Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Of "God-Blindness" and Absurdity

So, someone has finally come out and asked the question: Joe Carter of "The Evangelical Outpost" inquires, Are Atheists Autistic?

Great, I thought, when I first read about this. Next thing you know, we're going to have organizations with names like "Cure Atheism Now". And their supporters will make all kinds of claims about how this terrible developmental disorder, atheism, prevents people from making friends easily, makes "fitting in" difficult, makes people less likely to be trusted, makes it impossible to get certain kinds of jobs or be elected to public office, cuts people off from the "religious community" (a strong source of social support), and denies them the comfort of belief in an afterlife.

Atheist children will be subjected to intense behavioral therapies involving being forced to sit at a small table until they ask for a [Holy Book] or a picture of [Deity or Guru], at which point they will be hugged and praised or rewarded with M&Ms. Older atheists who decide that they are perfectly fine with how they are "wired" will be told by well-meaning others that it's very nice that they've learned to live with their limitations, but that they still have no idea what they are missing.

Okay. Now, for the (relatively) serious stuff.

I've actually been expecting this, or at least something like it. I haven't written about it until now because it is extremely difficult to write about anything pertaining to religion or spirituality (or lack thereof) without risking re-igniting the same old flamewars that tend to dominate the Internet's philosophical landscape. I hope I can offer some commentary on the article linked above without anyone trying to subsequently steer the discussion in the direction of arguing for or against the existence of various deities. For the purposes of this discussion, it doesn't matter whether any religious claims are true or not.

Most of the issues I write about are irrelevant to religion. Neither atheism nor theism is a prerequisite to supporting life extension, or neurodiversity, or morphological liberty, and these are the topics I tend to focus on, so I've mainly left religion out of the picture. I plan to continue this for the most part, since there are plenty of blogs you can go and read if you feel like wading through pages and pages of repetitions of Pascal's Wager, deconstructions of the Ontological Argument, and anecdotes about watches and eyeballs. But I did want to make an exception to comment on "Are Atheists Autistic?"

There are a lot of stereotypes about atheists. And as "Are Atheists Autistic?" demonstrates, the stereotypes about atheists are actually quite similar to the stereotypes about autistics. Atheists and autistics are, according to some:

- Insensitive
- Lacking in emotional depth
- Self-centered
- Abrasive
- Disconnected from the community

Bear in mind that I am not in any way equating autism with atheism or suggesting that any of these things are actually true. Nor am I suggesting that the author of "Are Atheists Autistic?" was doing so either.

In some respects I think I can actually grok what theists who encounter "real live atheists", or neurotypicals who encounter "real live autistics who are not Rain Man" for the first time experience. When a person is raised in a culture (and most likely, a family) wherein a particular religious worldview or neurotype predominates, finding out that there are some people who do not share that worldview or neurotype (but who are still people, with minds and thoughts and feelings) can be as weird as finding out that there are unicorns living on the moon.

I am, of course, referring to the very real, very human phenomenon of culture shock. Finding out that some people think differently than you do, or believe differently than you do, or communicate differently than you do, can be psychologically jarring. It can take a while to re-adjust to this new information. But as ethical individuals, I would suggest that we actually have something of an obligation to consider new information as it arrives -- especially if this new information could affect how you interface with an entire demographic of people.

My own informal observations seem to have revealed a fairly even split between autistic atheists and autistic theists -- in short, whether a person is autistic or not doesn't seem to have much influence over their religious convictions (or lack thereof). To his credit, Mr. Carter includes a disclaimer in his piece that expresses a similar observation. He writes:

1. No, I'm not saying that all atheists are autistic. (The evidence seems to show that is not true.)
2. No, I'm not saying that autistic people tend to be atheists. (I have no idea whether they are or not.)
3. No, I don’t think that autism causes atheism or vice versa. (I think there is a correlation, not a causal relationship between the two.)
4. No, I'm not trying to offer an argument. I'm merely raising what I think is an intriguing question.
5. Yes, the title of this post is intentionally provocative and ultimately answered by an empathic [sic] "no."

But despite the disclaimer, the "intriguing question" he asks is still a bit on the squirm-inducing side. Carter posits that perhaps, if autistics suffer from a "theory of mind" deficit, this might explain why some autistics may have difficulties with the God-concept:

If the belief in other minds is analogous to belief in God, then individuals who have a propensity to "mind-blindness" would likely be "God-blind" as well. With effort, high functioning autistics may be able to overcome their inability to attribute mental states to other physical beings. But while they may be able to learn to accept the rationality of other minds, they may find it more difficult to develop a belief in a Being who is both non-physical.

