The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on January 25, 2012
Stubborn Amish and Stubborn Atheists

One of my earliest memories is of an incident in the kindergarten of my childhood in Vienna. I must have been at most five years old. I was supposed to speak a line in a play about which I have no memory. All I remember is that I was wearing a top hat and was sitting on some sort of cupboard—and that I did not want to speak my line. The teacher cajoled me several times, but I kept shaking my head. She was quite angry, but finally gave up. I came down from my perch, having successfully disobeyed an order from legitimate authority.
I am not sure that this episode indicates a profound character trait. But, although I am both temperamentally and philosophically inclined toward compromise in conflict situations, I have always resisted if authorities or peers wanted to make me do things against my will. Furthermore, I have always sympathized with people who stubbornly refuse to be swayed from deviant views or behaviors. Unless the views or behaviors are morally repugnant (I don’t sympathize, say, with deviant racists), my sympathy does not hinge on agreement with the stubborn refuseniks. In my own field of the sociology of religion, along with most colleagues I concluded long ago that secularization theory—the notion that modernity necessarily leads to a decline of religion—cannot be maintained in the face of the evidence. Yet there is a rather small group of social scientists who stubbornly continue to adhere to the theory. I rather admire them. Admittedly the sociology of religion generates less than profound disagreements. But I have a lingering admiration for people who refuse to accept evidence of a more fundamental kind—such as socialists or creationists—perhaps, at a stretch, even flat-earth theorists.
The Religious News Service provides daily briefings which are quite useful to obsessive religion-watchers like me. On January 12, 2012, the briefing contained two stories from different sources. Each dealt with stubborn people, the sort I instinctively sympathize with even though I totally disagree with them.
The first story, reported by the Associated Press, came from Kentucky. As other states, Kentucky has a law which requires slow-moving vehicles (such as tractors or trailers) to affix reflective signs to avoid faster vehicles to run into them from behind. The horse-drawn buggies favored by Amish of the strict observance clearly fit the description of slow-moving vehicles. There have indeed been some collisions with Amish buggies, including one in Kentucky when an SUV ran into such a buggy and killed a teenager. The mandated sign is a bright orange triangle. An especially strict group of Amish, going under the melodious name of Swartzentruber, refused to affix this triangle. They claimed that the object is garish and offends their commitment to “a simple, plain life”. They also said that they rely on God for protection on the road. They are willing to use (supposedly less garish) gray tape and hanging lanterns. Other states have accommodated the Amish position, on grounds of religious freedom. The Kentucky authorities did not. They pressed on. Amish buggies were ticketed. But the Amish refused to pay the fines and were accordingly jailed (for some days at a time). A more recent story in daily newspapers indicates that the conflict continues, with more Amish going to jail, though a bill is pending in the legislature to allow an exemption from the putatively garish triangle.
The second story comes from a blog of one Jonathan Turley under the highbrow title Res ipsa loquitur (“The Thing Speaks for Itself”). It is about Jessica Ahlquist, a Rhode Island high school girl. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Ahlquist went to federal court asking that her school be compelled to remove a large mural displaying a prayer asking God, among other things, to help students “to be good sports and smile when they lose”. Before resorting to federal court, Ahlquist had made her demand at various meetings of the local school committee. She said that “As an atheist, I have the right to go to school and not feel discriminated against by the people who are praying there.” She met with strong hostility from committee members and many fellow-students. She received insults and threats in school, on the way home from school, and online. She said that she felt alone and hated—and, most important, that her first-amendment rights were being violated. The US district court agreed with her. The school was ordered to remove the prayer. I don’t know if “the thing speaks for itself”, but it seems to speak for the readers of the blog—there were ninety-eight responses, most of them endorsing the sentiment expressed by the title of the post: “Brava, Jessica Ahlquist”.

My own sentiment is not as enthusiastic. But between Jessica and a clutch of hostile Godders, as between the Swartzentruber and the mighty state of Kentucky, I empathize with the stubborn orneriness of the former two. This despite the fact that, God knows, I strongly disagree with the two respective worldviews. (In the unlikely case that Jessica reads my blog, I hope that she concedes my first-amendment right to invoke the deity). The best I can say about the Mennonite faith of the Amish is that it derives from the less bloodthirsty version of the Dutch Reformation. I find the Amish lifestyle quaint but unappealing, and their pacifism morally irresponsible. As to the atheism in question, I consider it, precisely, a worldview appropriate in adolescence but not later in life. To be an agnostic is a very reasonable position to take in view of the depressing realities of the human condition and the absurd puzzles of the universe. The agnostic says “I don’t know what it ultimately means”; the atheist claims to know. Those of us who have not been visited by angels are, almost by definition, agnostic. Yes, we can have faith—I would say, faith alone (sola fide). But faith is not knowledge. That is another story. The ACLU featured in Jessica’s story has a view of the separation of church and state that can be described as Kemalist—the public space of the republic must be kept antiseptically clear of the religious virus. Kemalism has not been working very well in Turkey. It will work even less in the United States.

