Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Autism and Religious Alienation

I've heard a lot from queer people who grew up in religious backgrounds (mainly Christian, a few Muslim) and feel alienated from their background specifically because of the cisheteronormativity baked into their community of origin's view of religion.

And yet, despite being a queer person from a religious background who feels alienated from that background, I find it hard to relate to many of their experiences. Because I was alienated from religion long before I knew I was queer.

A big part of this alienation was related to my experiences of CSA, and the unsupportive responses I got from teachers in my religious school when I discussed it. A lot of people have already discussed the poor ways that many religious institutions have handled CSA (and not just CSA perpetrated by them!), but that's not the whole reason I feel alienated by religion. It's also because I'm autistic.

Several research studies have found that autistic people are more likely to be atheist. This has often been interpreted as being due to theory of mind deficits. However, while I can't speak for other autistic atheists, I can say that my atheism doesn't stem from being unable to imagine a sentient Creator's mindset. In fact, my own imaginings in that area have actually contributed to my atheist beliefs, because I would predict the world looking very different if it was deliberately constructed - in many similar ways to how video game worlds tend to differ from reality. Specifically, my interest in the Creatures game series helped to solidify my atheist beliefs by giving me an example of a world in which creationism is actually true and what creationists would call "microevolution" is the only evolution possible.

I also remember thinking about things in early elementary years that would strongly suggest that my own theory of mind development was not delayed. For example, I remember talking with my counselor, around age 6-7ish, about some of my few clear memories of one of my abusers, including theorizing about his thoughts about my thoughts during those incidents, suggesting that I had second-order theory of mind by then.

Of course, atheism and religious alienation aren't the same. There are atheists who don't feel alienated by religion, and there are religious people who do. A lot of Neo-Pagans, in my experience, seem to be people who feel alienated by Christianity but still crave a religious connection in their lives. I also know a number of Christians who have felt alienated by the Christianity of their community of origin and have reimagined Christianity in a form that suits them better, including my own parents. However, atheism and religious alienation are correlated - in particular, most atheists from religious backgrounds, like me, seem to be alienated from religion.

In the research on atheism and religious belief in autistic people, very few studies acknowledged or looked at religious alienation. However, one Dutch study did touch on the topic, finding that among religious autistics, autistic traits were correlated with less positive feelings about God, more anxiety about God, seeing God as judging and punishing, and possibly more anger towards God. AQ social impairment was more strongly linked to perceptions of God than AQ attention to detail.

In my experience, autism heavily shaped my experience of religious authority figures in church and  especially in school. In particular, my experience of school involved me frequently being punished for things I couldn't control, didn't understand, or didn't agree were wrong. A lot of research has shown links between attachment style and views of God among Christians, and I personally feel that even if they're not attachment figures, childhood relationships with religious authority figures tends to shape how people from a Christian background view God. Certainly, it did in my experience.

The people who were most concerned about my religious development were also modeling a very harmful form of authority - authority that's capricious, incomprehensible, uncaring and unreasonable. In combination with my lessons on Old Testament stories, this led to me drawing parallels between their style of authority and God's, and seeing God as capricious, incomprehensible, uncaring and unreasonable. As such, when it occurred to me around age 8 or so that God might not actually exist, it came as a relief, because it meant that I only had to deal with fallible mortals being harmful authority figures, and not an immortal, immensely powerful being acting the same way.

Unlike being queer, being autistic isn't explicitly forbidden by many religious people. However, many ways that autistic people tend to act are diametrically opposed to the way my school felt a good Christian should act. Curiosity and asking questions was wrong. Thinking outside the box, even in ways as minor as using a mental shortcut to solve a multiplication problem, was wrong. Noncompliance was wrong. These wrongs were not just framed as misbehavior that displeased my teachers, either. I was explicitly told, numerous times, that my misbehavior also displeased God Himself. My misbehavior meant that I was bad, and the fact that I was bad meant that I would go to Hell.

The religious communities that tend to generate religious alienation are religious communities that heavily value conformity. And that makes them inherently unfriendly to autistic people, who are both less motivated and less able to conform.


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