Toward the end of August each year, thousands of people trek to Nevada’s Black Rock desert for an event like few others: Burning Man. What started in 1986 as a small summer solstice ritual on a San Francisco beach now draws upward of 80,000 people to a temporary city large enough to have its own annual population census, post office, and temple.
For many who go, it’s a party. (Perhaps you’ve heard of the orgy dome.) For others, such as tech titans and social media influencers, it’s a place to be seen and to Instagram a journey to “find themselves.” But for a surprising number — as many as 63 percent of attendees — the experience is something much deeper: a transformation that makes them feel more connected to others and to something larger than themselves. Among the spiritually inclined, some report finding God and reconnecting with their religious faith. These participants say attendance at the festival makes them kinder and more generous. And in a country where people are leaving traditional religions in droves, there just might be a lesson for churches, synagogues, and mosques in the rituals and rites of Burning Man.
This might sound strange or even heretical. How could a place pulsing with naked bodies, loud music, blinking lights, and drone shows change people for the better or encourage spiritual growth? The first step in understanding this is that for most Burners, as attendees call themselves, being there isn’t about self-indulgence or spectacle. It’s about giving.
Burning Man runs on generosity. Hard currency is not permitted. Everyone is expected to give without the expectation of receiving. Some arrive in the hot desert with ice to share, others with skills or just a willingness to serve. Some offer healing sessions, operate steam showers, or give workshops on how to resolve romantic conflicts. Burners pay it forward.
Although humans do typically show care for others, we don’t tend to be overly kind and generous. When it comes to sharing resources with strangers, we even tend to be a bit selfish.
Consider the dictator game, the experimental economics gambit in which one person, the so-called dictator, is endowed with money and given the opportunity to share it with a powerless other, the receiver, if they so wish. Typically, the dictator keeps 70 percent of the spoils and gives away 30 percent. That some give away anything at all has been held out as proof that humans are not completely selfish. But at Burning Man, people playing a version of this game acted with far more generosity than the norm.
Princeton neuroscientist Molly Crockett (also a Burner) and her team found that when Burners were given tickets to exchange for desirable items that made living on the desert playa more enjoyable, they gave away more of them, 62 percent, than they kept.
You might think the Burners were just swept up in an altruistic moment, but Crockett’s team found otherwise. When they ran the same experiment six months after Burning Man, this time using tickets to win $50 Amazon gift cards, the same participants gave away 65 percent of them.
The more time people spent at Burning Man, Crockett found, the more they reported feeling transformed. And the more they felt connected to others and to something greater than themselves, the more their feelings of transformation led to an enduring generosity and concern for the welfare of strangers.
Crockett found that 20 percent of Burning Man attendees reported feeling fundamentally changed by their experiences at the festival, with many, she tells me, coming to feel boundless connection with and compassion for others.
This is a mystical state akin to one achieved through long sessions of meditation or through the use of psychedelic drugs. Crockett says that both Burners who had and those who had not used drugs reported feeling this way.
What is it about Burning Man that has this effect?
The secret lies in Burning Man the ritual, not Burning Man the party. Rituals of transformation, or rites of passage, have features in common. Participants enter into a liminal space, an environment where normal roles don’t apply. They might face hardship together, such as physical pain or discomfort. And they might be asked to adopt a new set of rules and responsibilities. Doing so breaks down people’s normal sense of themselves and permits them to rebuild themselves in a different way.
Burning Man is ripe with all of these elements. It’s uncomfortable: Daytime temperatures often exceed 100 degrees. Dust coats people’s bodies. Gifts of food, ice, and showers ease the hardships. The outlandish outfits — feathered headdresses, sequined bodysuits, mesh shirts, and winged jumpsuits — permit Burners to inhabit new versions of themselves. Some even adopt new names.
And posted everywhere are the 10 Principles: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy. Taken together, these tenets lend themselves to personal transformation and the creation of a caring and inclusive community.
For the Rev. Alex Leach, who was a Burner long before he became an Episcopal priest, the Burning Man community reminded him of something else: what a religious congregation should be. “Instead of 20 percent of the congregation doing 80 percent of the work,” Leach says, “in these theme camps, everyone’s pitching in. Everyone’s involved and they’ve figured out something their neighbors need, and they’re offering that as a gift, as grace, to their neighbors.”
Leach was not very religious before Burning Man. “I was an average religious person before I went, meaning I went to church occasionally,” he says. But when he arrived at Burning Man for the first time, he “felt the saturation of God.” That experience, far from turning him away from a traditional faith, motivated him to embrace it more deeply, if a little differently.
Along with several other clergy and lay religious leaders, Leach founded a Christian theme camp with a very Burning Man name — Religious AF — at the festival. “We’re religious people,” Leach says, “but we’re not the religious people who won’t curse. We’re not stuffy.”
The goal isn’t religious conversion but ministry to any who seek it.
At his camp and in front of Black Rock City’s temple, the Christianity-curious, the Christianity-closeted, and avowed Christians alike participate in an Ash Wednesday-like ceremony, a contemplation of death that incorporates ashes from the previous year’s Burning Man effigy. For some, “the last time they were in church, they were called an outsider or called a sinner,” Leach observes. And almost to a one, he says, the response of those who come to camp Religious AF is some version of “I wish my home congregation was more like this. I feel like my faith is renewed.”
This isn’t a story particular to Christianity, though. There’s also Milk + Honey, a Jewish camp that held a shabbat for more than 1,000 people this year. It’s not your typical sabbath. There’s music, meditation, and dancing mixed with the usual blessings and sharing of wisdom from the Torah.
None of this is to say that your next religious service should be filled with naked people setting figures on fire. But perhaps steal a page from the Burners across the country who host “little burns” where they come together to share the joys of giving, face some mild hardship together, and discuss personal challenges. For a day or two at least, they shed who they are and open their eyes and hearts to welcome and care for one another without condition or prejudice.
By creating a ritual that shakes people out of their routines and lets them feel not only their own vulnerability but also their power to help others, Burning Man ignites feelings of belonging and compassion that remain long after the last embers have burned out. Imagine what such a change could do to transform a congregation near you.
David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and host of the podcast “How God Works.”