If this is true and there is a correlation between autism and atheism, what would be the implications? Would it change the apologetic approach that Christians take in dealing with such unbelievers? Should it affect how we respond, knowing that the anti-social behavior is connected with their atheism?

Okay. Aside from the problematic suggestion of "anti-social behavior" (no, you don't get to call someone "autistic" just because you find them obnoxious -- sometimes it seems like "autistic" is the new "gay" in terms of it having been co-opted as a means to express a negative opinion of someone), there's the implicit assumption that autistics do, in fact, lack the ability to attribute mental states to others. I realize that this assumption may have been offered for the sake of argument alone, but it is still worth exploring here because it is an assumption that many people do actually make.

I've written before on the fact that "Theory of Mind" appears to be more of a learned skill than an innate one for all people, and that much of what looks like "Theory of Mind" in typical people is simply a reflection of the fact that typical people are more likely to be neurologically similar to those around them.

The best informal critique I have ever encountered of the "Theory of Mind" studies can be found in the article, Deconstructing Sally-Anne. Essentially, the idea that autistics lack Theory of Mind was based primarily on the outcome of studies involving a poorly-designed experiment that did not take into account the language-processing differences autistics tend to exhibit.

But the "Theory of Mind Theory" of autism still seems logical to many -- probably because autistics respond atypically to social overtures and perhaps do not trigger the expected "acknowledgement circuits" that typically-developing people are wired to look for. This may very well have something to do with how autistics tend to perceive the world, however, not necessarily in the way one might think. In my personal experience, for instance, I remember feeling as a child that everything was potentially alive -- it wasn't that I didn't think other people had minds, but more that I didn't feel much of a distinction between people and objects in the first place. Everything, from toys to rocks to water, could have been animate as far as I was concerned. I was very attached to certain objects and even to certain places, and I used to have a very hard time watching the latter half of Short Circuit 2 because of the scene in which the robot character gets beaten up by hooligans.

I haven't ever seen a poll on whether this sort of early perception is common in those on the autistic spectrum, but I strongly suspect that it is. Even though I now understand that my coffee cup is not consciously reflecting upon the heat of its contents, I still maintain a general sense of my environment as being a gigantic, complex, singing, breathing, undulating tapestry of wonders. People are an important part of this tapestry, for sure, but not the only important part, and not even the part that I will always notice at the expense of everything else. This might be a bit difficult for some people to understand, but it certainly doesn't count as "mind-blindness".

But regardless, I'm still confused by the very notion of "God-blindness", and not just because I'm personally an unbeliever. It seems strange that a believer would posit such an idea in the first place. After all, trying to attribute someone's non-perception of God to something physical seems to go against the very idea of spiritual matters as being somehow transcendent. If something is truly transcendent, as God(s) and spiritual phenomena are said to be, why should the physical even matter at all? Wouldn't an all-powerful superbeing be plenty capable of manifesting itself to everyone, regardless of how their brains are wired? And why would such a being, if benevolent, deliberately create entities incapable of ever perceiving it?

Absurdity aside, I should probably also mention here that in general, when I talk about diversity, neurodiversity, and morphological/cognitive liberty, I am not just talking about autism. I am talking about the simple fact (and value) of pluralism, of having different kinds of minds operating at once within the population of sentients. When people suggest that we need to "wipe out" every possible manifestation of autism because it supposedly makes people suffer, I can't help but imagine people saying the exact same thing about other modalities and variations (e.g., homsexuality, atheism, shortness).

And regardless of my critique here, I don't see why it might not be possible that atheism could have a genetic component. What if there really are certain brains less likely to accept religious claims and tenets? What would the social consequences of this be? Here's a potential clue: some members of the Far Religious Right (which is by no means representative of all people of faith) are already backpedaling somewhat on their usual anti-biotech stance; Albert Mohler suggests:

If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin.

As members of a society that ostensibly values democratization and diversity and liberty, it is crucial that we not fall prey to simplistic ideas of what it means to suffer, or what it means to "sin". Sometimes, it seems as if "suffering" has been co-opted by secular would-be eugenicists in order to justify the elimination of a morphology or modality that makes them personally uneasy. And "sin", apparently, has been co-opted by the fundamentalists to mean "things that prompt mental images that I find either icky or strangely compelling". Both demographics ought to keep in mind that regardless of what great biotech advances are developed, no single one of us (or group of us) gets to re-make the world in our own tidy, whitewashed image of what we think it ought to look like.

