The existentialist crisis—something I feel I’ve been wallowing in for about 15 years. I grew up in a Christian household, attended a private Christian school, church every week, sometimes 2 or 3 times with youth group and a volunteer choir practice once in a while when I was in middle school. Plus, my school hosted a chapel service every Friday morning, and my daily curriculum included a Bible class. So…I am now devoutly Christian, right? Uh…no. And this is kind of fascinating to me. Most recently because I began wondering if my nature/nurture experience with religion combined with my autism characteristic influences that part of the human mind/heart/soul which seeks out/needs religion and spirituality? (When I’m done rambling about my thoughts here, I would love to hear your thoughts/opinions in the comment section.)
One of my first impromptu lessons on autism when I taught at a school for kids on the spectrum (a year before I was diagnosed myself), was that these kids are going to see right through your bullshit. Haha! As in, you can’t fool them or trick them into doing something you want as easily as maybe you could neurotypical kids, because these kids are just more aware, alert, and sensitive. They won’t see the merit of politely ignoring a mistake or going along with the teacher’s plan just to keep from making waves. I worked with mostly high school-age kids, and, though these statements are obviously generalized, I did see how they reflected consistently in my experience with teaching. A lot of these kids were not shy; they were quite forthcoming and proactive. If a teacher said something that was inconsistent with something they said before, they would absolutely get called out on it.
Before I took over a classroom as a teacher myself, I was an aide for a student with whom I attended classes throughout the whole day, quietly helping and watching from the back of the room. This was where I did a whole lot of observing and learning on my own, and I loved every minute of it.
So, going back to the religion question, do I think that my being on the spectrum influenced my rejection of Christian doctrine at around 14 years old, even though I’d been brought up with such heavy Christian influence from every direction? Do I carry an innate unwillingness to accept anything that seems unsound, even if it is beautiful? My feeling is that it played at least some part, though I think a combination of personality, character, and autism are all relevant to this outcome.
I’ve always been a “seeker.” I’ve always wanted truth, proof, surety. When I was very young, I stayed up all night waiting to see Santa Claus flying through the sky so that I’d know my parents weren’t full of shit. When I got a little older, I did the same thing with God, asking in earnest for some sign that he was there, watching me, like everyone told me he was. I never saw anything, felt anything…at all. I remember feeling a bit devastated. What’s curious to me is that I never felt the conviction that there was something wrong with me, that it was my fault he wasn’t answering. No, my mind went immediately to the conclusion that, since I had no evidence for his existence, there is no reason to believe he exists.
I continue at the risk of coming off like I’m insulting those who are religious, but it’s not my intent. I have best friends who are Christian and Catholic, and I think I can understand why and how, which I’ll discuss in a little bit. These thoughts and feelings come from deep down, and, like I said, I am relentlessly curious, and I have a craving to share that in the most honest way I can.
Faith has always been a silly concept to me. It seems interchangeable with “wishful thinking.” At the same time, I’ve lived for a long time in this kind of scary, foundationless place where only the absolute is let in, and there is so much emptiness. The only tenants here so far are science and the way I feel when I dance/meditate. My current pillars of existence stem from the existentialist ideas, quantum theory, and Buddhist philosophy for living. The thread holding them together is experience, practicality, and fact.
When I was in college, I studied Albert Camus and other existentialist writers. I fell in love. I connected deeply with how Camus described the world and the “absurd,” because it’s exactly how I felt—trying to come to terms with the fact that I was screaming and yelling from my soul for some larger existence, purpose, meaning, and simply getting nothing but radio silence in return…for years.
What does this do to a person? Well, I can honestly say that my autism is part of the reason I am still thriving. Through cycles of depression and debilitating social anxiety, I feel the childlike joy and the ability to detach myself from the world, which I talked about in my last post, and live in that joy—that flow—and it has a buoying effect, a healing effect. Without this, I can’t fathom how low I would have fallen by now. Because it is so, so dark there. Still is. But I’m so curious…
A few years after finishing college, I discovered lectures on quantum mechanics. Consider my mind blown. Now things were coming together. There is a fascinating mystery out there. We can live in that mystery, and pursue it. Reality isn’t so cut-and-dry as we once thought. Maybe I’ll dive into this topic in another post, but I mention this because the science behind reality on the smallest level is one of the things which continues to hold my attention and interest alongside meditation and almost out-of-body experiences when I move/dance. The pattern here is that I’m latching onto the things which I experience that I feel are true; latching onto with a death grip. I’m pursuing these things while also putting so much energy into not labeling them or degrading them with dogma. Obviously, I’m not a physicist, and I don’t understand quantum theory perfectly, but those hours I spend listening to lectures and watching demonstrations of experiments are enough to keep me in that childlike state of awe and wonder. And, ultimately, this state keeps me alive.
