Occupy Protesters Want to Belong

December 21, 2011

Occupy protesters are motivated not so much by policy goals as by a need for community and a desire for personal validation, according to new research by the Frontier Lab.  

I’m normally very skeptical about—and opposed to—ascribing motives or intentions to one’s opponents.  The Frontier Lab is admittedly pro-liberty, pro-small-“r”-republicanism, and pro-America—i.e., if you like, conservative.  That said, there’s a difference between carelessly assuming bad motives of anyone who disagrees with one—e.g., assuming that a liberal who favors legal recognition of same-sex “marriage” must be motivated by anti-religious bigotry, or assuming that a conservative who favors lower spending and lower taxes must be motivated by “pro-rich” or “anti-poor” prejudice—and a study of Occupiers’ motivations themselves, based on hour-long interviews and marketing-research principles.  Make of it what you will.

At National Review Online, Charles Cooke (who has covered the Occupy protests many times over the past few months) summarizes and discusses the Frontier Lab’s findings.  (Alternate summary: Rebel Pundit.)  Read the full report yourself at the Frontier Lab’s Web site.

According to the report’s introduction, responses to the Occupy protests, particularly among pro-liberty types, have so far fallen into two categories: “(1) vilify or ridicule their message, or (2) embrace the anti-collusion rhetoric and rally around common ground.”  The report suggests that neither response is apt, and later adds,

Those that would place the Occupy protesters, . . . on a Left-Right spectrum are attempting to overlay a dimension that simply cannot capture their entire essence. . . .

It is important to note that in the mental maps of [protesters], there was no representation of Marxism, Anarchy, or any other political justice outcome at the value level (see appendices).

Instead, the report concludes that many, perhaps the vast majority, of protesters are driven in significant part by a need for community; in effect, the Occupy protests fill a void left by the breakdown of community in modern America and by the protesters’ lack of religious upbringing.  As Cooke puts it,

What did Frontier Lab discover? First, that many of the rank-and-file occupiers feel isolated in their lives, and appear to lack basic community ties such as are provided by participation in clubs, churches, and strong families. Indeed, much of the report could have come from the early chapters of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. They thus attach to their political causes with something like a religious fervor. . . . Crucially, involvement with others who agree with them provides an “overwhelming feeling of being part of a family.” I noticed this on my first trip down to Zuccotti Park, when I saw a telling sign adorning the entrance to the tent city: “For the first time in my life, I feel at home.” On subsequent visits I was struck by the importance of the commune to the project.


Related entry: “‘Occupy Wall Street’ Protesters Couldn’t Be More Different from Tea Party Movement, or from Rest of Country”

19 Responses to “Occupy Protesters Want to Belong”

  1. Snoodickle Says:

    It’s interesting that the lack of a religious upbringing contributes to a “need to belong.” What this implies, though, is that people turn to religion because of a need to belong, and that the purpose of religion is to satisfy that need. I would wholeheartedly agree.

    • Just to be clear, your position is that finding community in filthy, raperidden tent cities is the normal, and finding it in a church is the substitute, rather than the other way around?

      If you think you’ve just made a non-circular argument against the truth of Christianity, or any other religion, you still haven’t.

      • Snoodickle Says:

        I’m unclear on how you could extrapolate such a position from what I’ve written. I was merely saying that people turn to religion because of the sense of community, not because of any real religious conviction.

        P.S. Is it really necessary to even argue against the logic of a religion that thinks that God sent himself to Earth on a suicide mission?

  2. Jon from San Diego Says:

    Substitute how? The church could just as easily be views as a child molesting organization that steals money from those in need through lies. I would rather be in a tent then in a church.

  3. community vs. convictions Says:


    Alright, admittedly, I can’t tell whether you are making those arguments as a joke, but just in case you really do mean to offer that thesis, I’d like to respond.

    What evidence do you have that religious people don’t really believe what they say they believe? Or that people’s primary reason for participating in religion is a desire for community?

