In an increasingly secular age, an increasing number of people are distancing themselves from organised religion. As a result, communities have become splintered, and we are ushering in a new era of individualism. But there may be a way to escape this trap through immersing ourselves in rave culture, argues Robin Sylvan. In this article, he uncovers transformative nature of these experiences, and explains how raves can function as the new churches.
Every weekend in numerous locations around the planet, thousands of people regularly attend electronic dance music parties, also known as raves. Since the mid-to-late 1980s, raves and the culture surrounding them have become a huge global phenomenon that has made an enormous impact, not only in the lives of the people directly involved, but also on many aspects of larger mainstream popular culture as well. While most media accounts of raves sensationalize their negative features, emphasizing excesses of drug use and bacchanalian revelry, what goes unnoticed is perhaps their most important positive feature – their tremendous spiritual and religious power. For thousands of ravers worldwide, raves are one of their primary sources of spirituality and the closest thing they have to a religion, a theme that ravers have articulated over and over in my interviews with them:
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“It’s definitely a spiritual experience. And I never had any spirituality before, so this was my first time that I had ever experienced that.
I consider it to be a very spiritual experience. In fact, I can say that prior to doing that, my sense of spirituality was pretty weak, pretty undeveloped, pretty dormant in me. . . . I definitely felt a very strong sense of spirituality. . . . At that point in my life, things really transformed in me. I really started feeling like I had a more noble purpose in life. . . .
I’ve had what I might term, and not facetiously, religious experiences when I’ve been dancing. You just get incredibly happy. You get filled with a real sense of joy. . . . The music is a religion. . . . If you’ve got a keyhole somewhere, that’s the thing that puts the key in and turns the lock and opens you up.
It was what I always thought that religion was supposed to be, the community lightening of yourself, and to come out of a party and just be so filled with pure love and leaving the frustration of the week behind at the rave. It showed me true spirituality, from within flowing out of myself and joining it with other people. Undoubtedly the most spiritual feeling I’ve ever had.”
These are strong statements describing spiritual and religious experiences of a profound, life-changing nature. Such experiences are widespread among ravers, perhaps more so than even for people who participate in formal religious traditions. However, it is not simply that raves provide a powerful spiritual and religious experience — raves also provide a form of ritual activity and communal ceremony that regularly and reliably produces such experiences through concrete practices. But, it goes even further than that. Raves also provide a philosophy and worldview that makes sense of these experiences and translates them into a code for living, a map for integrating the transformative experience into the concrete details of day-to-day life. And last, but not least, raves provide a sense of community, a cultural identity, and an alternative social structure that exists in the ‘real world’ outside of the rave. When one considers these powerful spiritual and religious dimensions of raves, combined with the fact that so many people regularly participate in them, it becomes clear that global rave culture constitutes a significant religious phenomenon. Moreover, what is even more interesting is the fact that raves do not resemble religion as we traditionally think of it but, rather, are an innovative and unexpected development that has arisen in ‘secular’ arenas of music, dance, entertainment, and popular culture. As such, raves also provide keys for understanding new forms of spirituality and religion emerging in the rapidly changing social and cultural landscape of the twenty-first century. What are some of these keys?
Raves provide a sense of community, a cultural identity, and an alternative social structure that exists in the ‘real world’ outside of the rave
1. A combination of the sacred and the secular. While many raves have a general spiritual orientation, a sense of the sacred in the peak dance floor experience, and even explicitly religious components like altars or ceremonies, they also have many clearly secular aspects, such as paradigms of partying, making the scene, recreation, entertainment, artistic and aesthetic expression, and commercial profit. The sacred and secular aspects are interwoven to such a degree that they often cannot be separated out from each other, or they may even be the same aspect, but given a different conceptual gloss by different people. For example, one person’s peak dance floor experience might simply be construed as having a good time at a party, while another’s might be their spiritual connection to the divine
2. Expression within the arts. Raves combine several art forms together in a unique manner to produce its characteristic experiences, particularly music, dance, and the visual arts. Each of these art forms is a highly valued means of creative expression that, in and of itself, can lead to spiritual and religious experience and meaning. For example, composing and producing a piece of electronic dance music can be a spiritual process. So can the act of DJ mixing, as well as dancing to the music. And the visual components, whether original art to decorate walls, flyers and websites to promote the rave, altars, lighting, or projected video/computer graphics, can be as well.
