If I had to encapsulate my religious outlook in one sentence, I would invert the oft-cited phrase ‘spiritual, but not religious’ and instead say I am ‘religious, but not spiritual’. I have always had a deep-seated interest in religion, and I love the traditions, community and way of life which Christianity provides. Yet I have always struggled with the supernatural aspects of the faith; I could never grasp the concept of communicating with a God ‘up there’ while humans were ‘down here’. I bounced from church to church, all over the theological spectrum, hoping to finally achieve the ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ everyone else seemed to enjoy. My search eventually led me to attend theological college, where faith tends to either strengthen or die.
For my final year dissertation, I chose to research the experience of autistic adults within the Christian church; I received my autism diagnosis at the age of 18, yet I had never considered how that could influence my theology. Too often, theology regarding marginalised groups focuses on how to pull these groups into the ecclesiastical fold, enforcing conformity to theological norms. The liberation theologians of the twentieth century had a different understanding: theology should come from the margins, by listening to diverse perspectives and receiving new theological understandings beyond the established norm.
My research revealed that I am not a hopeless heretic in a state of wilful rebellion. Instead, there are neurobiological reasons which explain why autistic people struggle to give intellectual assent to supernatural doctrines. Multiple research papers have demonstrated a connection between autism and lack of belief a supernatural deity (Caldwell-Harris et al., 2011; Hutson, 2012, Norenzayan et al., 2012); in order to properly relate to a personal deity, one must be able to empathise with God’s personality traits, thoughts, moods, and ways of communicating. Autistic people have a hard enough time doing this with someone who is standing in front of them, let alone with an entity we cannot see. To quote John Shelby Spong, “What the mind cannot accept, the heart can finally never adore”.
Society is ordered around ideas of normativity, whereby those who do not meet the norm are viewed as defective. Churches can subconsciously buy into these ideas if the goal is to make autistic people more neurotypical in behaviour and belief. How, then, can an autistic person remain part of a faith community without having to force themselves into a way of thinking that is fundamentally incompatible with the way they experience the world?
As an autistic Christian, I have a deep desire to be part of something beyond myself, to follow the teachings of Jesus and establish the Kingdom of God on earth. I may not be able to communicate with an anthropomorphised God, but this I know: God is love, and autistic people are just as capable at giving and receiving love as anyone else. Many autistic adults face a life of isolation and misunderstanding; churches can offer a community of inclusive love for such individuals.
Personally, I have found the progressive Christian tradition to be most accepting of mavericks like me. One could draw an interesting comparison between the treatment of autistic people and LGBT+ people in the church. Many progressive denominations have amended their attitudes to LGBT+ people, no longer viewing them as a problem to be solved, but instead extending a Gospel of welcome and accepting them without caveat or condition. Likewise, churches should be prepared to challenge their preconceived ideas regarding autism and learn to accept adults with ASD into the church community as they are.
It must be noted that I do not speak on behalf of all autistic Christians. Autism is heterogenous, meaning every autistic adult presents differently, and therefore the extent to which they struggle to conceptualise a personal deity will vary.
I finish with a quote from a local priest: “I’d rather be an ‘unbelieving Christian’ living by faith than an ‘unbeloving Christian’ living by beliefs”.
This article was originally published in issue 33 of Progressive Voices, magazine of the Progressive Christian Network
Caldwell-Harris, C., Murphy, C.F, Velazquez, T., and McNamara, P. (2011) ‘Religious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism.’ Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 33. Available at: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6zh3j3pr
Hutson, M. (2012) ‘Does Autism Lead to Atheism?’ Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/psyched/201205/does-autism-lead-atheism
Norenzayan A., Gervais W.M. and Trzesniewski, K.H. (2012) ‘Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God.’ PLOS ONE, 7(5). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0036880