Suppose I’m about to flip a coin. Somehow you’re just certain it will be heads; you strongly believe so. I flip and you’e right. Say you’re right five times in a row. Can you claim rightness in any meaningful way, or did you merely hold a true belief on invalid grounds? What if you held a strong belief about a complex social issue with no personal knowledge of its details, but followed your community’s lead?
Were Democritus and Lucretius right in any meaningful way when they told the ancient Greeks and Romans that all matter was made up of “atoms” held together by forces, or did they merely hold true but unwarranted beliefs? Does George Berkeley deserve credit for getting quantum mechanics right in the 18th century?
It is moral truth that slavery is wrong and that women should not be subjugated, though this was once obvious to very few. Jesus, at least as he appears in the New Testament, misses every opportunity to condemn slavery. He tells us only not to beat them overly hard. And he tells slaves to obey their masters. Women fare only slightly better. Sometime between then and now the moral truth about women’s rights and slavery has been revealed. Has the moral truth about nuclear power been yet revealed? Solar power? GMO foods?
Last weekend while biking in the Marin Headlands I happened upon a group of unusual tourists. An old man with a long white beard wore high-wasted wool pants and a plain flannel shirt. His wife was in plain garb, clearly separating her from modern society, just as intended by Jakob Ammann, the tailor who inspired it. A younger man also wore a long beard, high wool pants and a plain shirt. I asked him if they were visiting and he said yes, from Ohio. I thought so, I said. He told me they were from Holmes County, naming a tiny town I knew from having grown up in Ohio. They were Amish, on tour in San Francisco.
We talked about the bay area’s curious summer weather, the Golden Gate Bridge and so on, I wished them a nice visit and rode out to Conzulman Road, where I stopped to add a jacket for the cold ride downhill. Two spandex clad local riders did the same. I overheard their snide condemnation of the “Mennonite” (they were Amish) religious zealots and their backward attitudes toward women and cosmology. The more I pondered this, the more it irked me. I think the I can explain why. With no more risk of unwarranted inference than that of my fellow San Franciscans about the Amish visitors, I can observe this about these socially-just bikers.
Get off your morally superior San Francisco high horses. The Amish visitors are far less wedded to dogma than you are. They have consciously broken with their clan and its rigid traditions in several visible ways; while you march straight down the party line. If your beliefs are less destructive to the environment, your cosmology more consistent with scientific evidence, and your position on women’s rights more enlightened than theirs, it is merely because of geography. You are fortunate that your community of influences have made more moral progress than theirs have. As it should be. Your community of influencers is larger and more educated. You can take no credit for your proximity to a better set of influencers. You hold your beliefs on purely social grounds, just like they do. But they examined their dogma and boldly took a few steps away from it – a mega-Rumspringa into a place that invites fellowship with lawlessness, where separation from the desires of the modern world is not an option.