A Short Film on Former Amish Convert – Now “Amish Atheist” – Kenneth Copp

“Amish Atheist” certainly feels like an oxymoron. That’s what I thought when first hearing about the turn in Kenneth Copp’s life in a story four years ago. Copp originally appeared on this site even earlier than that, when he was still with the Amish and living in the Unity, Maine community. In 2013 one of our readers contributed a guest post on Unity, much of which was about Copp and his family, who ran a woodworking business in that settlement, while his wife ran a bakery.

Screenshot: Kenneth Copp in “The Seeker” by Lance Edmands (via psyche.co)

Kenneth Copp has appeared on various podcasts discussing his unusual life in recent years. Now there is a 19-minute documentary titled “The Seeker”, by filmmaker Lance Edmands, telling his story. Here’s the summary via the website Psyche:

Kenneth Copp’s life has been defined – and twice upended – by his commitment to seeking the truth. Born into the Pentecostal faith in Virginia, at the age of 17 Copp became an Amish convert, favouring its ‘quiet but dedicated Christianity’ to some of the more ‘wild and ecstatic’ tenets of his parent’s denomination. After trading his pickup truck for a team of horses, he was baptised and later married into the community. Decades later, his world again irrevocably changed when, while reading the Bible with a critical eye, he discovered what he viewed as manifold contradictions and ethical problems. His faith unraveled. Excommunication from his community – including a heartbreaking split from his wife and 10 children – followed shortly after.

Kenneth Copp is called the “Amish Atheist” because he still lives – at least in part – culturally as an Amish person, but without belief in God. He explains: “When I realized that I didn’t believe in God, I still had a love for the culture. I loved this way of life. What am I supposed to do with myself? I had no desire really to give up the horse-and-buggy.”

In the film, Copp describes how he joined the Amish in Virginia, met his future wife, and ended up having 10 children. After he lost his faith, the family moved away to Pennsylvania, leaving him alone on the farm. Despite his professed love of horse-and-buggy, Copp has adopted technology, including an electric vehicle and iPhone. He seems to have transferred his spiritual zeal to the realm of environmentalism.

Copp has also found a new love interest, though he says he misses his family greatly. He reports that they visit on rare occasions. The former Amish convert consoles himself with having “the beauty of understanding truth to a far deeper degree,” which gives “a sense of purpose and contentment.”

Is this a sad story? It feels sad. I get the sense that he is troubled. However, by Copp’s own words it seems he has gained something more valuable than he lost…at least in his view. We don’t hear anything from his wife and children’s side, however. It’s hard to imagine the pain that the family has gone through. I was left wondering about their perspective. What do you think?

In contrast with its heavy subject matter, the film itself is beautifully shot, on real film (16mm), giving it a special feel that most of today’s digital productions do not have. Within the story we also get some footage of the Unity Amish community. You can find the film here.

Hat tip to R.S.

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    26 Comments

    1. Karen

      heartbreaking

      This story really breaks my heart. It was Kenneth’s responsibility to learn all he could about the Amith faith, the bible, etc before getting married and having ten children. He has single-handedly ruined a lot of lives. If he would find a trusted friend or pastor to go through the Bible, they could help explain what he sees are contradictions. Evidently, he is relying on his own nature for discernment when he should garner the help of more spiritually-minded individuals. It is a travesty that he destroyed his family, prevented his wife from getting remarried due to his selfishness, yet finds it ok to live a sinful life with this new woman.

      1. I was struck by his very young age at joining the Amish. And it just seems very odd to come to such conclusions after decades as a believer and having built a life and large family. But we don’t know what works in minds and hearts.

    2. Bible study is the problem

      Serious Bible study–not the cherry-picking of a few passages–is a major problem for people brought up to believe that the book is “the word of God” *and* that God is perfect. Either God is flawed, or the Bible was put together by flawed human beings who selected among the many disparate writings that were circulating among the various second and third century Christian churches.

      People today forget that it was centuries after the death of Jesus before most Christians even heard of the gospels, much less knew what was in them.

    3. Amish Atheist

      My question is, I know the Amish don’t believe in divorce, but in this particular case, since this man declared himself a non believer in Gott, I wonder if the wife’s bishop in her district would consider the unusual circumstances and let her remarry? Hullo from Muskegon, Michigan! Denke for your time.