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    Dr. Berger, you wrote,

    “the atheist claims to know.”

    Sorry, could you clarify? The atheist claims to know what?

    Any support for your view would be appreciated.

  • Benjamin W.

    I also object to your assertion that atheists claim to “know.”

    For those of us who’ve spent time studying philosophy, we’re cognizant of the fact that what we have is a belief that there is no god. We have looked at the world and concluded that the explanatory powers of the theistic viewpoints do not mesh with our understanding of the way the world works.

    We have seen time and again how religious statements of proclaimed knowledge and certainty about the natural world have backed down in the face of empirical evidence. In each case where a religion claimed to “know” something about the natural world that science later disagrees with, science tends to win.

    I, for one, have taken this to (what I feel) is a fairly reasonable viewpoint: while I do not believe that the human mind is capable of understanding the entire universe, there is indeed a natural explanation for everything.

    The best evidence that any theist of any type has ever offered me for why I should believe there is a god ultimately boils down to a book which has proven to be incorrect about physical phenomena that a modern fifth grader would understand.

    For many atheists, the idea that we should accept the Truth of any book that has been proven wrong on every occasion it has been tested seems… questionable.

    Thus, like good empiricists, we have (informally) formed a working hypothesis. For atheists it happens to be an idea that we are willing to act on. In the spirit of American Pragmatism, that constitutes a belief that there is no god.

    I object to the use of the term “know” because a good empiricist tries not to assign “Truth” with a capital “T” very often, since over the course of time, theories have a habit of needing updates when new evidence comes in.

  • Stanislaw Krawczyk

    Dear Benjamin W.,

    As a side note, I would like to point out the following. If I understand your comment correctly, in your philosophical studies you have not read Thomas Aquinas. Apart from that, you seem to have discussed the existence of God only with very poor philosophical theologians. I am not making a theistic argument here but a philosophical one: if you want to criticize the claims concerning the existence of God, dispute the best, not the mediocre!

    And by the way, the Bible is as far from a handbook for fifth-graders as any book can be. I hope that one day most Christians and atheists alike will know that. Perhaps some of them will even attempt to take a look at the work of Bible scholars?

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  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    To join the small chorus – being sure one particular answer (or class of answers) is wrong doesn’t mean one therefore knows what’s correct.

    And the lawsuit wasn’t claiming that “the public space of the republic must be kept antiseptically clear of the religious virus.” Far from it. As you’re no doubt aware, students can pray at school all they like, so long as they don’t get in the way of the school’s job to educate.

    However, a school is not allowed to promote a particular class of religion or religious practice. If the prayer had been addressed to “Heavenly Mothers” instead of “Heavenly Father”, or had closed with “Inshaa’Allaah” instead of “Amen”, would you be as troubled by the outcome?

  • Joe Lammers

    Re: Benjamin W. I disagree with your assertion, atheists do claim to know there is no God, while agnostics say this is ultimately unknowable. However, there have been some phenomenon that are difficult to explain naturalistically or scientifically, so I don’t think religious belief is unreasonable.

  • Richard Treitel

    Thanks Ben. I’ve encountered other Christians who confuse “Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothese” with an assertion that the hypothesis is, or even could be, proven false. Serious cosmologists have put forth hypotheses under which this universe could indeed have been created by some being … not very much more intelligent than we are.

    Peter Berger, please be advised that the only thing I *know* about the universe is that we don’t know everything there is to know about it. So I choose to take very little on faith.

  • Brian from Colorado

    Your average atheist is unable to understand that their private beliefs about the nature of reality are themselves grounded in assumptions that are ultimately of a metaphysical character.

    The modern scientistic worldview, based on a materialist creed of positivism, asserts that nothing is “real” or “true” unless some type of repeatable public evidence can be demonstrated to any observer. This being the case, you’re forever unable to “prove” that your own ongoing sense of being and awareness (much less my own) does NOT represent anything beyond evanescing patterns of electrochemical flashes in a tightly enclosed skull case.

