Recently I’ve begun to see the Amish faith and culture in a new light: a full, no-holds-barred-Atheist light. I’ve always had my theistic doubts, mind you. My Catholic upbringing succeeded only in imposing various sexually related guilt phenomena in my adolescent years. I vividly remember reading Genesis at six years old and knowing full well that if these first few chapters were this ludicrous, the rest must be the six-year-old equivalent of bullshit as well. ‘What the hell is a firmament?’ I remember wondering, among all the other obvious questions. I had a far more comprehensive understanding of the theory and history of evolution before I graduated high school (thanks to AP World History) than many of my contemporary adults now have. My husband and I have always raised our children in a completely secular environment, insisting only that they ask questions, think for themselves and discover their own convictions.
Today I was watching a PBS documentary called “American Experience: The Amish: Shunned” (available on Netflix). I’ve seen it before, but upon this viewing I was suddenly struck by the realization that this religious group is rarely mentioned in the Atheist community. Furthermore, it especially impressed upon me that it appears the easiest way out of this fundamental sect – in the religious mindset it seems – is for the wayward soul to realize that “Jesus saves”. Those who manage come to this epiphany apparently find comfort in the simple idea that the “good news of the gospel” gets them out of having to believe that they must follow the innumerable strict rules of their indoctrination to avoid the absolute promise of eternal damnation. The community shuns those who venture out into the real world, and it is exquisitely painful – and effective. Any questioning or exhibiting desires for basic human freedoms, knowledge, education, individuality and personal freedoms is universally shamed, publicly punished and strictly forbidden. Children are minimally educated in one-room schoolhouses by church members until only the eighth grade for a reason. Those who rebel or abandon the faith and community endure unimaginable psychological torture – complete and total isolation from everyone and everything they’ve ever known. Their parents, extended families and close communities endure the pain of losing their beloved family member and friend to the bounds of hell for all eternity!
The promise of heaven and the persistent threat of hell (and the often permanent estrangement of family and friends) hold all those enmeshed in the Amish community hostage. Many fall into a cycle of repeatedly leaving only to return again and again; anguished by confusion, familial longing, fear and guilt. Those who manage to escape and who often ironically stumble upon and cling to the belief that Jesus is enough to save them; that all the strict rules of their culture that keep threatening their subconscious isn’t necessary (because Jesus) simply and profoundly breaks my heathen heart.
It is only recently that I really pondered the notion that many Amish who escape the rigid bounds of their evolutionarily stagnant way of life cling to the idea that Jesus will save them. It makes me wonder…how much freer could they be if they were only free of the threat of hell to begin with? How much freer could they be without a judgmental, punishing god? Could they even imagine such freedom? The larger question is this: Is there an organized support system that can ease their transition from their fundamental faith in a way that nurtures them gently towards the possibility of such freedoms?
I’d love to hear your thoughts! If you know of any such supportive organizations, please share them. I feel very strongly that Amish people seeking escape should have ready access to a smoother, safer, more loving path to the freedom they long for: a path that could once and for all release the relentless shackles of fear and guilt.
This was a guest post from Michelle Bennett, a wife and mother with an interest in writing, music, and absorbing copious amount of knowledge – useless or otherwise. You can follow her on Twitter at @shelnross. If you want to be a guest blogger, click here.