      1. Thanks for the comment Christopher. Briefly, I would never say never, but I doubt it. And it’s not really the bishop in question, but the congregation and really the weight of ages of Amish belief and practice on divorce. She is left in a sad situation.

    4. J.O.B.

      I watched the video.

      He joined an Old Order Amish Church at 17 in part because he wanted to leave the religious environment he grew up in which he called ‘wild.’ He wanted something more stable.

      The Amish appear to be more stable. And this Amish group was very austere/unfancy and he liked that a lot. He even called it ‘storybook land.’ That’s how much he liked it.

      I wonder if the real reason he joined the Amish was to get away from his childhood. Specifically his parents. He even said his mom spoke in tongue. Which came off as a subtle shot at his upbringing.

      He also said he had problems with the Bible for years before he left the Amish. This is odd. He read the Bible as a child. He knew the the Bible very well. But it’s not until after he joins the Amish that he develops problems with it? Saying he was brainwashed growing up. Taught not to question it? It’s almost as though he is using this as an excuse to leave the Amish and attack religion.

      I wonder if there is some deep-rooted issues with his upbringing. Specifically his parents and how religious his childhood was. Becoming atheist and attacking religion may be a way for him to lash out at his parents and his childhood.

      AND he contradicts himself by saying, ‘If you don’t have that net underneath you of a Christian brotherhood, then you are really running a risky endeavour.’

      He just said how important Christianity is as he bashes religion.

      He left his wife with 10 Children and he complains how hard it is being alone. Seriously? He complained how women are treated in the Bible and he leaves his wife with 10 kids?

      He is getting no sympathy from me.

      1. Amish Atheist

        J.O.B. Religion and Christianity are not synonymous. One can be religious and not have a Christian bone in one’s body. There are millions of phony Christians. One can be Christian without being religious. There are millions of such Christians.

    5. Walter Boomsma

      "It's only a movie..."

      One way of managing fear during scary movies is to remind oneself “It’s only a movie.” I’m not questioning the accuracy of this well-produced film, but it’s perhaps important to remember that it is, in fact, a movie, produced with a purpose. One might do well to look at the producer and be reminded “The medium is the message.”

      In addition, this film is a reminder that the Amish Way of Life is supposed to be a blend of practice and belief (or religion). By his own admission, Copp has separated the two, maintaining the way of life without the supporting belief system. Given his current interest in environmental issues suggests his practice actually is reflecting a belief system that he hasn’t quite figured out yet. I wonder if he thinks about what attracted him to the Amish life to start with?

      The title, “The Seeker,” is perhaps accurately chosen. For many, life is about striving and less about arriving. Copp is, in fact, a seeker–his life history makes the point. My guess is that he is far from finished.

      I do think the film raises some interesting points. One, in particular, is what he describes as a lack of critical thinking. Any religion depends on faith. Some religions substitute faith for critical thinking. Figuring out how to blend both is perhaps one of the greatest human challenges. Personally, I don’t think they are incompatible.

    6. Ken Pack

      Hmmm

      Mr. Copp, is it that you don’t believe in God, or that you don’t APPROVE of God? You have not terminated God. Nor has He terminated you- all is not yet said and done. God be with you on your journey. I wish you well. I wish you the best.

    7. Jeremiah

      I have met Mr. Copp, and am friends with one of his children. I would say that his decisions heavily grieve his family, and many former friends. The contradictions in his current way of life and belief system are so obvious that they don’t need to be mentioned. I’m not sure that the problem was necessarily his upbringing, Amish church dealings, or any of the biblical texts he cited as much as his attitude toward God and assessment of his own powers of reason and skillfulness. It appears that unforgiveness is biting him really hard, and we marvel because of the shocking damage it has done. But we all flirt with similar tendencies, myself being the worst of all.