  • http://nthmost.com Naomi Most

    “Your average atheist is unable to understand that their private beliefs about the nature of reality are themselves grounded in assumptions that are ultimately of a metaphysical character.”

    So what?

    I would agree that people calling themselves atheists tend to be metaphysically and philosophically underdeveloped.

    But as a philosophical / anthropological atheist myself, I can definitively offer you this piece of logical advice:

    Whether atheists can base their beliefs on anything you consider correct or meaningful means absolutely nothing in the face of discrimination and hatred towards atheists.

    Whether atheists are morally respectable or not has nothing to do with whether they are deserving of civil rights.

  • Brendan Doran

    How was she being discriminated against, other than she cannot bear the public expression of faith?

  • R.C.

    I don’t quite understand Peter Berger’s categorical remark that one cannot know God exists.

    That might be true for most of us most of the time. But I doubt it’s true for most of us all the time, and I know that it isn’t true for all of us all the time.

    After the episode with the plagues did Moses merely have faith that God exists?

    After the episode on Mt. Carmel, did Elijah merely have faith that God exists?

    After being raised up from the grave, did Lazarus merely have faith that God exists?

    One needn’t go to the Bible or even to the ancients, really. Does my mother’s friend who was miraculously healed of Multiple Sclerosis merely have faith?

    There comes a point where “faith” in one sense becomes impossible, because you know.

    At least, for that moment, you know. But God is not an overbearing parent or a clingy kind of lover, and even after epiphanies so clear as to be nearly gaudy, He tends to back off and give us our space.

    And when that happens, we get forgetful. Days or weeks or month pass, and then there comes a moment when one has had a bad day and a disagreeable meal and it’s rainy gray and overcast, and suddenly irrelevant feelings can rise up and carry out a blitzkrieg on one’s good sense: Despite what one knows, it suddenly feels like God is nowhere to be found. It feels like the whole notion of God, or of any kind of fundamental goodness, is implausible.

    One “loses faith,” in one sense.

    So I expect Moses and Elijah and Lazarus all had moments of doubt, later on. Perfectly human! …in the sense meaning, “perfectly irrational.”

    It is under these circumstances that a stubborn refusal to drift with the tides of one’s feelings, a pigheaded insistence on asserting the truths in which one had well-reasoned confidence yesterday even when they, for no particular reason, feel dubious today, becomes necessary. It is a kind of loyalty to the truth, a loyalty to reason over changeable gut feelings. This loyalty might otherwise be phrased “faithfulness” to the truth; so, the willful assertion of this attitude is called “having faith.”

    But that’s a different kind of faith, that willful reminder of the non-intuitive. It is not the definition of the word “faith” Peter Berger is using when he suggests that one cannot know God exists, and uses “faith” as a substitute for knowledge.

    It isn’t even unique to the religious experience: How many quantum physicists still have the early Bohr model of the atom (the one resembling a solar system) in their head because of its prominence in school textbooks? It’s very intuitive; it has a nice symmetry between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. The only problem is that it’s totally false: Electrons aren’t planets and they don’t move by orbital mechanics. They don’t “orbit” the nucleus at all; they don’t even, in the normal sense of the word, “move.” Our gut feeling is simply wrong.

    Or, to offer a more common example: A new swimmer has perfectly good evidence that one can float on one’s back by leaning one’s head far enough back and raising one’s chest to the sky. The evidence is the other swimmers doing it. But now it is his turn, and his feelings refuse to accept the judgment of his mind that the water will support him. So…he must have faith: He must assert that stubborn insistence on what he knows, over and against his irrational feelings.

    So there are several kinds of faith.

  • Walter Sobchak

    ““As an atheist, I have the right to go to school and not feel discriminated against by the people who are praying there.””

    Boy, that annoys me. Her subjective state of mind confers no status of any kind upon her. She cannot point to anything resembling the way that blacks were treated in the Jim Crow South a few generations ago. That is discrimination. She has no right to be made comfortable in her self-absorption.

    Besides, I suspect she is lying. My guess is that she believes she knows the truth, and that the believing members of her community are morons.

    I also suspect that there are lawyers looking for fees, and the deranged oikophobia of the federal judiciary lurking around in the shadows as well.

    I do not think this child is doing anything admirable. She is making herself unhappy, and costing her community money, so that she can engage in moral preening. And quite undeservedly. She would be better served by being taught the virtue of quite forbearance.

