Postmodern? Sure. Maybe post religion?

Once upon a time there was this strange religious phenomenon in American life — especially in mass media — that was known as the New Age Movement.

Does anyone remember all of that? I read lots of horrid books about the stuff and one really good one, by one of the best religion-beat professionals of all time (click here for info).

Anyway, as a reporter who worked in that era, I ultimate decided that the so-called New Age Movement was a lot of things.

One one level it was simply the Old Age Movement in new clothes, in that it put a fresh, hip, media-friendly face on a lot of alternative forms of religion that had been around for centuries. Some people insisted that it was the first sign of mass public acceptance of watered-down elements from Neopaganism (an opinion that I have heard some pagans accept and others angrily reject).

I kind of thought the New Age materials that worked best with ordinary Americans were those that blended elements of Eastern religion, the ’60s, environmentalism and liberal Christianity into a form that sold well on Oprah. Some called it Americanized Buddhism, which I think is an insult to Buddhism.

However, this pop spirituality was the part of the New Age wave that washed up on the beach called Middle America, and then soaked into the sand.

But whatever the New Age Movement was, it was clear that the annual Burning Man Festival was its Super Bowl — at least for those seeking a masculine face for this alleged movement. It was the sort of photo op that worked well in the New York Times in PG-13 form, yet also was natural R-rated material for Rolling Stone.

I seem to remember, however, that there were plenty of people who honestly thought that the Burning Man had something to do with spirituality or emerging forms of religion. You know, liberating the mind and the spirit and what not. Maybe it was spirits, plural. Sorry, but I’m getting old.

Anyway, this brings me to the very strange feature story that ran in the Style section at the Washington Post the other day, with the headline: “Burning Man: A countercultural experiment goes mainstream.” Clearly, the goal of this piece was to parade the usual Burning Man cliches and then slap a cynical smile on the whole scene. Here’s the thesis, after the usual blitz of naked wackos:

The most radical and countercultural aspect of this famously radical and countercultural gathering is now this: Burning Man has gone mainstream.

For the first time in its 25-year history, the art festival once known as a free-spirited sex-and-drugs romp in the desert sold out all of its tickets (most costing several hundred dollars) — including to investment bankers, CEOs and government employees with security clearances who are no longer embarrassed to show up at work this week and tell their co-workers where they’ve been.

This year, the event — formed around a giant neon-covered statue of The Man and dedicated to promoting anti-commercialism — has undergone an organizational restructuring that could allow its founders to cash out as multimillionaires.

“It’s no longer considered a freak-fest in the business world. It is kind of a weirdly normal thing in a lot of circles now,” said Matt Cheney, 56, chief executive of an energy investment fund in San Francisco, who has attended for five years and is no longer surprised to run into his employees and fellow top corporate executives. “Burning Man has gone from carrying a stigma to having a cachet in the business community.”

OK, raise your hand if this surprises you. It sure didn’t surprise me.

What did surprise me is that this story is stunningly spirituality free. There are references to old idealistic principles, free seminars, radical inclusion and unconditional giving — but that’s about as deep as things get. Oh, and those idealistic scraps are not where the real action is these days. That’s the point.

So what is left? After the Burning Man burns down, what’s left (other than ashes)?

This seems to be the heart of the matter, in terms of religious rituals:

Call it Disneyland for adults, a giant carnival, Mad Max meets an art festival or a glimpse of Tatooine, but no description quite encapsulates the fact that standing in the middle of a barren desert, you could stumble upon nearly any scene imaginable.

A giant neon chicken carrying a few dozen passengers will drive through the dust, while nearby two women in corsets fight each other in a huge steel cage called the Thunder Dome. Giant raves with some of the best-known DJs in the world play until dawn as a 30-ton, 50-foot-tall Trojan horse that cost $80,000 to build is shot at with flaming arrows until it burns to the ground. You also might walk past a giant orgy, and you almost certainly will see people ingesting just about every type of narcotic known to man.

