April's talk: Amish to Atheist


How do you get from committed Christian to president of Exeter University’s Humanist Society in five years?


Through her childhood and early teenage years Hannah Timson was an enthusiastic Christian. She loved church, was actively involved in Bible studies classes and led her school’s Christian Union.

But when her new atheist boyfriend began to gently question the grounds for her belief, doubts started to creep in. Concerned, her mother searched for a way to reinforce her daughter’s faith and chanced across an advert looking for teenagers who’d be willing to spend a few weeks living with the Amish for a documentary being made for Channel 4.  Time spent living with such deeply religious people seemed like the idea opportunity to cast those doubts away - what could possibly go wrong?

Hannah successfully applied and, with five other British teenagers, travelled across the Atlantic to spend six weeks in a variety of Amish communities. They varied in how strictly they kept to their traditional beliefs and how much they avoided modern life.  Although undoubted a culture shock, Hannah found much to admire in the Amish.  Their individual kindness, strong sense of community and willingness to rally round to support those in need were in contrast to much of modern life.

But their policing of gender roles was a serious challenge for Hannah.  This came to a head in an episode where, while the boys enjoyed the hard work and excitement of a barn-raising, the girls were confined to more mundane tasks. She hated the idea that a woman could not chose how to live her life, instead being limited to what a narrow interpretation of Biblical texts allowed her to do.

In the end, instead of her doubts being removed, they only grew and her journey from believer to Humanist continued.

Many thanks to Hannah for an entertaining talk and her willingness to share clips of her teenage, Christian self.