Posted in autism acceptance month, sqt

autism and faith

This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!

Because autism is a neurological difference that impacts the way a person perceives and makes sense of the world around them, it affects every part of an autistic person’s lived experience: from school and work, through friendships and marriage and parenting, to religion or lack thereof. For the seven quick takes linkup this week, I’ll be sharing seven thoughts connected to the autistic experience of faith: one study, three aspects of religion that may make faith more or less difficult for autistic individuals, and three essays from other autistic writers (two Christian, one not religious).

Don’t forget to visit Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum for the rest of the linkup!

  1. According to a study from Boston University, autistic individuals are more likely to be atheist or agnostic and less likely to belong to an organized religion. While a statistical study of this type cannot explore (and categorize, and analyze) all the various reasons that lead individuals to religious decisions, this particular study also coded several forums for various thinking traits and noted where they differed significantly between autistic and neurotypical populations. Perhaps not surprisingly, areas of difference included emphasis on rationality, social discomfort, and social disinterest. Let’s run with those areas of difference for a while.
  2. In modern Western culture, rationality, logic, and clear, critical thinking is most often associated with atheism or at least agnosticism. Autistic individuals are not exempt from the pull of those cultural associations – and it doesn’t help the cause of religion when it is publicly tied to pointless traditions and illogical, superstitious thinking. As a scientist, I see God’s glory shining brilliantly in the intricacies of biology (from the ecosystem level down to the molecular, everything so tightly bound together in ever-widening webs). I see it in the laws of logic and math that provide a pathway for understanding and explaining reality and truth. But if someone grew up being told that burying a statue in your backyard would help you sell your house faster, or that the whole Bible was intended to be read literally despite clear indications of allegory and myth (in the Lewisian version of the word), or that mental illness was a result of a lack of faith – that person would have a much harder time reconciling the beautiful logic of science with God. Since autistic individuals are on average significantly more likely to emphasize rationality in their thought processes, that difficulty would be compounded for an autistic person and be much more likely to end in a rejection of faith.
  3. Social discomfort is an aspect of the autistic lived experience of religion that might be missed from a neurotypical perspective – but it is certainly significant. There are weeks where simply staying in service on Sunday is a struggle for me, because of the anxiety surrounding the social environment. Even on a good week I typically avoid talking to anyone during the official greeting time, and an unwanted intrusion (read: friendly tactile greeting from happy neurotypical to poor sad girl sitting with her head down who must be lonely) can make the rest of the service almost unbearable. For someone entering a religious service from a different background, the discomfort, uncertainty, and anxiety can be even worse.
  4. Social disinterest is a related but distinct phenomenon. Many neurotypicals keep going to church because of the community they find there: the friends they make, the chance to catch up on what everyone is doing, the networking and small talk and friendly interactions. This is unlikely to be the case for an autistic individual (or at least it will be less of a factor). I go to church because it forces me to focus on worship and the Bible, and because I know intellectually (and believe from what the Bible says) that the community of faith is important in a spiritual and eternal sense. But I don’t draw energy or encouragement from any of the trivial small-talk that surrounds it. If an autistic person does choose to be part of  an organized religion, it is very likely that they actually believe it to be true, and are pursuing it despite the discomfort and disinterest of the social experience of it instead of using it as simply a source of friendship and community. I suppose that is a positive, actually. Believing in something really seems like the only rational reason to go through the actions religion necessitates.
  5. “Because that was always something that bothered me before university: I knew so many Christians who firmly believed that God’s works were the result of some kind of magic rather than science. It felt like intellectual dishonesty to agree with them, but I didn’t have the breadth of experience to know that I could disagree with other Christians and still be a ‘valid’ Christian myself.
    You see, I have always believed that science was God’s ‘computer’, or at least his OS. Just the same as how nobody designs a game without a playable set of rules, you wouldn’t create a universe without a decent set of physical laws, and a few handy mathematical constants.
    Honestly, the deeper I looked into mathematics and its uncompromising logic, the more I appreciated how beautifully God crafted the universe. Religion encourages us to find God’s amazing works in the mountains and rivers and sunsets, but if you have a mindset like mine and want to witness God’s glory, take a look at his OS.” – Chris Bonnello, Asperger Syndrome and Religion: Reconciling Logic with Faith
    Please read this whole article! It is a great outline of one autistic person’s reasons for faith and lived experience with religion, and hits on a lot of points that I’ve heard from other autistic people.
  6. This article by Brett Hanson touches less on the reasons to have faith and more on the religious experience of autistic individuals. Like Hanson, I find myself distracted from the overall point (and emotion) of a sermon or worship song because of an error in one small detail in that sermon or song. I realized in junior high that while I found it easy to meditate on and praise the life that we have in God, and the light that comes from God, it was harder for me to understand the love of God and feel it in an emotional way (looking back, I see that I didn’t feel or express things the same way my peers did, and so thought I must be missing something). It can make “fitting in” more difficult – but that attention to detail can push someone to deepen and broaden their theological knowledge, and that resistance to emotional sway can help someone ask hard questions and push for the truth when it might otherwise be obscured.
  7. Finally, this article by John Elder Robison is an excellent examination of historical reasons why autistic individuals may have poured themselves into the church, although the author is not himself religious. He sees in the texts of early church leaders the systematizing, logical thought processes of the autistic mind. In the great cathedrals, temples, and pyramids he sees evidence of autistic skills at work, intuitively grasping concepts that modern mathematics and engineering are still uncovering. As he writes, “[…] the church was as a bastion of structure, logic, and reason for its era. In those years, the church and the military were two places a young man could go to find order and rationality.  If you were a thinking sort of person, the church offered the kind of home some of us seek in universities and laboratories today.” 

My final thought would be that, ideally, the church would still be “a bastion of structure, logic, and reason.” God is equally the great engineer and scientist as He is the great artist and poet, is He not? So too church can be the pillar of logic, the laboratory of theological and philosophical inquiry, just as much as it can be the neighborhood block party or the safe space for sharing emotions and struggles.

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