    It occurs to me that the religions which offer community but not doctrine are hugely unsuccessful when compared with the religions which emphasize a set of beliefs and moral imperatives. Consider, for example, the Quakers, the Unitarian Universalists, and (if you have time for a more nuanced inquiry) recent trends in the self-presentation of some mainline denominations who advertize welcoming everyone while also downplaying the importance of doctrinal agreement.

    All of these groups are shrinking. The Quakers, who have been at it the longest (hundreds of years), have never been very big. It seems to be clear that there isn’t much demand for religion-as-community. Humans like community, to be sure, and people join civic associations, clubs, World of Warcraft groups (for the less well socially adjusted). But it seems that when it comes to religion, they’re looking for something else. Consider also that many of the world’s religions don’t have much to do with community, intrinsically (you don’t join congregations in Hinduism or Buddhism, and many animistic religions are institutionalized parts of public community life–villages have a shaman; community comes not from the religion but just from being a village).

    On the other hand, successful religions (whether you like it or not, and plenty of atheists don’t like it) offer a healthy combination of philosophical answers to existential questions and moral imperatives arising out of those philosophical claims. In the field of religious studies, even atheists are pretty comfortable acknowledging that the primary purpose of religion is to provide people an understanding of their place in the universe and a way of addressing and overcoming evil. Someone once called religion “the pursuit of the Real.” You are welcome to be dismissive of that truth-seeking project. But scholars of religion talk about religion that way.

    Most religions tell us we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, that we ought to care about other people, that certain types of societies are good for humanity (most religions think we ought to create good family situations). So religious people may be more likely to form strong families and care about community. That could account for the lack of community felt by people from non-religious households. But community, then, is secondary.

  4. Snoodickle Says:

    If you scroll up a little, you will see that Chillingworth is the one who argued that a lack of religious upbringing leads to a lack of community. I merely endorsed his statement.

    • community vs. convictions Says:

      Haha! Come on, now. If you scroll up a little, you will see that you wrote: “What this implies, though, is that people turn to religion because of a need to belong, and that the purpose of religion is to satisfy that need.” And, “I was merely saying that people turn to religion because of the sense of community, not because of any real religious conviction.”

      Humble of you to play it off like it isn’t a new claim in the conversation, but it is. You take the original suggestion that lack of religious upbringing leads to a lack of community and ADD that people join religions because of a need for community (and even that the purpose of religion is to provide community), effectively reversing the causation chain.

      But if you want to plant your final flag on what Chillingworth said, I’ll take it and say only that I’m glad you agree with me.

      • Snoodickle Says:

        Let’s say it was a natural extension of what Chillingworth said. With respect to your claim that religion is a noble search for truth, I will have to respectfully disagree. Growing up in a religious family, attending religious school, and studying with great curiosity people of religious conviction, my opinion is that people turn to religion for three primary reasons (not necessarily in this particular religion), (1) family tradition (2) the sense of community (i.e. the sense of belonging to a group with common values), and (3) fear of death.

        I think most people realize deep down that there’s not a whole lot of truth to what religious doctrine actually teaches.

      • community vs. convictions Says:

        Well, Ok, try this on: I’m going to try using things you find authoritative sources of good information. I grew up in a religious family, attended five different types of religious schools, and have been studying religious people, too. Just like you! By this reckoning, my opinions ought to be as credible as yours. My conclusions are very different from yours (see above).

        Does that mean we’re both objectively correct about the question of why people are religious? Or what? (Hint: that’s logically impossible.)

        To your credit, you only call your conclusions an “opinion”, but I think we can get closer to the truth here by seeking information beyond our own personal impressions, which is why I suggest appeal to scholars of sociology of religion and trends in religious participation in different sorts of religions and things like that.

