2012-10-31

But apart from that...

Do you remember this schtick from Monty Python's Life of Brian? The "Judean People's Front" is having a meeting to plan their rebellion against Roman rule:
Reg: They've bled us white, the bastards. They've taken everything we had,... And what have the Romans ever given us in return?
Xerxes: The aqueduct.
Reg: Oh yeah, yeah, they gave us that. Yeah. That's true.
Masked Activist: And the sanitation!
Stan: Oh yes, the sanitation, Reg, you remember what the city used to be like.
Reg: All right, I'll grant you that the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done.
Matthias: And the roads.
Reg: (sharply) Well, yes, obviously the roads. The roads go without saying, don't they? But apart from the aqueduct, the sanitation and the roads?
Another Masked Activist: Irrigation.
Other Masked Voices: Medicine. Education.
Reg: Yes, all right. Fair enough.
Activist Near Front: And the wine.
Omnes: Oh yes! True!
Francis: Yeah. That's something we'd really miss if the Romans left, Reg.
Masked Activist at Back: Public baths!
Stan: And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.
Francis: Yes, they certainly know how to keep order. (General nodding). Let's face it, they're the only ones who could in a place like this. (More general murmurs of agreement).
Reg: All right, all right. But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace.
Reg: Oh, peace. Shut up!



Funny! To use another Monty Python line: "Now for something completely different."

I am susceptible to occasional yearnings for a utopian community where property is held in common. Problem is, communes generally don’t last. They tend to fall apart after a couple years, if they last that long. Richard Stosis studied communities that hold property in common. They dissolve because the level of trust and cooperation required is just so difficult to maintain. Stosis found, however, that:
“communes that base their existence on religious ideals tend to last roughly four times as long on average as do those that base their existence on a secular ideology.” (“Religion and Intra-group Cooperation: Preliminary Results of a Comparative Analysis of Utopian Communities,” Cross-Cultural Research 34 (2000): 71-88)
Groups with shared rituals and sacred stories cohere better. Indeed, religion itself just is an adaptive strategy for fostering group cohesion. Shared myths, ritual, and music help our brains be ready to trust at the levels required for communal life. Some secular communes, such as Twin Oaks in Louisa, Virginia, have managed to last – but they’re only 100 people, and they have high turn-over. They survive because they’ve made themselves well-known so that there’s a constant flow of new folks ready give communal life a try.

Tegher Monastery in Armenia
In contrast, some monasteries, with the members holding property in common, have lasted a thousand years, and the turn-over rate is pretty slow. They share sacred stories and rituals: they stay together.

Problem is, monastics have this vow of celibacy. Even while we know they aren’t all keeping that vow, the removal, or at least the marginalizing of family life and sexual competition probably plays a role in monasteries surviving and keeping their levels of discord below the point of dissolving the community.

Would it be possible for a shared-property community to have shared spiritual principles and practices – like a monastery – but also have marriage, children, and family life? What would that look like? I suppose it would look rather like an Amish community.

There's a lot to admire about the Amish. They have strong and stable communities, which can sometimes look pretty attractive to those of us with the fragmented, hustle-bustle, disconnected, alienated lives typical of our times. So the question arises: If they would have us, why not join the Amish?

At this point, my internal dialog enters a sequence reminiscent of Life of Brian.
Me: Why not be Amish?
Also Me: Cars, computers, televisions, telephones.
Me: Sure, we'd have to give those up. But that might be rather liberating.
Also Me: I've heard that some Amish operate cruel puppy mills.
Me: Well, those aren't the kind of Amish we're talking about.
Also Me: Very plain clothes.
Me: That would be OK.
Also Me: The career options are basically farming and... farming.
Me: Well, yes, there is that.
Also Me: When they aren't farming -- and often when they are -- they're parenting. They place great value on having large families, averaging 6.8 children per family.
Me: I enjoyed parenting two children. I don't know about seven.
Also Me: They have a very literal interpretation of the Bible, and adhere to it strictly.
Me: OK, but other than that...
Also Me: They're very patriarchal. Women aren’t allowed to be ministers or bishops, are largely consigned to traditional female roles, and, if mistreated, have little recourse.
Me: Um. Yeah, I do have a problem with that.
Also Me: No education beyond the eighth grade.
Me: All right, all right. But apart from the theology, the patriarchy, large families, the lives of farming, no education beyond middle school, limited clothing options, and maybe an occasional issue over humane treatment of puppies, why not be Amish?
OK, so, we're not going to be running off and joining an Amish community -- even if they would have us. Even so, we can learn a thing or two from the Amish.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "The Amish Challenge"
Next: Part 2: "Original Position"