    “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.” PS 14:1

  • http://hesperado.blogspot.com/ Hesperado

    At least Amish don’t explode.

  • JS

    Having aspired to orneriness my entire life, I appreciate sticking a thumb in the Man’s eye as much as the next guy. The Swartzentrubers’ logic fails, though. I don’t know that a lamp is any less man-made than a triangle. Nor is a buggy. Nor is asphalt. They want to use the things that make them feel better about themselves and let us all know about it. In so doing are as ostentatious as any peacock. The main difference is that the peacock doesn’t make the choice to stand out.
    As for Miss Ahlquist, she’s only too happy to impose her preferences on the rest of her peers. If she’s truly agnostic, then how the heck does she know that what she’s doing is the right thing?
    In the one case we have vanity disguised as piety. In the other we have a need for attention disguised as moral outrage.
    Neither is especially attractive.

  • http://thepencilofnature.net Lorenz Gude

    @JS Even though I am rising three score and ten, all I know is that I feel uncomfortable at the kvetching of the Amish over the scarlet triangle or the Ahlquist over that schooldaze prayer. (Try the Angelus for a week, hon – you’ll love it.) So I humbly admit that I could not nail the likely actual motivation of these charming people as you have. No doubt you could similarly deconstruct the late Paterno, but please exercise some forbearance toward the Tebow. He is only young, and the secularists have tried to crucify him but he hath flummoxed them with Hail Mary passes.

  • http://thepencilofnature.net Lorenz Gude

    @RC Yes, I have the same trouble with faith and knowledge and agree that even for those who have experienced Grace first hand Faith remains necessary. Your’re right, we forget. I’ve often noticed in myself that the secular faith of our age keeps reasserting itself like a jack-in-the-box even when I know better.

    I think another part of the problem is that at this period in human history we are much more aware of ourselves as individuals and less aware of our collective existence. If my overeducated self hadn’t found myself undeniably part of a baying mob at a couple of sporting events I would be much less aware that I even had a collective life. (One the Patterson Johansen fight at the Polo Grounds and the other a courageous world record lift at a warm up meet by David Rigert.) Nowadays as I listen to Christian liturgy I think I see the role churches play as mediator between the individual and the collective. But it seems to pass largely unnoticed. Many people honestly experience it as so much sonorous jabber about the Holy Hand Grenade of Python fame. I have a theory that stock traders understand more about real collective behavior than sociologists because they…er…see the sausage made. Science has made great strides since the Dutch were flipping tulips, but we have apparently learned little that would help us reign in our collective ‘irrational exuberance’.

  • CPC

    Peter, your stories don’t compel one to feel solidarity towards ardent dissenters. Rather, you’ve created a juxtaposition by which the Amish of Kentucky, in total defiance of state law, sought to turn their noses at the U.S. Constitution (THE law of the land), whereas Jessica Ahlquist had to remind her DISTRICT(!!!) of its obligations to upholding said laws. The Amish think their Bible and god is all they need. They are given special tax loopholes, have special privileges wholly based on their faith and still have the arrogance of people who are special mammals over the rest of us mammals (and yes, this is evident in their quaint way-of-life, and refusal to use modern necessities that help make life healthier and convenient. Think Gandhi wearing nothing but his white robe).

    Ms. Ahlquist held the Constitution up, against theists who would rather have her capitulate her beliefs IN THE PUBLIC FORUM! Yes, Mr. Berger, you do have a right to invoke God (whatever that means), but you don’t have the right compel others to join in your wish-thinking. These aren’t two stories of the same coin, they’re competing currency, and the Alhquist dollar must win.

  • http://hesperado.blogspot.com/ Hesperado

    One of my favorite images of the issue of school prayer I saw in some magazine back in the late 60s (Life magazine, perhaps): It was a photo of a cute little girl seated at a school desk, her hands clasped in prayer, shoulders at an appropriately deferential cringe — but one eye squinting open.

    Cheating! Ah!

  • http://hesperado.blogspot.com/ Hesperado

    By the by, I just noticed that one of the ads that pays for this blog has a banner up top advertising the 2005 movie “The God Who Wasn’t There”, a “documentary” claiming to demonstrate that Jesus never existed. The banner ad up top here has quotes from the Los Angeles Times “Provocative — to put it mildly” and from Newsweek — “Irreverently lays out the case that Jesus Christ never existed”.