        You can’t successfully argue that people don’t really believe what they say they believe by saying, “I THINK people don’t really believe what they say they believe.” If simply asserting a thing made it true, you can bet my life would look a lot different than it does. I’d say things like, “Oh, but I think my friend IS gainfully employed in a job he loves.” and he would be! I could go to professors with bad exam answers and say, “Oh, but I THINK the answer is what I wrote!” And they’d agree and change my grade.

        Otherwise, seriously, it’s not a discussion at all. I KNOW you think that. That’s the first thing you said. That’s what I responded to. I’m saying, We don’t have to rely on just our own opinions: there’s actual information out there that might give us some insight into the motivations of religious people.

        But, of course, it’s fine if religion doesn’t interest you enough that you want to have a conversation on the internet about it. I’ll bow out here.

      • Snoodickle Says:

        Let’s put it this way. The Bible quotes Jesus as saying that true believers can drink deadly poison and be unharmed. Show me one purported believer who is willing to do that and I may change my opinion.

      • community vs. convictions Says:

        There are a few layers of response to that. Ironically, short one-liners require longer answers, because insofar as they rest on gross misunderstandings, they can’t be answered without first addressing the misunderstandings. So, three layers of response, if you are interested:

        First: simple textual analysis.

        That story doesn’t say all believers should be able to drink poison safely. Sorry. Sometimes people get mixed up about when the Bible is telling it’s readers to do something, and when it’s telling a story about things that have already happened. That part of Mark is a story we’re being told about the people mentioned in the story. There area few fringe Christians out there who think they ought to be able to handle snakes and drink poison, but I’m not sure that is justified by this text.

        Jesus is talking to the eleven disciples about the preaching project they’ve been given. The story ends with verbs in the Aorist tense (which is like our simple past tense–it occurred, it’s done, grammatically, we don’t look back) and accompanying present phrases: “They went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through accompanying signs.” (blogger’s translation) That tells me the whole story is about the eleven disciples and their activities, and the signs are grammatically dependent on their actions, because we’re being told a story and that’s the end of the story. God told them, “I’m gonna back you up with signs.” Then they go out and God backs up their preaching with signs. The end. It was one evangelistic strategy, among others. And there have been countless other ways people have been persuaded since then.

        Second: theology. (A) the nature of faith, then (B) the nature of signs.

        (A) “Pistis” is sometimes translated “faith” and sometimes “belief” (they’re both the same word in Greek). Christianity for the bulk of its history in the majority of its expressions has understood Pistis as something more akin to a relationship than to a simple declaration of belief in certain doctrines. Faith is something you work at, like any relationship is. (The great faith v. works debate is a tempest in a teacup.) Consider Mark 9:24 (the same gospel you’ve used!) where the man says, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief!” Obviously he doesn’t see a contradiction there, and neither does Christian thought, because faith is ongoing work, like relationship. We can imagine people thinking: “I love my wife, but I need help with the ways in which I don’t love my wife.” So, faith isn’t a binary on/off thing. Faith that can move mountains is an ideal to which Christians aspire, and the very fact that they aspire to it indicates they believe what they say they believe, even if they aren’t going to try to move a mountain for you. If you don’t understand the nature of faith, you won’t understand religious people. I understand that it’s hard from the outside, when you have no experience of your own to draw on. But that’s just another reason to defer to the explanations of the religious people you doubt. Faith is like relationship.

        (B) It is inappropriate and a non-sequitur to demand that a person of faith handle a poisonous snake to prove the truth of his belief. It misunderstands the nature of faith, and the nature of God-given signs, which are accessories that God provides at his discretion—they are not physical laws that happen on their own. They aren’t outward signs of internal belief. They’re like magic tricks that God does so an audience will be more inclined to believe the doctrine being taught.

        In Mark, to which you referred, it’s actually all about what’s being taught, not about the “true belief” of the person. That’s an important distinction: the ability to drink poison isn’t offered as proof that a person really believes anything. It’s offered as proof that what he says about God is actually true. And the signs have no intrinsic connection to either of those. So why would you expect such a sign to appear, just because you want it to, in order to prove belief? That misses, it seems, the whole point.

