the festival, which is characterized by its lack of schedule or planned musical acts, has continued to draw more people every year. 

What began as a few friends gathered around a fire in 1986 has morphed into over 70,000 regular attendees seeking “transformative” and “spiritual” experiences away from the modern world. 

Despite most attendees identifying as “nonreligious,” the pagan creed at Burning Man is strong. Upon entering, they adopt new names, lay burdens down on a wooden effigy and eliminate monetary transactions on the philosophy of shared resources. In fact, the 10 Principles of Burning Man, which include “radical inclusion,” guide the ethos of the week. 

The religious impulses of a spiritually flailing nation are apparent here and in the rise in paganism nationwide. Witchcraft, for example, is making a comeback with at least 1.5 million practicing witches across the United States. So is interest in astrology, tarot cards, and all manner of polytheistic, spiritual enlightenment. The astrology industry has increased by $10 billion from 2018 to 2021 alone. 

It’s no surprise, given the way Americans have moved away from traditional faith in steeper numbers by the year. Only 30-31 percent of Americans say they attend church weekly these days and at least 30 percent of the population now identifies as a “religious none.”  

While those who leave church or abandon their faith may claim no religion, their actions and belief systems exhibit the opposite. The COVID pandemic ushered in a fearful uncertainty, increasing interest in spiritual practice among the unfaithful as well. Those turned off by religious labels are comforted by pagan ideas of manifestation, enlightenment, and inner healing. 

In her best-selling book Witchery, self-proclaimed “Indigenous seer, healer, and spirit communicator” Juliet Diaz helps readers “create spells, potions and rituals for love, protection, healing, manifestation and more.” Her latest book captures the pagan worldview of self-reliance aptly: The Altar Within: A Radical Devotional Guide to Liberate the Divine Self.

Those who’ve departed from traditional faith are coming up short, destined to repeat their hopeless mantras again and again. 

Much of paganism is rooted in ancient indigenous spiritual practices, often shaped by a love for the natural world and reliance on self-guidance. It’s understandable that people would attempt to connect with God through nature, but in this way, they worship the created rather than the Creator. Such is a toxic and unnatural practice that ultimately leads to destruction. 

Forty percent of “religious nones” say they have “frequent experiences of religious peace and well-being.” Often, this means turning to one’s “inner self” or “the universe” for answers. In her wildly popular book, Untamed, author and acclaimed spiritual guru Glennon Doyle urges women to “eat the apple” so they can gain the wisdom “within” they deserve. The evil is hiding in plain sight. 

Humans are wired to need community, seek wisdom, and find wholeness in God. Whether through pagan rituals at Burning Man, radical climate activism or a religious commitment to progressive causes, those who’ve departed from traditional faith are coming up short, destined to repeat their hopeless mantras again and again. 

It is part of our image-bearing way to seek out an authentic faith community, in which we can praise and honor the God who made us. We only find wholeness, however, within God’s own template of the Church. 

The Church is supernatural, which is why it boasts the most positive rates of mental health, better relationships, and decreased risk of suicide, substance abuse, and crime. It’s why churchgoers have better health, live longer, and are far more generous than others. Most important of all, what Christians believe is true.

Even sociologists interviewed for a New York Times series on churchgoing concurred that secular communities are unable to foster the same extensive degrees of support as religious institutions to.

The reality is that no superficially constructed gathering or ritual experience can match the authenticity of traditional faith. Furthermore, only the eternal hope all humans are ultimately searching for is found within Christ.

At the culmination of Burning Man, the festival employs “Exodus,” where attendees shed remnants of the festival from their bodies and re-enter the world anew. But they’ll be back next year when the “experience” wears off and paganism requires yet another sacrifice. 


Ericka Andersen

Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer and mother of two living in Indianapolis. She is the author of Leaving Cloud 9 and Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church & the Church Needs Women. Ericka hosts the Worth Your Time podcast. She has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Christianity Today, USA Today, and more.


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