    8. Enos Stutzman

      Very sad story . Oh that his poor soul might be saved from everlasting destruction . While the kingdom of heaven is still at hand . Bitterness in a man’s heart WILL destroy his relationship with God then those close to him will suffer . The bible can be knit picked an done with whatever man want to. But the word of God will stand forever.
      A carnal man can not understand the word of God because it is must be spiritually discerned . Only a fool says in his heart there is no God. Be not deceived God is not mocked for what so ever a man soweth that shall he also reap . Also feel very sorry for his wife and children . As for his wife’s reason for not remarrying I believe is not because of the bishop not allowing her or the congregation not allowing her to . It’s because the word of God says in Luke 16 ver 18 . Whosoever puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery . And whosoever marries her that is put away from her husband commits adultery . Also 1 Corinthians 6 verse 9 . And ties many other verses like that . If we love him we will keep his commandments . Otherwise there is no entering into the kingdom of God . When God speaks he is not just kidding .
      If means every word he says.
      GOD bless you all . Let’s pray for Kenneth and his family.

      1. The Truth Seeker

        By what authority?

        By what authority to do pontificate such deplorable judgement on Mr. Copp? Have you ever questioned the Bible yourself to authenticate it? Do you really think he is such an “evil” person who is only self centered and doesn’t care for his family and only wishes to wreck havoc?

        Just remember that other contrasting major religions in the world will also declare the same dire judgements on those who chose to dissent. Likely you would expect, say, a Mormon or an Islamist to question their holy books, but in the same breath excuse yours.

        Have you ever considered as Copp did that you yourself could be deceived? When you are deceived, you think you are right when actually you are wrong. So how does one have any hope of knowing if they are on the right track or not? QUESTION EVERYTHING! Take the “Outsider’s Test of Faith” and question your own religion that you have embraced to see if it stands the test. That’s what Copp did. He had been devoted to his faith for decades, and knew it well. He believed it sincerely. But he had never questioned it to the core until late in life.

        He did not leave his beliefs easily. He knew it would cost him dearly. But he had to be honest with what he found when examining the Bible using critical thinking skills. Then he had to decide whether to try and squash his findings or honestly face the truth. It takes courage to do so, Sadly, many cannot.

        That he loves his family is quite evident in the film. But they were not able to allow their minds to be open to learn. The cost was too high for them. Plus he faced being branded as an apostate and worse. The shunning among the Amish and some Mennonites is enough to drive some to insanity – sort of like Chinese water torture.

        And like Copp, once you realize you simply don’t believe the fanciful stories anymore, nor can agree with the barbaric concepts you once were blinded to, you find it impossible to return to it. If you were raised a devout Mormon, but at one point began to question the validity of the story of the golden plates, etc. – once you finally concluded that it’s a fabricated story believed by millions today, it wouldn’t be easy to return and honestly confess that you believe it to be true – so as to remain in peace with your church and family.

        As has been said “One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea is impossible to regain its original dimensions .” –
        -Sir Oliver Wendell Holmes

        1. All three of the Abrahamic religions are rife with internal contradictions and founded on beliefs that most of us would reject today. Slavery and genocide are all practices condoned by Yahweh. I doubt that any of us on this blog today would agree with those practices.

          As one example, this of the Hebrew god commanding his believers to commit genocide, read Deuteronomy 20:16-18. Do any of us here follow a God that commands believers to murder every man, woman and child of another ethnic group?

          Quite likely Mr. Copp came to recognize that he could not put his faith in such a religion.

          1. The Truth Seeker

            And if I may add

            Well written Boyce, And I believe such passages as these are what astonished Copp in his search. I have heard numerous other former devout believers who later “deconverted” that they too were astonished at what the Bible really says and commanded in the Old Testament as well as the New.

            Now if I understand it correctly, the Amish and the conservative Mennonites hold the New Testament superior to the Old. However, they believe that all of the Old Testament “Saints” as they call them, would have been faithful to all the commands of Jehovah. Therefore it follows that if they would have been living in, say, the time of Joshua, and had been one of the Israeli soldiers in the taking of Jericho, that they would have faithfully carried out their orders to massacre the entire city – including women, little children, babies, young girls and boys, older people – everything that breathed – like your quote demonstrates as well.

