Technically speaking, a cult can form around anything. Business, self-improvement, techno, aliens and even YouTube channels. But that doesn’t mean that they always do.
For an organisation to be considered a cult, there are three massive red flags to look out for. However, bear in mind if you have been sucked into one, you probably won’t notice those flags waving.
- Charismatic and authoritarian leader
- Thought reform
Now it could be argued that there are some boxes that Burning Man does check off. We will get to that later, such as thought reform, but that needs more context.
So, is Burning Man a cult? No, it is not a cult. There are, however, so many questions begging to be explored here.
Let’s get straight into them!
📿 How is a cult defined?
Things get interesting right off the bat when it comes to defining a cult, and the lines are blurry. The lines couldn’t be clearer. I hear you say. But hear me out and consider this:
The definition of the word Cult:
a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object.
a person or thing that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society.Oxford Languages and Google
So as this relates to Burning Man, the first definition doesn’t encapsulate the event. The other is more interesting in that Burning Man has definitely reached cult status, which is what the second definition refers to.
So Burning Man matches one definition of the word cult. But let’s explore that further using the three typical cult characteristics.
1. Charismatic and authoritarian leadership
The first thing to note is that Burning Man was started by multiple people, namely: Larry Harvey and Jerry James. So you may be glad to hear that the first pillar of cults isn’t met.
For a cult to be formed, it needs one authoritarian leader at the top. Think of a cult as a totalist group with many similarities to totalitarianism.
It’s well documented that the founders of Burning Man were not exactly authoritarian by nature. However, they were charismatic to convince their fellow hippies to join them in the Nevada Desert for a week-long human experiment.
Cult leaders are almost always narcissists. Any good cult leader wouldn’t allow and encourage their followers to be racially self-reliant. Instead, narcissism would dictate that their followers be reliant on the cult.
I’d also add that Burning Man is empathetic by nature which isn’t something you would encounter in a cult.
2. Thought reform
In a cult, thought reform could be called some different things. Brainwashing and mind control are two, and they are how cults reform their followers.
At the beginning of the article, I mentioned Burning Man has this trait. Clearly, I wasn’t saying they use mind control (although you may run into some people that think this is the case there, see the video below)
But the experience, in general, can have a significant positive impact on those that attend. And if burners take some of the ten principles back home with them, then in a way, it is thought reform.
But back to cults. Manipulating others and brainwashing them without them releasing it’s happening is far more sinister than what’s happening to those friendly burners in the video above (seriously, you should watch it if you haven’t).
So how does someone like Charles Manson achieve their overarching mind control? Through words and group pressures.
The trifecta of what defines a cult is the part of exploiting the followers. This stage happens when the cult’s leader has indoctrinated their followers to the extent that they can control them in several ways.
It’s safe to say that there is no such exploitation in Black Rock City in the same way as a cult. So it’s another cult pillar that, thankfully, Burning Man doesn’t live up to.
⛪ Is Burning Man a religious event?
Burning Man is more in line with the term New Religious Movement (NRM) rather than a cult. Other well known NRMs include Rastafarianism and Wicca. And If we define a religious event as:
A time of special importance marked by adherents to that religion. Religious festivals are commonly celebrated on recurring cycles in a calendar year or lunar calendar.definitions.net
Then yes, there are elements that partly (not wholly) make Burning Man a religious event. But I’ll stop before calling Burning Man a religion, as that’s another topic.
Burning Man does indeed have several religious expressions. It was started in San Francisco and saw the burning of an effigy on the summer solstice, much like ancient religious ceremonies did.
There is (as is with religion) much debate between burners and critics of the event. Those who attend regularly (or you could say…religiously) tend to disagree that it could be a religion stating that the event is a radical departure from traditional religious beliefs. At the same time, their critics will point to the ten guiding principles being enough to represent a religion.
In reality, Burning Man lies closer to an NRM or religion than it does to a cult. Although it has most certainly reached cult status.
🎭 Is Burning Man a culture?
The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.languages.oup.com
I don’t think anyone would argue that Burning Man does not fit that definition quite well. The creation of Black Rock City each year is primarily for the celebration of art, community and freedom of expression, which are the core cultural aspects of Burning Man.
What solidifies it as a culture is that many of its attendees regularly practice the values that it stands for outside of the event. And not just when the temporary city springs up and disappears each year.
🤔 Final Thoughts
Burning Man is not a cult because it doesn’t adhere to the three major red flags of a cult. It is many other things though, with elements of religion and religious events. It has become a culture in itself.
The beauty of Burning Man is that it can represent something different for each burner that attends. And perhaps it has more to do with spirituality in that regard.
You can attend a Burn alone or as part of a group, but you will find radical inclusivity either way. If you have been before, you will know it isn’t a cult, and if you are yet to experience life on the Playa, be sure to read this guide on getting prepared for Burning Man.