Is Protest a Religion?

By Ryan Humphrey '01 / July / August 2000
May 3rd, 2007
It's December 1999: student members of Brown's Young Communist League are jailed in Seattle during the protest against the World Trade Organization. These students tell the Brown Daily Herald that one of the reasons they went to Seattle was "to educate themselves about issues of global trade." Flash-forward to May 2000: a student who traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) writes a letter to the Herald that says, "The activists are acting on behalf of the world at large, or at least trying to, and the only moral response is to appreciate their efforts."

These two statements strike me as quite odd. As an activist myself, I was always under the impression that protesting an injustice came after educating yourself about it, and only as a last resort when other methods of rectifying the injustice have failed. Protest is sometimes necessary to draw attention to a problem, and there are many reasons to protest the practices of the WTO and the IMF, but can you effectively protest something you don't understand? This first statement sounds to me like little more than blind faith.

The second quote, about acting on behalf of the world, just comes off as arrogant. There is nothing wrong with wanting to save the world, but the we're-good-you're-evil attitude of the D.C. protesters, as well as the blind faith of the Seattle protestors, bears a striking resemblance to evangelical religion.

On a campus with little open religious practice and dialogue (University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson estimates that only 40 percent of Brown students are active in organized religions), is it any surprise that some students give direction to their lives by joining the latest sociopolitical movements? Over the years, Brown has acquired a reputation as a haven for leftist activists; a stereotype, to be sure, but students here do like to challenge policymakers, especially if there is a perception of injustice. For some, protests and political causes are a way of life, a way to fit in. The act of protesting has become a kind of religion, substituting nicely for the lack of spirituality in students' lives.

There are plenty of activists and religious people who have studied their politics and their faith and support their cause with humility and reason. Then there are the blind-faith followers who don't fully understand the ramifications or even the meaning of their beliefs. Compare the Seattle protesters with a devout Catholic who believes that the Pope speaks ex cathedra, for God. Ask this Catholic about the godliness of Pope Pius XII, who refused to speak out against the Nazis during the Holocaust, and the person may become uncomfortable. That's blind faith. It is the same discomfort you see in some of the Seattle protesters when asked their opinion on the phenomenal East Asian economic growth rates resulting from the region's outward trade orientation.

As for these activists who "act on behalf of the world at large," their mission sounds as if it's right out of the Crusades. Like religious zealots, they are trying to "save" people who don't necessarily want to be saved, and they seem to believe that only their path can lead to righteousness. I guess they are not listening to such people as the Pakistani man who participated in the Seattle WTO meeting; he told the Wall Street Journal that "those people outside [the protesters] are not speaking for the developing world."

During my three years at Brown, I have become acquainted with many campus protesters. In talking to them I have found that many are either agnostic or atheist. If people do use religion as a crutch to get them through their times of weakness and struggle, it is not so improbable that some Brown students use political causes in the same way. There are a lot worse things to cling to.

Ryan Humphrey is an economics concentrator from Annapolis, Maryland.

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July / August 2000