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.