The point here is that being told from all directions on a nearly constant basis when I was a kid that I should be a Christian did not come anywhere near enough to satisfy my requirements for a belief system. Why should I believe this ancient text; there are a lot of others—some much older—which tell nearly identical stories and exalt a different god or gods. Why would I just take someone’s word for something as huge as a religious belief? Without personal experience or evidence, it is just a survival mechanism for me…and I don’t say this lightly.
I get this aspect. I understand it deeply. My parents sit in a comfortable sphere of security and faith. They rest knowing that they are taken care of, that there is greater purpose, knowledge, control over their lives. Their only worry is their poor lost daughter. But aside from this, they have that security blanket, that sense that they can give it all over to god, have faith that he has a plan, even when bad stuff happens, and when they die, they will enter an eternal paradise and see everyone they’ve ever loved again. Who in their right minds would reject such a destiny?
On some level, I envy those who feel their Christian convictions so strongly. There is something in them that allows for that faith to exist and, more importantly, for their sense of reason/logic not to be an obstacle. Most of the people I talk to who are Christians profess an experience of god in some way. And that’s the heartbeat of the belief, and I respect it. The mystery for me, here, is how these experiences automatically get tagged with all the things that go along with their specific beliefs in god. For example, you wake up and feel a hand on your shoulder. That experience is as real as anything to you. However, it is you and your thought processing which connects that with your specific god, your specific religion, and all the religious accoutrements that go along with your chosen beliefs. Someone in Japan may wake up feeling a hand on their shoulder; they believe it is Buddha sending encouragement somehow. Someone in Texas has the same experience, and it is Jesus encouraging them to uphold their faith and to not be afraid. A secular individual wakes up and feels the same thing; perhaps they automatically think it’s their loved one who has recently passed, letting them know they are always watching from beyond. All of these experiences-cum-paradigms are to be respected because, if you are at all cognizant of the human condition, you understand that life is extremely difficult without something—a belief system—to hold you up and help you keep moving forward—that’s it.
Being who I am, I do not feel I could ever just adopt a belief system and all of the dogma that goes along with it. I can, however, appreciate the Buddhist philosophy of letting go of attachments because I see the practical application it has for eliminating a degree of suffering that originates in insatiable desires and wants. It still originates in me, my own effort. Part of my inability to simply adopt a Western religious idea is because I hold with a conviction of personal responsibility and not being fooled. I don’t want to give up responsibility because a belief feels comfortable.
One of the things that fascinates me about the existentialist writers is the idea that it is all up to me to make what I’m going to make out of life. No one is going to hand me a free ticket to happiness or peace. I feel that when I’m working through a depression or anxiety. It can feel devastating, and from one point of view, there really is no point or meaning behind living, existing.
But Camus talks in The Myth of Sisyphus about being free of meaning and purpose and living as a statement of rebellion against the fact that there is no reason we should.
“We must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he says about the condemned soul who must push a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again and again—for eternity. He continues despite the fact that there is nothing to gain or progress toward. He has conquered his reality in which the only thing that makes sense is despair. Isn’t this a reflection of the conquering of “dukkha,” or suffering ? If you let go of the desire or attachment to meaning or purpose or an end goal, then you are free of the anxiety which chains you to it. Add to this the fact that quantum theory hints at a “magic”-like existence beneath existence, and you have the imaginative and creative fuel to keep a person “playing in the mystery” for a lifetime.
“Follow your bliss.”
In the next post, I want to talk about Joseph Campbell and his ideas about following your bliss. This ties in to the concept of “creative flow,” and is also a fascinating topic for me. Thank you all for reading. =)
3 thoughts on “How Does ASD Play into Spiritual Beliefs? Does It?”
Interesting post. I have heard other people on the spectrum say that their ASD made them leave their religious upbringing. I’m the reverse. I’m a religious Orthodox Jew and in the process of getting an ASD diagnosis (I’m pretty sure I’m on the spectrum, and have been told I am by mental health practitioners, but don’t have the bit of paper yet). I was raised traditional, but not fully religious and became a lot more religious in my teens and early twenties. I’ve never really felt a clash between those aspects of my self (ASD and Judaism).
