The Amish Atheist Print E-mail

kenneth copp amish atheist(The Truth Seeker October 1, 2021)

In the long history of free thought and the millions who’ve come into the light of reason, there are a few examples of men and women who have retained the best parts of their religious past and their secular present. One such is Kenneth Copp, the “star” of the new film short, Amish Atheist, an affecting portrait of a cultural Christian reborn in a freethinker’s body. Copp, a Maine woodworker, was raised in a Pentecostal church; under his parents’ tutelage, he practiced the carnival sideshow of “speaking in tongues.”

At 18, charmed by the horse-and-buggy folkways of the Memnonites first, later the Amish, he “sold [his] pickup, bought a team of horses, and got baptized.” He loved antimodern farming, “crosscut saws, no electricity,” life in a “storybook land.” Soon after, he found a female intended—letters shared and censored by their folks comprised their courtship—and they were approved for marriage. From 1983 to 2003, the Copps had ten kids.

Native to Copp was an intellectual avidity for puzzling over the enigmas of the Bible. When he moved the family to Maine and survived a couple unending winters, he dug deeper into the book by kerosene light. His shit detector (Hemingway’s term for what good writers are born with) began to ping. He found mistakes, misogyny, sanctioned slavery, a peevishly jealous God (apparently, he had not handled these hot irons before). Scriptural authority “collapsed,” he says, in his meditative voiceover narration. The creator was a fabrication, no more real than Disney’s Goofy and Pluto.

Though he was reared inside the fundamentalist bubble, where science rarely penetrates and religious tenets are infallible, Copp concluded that culture, not divinity, drives belief—unbelief as well whose team he was fast joining. Adrift, he told his wife religion had misled him. She and the kids left and moved to Pennsylvania. That separation pained him even more than his lost faith. Indeed, despondency colors his voice, the most felt part of the film. To survive, Copp went at his chores again and nursed his newfound freedom, such as it was. After bumper-sticking his buggy (“The only wall we need is between Church and State”), he dubbed himself an Amish Atheist. Which, in his reformation, was step number one. Number two took a much longer stride: “What do I do with myself?”

The answer to that question is the film itself, which portrays Copp’s irrepressible Amish life, minus the dogma and the community, and nurtures a cinematic sympathy and unhurried pace, the bucolic world of farming seemingly removed from time. He’s as frontiersman as ever. The film emphasizes a landscape uncowed by man, which, at times, syrups with too much piety, like the scenic rapture depicted by the Hudson River School painters.

What’s also curious about Amish Atheist is how its portrayal challenges one of the tropes of those who seek recovery from religion. There is such a thing as a Christian temperament that is not—I repeat, not—automatically subverted into the militant anger of the traumatized ex-believer. (I don’t doubt that’s often the case, but stay with me.)

On one hand, Copp holds onto the trappings of an idyllic life (he does find love with a woman, though they cannot marry) that are rooted in religious predestination: Christianizing the Natives and Immigrants, too, with Manifest Destiny. But Copp labels those poisonous justifications criminal, worse, propaganda. In other words, the agrarian simplicity of living on the land need not lie with divine revelation. Like Thoreau, Copp lives in harmony with the ecology of New England via the resourcefulness of his hands and his modest self-sufficiency, Amish austerity, to be sure, whether God-decreed or divorced from a creator.

On the other hand, Amish society, which excommunicates anyone who strays, misses how universal human goodness—goodness without God—is. The punishment for his transgression? Copp is cruelly shunned by his children. One daughter and her family live two miles away; he, she, and his grandkids visit every couple of years. This love-as-rejection, based in biblical superstition, sickens its adherents psychologically and makes current and former members suffer. And this on top of the Amish disgust with Christians who kowtowed to the industrial age, a rebellion just as forceful as it was after the Anabaptist schism of 1693.

According to Rumspringa: To Be and Not to Be Amish by Tom Shachtman, exile is not the threat it’s made out to be when 80 to 90 percent of those born Amish, die Amish. So why punish those who fall away when they do no physical harm to the majority members they leave behind? The film broaches this question and, wisely, leaves it open. Instead, the elegant profile concentrates on the well-adjusted, lark-like Copp, who today drives an electric car, posts on Facebook, and describes his iPhone as a technological “Swiss Army knife.”

I wonder, was it the intolerance of Amish dogma that really freed him or was there residing within him all along a person like you and me who need not escape religion to know how unhealthful religion is, or how, associatively, you and I need not go to fight in Asia or the Middle East to learn how stupid such wars of conquest are.

Who anymore believes that religious institutions do not foster oppression even if they do claim to “free us from sin”? I live in and live with (as I must) the capitalist system (buying my share of crap from Amazon) and still believe we need a better economic system than what we’re indebted to where seventy percent of America’s wealth is owned by the hardly deserving top ten percent of the people.

I digress. The Amish religion and its medieval way of life is both beautiful and deadly. Which may be a description for all sorts of incongruent ways we must live on our unloved planet just as the curtain begins to fall on the Anthropocene.