3. Expression within popular culture. Raves are popular phenomena in several senses of the word. First, raves are not an elite phenomenon reserved only for the privileged few, such as a symphony orchestra concert or a religious ceremony closed to outsiders. Generally, anyone can come to a rave and the demographics often cut across traditional boundaries of race, class, gender, and ethnicity. Second, raves are popular in the sense that a significant number of people attend them, a number totalling in the millions. Finally, raves are an expression firmly grounded in the forms and sensibilities of popular culture – youth oriented, high sensory stimulus, mass-mediated, global, trendy, rapidly changing, disposable, etc.
4. Emphasis of experience over content. The incredibly powerful altered states of consciousness experienced by ravers on the dance floor are the single most important aspect of the spiritual and religious significance of raves. These states are brought on not only by the continuously mixed, highly amplified, electronically-generated, beat-heavy music and uninterrupted high-energy dancing, but also by the innovative lighting and visuals, and the use of drugs such as MDMA and LSD. Unlike many religions with well-articulated theologies, the spiritual and religious content of raves may be superficial, but that content is secondary to the tremendous power and significance of the experience itself.
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5. The central importance of the body. These powerful experiential states on the dance floor at raves are bodily states and the religious experience takes place in the body. Moreover, each person’s distinctive style of dance, with its vocabularies of characteristic gestures and movements, correlate to specific experiential states which they produce, making raves not only an embodied religious experience, but also a danced religious experience. This central importance of the body is in stark contrast to our western culture’s mind-body split, a split found in Christianity as well as in modern rationalism, which privileges the mind or the spirit, and relegates the body to a status of subservience, repression, or even evil. From this perspective alone, the popularity of rave culture is a significant development in the religious history of western culture.
6. Use of digital technology, multi-media, and global communication systems. Raves are high-tech affairs that take advantage of cutting edge, state-of-the-art digital music production and amplification technology, lighting and computer graphic technology, and global communication networks. In contrast to earlier countercultures, rave culture does not see technology as negative and something to be avoided, but as a set of tremendous resources and tools that can be creatively utilized to enhance and intensify the dance floor experience.
7. Postmodern, hybrid, cut-and-paste nature. Raves draw from a variety of different religious influences, from Hindu to Native American, Mayan to shamanic, neo-pagan to Christian, and combine them all together in a hodge-podge hybrid. From an historical perspective on religions, this is an extremely new development made possible by the advent of modern globalization that makes all cultures and religions accessible to everyone on an unprecedented scale. Today, not only can one choose to be a Jew, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Hindu, etc., but also a Wiccan, a Scientologist, a Theosophist, a UFO cult member, etc., and, more importantly, a combination of any or all of these. I use the word postmodern here in the sense that ravers have selectively appropriated elements from various traditions, placed them in an entirely different cultural context, and combined them in ways that suit their own purposes, which are not necessarily the originally intended purposes. In addition, many of these elements may not even come from spiritual or religious sources, but from variables such as race, nationality, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as technology, communications, economics, and ecology.
This central importance of the body in raves is in stark contrast to our western culture’s mind-body split, a split found in Christianity as well as in modern rationalism, which privileges the mind or the spirit, and relegates the body to a status of subservience, repression, or even evil
The face of contemporary spirituality and religion is clearly changing, in that many people in today’s society no longer have religious experiences in traditional religious settings, and so they seek such experiences in other settings. Global rave culture is an outstanding example of how a significant number of people are having meaningful religious experiences in other cultural sectors outside of traditional religions, experiences that provide them with a sense of spirituality and connection to something larger than themselves.Ravers themselves are very articulate on this subject and so I would like to end this article with their words:
“There’s a little saying that ‘We are one in the dance,’ so if you get out on the dance floor, and you’re all in that vibe, we suddenly become one regardless of cosmology. And that’s what seems to be so transformative is that people aren’t hung up on any particular dogma, like religion. It’s more about sharing this spiritual nature that we all have with each other, and an understanding that we all do have it. . . . People are literally listening to it [electronic dance music] in every corner of the planet and it’s wonderful because it unites a planet in a language that is beyond language. It really isn’t about lyric music, it’s about a beat, and everybody can dance, so that’s what’s really great about it. I think that’s what gives it hope to unify people in a way that maybe hasn’t happened before.”