            I can not imagine myself doing so, even though I’ve been astounded by some who say “we’d just get used to it” Hitler’s soldiers got used to smashing the brains out of Jewish babies in the camps of WW2. I don’t think any of the readers here want to allow themselves to get to that point! And yet many of us have undoubtedly sung the little children’s song about the “Walls of Jericho came a tumblin’ down, tumblin’ down! We could not at the time fathom the horrendous carnage that followed. It was all a fun story for us then.

            Then you have the terrible story of Jepthah in the book of Judges, who murdered his daughter to fulfill a rash vow. And perhaps to “New Testament believers” it may come as a shock that in the Heroes of Faith chapter (Hebrews 11), Jepthah is heralded as one of these heroes. Nothing is said of his murder and all we know him for is winning one battle. I can see clearly how Copp and others have seen the need to reject the Bible for the higher ground of ethical and empathetic compassion to all and to condemn all unethical behavior whether past, present or future.

            And I should add, that in the Amish church, one is not at liberty to declare that any of the commands of God, either in the Old or New Testament, were wrong. To do so, if found out, risks one’s standing in the order. One must maintain that the Bible is wholly true and all the commands of God are pure. Anything short of this is ultimately dealt with as heresy.

            1. And yet there is much to admire about the Amish. Perhaps the most important lesson they have to teach us is the value of forgiveness of someone who has wronged you. This was demonstrated most dramatically after the Nickel Mines murders a few years ago in Pennsylvania. (If you’re not familiar with that incident, do look it up. It’s powerful.)

              Forgiveness is deeply meaningful and beneficial for both parties. It is one of the central teachings of Jesus, of course. But it’s also a key part of some parables in the Old Testament. Remember the “prodigal son”? And, in fact, other religions (Hinduism, for example) and other ethical codes teach forgiveness as well.

              And forgiveness is a key teaching in nonreligious realms such as psychology. Even atheists have written about its value.

        2. Mr. Copp

          Jeremiah,

          As you know, to have absolute faith in anything, one must forego one’s critical thinking skills. Mr. Copp is trying to maintain his relationship with God in an unconventional way. His actions have caused pain to his wife and children. I speculate that Mr. Copp was disenchanted with more than just the Amish and their ways. It took a long time to come to grips with it.

    9. A Short Film on Former Amish Convert – Now “Amish Atheist” – Kenneth Copp

      I am dismayed to see that so many people here are attacking Kenneth Copp for his beliefs. He has done nothing wrong. He is being true to his beliefs, and that should be acceptable to everyone here. I, for one, admire him for that. I believe we should respect every human being who adheres to his or her own beliefs, especially when their practices do not harm others.

      There are subscribers to this blog who respect and even admire the Amish but do not subscribe to their theological beliefs. And that’s fine, too. I am one of them, for what it’s worth.

      1. Walter Boomsma

        There's some irony

        Boyce, I agree but also am not surprised… forums and social media seem to foster a proclivity to anger, opinion, and judgment! While it wouldn’t be absolutely correct to say the Amish do not embrace technology, it becomes easier to understand how fortunate they are not to be involved, considering what they might “reap” if they were? I do admire and respect the Amish–not only their lifestyle but their mindset and culture. I often say we could learn much from them… if we weren’t so quick to judge and criticize. I’ve yet to meet an Amish person who immediately jumped on me and started criticizing my beliefs and actions. One would hope that a forum dedicated to understanding (and appreciating) “Amish America” could demonstrate a degree of tolerance and a lot less judgment and condemnation. We could perhaps all be better served by more seeking and less condemnation.

        1. Thanks for your message, Walter. I’ve met many Amish people over the years, starting with family friends when I was a kid visiting in northern Indiana in the mid-20th century, interacted with many while shopping at their stands and stores over the years in several states, attended a weeklong course in Amish history, beliefs and customs, and even rode with one in his buggy. Once had dinner at an Amish home where the man eagerly showed us his solar power system for running his tool shop. Read the Kraybill books.

          Bottom line: The Amish I’ve met have always been polite and never judgmental toward me or other English with me, even when it became clear that I did not share their religious beliefs. Their behavior toward other Amish, however, does seem to be another matter.

          1. Walter Boomsma

            Yes but...