Certainly, we can offer people options, and enable the consensual adoption of various modifying technologies -- a process which, if done right, will be a fantastic celebration of creativity, diversity, and respect for the myriad forms that a person's life might take. But it is one thing to acknowledge the very real problems experienced by various minority groups (regardless of whether those problems are due to intrinsic or extrinsic factors); it is quite another to suggest that homogenization is the solution to these problems. And while we're at it, I honestly hope never to see an entry for "God-Blindness" in the DSM-2012 or whatever the next celebrated psychology tome happens to be.


Elf_Sternberg said...

I don't buy this equation of Theory-of-Mind with God-Blindness at all. As this article from the New Scientist points out, human beings have what the paper calls "event/cause reasoning"; the more significant the event, the less likely the human brain is to associate the event with insignificant causes. Neurotypicals are deeply uncomfortable with the notion that events of massive emotional impact have mundane causes. Conspiracy theories and (although the paper doesn't say so) religions are comforting for exactly the same reason: they posit a world that is somehow predictable, if only we knew the motives of the conspirators and/or gods. The idea that things "just happen" freaks out ordinary people; they need an explanation. Conspiracy theories explain stock markets, and God explains hurricanes. The most horrific thing to happen to someone is death, one's own self-annhilation; the god-theory both explains and comforts those who contemplate it. I would suspect that most atheists of the non-angry variety (the ones just out to piss off their parents) are, if not comfortable, at least resigned to their transience and to the general indifference of the universe to their well-being. How that translates to the autist mindset, I wouldn't have a grasp.

Elf_Sternberg said...

A second thing occurs to me. If Carter is right, then Carter's Christian theology is wrong, for one of its central tenants is that everyone is born capable of knowing God. Carter is committing heresy here by proposing that God has created some of his flock pre-destined for eternal damnation; he's also terribly confused about the state of the human soul and even his own theology's understanding of the ways it interacts with flesh. There should be nothing, absolutely nothing, that can stand between a human being and the desire for salvation. Christian theology is predicated on the notion that everyone without exception is aware of both God and one's need for salvation; Carter is saying that that predication is, for some, wrong. If it is, then original sin doesn't exist or, worse, cannot ever be undone, not even by Christ's sacrifice. Carter's (and Mohler's) proposal that there is a naturalistic "cure" for the supernaturalistic problem of sin arises only from their own confusion and misunderstanding of their own belief system.

abfh said...

Here's a link to an article printed in Time Magazine three years ago, which discussed research studies tending to show that whether a person has an inclination toward religious belief may be genetically determined. Perhaps some people are more likely to have religious experiences than others, based on their levels of various neurotransmitters, etc.

Of course, that has nothing whatsoever to do with autism, and you're quite right that a person does not get a free pass to make bigoted statements just by adding a disclaimer that he is "merely raising an intriguing question."

Thanks for the link to my post and the compliment on it!

Mark Plus said...

Given this christian's conjecture, a Muslim could ask why so many millions in the Western world display "Alllah-blindness." And how did so many millions of pagans in Western Europe in late antiquity become Zeus/Osiris/Odin etc. blind when they converted to christianity?

I don't buy the idea that people with autistic neurologies have trouble recognizing other minds. We just don't care for the kinds of minds displayed by neurotypicals. Hence our preference for fantasy and SF writers like Rowling, Tolkien, Heinlein, etc., over authors who portray human dominance, grooming and sexual advertising behaviors like Shakespears, Austen, Tolstoy, etc.

AnneC said...

Elf S: I don't buy the equation, either, and I am pretty skeptical about the whole notion of "mind blindness" to begin with -- at least in the sense that it is usually applied. The most egregious displays of "mind-blindness" I've seen have been on the part of people who would probably be considered "neurologically normal", but who cannot seem to conceive of members of another race/species/neurotype as being fully sentient. The blog Autism Demonized has some fairly freaky examples of neurotypical mind-blindness (e.g., parents describing their children as "gone", "stolen", and "soulless". ).

You said: The idea that things "just happen" freaks out ordinary people; they need an explanation.

Interesting. That actually puts into words something I've been noticing for a long time. It explains both why some fundie types were claiming that Hurricane Katrina was sent to destroy the "gay debauchery" of New Orleans, and why some parents of autistic children are convinced that their kids have been poisoned by "the government". It's like -- some people tend to choose whatever "answer" gives them the most control over the situation, or allows them to internally confirm their own prejudices.

