Monday, January 05, 2009

Are the Amish Right About Technology?

Anyone who has spent time in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania has encountered that cultural, religious, and technological phenomenon called the Amish. Most people don't know anything more about the Amish than that they drive horse-drawn buggies, not cars, and dress funny. In reading a book about Amish society, I came across an indictment of modern science and technology that I thought deserved an airing here.

The history of the Amish in North America dates to several waves of emigration from the Alsace region of Germany, where followers of Jacob Ammann separated themselves from the Anabaptist movement around 1700. The Anabaptists were an early Protestant movement who believed that baptism should be reserved for adults, not administered to infants as was the custom in the Catholic and many other Protestant traditions. In addition, Ammann made his followers separate themselves from the world by distinctions in dress, worship, and other ways. Both Catholic and Protestant governments persecuted the new sect, which came to be called the "Amish" after Ammann, and eventually the only surviving groups settled in North America in settlements that are now mainly in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.

The reason the Amish are interesting to those who make their living in science and technology is that their communities do quite well while consciously restricting their use of technology in ways that are almost inconceivable to the rest of us. Imagine living in a house with no central heating, electricity, or indoor plumbing; no internet, cable, computer, TV, radio, or telephone; no automobiles, motorcycles, or even bicycles; and the main way you pass your time is by shoveling manure or cutting hay with a horse-drawn mower. To most modern Americans, a prison sentence might be more preferable—at least prisoners get to watch TV sometimes. Yet the Amish have not only survived, but have grown over the years, numbering by some counts over 200,000 today. This despite the fact that nearly all the Amish do not pursue education past the eighth grade, a policy which is another intentional feature of their beliefs and practices.

According to John A. Hostetler, a former Amishman who wrote an extensive sociological study of the Amish, one reason for this shunning of higher education has to do with their view of how they, as followers of Christ, should separate themselves from "the world." Here is how he puts it: "The Amish do not want their children exposed to the 'wisdom of the world,' for they are repeatedly taught in their preaching services that 'the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God' (I Cor. 3:19). The 'world' is educated, and to the Amishman, 'worldly education' leads to sinfulness, manipulative powers, and moral corruption. To the Amishman, the grossest distortions of education are perpetuated by the scientists, who have invented the theory of evolution and who have made bombs to destroy the world. Such ends are held to be contradictory to the Bible."

Are the Amish right about that? An important fact to know about the Amish is that the are not, in the main, evangelical. One becomes Amish by being born into an Amish family, rather like Judaism. They make no attempt to apply their own ways to the rest of the world. In a strange way, the Amish need the rest of us to be the sinful worldly background to their distinctiveness, which is not so much an attempt to freeze time as it is simply to be obviously different. For example, in imitation of the cupholders so popular in SUVs these days, Amish carriagemakers have taken to carving wooden cupholders and adding them as accessories to their horse-drawn vehicles.

So I don't view their view of higher education and the danger of scientific and technical knowledge in the same way I'd view a scholarly indictment of it by a philosopher, for example. Most Amish don't argue with outsiders at all; they simply live their lives in the ways they have chosen. And by doing so, they testify that not only is life possible without 96% of the modern gizmos we feel are necessary; in some ways it's better. How?

In a word, community. The word has been abused so much we forget its original meaning, which is "a group of people bound by significant social ties." In that sense, most "communities" in U. S. towns and cities are anything but. Anyone who has been utterly alone in a big city knows what I mean. But the Amish, with their large families, family-owned farms, and intergenerational and relational ties, "do community" better than almost any other distinct social group I can think of, at least in North America. (Many cultures in African and Asian countries do nearly as well, at least before they move to America.) If the average Amishman faces a hard lot of physical work every day, at least there are family and friendships to share the burdens with, and knowledge that when he gets too old to work, he will occupy a respected and honored place in a true community of like-minded people.

What can we learn from the Amish? After reading Hostetler's Amish Society, I am convinced that it would be a mistake to try to take isolated pieces of the Amish culture and apply them willy-nilly to the secular culture. To use a crass analogy, it would be like trying to run Mac software on a PC: the entire environment is different.

And the Amish are not perfect, by any means. They have crime, illness, defectors (about 1 of every 5 children decide not to continue living as Amish as adults), and other social problems of their own, plus the continual struggle to preserve their way of life in a world that is not sympathetic with what they are trying to do, except in a superficial way.

But I think what they can teach us is in the nature of a demonstration experiment. As long as there are Amish communities living reasonably happy, prosperous lives while driving buggies and warming themselves with wood stoves, they show that life without a lot of the things we have come to think of as necessities is really possible. And while I don't think that should turn us all into Amish, it is a good motivation for making our own lives simpler and moderating our desires, both technological and otherwise.

Sources: The statistic on current Amish population (technically, the Old Order Amish) is from the Wikipedia article "Amish." The quotation from John A. Hostetler's Amish Society (fourth edition, published in 1993 by Johns Hopkins University Press) is found on p. 248.

1 comment:

  1. A related group of people...