    I don’t recall a single riot by Christians since 2005 abuot that film, do you? I don’t recall a single death (let alone multiple murders in various places) caused by those fanatically opposed to that film, do you? I don’t recall multiple death threats — veiled or blatant — generated by that film, do you? Nor a single mass demonstration by thousands of Christians in major cities across the USA (let alone in various parts of the world) with fanatical anger and hatred screwing up their facial expressions calling for the death of the film-makers, do you? Not a single Christian preacher calling for the death of the film-makers — much less in formal church sermons — do you?

    Boy, it’s a good thing there doesn’t exist another world religion in our time that in fact does generate such dangerously fanatical mass hysteria — with all too real and deadly and horrific consequences — among too many of its followers all over the world, isn’t it!? Whew!

    Ok, you can hit the snooze alarm again, folks.

  • CPC

    @Hesperado…Per “Thousands of Christians in major cit(y)”: Glenn Beck’s rally in D.C., 8/28/10

    Per “death…caused by” opponents of “The God Who Wasn’t There” (and similar works of art and thought): Anders Behring Breivik’s terrorist attack in Norway last year.

    Per “Christian preacher calling for the death of the film-makers”: I’m not sure we can accept this on it’s face sans hearing from the directors and producers, because it may well be the opposite.

    Per another world religion doing crazy stuff (I presume you were alluding to Islam’s crazy ways): Harold Camping (http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2011-03-23-prophet_22_ST_N.htm) sure knows how to make a contest interesting

    The problem is easy yet daunting: all religions get in the way.

  • http://hesperado.blogspot.com/ Hesperado

    CPC,

    “Glenn Beck’s rally in D.C., 8/28/10″

    a) Did anyone there call for the death of anyone? Did anyone there vociferate for the death of anyone on the basis of anything (let alone on the basis of religious tenets)?

    b) As for their comportment: Were their faces screwed up into expressions of livid anger and hatred as they shouted hateful slogans, and were they holding up signs calling for hatred and violence against the Other? Calling for the BEHEADING of those they hate for religious reasons?

    But at least we can console ourselves with the fact that there exist no other followers, in mass numbers, of any other world religion who regularly are doing both (a) and (b), and have been doing so for decades, in various places all over the world, with regard to matters as trivial as cartoons, or teddy bears, or matters as innocuous as sober historical lectures that happen to mention that their religious founder was violent (a simple, easily verifiable fact).

    Whew! I’m sure glad no such deadly religious fanatics exist in our world today! (Except, of course, for all those calm bland boring pleasantly overweight white suburban Americans at Glenn Beck rallies who look they’re standing in line at an Office Max or something.)

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  • Charles M

    I found young Jessica’s claim to be harmed in any way by a banner at her school laughable on its face. I also found the Amish claim that they ought not be subject to the same laws as everyone else absurd. I suspect that Mr Berger’s sympathies are simply engendered by pretty much anyone who makes a scene. Perhaps theatre criticism would be more his forte.

  • Jim.

    Mr. Berger, if you’ve managed to get yourself an audience full of Ahlquist-celebrating atheists, you should ask yourself exactly what you’re building with this blog of yours.

    If they remain devout atheists, you should also ask yourself if you’re doing an adequate job of reaching them with the Word of God — the clear duty of any believing Christian (see The Great Commission, in Matthew.)

    In general, I’ve found your blog shows a profound lack of confidence in Christianity, and a lack of will to stand up for it. While this is hardly unique among Christians in modern countries, it’s probably the biggest reason religion has declined so far in Europe, and has declined so far in certain demographics in the United States.

    You should try to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

  • CPC

    @Hesperado…No doubt fundamentalist Islam is a hzard to our health, and “moderate” Islam, in a sad way, kinda licenses it by giving folks leeway to interpret scripture as they see fit. But the same hazard can come upon Christians, and other theists. The West has a history of exorcising the religious passions of Christianity (mostly), now the Arab world and south-souteast Asia must confront the same.

    @Jim…Lack of confidence in Christ is only the beginning of Mr. Berger’s virtues (if indeed he lacks confidence.) Just to be sure, you’re Catholic, right? Or Baptist? Unitarian? Some Euro-Orthodox, maybe? How should Mr. Berger express his confidence, since the options (for Christ, alone) seem so…varied.

  • http://www.rosedale.edu Reuben Sairs

    I would think of the Amish as more directly (but certainly not in straight line) the descendants of the Swiss Reformation. The amount of Dutch Mennonite influence on the Amish schism from the Swiss Brethren hasn’t been settled.

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