The Amish

With the Amish in the news, I was thinking how odd it is that they have such a generally positive image. These people are religious extremists who define themselves by ignorance and dogma, who oppose art and science, who treat women as second-class citizens, and won’t even talk to their own family members if they have lost their faith.

They’re a non-violent version of the Taleban; and while I appreciate that the ‘non-violent’ part of that phrase is very important, I’m not sure it makes up for everything else. And yet somehow they are widely admired. Because they’re quaint? Because people are vaguely glad that someone else is living according to an obsessively strict and arbitrary moral code, even though they wouldn’t want to live to it themselves?

8 Comments

  1. 3 October 2006 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know, if I were ever to convert to Christianity, I’d probably choose to be a Mennonite, which isn’t too far off, really. I don’t know anything in Amish or Anabaptist beliefs that is particularly opposed to education or art or science; the guiding principles behind the Amish way of life as far as I understand them are nonconformity, simplicity, and pacifism. Amish people go to conventional doctors when they are ill, for example, and evaluate new technologies individually, sometimes accepting them. Amish crafts are well known and often quite artistic; they have no tradition of figurative art because of the biblical prohibition against graven images, a limitation they share with all the Jews. I also don’t see Amish beliefs as any more sexist than any mainstream variety of Judeo-Christian tradition; a division of gender roles is not particularly sexist in and of itself (and for that matter is a worldwide universal). I don’t think much of shunning as a religious practice — although it’s certainly preferable to Taliban-type solutions, as you mention — but my understanding is that the Amish reserve shunning for people who were baptized and then choose to reject their faith. They baptize adults, so the punishment seems to be for changing your mind, rather than being unwilling to conform in the first place, which is a bit of a different thing. Presumably, a child raised Amish who did not choose to be baptized as an adult would be accepted despite not being Amish themselves. I’ve no idea if that ever happens, as a practical matter, but it does give a different spin to the thing.

  2. 3 October 2006 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    I live in Amish country and public opinion is definitely not all admiration, especially regarding buggies on the road.

  3. Harry
    3 October 2006 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    “I don’t know anything in Amish or Anabaptist beliefs that is particularly opposed to education or art or science”

    The Amish don’t educate their children past the eighth grade. I find that pretty damning in itself.

  4. 3 October 2006 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, Harry – you’re dead wrong about the Amish, at least the ones I know. Many of my neighbors are Amish. Saying that they define themselves by ignorance and dogma is itself an ignorant and dogmatic statement – if it is true, it is only true in the most general sense in which we are all defined somewhat by our refusals and prejudices. The Amish I know are full of curiosity about the world, read widely, take note of the birds and wildflowers. They are far from fanatics – they make no effort to convince anyone else of the rightness of their beliefs. Unlike most Christians, they make a concerted effort to practice what they preach where humility and turning the other cheek are concerned. Depending on the community, Amish women can be quite outspoken (well, for Amish). Their opposition to new technology derives from a quite laudable determination to limit the ways in which new techniques, transport and communication systems, etc. disrupt thier lives. Plainness and simplicity are at the center of their outlook. Many children of Amish do not choose to be baptized in the faith; this does not harm their relationship with their parents, though it does of course mean they have to go off and find a new life in a non-Amish community. Generally they do stay within the larger Mennonite fold, however.

    If you want to learn more, I suggest Donald Kraybill’s book, *The Riddle of Amish Culture.*

  5. 3 October 2006 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    It’s not true that they educate their children only to eighth grade. They educate their children in a schoolhouse setting until eighth grade — and after that they are homeschooled, typically with some sort of formal educational program, designed to be tailored to the individual’s interests and future plans. That doesn’t strike me as anti-education, particularly.

  6. Harry
    4 October 2006 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Hey Dave, thanks for the book recommendation.

  7. Peter Dixie
    8 October 2006 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I have heard that the secluded lifestyle, and the resultant limited gene pool, have let to the development of several inherited disorders in some Amish communities.

  8. Harry
    8 October 2006 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    It might be surprising if that wasn’t true, actually. I’m sure I’ve heard that, too, but I can’t remember what the condition was – manic depression, maybe?

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