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The Rumspringa Conflict: Community, Dogma, & Identity

January 18, 2014

Religion is often viewed as a positive force for individuals. It assists in the establishment of community, provide social interaction, and promote a moral way of living. Conversely, religion can also be harmful. It can be discriminatory, manipulative, and even violent. Particularly to young followers, religion may be mentally harmful, as believers are often terrorized with threats of eternal damnation to Hell and are consistently inflicted with subsequent mental and emotional trauma from guilt. The traumatizing effects of certain religious dogma can be seen through the “Simmie” period of the Amish culture, in which the restrictions on deviance are lifted for adolescent teenagers in order for them to discover their identity, and decide whether or not they will accept baptism and live an Amish life. This period of deviance is dustructive to Amish youths physically, socially, and psychologically due to its paradoxical nature.

As oppose to the traditional view that religious beliefs leads to less risky behaviors such as alcohol consumption, drugs, and smoking (Bruhn 2005), religious restrictions can often create a reverse-psychological effect on teenagers, who at the adolescent age, are typically in a state of parental and authoritative defiance. Therefore, when released from their religious restraints, the practice of deviant behaviors is usually amplified. As seen in the documentary film, The Devil’s Playground, massive drunken parties are quite common during the Amish simmie period. Faron Yoder, the focal youth in the documentary, became highly addicted to crystal methamphetamine after his release into the English world. So much in fact, he even turns to drug dealing to satisfy his habit.

Although studies have shown that spirituality can reduce depression and anxiety (Bruhn 2005), it can also be the cause of despair. Under the Anabaptism faith of the Old Order Amish, individuals are not baptized until they officially commit to the religion after their simmie period. Because of this, many youths fear they would be damned to Hell if they were to die during their mandatory period of pre-baptism mischief (Reiling 2002). In a manner of contradiction, youths are unable to refuse deviant acts during this period as it would be going against the wishes of their parents and community, essentially opposing the 5th commandment to honor one’s father and mother (Book of Exodus 20, Holy Bible). Also, as a regulation during this period, youths are forced to suppress discussions of their experience with their parents and as a result, many youths experience shame from their acts of deviance (Reiling 2002). Lastly, despite the emotional struggles of the simmie period, the decision whether to accept or abandon Amish culture cannot be rushed, for individuals who change their mind after baptism will be excommunicated. This was the situation with Velda Bontrager, an Amish-born female documented in The Devil’s Playground. After receiving baptism, Velda decided she wanted a career and live an English life, and as a consequence, she was shunned by her family and friends. Velda suffered great loneliness and depression in her first year after leaving.

Religion is a source of social capital that paradoxically can also hamper external integration. Despite the frequent interaction between the Amish and their English neighbors, there remains a divide in friendship networks (Reiling 2002). It is believed that many English teenagers do not associate with the young Amish population due to stigmatization (Reiling 2002). As a result, many Amish youths find themselves in an identity crisis since they are not English, and while they are in their simmie period, they are technically not fully Amish, either. The lack of external friendship networks makes it difficult for Amish teenagers who might consider repudiation because once they leave the Amish community, they really have no one to support them. Social support can serve as a push or pull factor when youths attempt to make their decision whether to accept or repudiate. Some Amish youths may choose to accept baptism simply because there is no other way for them to survive outside of the community, while others may take an advantage of the social support and use the community as a safety-net during a prolonged simmie period, as they attempt to slowly assimilate themselves into English culture.

Children in particular are especially susceptible to pressures of religious dogma. Many are not intellectually mature enough to critique and analyze their own religion. Although the Anabaptist prefer their adherents to join the church when they are old enough to make an informed decision, their period of assessment is filled with pressure and doubt. In many ways, religious and cultural mandates such as those enforced during the simmie period, hampers teenagers’ natural development of self-identity. Religion cannot provide a perfect solution for social and mental harmony. It can certainly be as a source of comfort, but it comes at a cost. – Ping Zhou

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