You can’t help but think: Is this really happening?

So what’s left of the New Age? Frankly that sounds very, very old age to me — if you’re looking for religion. What did I miss?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mike O.

    “So what’s left of New Age?” If I had to pick just one item or group of items, I’d say things like The Secret and other assorted believe it, achieve it programs.

  • Jerry

    So what’s left of the New Age?

    Hey, man. You’re square. Can’t you dig where it’s at? It’s time to groove at the outta sight happening and not be so up tight about it all. Your scene is a real bummer. Everything is totally copasetic. We’re all one and love is in the air. Far out.

    “And now for something completely different”: I’m not sure what Burning Man has to do with this. I would rank calling it a spiritual “Super Bowl” on the same order as calling womenpriests Catholics.

    Even the trusty internet has wildly different definitions of what “new age” is. And that’s not surprising to me because “new age” strikes me as a reaction to superficial religion that was a characteristic of the 1950′s. I would personally trace threads from that re-examination into intentional religious communities, a new seriousness about living a proper life, exploration of alternative religions and forms of religious expressions etc.

    That has some tie amongst many to monism and syncretism. If “Age of Aquarius” is the anthem, then I think there’s an obvious tie to traditional Christian (and other) religious understanding of the Christian second coming, Hindu Kalki Avatar, Buddhist Matreya and Jewish Messiah. Because the song lyrics include these words:

    Then peace will guide the planets
    And love will steer the stars

  • Glenn McDavid

    “Environmentalism” — A desert is not completely lifeless. It has an interesting and delicate ecosystem. All those people and their camps and cars do horrible things to it.

  • Eowyn

    In America, no counter-cultural phenomenon ever stays underground. If there’s a buck to be made, it eventually becomes commercialized and mainstreamed.

    Burning Man has become the adult X-rated version of Disneyland. It’s also the contemporary retread of the “old time religion” of Dionysius. All that’s missing is the child sacrifice part.

  • Laura

    Everyone has ways of rationalizing sin. Calling it a festival is one way, isn’t it?

  • Kris D

    I think Burning Man spiritually “jumped the shark” when every Wal-Mart in the Reno/Sparks (Nev) area has “Burning Man” specials for people to get on the way to the Playa.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Another thread worth exploring: what has been the role of university-centered religious movements in giving Burning Man credibility? I first heard of Burning Man as a festival for highly educated, left-of-center humanists and engineers (much of the festival involves building and creating elaborate machine-like sculptures). 25 years ago, I’d argue, engineers were seen as necessary parts of business, but weren’t the leaders or influencers outside their specialties – the influencers were the management guys, like Jack Welch or Lee Iacocca. Today, the engineers – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, the Google guys, etc. – have become the primary influencers across business disciplines, so their once-geeky pursuits (including Burning Man) now have cachet.

    Academia is one of the places in American society where New Age/Neopagan thought has the most influence, so I’d be interested in knowing how many long-term Burning Man attendees were introduced to Burning Man through university connections.

  • sari

    Eowyn said: “In America, no counter-cultural phenomenon ever stays underground. If there’s a buck to be made, it eventually becomes commercialized and mainstreamed.”

    This phenomenon predates America. Radical movements must create institutional frameworks in order to formalize and inculcate belief, and to generate the steady income stream necessary to ensure the institution’s long term survival. The religious beliefs and practices of the founders and initial followers of any faith are usually very different than those practiced by subsequent generations. For example, Abraham, a nomadic shepherd, sacrificed on a personal altar– a practice forbidden after the Exodus. Christianity, too, underwent major changes in the 2000 or so years since Jesus lived and ministered.

  • HOAllen

    “Spiritual Superbowl” Oh please! This size of crowd shows up at St. Peters, Rome on any given Sunday. How about WYD 2011 in Madrid. 1,000,000 plus showed up to give glory to our Hevenly Father.


