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StJ’s Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements


One of the more interesting facets of the Western social, cultural, and spiritual landscape is the presence of various alternative cultural events and movements. Although they should not be understood as new religious movements, they do involve a strong element of spiritual expression and experimentation, and for many people they function as new spiritual outlets (Heelas and Woodhead 2002). There are a variety of factors that explain why these groups have arisen, from the counterculture movement of the 1960s giving birth to many of their foundation ideas and some of the groups themselves, to the formation and exploration of self-identity through participation in various “neo-tribal” groups in late modernity/postmodernity. Graham St. John defines “alternative culture” as “a diverse network of discourse and practice oppositional to perceived deficiencies in the parent culture, which is the system of values, beliefs and practices hegemonic under modernity” (2000:Internet resource). With this definition in mind alternative cultures should be understood in some sense as embodying aspects of countercultural ideas as well as utopian thinking, elements which have been found in Western cultural history for quite some time, particularly in the American context. An example of an alternative cultural movement in the United States that arose in connection with the 1960s counterculture is The Rainbow Family of Living Light (also known as the Rainbow Nation and the Rainbow Family). This has been described as “a cooperative utopian community” (Niman 1997, xi), and as an “intentional group” with a “supposedly shared ideology” which may be understood historically as part of “a strong utopian tradition in North America” (Niman 1997, 31). The Rainbows have been holding week-long National Gatherings each July since 1972 in national parks around the country. The inspiration for the first Gathering came from the Vortex Festival, a musical festival held near Portland, Oregon in 1970 (Niman 1997, 32). The group met again in Colorado in the first official Gathering involving more than 20,000 people in 1972. The following year the Gathering was held in Wyoming, followed by one in Utah, and eventually a tradition of annual Gatherings in various locations was born (Niman 1997, 32-3). The Rainbow Family not only 1

Alternative Cultural Events involves national Gatherings in the United States, but also includes international gatherings held around the globe that meet at the same time as the Gatherings in the States. It consciously draws upon Native American spirituality, romanticized and refashioned in light of modern conceptions of Native American beliefs and lifestyles. It also draws upon the “rites of Wicca,” and demonstrates the influences of hedonism, pacifism, and has a “foundation in American Bohemian traditions” (Niman 1997). The organizational structure of the Rainbow Family is unique among American utopian communities (Niman 1997, 55) in that it does not follow a centralized or hierarchical model, but instead includes a governing body that operates as a Council, “open to all interested persons,” and which governs “by consensus of the entire group” (Niman 1997, 39). Niman points out that this is noteworthy in that this approach at governance has worked successfully for Gatherings “of up to thirty thousand people” (Niman 1997, 40) for many years. Although Niman classifies the Rainbow Family as a utopian community experiment, he states that the Rainbows have “not yet created, and may never create, a permanent self-sufficient utopia. Gatherings are temporary communities, dependent upon Babylon [their term for mainstream society] for material sustenance” (Niman 1997, 33). The Gatherings are also transitory in that the community comes together periodically and later dissolves into the broader society only to reform later (in what Niman refers to as process of “fission-fusion” as a nomadic utopia). Another alternative cultural event is the Burning Man Festival. See the entry in this encyclopedia for specific consideration of Burning Man as festival and alternative cultural event. But America is not the only Western country where alternative cultural events and movements may be found. Other examples include the Nimbin Lifestyle Festival and ConFest in Australia, and Glastonbury in the United Kingdom. The dominant theoretical model for understanding alternative cultural events, particularly in Burning Man studies, is found in the application of anthropologist Victor Turner’s concepts of liminality and ritual among tribal peoples during rites of passage. In Turner’s theory, as this process unfolds it begins with the separation process, where individuals move from regular participation with the tribe in the mundane world, and then enter a liminal or threshold space where they work together through the performance of rituals. They then experience aggregation or a return to their tribe with a new status resulting from these experiences. The result for those who have gone through this process is an experience of communitas, a strong social bond among individuals who have worked 2

StJ’s Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements

together through common liminal and ritual experience. From this perspective those involved in alternative cultural events and movements travel from around the country and experience separation from the mundane world. As they come together their gathering becomes a liminal space of shared ritual expression. At the conclusion of the cultural event, participants return to mainstream culture and achieve aggregation. Through this process, participants frequently express a strong sense of communitas or belonging.

Alternative Cultural Events Hexham, Irving. “New Age Thought in Glastonbury.” M.A. thesis, University of Birstol, 1971.

While Turner’s theoretical model remains helpful in understanding such phenomena, it has been noted by various scholars that it is not without its difficulties (St. John). Other conceptual frameworks of interpretation have been suggested (Morehead 2007) that provides alternative and complimentary ways in which to understand alternative cultural events and movements such as Burning Man. This includes consideration of Burning Man as a secondary institution that has been created as a result of dissatisfaction with mainstream institutions (Berger, Berger, and Kellner 1974); that such alternative cultures and events function as part of the holistic milieu in late modernity and at times as new spiritual outlets (Heelas and Woodhead 2002); and that Burning Man may be understood as a temporary autonomous zone wherein participants carves out spaces for creativity and the construction of new concepts of personal identity and cultural imagination (Bey 2003). References Heelas, Paul and Linda Woodhead. 2002. “Homeless minds today?” in Linda Woodhead, ed., Peter Berger and the Study of Religion. London & New York: Routledge. Niman, Michael I. People of the Rainbow: A Nomadic Utopia. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1997. St. John, Graham. “Alternative Cultural Heterotopia: ConFest as Australia’s Marginal Centre.” Ph.D. diss., La Trobe University, 2000. Additional Reading Gilmore, Lee and Mark Van Proyen, eds. AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Man. Albuquerque, NM: The University of New Mexico Press, 2005 Heelas, Paul and Linda Woodhead. 2005. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.