            I assume your last sentence refers to the practice of “shunning.” As I understand it, there’s nothing “mean” intended, but it does seem a bit extreme, especially where family is concerned. I think it’s hard for us English to understand how it’s possible to love and forgive someone but still shun them. Conceptually, I think I get it because it’s consistent with (for example) shunning electricity. They don’t hate electricity or consider it evil–many use it in various forms. They simply are concerned over the extent it would have if they were connected to it. I’d be willing to bet most of us have had at least one person in our lives we’ve “shunned” in the sense of avoiding them because of the impact being with them has on us. I’m not specifically defending the practice but merely creating perspective.

            1. Yes, the shunning, although the practice is not uniformly severe. I know an ex-Amish guy who now works to sell the little outdoor sheds that Amish men build in Pennsylvania. He moves easily back and forth between his former co-religionists and the English world. He tells me he can still visit his family. In other cases, he told me, families have been permanently broken.

      2. J.O.B.

        He has done a lot wrong.

        He made a commitment to the Amish. He broke that commitment.

        He made a commitment to his wife and kids.
        He broke that commitment.

        He has ‘judged’ the Bible and said it is fake after commiting his life to it.

        He has contradicted himself multiple times.

        He ‘judged’ his parents and insulted his parents as well.

        He now lives with another woman without the responsibility of kids while he wife is left in limbo.

        Yeah. He has done a lot wrong including ‘judging’ people and the Bible when he committed to not doing so.

        1. J.O.B.

          Also he chose to be on tv.
          He chose to say these things publicly.
          He chose to put himself in this position.

          If you don’t want people to talk about you then don’t appear in a movie.

          Its so strange for people to get upset about these comments when he intentionality put himself in public view. He literally put himself in this position.

          If you want privacy then don’t appear in a movie and put your personal life on display like he did…on purpose.

    10. Kevin

      Pretty Typical Story

      I grew up in the 70s and 80s and one of the ideas that was very prevalent at the time is you can “be whatever you want to be”. In a lot of ways that is true in the United States. We are lucky to live in a world of countless possibilities. However, that idea leads to restlessness and lack of purpose, also, which is a pretty serious drawback.

      For a lot of people, including me, many aspects of the way the Amish live make a lot of sense. I think their community chosen limits on use of technology and focus on the family and specific ways of making a living are really strong points. Really it’s the opposite of the “you can be anything” message I grew up with.

      That said, I think it’d be essentially impossible for an outsider to adopt those ways “for real” later in life. The kind of training and behavioral conditioning that shapes people early in life is not really accessible to a late-life convert. That’s true of anything, like learning a language or even something like a complex motor skill. You can adopt new ideas intellectually, but it won’t ever sink into your bones.

      This guy probably really didn’t know he was “fooling himself” and lacked the wisdom and experience to see his choices for what they were. I’ve known many people who converted to a new religion in later years of their life. Inevitably, they are ardent and zealous about their choice, but it’s an intellectual choice. Also, it’s a mistake to wholly repudiate one’s own upbringing and life lessons unless you were unfortunate enough to be born into a very toxic environment–and some poor people are to be sure.

      There’s really no utopia perfect society and no perfect life. Most people are doing the very best they can with what they’ve got. I think the slow and steady, build on what you’ve got approach is more likely to lead to a good outcome than the start-over with a clean slate in a new-world approach for the vast majority of people.

      So if someone wanted to be “Amish”, it’d make sense to just do it little by little over time, or take the time to try to figure out what’s broken in your own life and upbringing by comparing it with what you think the Amish are doing.

      I think his story is pretty typical, and it’s really good food for thought. I would never judge the guy–most people make similarly dumb mistakes over their life. Indeed, I’ve always wondered if the people who did manage to stay on the straight-and-narrow path ended up regretting their lack of rebellion.

    11. Elizabeth

      Poor, Confused Man

      Mr. Copp misunderstands the Bible and is poorly educated. It is an historical document as well as a religious one. When he refers to the contradiction of slavery as it turned him away, he simply knows nothing of southwest Asia at the time it was written, nothing of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and ancient China. I think ignorance is the largest roadblock in life and he allows it to guide him.

      1. Mr. Copp

        Elizabeth: I agree that ignorance is the largest roadblock in life. However, I’m not sure it’s Mr. Copp who is ignorant.