But -- it is also important to note that not everyone with spiritual beliefs has them for the sake of superficial comfort. There are people whose spirituality is extremely complex and even uncomfortable for them at times, but extremely important in their lives. I have some friends/family who consider themselves to be very spiritual, but who are most certainly not just using their spirituality as some kind of primitive coping mechanism. And I would not want to disrespectfully suggest that these folks are somehow less mindful, less informed, or less intellectually aware than atheists. As far as I'm concerned, that would be as bad as a believer claiming that all atheists are really just "angry at God" or that we simply disbelieve because we "want a license to sin".

There are more varieties of being spiritually oriented than most of us see from the stereotypes. Not every believer thinks that non-believers deserve eternal suffering, or that dinosaur bones were placed there by Satan to trick us, or that women need to "obey" their husbands, or that we ought to stone unruly children to death. There are some Christians, for instance, who do not simplistically spout platitudes about how they are "so glad Jesus died on the cross to pay for their sins" (that phrase has never made sense to me, and probably never will), but who see the crucifixion as a warning symbology regarding humanity's tendency to engage in mob punishment of the innocent (and as a cautionary tale for all humans inasmuch as we all contain the latent potential for destructive behavior).

I don't have a problem with these Christians; they generally are not the ones telling people that dancing, caffeine, and homosexuality are punishable offenses, and they aren't the ones yammering about how we need to re-institute prayer in schools and stop teaching that "Evil-lution".

As far as I can tell, there seem to be various different kinds of people, some who are caring and thoughtful and some who are less so -- and their orientation in that regard doesn't have a whole lot to do with their thoughts on the metaphysical. What I sort of see happening eventually is that rigid, literalist beliefs (of the sort that lead to inquisitions, oppression of women, and exploitation in the form of greedy "faith healers") may fall away entirely, but that personal spiritualities (that have nothing to do with public policy or politics) will become more commonplace.

Spirituality is a very tricky word to define, and it means a lot of different things for different people -- when a person says that they have spiritual beliefs, sometimes all they mean is that they get a sense of awe when they look at the stars or watch the tide come in. And I'm sure a lot of us, even those of us who are atheists, can relate to that!

Regarding your second comment: I was also confused at the assertion (speculative as it may have been) on the part of a Christian that maybe some people really do have difficulty with God-belief due to how they are "wired". I'm guessing that the author of the article simply didn't think this through very much.

AnneC said...

abfh: You said: Of course, that has nothing whatsoever to do with autism, and you're quite right that a person does not get a free pass to make bigoted statements just by adding a disclaimer that he is "merely raising an intriguing question."

Cool, I am glad that came through. That's actually the main reason I wrote this post -- I was afraid that most of the Web commentary on the original article would turn into a bunch of people arguing over the existence of God, which really isn't the issue at all.

The issue is that it bugs me when people decide to co-opt "autism" as a means to explain their favorite pet theory about a group of people they have philosophical or personal disagreements with.

I remember a while back, someone posted a blog entry about how Ann Coulter "probably had Asperger's syndrome", with the implication being that people should perhaps feel sorry for her rather than complaining about her (and I don't really know that much about her at all, aside from the fact that she writes rather trollish books about "liberals").

It's like -- I don't know, trying to claim that someone you don't like is acting like a member of a particular ethnicity based on stereotypes about that ethnicity. And it's silly and annoying and I will critique it when I see it.

AnneC said...

mark plus: You said: Given this christian's conjecture, a Muslim could ask why so many millions in the Western world display "Alllah-blindness." And how did so many millions of pagans in Western Europe in late antiquity become Zeus/Osiris/Odin etc. blind when they converted to christianity?

Yeah. The "God-blind" thing is such a cheap shot; anyone can invoke the idea that other people who don't come to the same conclusions they do as being "[thing]-blind". It isn't really a good argument for anything.

You said: I don't buy the idea that people with autistic neurologies have trouble recognizing other minds. We just don't care for the kinds of minds displayed by neurotypicals.

Hence our preference for fantasy and SF writers like Rowling, Tolkien, Heinlein, etc., over authors who portray human dominance, grooming and sexual advertising behaviors like Shakespears, Austen, Tolstoy, etc.