My university background is in the humanities (history and then information management) rather than science, so maybe that’s made me more open to the idea that things exist, and can be shown to be likely to exist or to be a certain way, without our being able to “prove” that they exist like a scientific or mathematical proof. For example, I think Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, but I can’t prove that in the way that a scientist can prove that e=mc2 or the way Decartes tried to prove that “I think therefore I am.” When I was in my twenties I went through a kind of religious crisis about this type of thing, but this was the position that I eventually came to. I think whether a system has meaning is not falsifiable in a Popperian sense. You can say that God is an unnecessary hypothesis, but if you find meaning in an idea or a practice, I think there is truth to that meaning even if the data it rests on is, in some sense, flawed (I’m not sure if I’m explaining this well).
OTOH, I have a quite existential approach to faith. A number of years ago I was reading a lot in Jewish religious existentialists (e.g. Rav Soloveitchik, Levinas, Heschel, Fackenheim, Buber) and am still very influenced by them. The emphasis on dialogue and encounter and ethics. I don’t feel much security from my faith in the way that you say your parents do and in the way that I see other people in my community react. I went through another religious crisis of a kind in recent years where I was sure that God hated me, but I eventually realised that I was just projecting my own low self-esteem. But I don’t feel that God is my Cosmic Buddy who will do what I ask, nor do I think much about the afterlife or reward or stuff like that. I talk to God, but I don’t expect Him to answer me in an immediate or overt way. I don’t expect my life to go well in this world just because I try to keep the Torah. Maybe it’s not part of my psychological make-up (or ASD), maybe it’s the pessimism that comes from two decades of mental illnesss, or maybe it’s just that Judaism is a very present-centred religion and we don’t talk much about Heaven or reward, even though we believe in them.
I’ve never had the type of religious experience you describe and I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I did. I absolutely don’t believe Judaism means giving up my responsibility. On the contrary, Judaism, and especially Jewish existentialism, meanings accepting a huge amount of responsibility. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the nineteenth century proto-Jewish existentialist thinker, said, “The seeking is the finding” and that is how I relate to Judaism, it is an ongoing quest for me to find meaning in my life and in my people’s traditions, not a set of answers someone else is spoon-feeding me.
I know there are people in the Orthodox Jewish community who like being spoon-fed. I know that there are people who believe a lot of stuff I consider incorrect, silly or occasionally dangerous, whether its creationism or magical thinking (segulot) or whatever. And on my blog I write a lot about my trouble fitting in to my community and getting annoyed about things people believe or say. But the fact that other people believe things that I think are wrong doesn’t make me think that everything they believe must be wrong, if I find meaning in it. And I’m not bothered about other people finding meaning in their own traditions, because I believe that, as Rabbi Lord Sacks said (and got in trouble for saying with the ultra-Orthodox) God is bigger than religion and God speaks to people in different ways. I do believe the Torah to be a qualitatively different type of truth from other religions, but even if I felt that Judaism was exactly equal to other religious truths, there is a Burkean conservative aspect to my mind that makes me think there is meaning and goodness in following and maintaining the traditions, customs and festivals of one’s own people regardless of what others think or do.
(As for quantum theory, I just did some reading on it, which I hadn’t touched since I did A-Level physics. It really is crazy. It makes my head spin! I think the Nobel winning-physicist Arthur Eddington said, “Quantum theory makes it possible for an intelligent person to believe in God again.”)
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Thank you so much for your thoughts. I had to read a couple of times to wrap my head around everything, and I respect everything you’ve said. The phrase that “God is bigger than religion” really, really resonates, and do feel that what everyone calls God can mean different things, and not even necessarily in connection to an already established “major” religion. God can mean simply that which we don’t understand yet, and that’s definitely tied in to the mystery of the cosmos. In this way, God is the absolute center of wonder and awe that we don’t understand yet. I forgot to mention how part of my splitting from religion was the way it was always presented to me in the Baptist church I grew up in. They were basically like, “you either accept Jesus as your savior or you’re going to burn in hell.” Lol! What is a 7 year old supposed to do? Of course I joined up…sigh. Anyways, I always look forward to reading your comments and I will make a point to visit your blog more often. Best Regards
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