O for the simple life

Is there a problem with closed religious groups (and with closed groups in general)?

I commented on – or intruded on – a blog post about the Amish the other day. I didn’t set out to intrude, I thought I was just offering some data, but I got called a militant atheist and compared to Leninists (!) and generally told to fuck off, so clearly I was intruding. Must do better. But about the Amish…

I think there is a problem with closed religious groups (and closed groups in general). I think closed religious groups are incompatible with many of the rights in the UDHR. I think that’s why they are closed – and that’s the problem. Why are some religious groups closed? 1) So that outsiders won’t come in and 2) so that insiders won’t leave. There is secrecy, and there is restriction. Secrecy can cover up treatment of people that would not be acceptable in the larger (open) world, and restriction can make people unable to escape that kind of treatment.

What are closed religious groups like? What are they? Jonestown. Yearning for Zion Ranch. Heaven’s Gate. (I’m not sure how closed Heaven’s Gate really was. It was secretive, but I don’t think it was forcibly closed. It also didn’t have children. That makes a large difference.) Branch Davidians. The Amish.

They don’t let children go to school. Most of them subordinate the women, and keep them under observation. They don’t want their members to leave.

Not being able to leave is the key, I think. It’s the key because it is a violation of rights in itself, and because it motivates other violations of rights. Amish children who stay in school are much more likely to leave than those who quit school after the eighth grade. What does this mean? That children who know more about the world, and who have some qualifications beyond primitive farming, often choose not to stay, while children who don’t, don’t. In other words children who are handicapped – deliberately handicapped – for life in the larger world are more likely to stay, and the Amish want those children to be handicapped. Children who do stay in school have a choice; they can leave or they can stay. Children who quit school at age 14 don’t have a choice (or have much less of a choice); they have to stay.

Universal education is based partly on the idea that children should have choices of that kind. Closed religious groups that prevent their children from having choices of that kind are highly dubious.

So I think the decision in Wisconsin v Yoder was unfortunate. Douglas wrote the only dissent (and it was only a partial dissent; the decision was unanimous).

The Court’s analysis assumes that the only interests at stake in the case are those of the Amish parents on the one hand, and those of the State on the other. The difficulty with this approach is that, despite the Court’s claim, the parents are seeking to vindicate not only their own free exercise claims, but also those of their high-school-age children.

Well exactly, except that should have been a real stumbling block, not just a gesture at one. The Amish (adults) want the Amish to continue, and a lot of Americans who like the idea of having a few buggys and bonnets around want them to continue too. But the price of doing that is allowing generation after generation of children to be handicapped. We don’t fancy that when it’s Yearning for Zion Ranch. Why do we think it’s okay for the Amish?

Ruth Irene Garrett doesn’t think it’s okay.

To many outsiders Amish life seems simple and peaceful – but for Ruth Irene Garrett it was a prison with rules based on fear…Born into an insular Amish community in Iowa, Ruth says she always felt trapped by the rigid way of life which avoids all dealings with the outside world and keeps boys and girls apart…She went to an Amish school until she turned 14 — the age when most Amish children leave their studies to begin working on their families’ farms. Boys work in the fields while the girls focus on quilting, sewing, cooking, milking, cleaning and gardening…Ruth said women were second-class, subservient and discouraged from speaking their minds…Ruth said the Amish rarely smile or laugh, and believe if something is funny then it is bad. She explains in the book: “They take their religious, agrarian life seriously, living by the motto that the harder it is on earth, the sweeter it is in heaven.”

So they make life on earth nasty on purpose, thinking that will make it sweeter in heaven – an unfortunate misunderstanding.

I think pluralism is good up to a point – but I think human rights are one good way to determine what that point is. (I think smiling and laughing is another. Imagine life without laughter. Just imagine it. Imagine finding nothing funny, ever. Imagine thinking funniness is bad. Imagine hell on earth.) I think it’s fine for people to light out for the territory, to run away from home and have adventures (provided they don’t leave their own children behind, like Pilgrim), to drop out of the mainstream, to simplify, to set up communes, to join a kibbutz. I don’t think it’s fine for people to subordinate women, and I don’t think it’s fine for them to handicap their children.

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