I have noticed a lot of auties who prefer SF/fantasy to all other forms of fiction, though I'm sure that there are exceptions. I think that those of us who grow up feeling very different from those around us will probably be drawn to stories about aliens, elves, robots, etc., because they are characters whose situations make sense to us.

I've never read Austen or Tolstoy, but I do like some Shakespeare -- at least, I like some of his word-patterns because they sound neat (synesthesia-wise, Shakespearian prose sounds very red and gold and velvety to me).

nickptar said...

The stupid, it burns!

The commonalities in perception of atheists and autistics reminded me of something Eliezer Yudkowsky said: "Rationality is often thought to be about cynicism. The one comes to us and says, “Fairies make the rainbow; I believe this because it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.” And you say, “No.” And the one reasons, “I believe in fairies because I enjoy feeling warm and fuzzy. If I imagine that there are no fairies, I feel a sensation of deadly existential emptiness. Rationalists say there are no fairies. So they must enjoy sensations of deadly existential emptiness.” And this article does indeed look like a case of correspondence bias.

(Oh, I felt that way about inanimate objects too when I was little!)

Mark Plus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Plus said...

If I imagine that there are no fairies, I feel a sensation of deadly existential emptiness.

This parodies the claim that we need a "god," whatever that means, to supply human life with "meaning." Apparently the argument goes something like:

P1: Everything a god creates has to have meaning.

P2: A god creates human life.

C: Therefore, human life has to have meaning.

But why assume P1? I don't see any logical inconsistency in a god that can create things without meaning, including human life. Invoking a "god" doesn't necesssarily solve the problem of "deadly existential emptiness, in other words. H.P. Lovecraft, whom some call "atheism's mythographer," explored the idea that "supreme beings" could exist that don't give a crap about humanity, showing that he stumbled onto a thinkable alternative to traditional theism -- and one that sounds somewhat more plausible, given the available evidence of the hostile conditions in our universe.

abfh said...

Although it's possible that autistics, on average, may be more interested in science fiction than other kinds of fiction, I think we need to be careful to avoid overly broad generalizations (i.e. stereotyping) about the sort of fiction autistics enjoy.

Some autistics don't read fiction at all, while others are fascinated by horror, or historical war stories, or pirate adventures, or whatever.

As for the authors mentioned above, I enjoy Rowling and Tolkien, I find Heinlein annoying, I like Shakespeare's word patterns and the glimpse he gives us into his life and times, I respect Austen's skill with characterization (including some characters who seem to be autistic, or nearly so), and I think Tolstoy is rather interesting -- he wrote treatises on anarchist philosophy, as well as novels.

abfh said...

Also, there's plenty of dominance and sex in most of the SF that I've read. Even if it involves aliens or wizards, rather than humans, it's still the same basic desires for power and mating.

Mark Plus said...

Although it's possible that autistics, on average, may be more interested in science fiction than other kinds of fiction, I think we need to be careful to avoid overly broad generalizations (i.e. stereotyping) about the sort of fiction autistics enjoy.

Granted, though I don't find it coincidental that certain genres have more of a "geek" reputation than others. Neuroscientists have found that the adolescent human brain even in neurotypicals becomes slightly autistic, in that it has trouble interpreting social signals (the source for the stereotype about teen angst and such), so youngsters in this state naturally turn to science fiction and fantasy because they can process them better. Neurotypicals then tend to leave these genres behind as they mature, but the rest of us don't necessarily make the transition to allegedly more "adult" forms of literature. And when we do, we tend to read it differently. I find the whole Shakespeare authorship question fascinating, for example, even though the plays don't particularly engage me, in part because the kind of behavior Shakespeare portrays has moved way down the social scale and doesn't seem so dramatically appropriate these days. In the 21st Century we don't tolerate or admire upper class people who fight gang wars in the streets, assassinate their rivals and challenge each other to duels because of offenses to their "honor."

Joe Carter said...

Ms. Corwin,

I've added an update to my post (Are Atheists Autistic?) that addresses some of the concerns you raise.


-Joe Carter

AnneC said...

Hi Joe,

As I tried to make clear in my initial commentary, the problem with your supposition (and yes, I did note the disclaimers) was not that it suggested a correlation between atheism and autism, but how this correlation was asserted.

The fact that I've not observed a distinct trend toward autistics generally being atheist (I haven't taken a wide enough survey to determine whether this is the case or not) is irrelevant to the real issues here -- which are those pertaining to how well autistic people are understood by nonautistic people. ABFH's comment on your blog makes this point quite clearly.