        Third: common sense, or logic. A refusal to handle snakes demonstrates not so much that someone doesn’t believe the tenets of Christianity, as that he doesn’t think there’s any reason he’d be safe from a snake bite just for believing the tenets of Christianity. If the church doesn’t usually teach that Christians should be able drink poison (it doesn’t, for good reason; see above. It’s a pretty “fringe” thing), then why would that have anything to do with measuring the authenticity of someone’s belief? IT’S NOT SOMETHING HE BELIEVES. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe other actual doctrine of the religion. The “here-hold-this-poisonous-snake” test would only work if you were confronting someone from those tiny groups that think snake-handling is some kind of gift that comes with belief. Most Christians aren’t in that group, so what have you proven? Maybe that most Christians aren’t in that group. Maybe that most Christians have a standard definition of faith which involves constant growth. Maybe that most Christians read and understand the whole little story in Mark and don’t take that verse out of context.

      • Snoodickle Says:

        That’s one interpretation. Or you could read it and say it plainly says that Jesus says believers can drink deadly poison. Either way, Jesus is saying that someone drank deadly poison and survived. Do you really believe that?

      • community vs. convictions Says:

        Sorry. The burden has shifted, sir. You don’t actually address any flaws in my argument and you provide no reason anyone should believe you beyond simply stating your thesis. (We’ve been over that. Saying a thing doesn’t make it true, lamentably.) My “one interpretation” is a pretty plain, uncontroversial reading. Yours sounds like you didn’t read the whole story. A plain partial reading?

        I made three separate arguments, and you responded (insofar as you responded) only to the first, and even then, your response basically is, “nuh-uh.” Will I persuade you if here I say, “yeah-huh!”?

        If you can go back in time and prove to me that the events of the story didn’t happen, then I’d be happy to say they didn’t happen. And I’d love to borrow your time-machine. Otherwise, I have, on the one hand, an inherited first-hand account of events; and on the other, some guy who doesn’t seem to have a strong background in the Bible, who doesn’t want to believe them.

      • Snoodickle Says:

        A first-hand account of the events? Good grief.

      • community vs. convictions Says:

        Good grief yourself. Not even atheist biblical scholars argue that the gospels were just made up. If you’re not prepared to have an actual discussion about the Bible, fair enough. But dismissive comments have a lot less punch when they’re really all you have. You say you’ve studied “with great curiosity people of religious conviction”, but from your conduct in this discussion, you seem distinctly uncurious and uninterested. If you don’t care to understand religious people or their religions, why say you do?

      • Snoodickle Says:

        Much of what is written in the gospels is based on hearsay, not direct eyewitness testimony. If you want to talk about burdens of proof and get all legalistic about it, you can’t ignore the facts.

      • 3 answers to "why create at all?" Says:

        I said, “an inherited first-hand account of events,” because it isn’t really a problem for biblical scholarship if the story is transmitted orally before it’s written down. Biblical scholars think about whether a story is likely to have been invented or not. How reliable it is. But they actually think through it. In the legal field, you have rules about hearsay testimony because there isn’t time to evaluate the evidence thoroughly. The whole legal process is a giant short-cut because finding the truth takes to long. It is a practical, not an intellectual discipline. But biblical studies has no deadline, and they’ve been working for centuries.

        And actually, speaking of those facts you don’t seem to know even as you refer to them, our best guess is that the gospel of Mark was written down about thirty years after these events happened, that is, within the lifetimes of the people who experienced it. There’s no reason to assume the gospel wasn’t written by Mark himself. Here’s your burden back. A shifting burden of proof means you have to PRODUCE facts for me to face. You haven’t. Until you do, I won’t respond any longer.

      • Snoodickle Says:

        An “inherited first-hand account,” under your definition, is in fact a second-hand account.

  5. Snoodickle Says:

    * order

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