  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Burning Man is hard to cover because it isn’t just one experience. Those who don’t want to see any religion aspect to it, won’t. Those who see the event as drenched with religion, will.

    Did you read Sarah Pike’s coverage of the 2011 Burning Man?

    I’d also recommend the work of Lee Gilmore, author of “Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man”, who argued for the event being “pagan” at its roots.

    I think the problem with using terms like “New Age” is that it isn’t a simple descriptor any longer. A definable subculture has grown up around the term, with its on luminaries and economy, and the people who attend Burning Man, aren’t, for the most part, participants in that particular spiritual subculture. That may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s not. Just as modern scholarship no longer lumps modern Paganism in with the New Age movement, acknowledging them as different things, so to should we avoid defining Burning Man as “New Age” in any real sense.

    As for Pagans (and we prefer “Paganism”, “Contemporary Paganism”, or “Modern Paganism”, over “Neopaganism” these days, as do most Pagan scholars) we don’t reject the notion that the New Age movement mainstreamed some Pagan beliefs, we reject the notion that we are subsumed within that movement, or defined by it. We have a very clear and definable (and well-documented) history that is very different from the “New Thought” origins of the New Age movement. Considering how nit-picky Get Religion is over the differences between various Christian denominations and sects, I’m sure you understand.

    Calling Burning Man “New Age” is somewhat lazy. Anyone who wants to can see what the New Age movement you covered back in the day has morphed into (Oprah, James Ray, The Secret, Eckhart Tolle, Eat Pray Love, etc), and it certainly isn’t a bunch of young-ish people in the desert building art projects, partying, and creating a temporary autonomous community.

  • tmatt


    Well, the point of my post is that I was never sure what the New Age movement WAS and I think we are way POST that.

    I’ll check out the religiondispatches piece. Thanks for the links.

  • Marcia

    As a former New Ager and as one in full-time ministry dealing with the New Age (and the occult), I can say 100% that Burning Man was never and is not a New Age event. I don’t know why the press, Christians, and/or others kept calling it New Age. This is not a New Age type activity at all and has no New Age hallmarks about it. It is much more a pagan event (even the idea of a burning man comes from Celtic paganism), and/or a combination of pagan and carnal indulgence. It comes closest to the Greek and Roman festivals/rituals honoring their wine god. However, I would not put it in the category of modern Paganism, either.

  • Bill

    The country is suffering from an epademic of Narcissism. Burning man is just the latest manifestation. As far as the comment, “All that’s missing is the child sacrifice part”, Think ABORTION….

  • Steve S.

    Judging solely from the number of books available at, one can conclude that “New Age” is a more significant factor in our society than Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, or Hinduism.

    I’m arriving at the numbers by browsing the “Religion and Spirituality” category.

  • Dan Fox

    As one of the principle builders of the Trojan Horse at Burning Man 2011, being in my 50s, and a life-long atheist, I can tell this forum first hand that none of the builders felt a particular spiritual desire to participate, build a 30 ton wooden sculpture,and burn it to the ground, then meticulously clean up the nails, screws, bolts and charcoal. We participated simply to build and burn a 50′ high, 30 ton wooden horse. It was art, our idea of art, our labor of art (and it was indeed laborious) and our purposeful desire to build a spectacle of art. What I found inside of that wooden horse was a community of friends and the utter satisfaction of working with a group of middle-aged, dedicated men and women, who pulled together to build something quite larger than the individual parts. To place it into my understanding of how the faithful see themselves as a part of a much larger grace, I found not only a deep spiritual connection to the act of constructing that art, I found myself blessed and surrounded by the beauty, honor and love that can only be shared between human beings, here on this Earth. I found something no religion has really ever offered me, I found myself living a wonderful dream, surrounded by wonderful souls who saw and admired each, not for those things we strive, but for those things we accomplish, and the joy we found in ourselves.