One of the things I try to do in my writing is point out when I see misconceptions and stereotypes about autistic people, and explain why these misconceptions may be false and even possibly damaging. This is not a personal attack on anyone who has such misconceptions -- just an attempt to inform them. Autism is a confusing subject, but unfortunately a rather trendy one right now as far as mass media is concerned; there's a lot of hype and hysteria surrounding it right now, and this is not benign if you actually happen to be autistic.

Your clarification doesn't seem to actually address the core of what I was trying to get to with my writing. For one thing, you seem to be conflating the ability to read typical body language and emotions (and respond typically to these things) with having "theory of mind".

I can understand how you might think this because I used to think along similar lines -- when I was first diagnosed I actually described myself as lacking in theory of mind because other people's behavior and habits and responses tended to confound me to no end.

What changed my mind about this was getting to know, and interacting with, a few other autistic people. It was amazing how much I found in common with these folks, and their behavior and emotions made sense to me in ways that nobody else's ever had before. And then I was able to think back to times when I should have gotten more of a clue that this might be the case -- a particular cousin of mine is also on the spectrum, and even when we were both much younger, there was always something about this cousin that made sense to me in ways I couldn't put into words at the time.

So, in short, I've personally gone from seeing myself as lacking theory of mind to seeing myself as having a particular kind of mind that understands some other minds better than others. The communication problem goes in both directions, and has a lot more to do with people just being very perceptually/cognitively different from one another than with one type of person having an intrinsic and universal deficit.

Marquesio said...

Let me first say, I enjoy your blog and reading this interesting post (question.)

My 4 year old son is autistic. I used to be a Christian and now consider myself an agnostic, though my wife remains devout and is trying to teach my son about the Jesus story, how to pray at the dinner table, and the goodness of having faith in God.

In my experience, I think one thing can be safely said: If there is an answer, a truth, or a simultaneous cure for atheism and autism, it most certainly doesn't reside in organized religion as we know it today, nor specifically organized Christianity.

Christianity sort of had it's chance after the Christ fun-fest of the Middle Ages. Prayer, repentance, purity, submission to God, mission work - surely all of that would lead to worldwide faith healing from the omnipotent, omni-loving one, would it not? It didn't.

No, the truth is I can pray to a carton of milk and get more favorable results than petitioning Yahweh to drop all he's doing at the Whitehouse, the gaza strip and the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas, to snap my son out of his autistic disorder, or just as easily prevent a throng of atheists from falling into the fiery pits of hell. But who really cares? Might I suggest once again entrusting the fate of the world into the hands the fundamental Christian "Weltanschauung", so that every autistic son's future – and the future of any developmental disabled or otherwise health-challenged individual can be thoroughly and utterly without hope? There would be no medical research, no stem-cell research, no ABA therapy (which is making a huge difference with my son by the way). This arrangement would solve the other obvious problem - there would be no atheists either, since they'd likely all be put to the sword, as is so eloquently instructed to all good God followers in the Old Testament. So if you would ever ask a father of an autistic child like me: "Where do you place your faith, science or religion (Christian, Islam, Judaism)?” My faith lies in science, because quite simply, God answers prayers with the same level of certainty as that of a carton of milk.

AnneC said...


As far as your son goes, even if he isn't talking, etc., he probably understands a lot of what is going on around him, so don't be afraid to say things even if you think they would be "over his head". But I personally always found the concept of "faith" confusing, so it might be a good idea to reassure your son that it does not mean he is a bad person if the idea of making yourself believe something on the basis that it means you are "good" doesn't make sense to him.

I suffered with guilt for several years of childhood because of this -- it wasn't anyone's fault per se, but I would definitely have appreciated it if someone had told me that it was okay not to have faith. (I still don't understand what the difference is between "having faith" and "going through the motions of believing something regardless of whether you think you have good reasons to believe it, because otherwise, it means you aren't 'good'".) I know that isn't how everyone sees "faith", but something tells me that that word is largely personally determined for many people, to the point where their experience of it might not even be amenable to being put into words.

I've had some conversations with people who describe themselves as "religious" or "spiritual", only to find that our views don't actually differ very much -- it's just that we use a different vocabulary for referring to the same things. I believe that life is infinitely dense with wonder, that all different kinds of people (and animals!) are valuable, that there are such things as good and beauty (even if we ourselves are the ones to determine what these things are), and that the very littlest things in life are often also the most significant things.

Take your kid for walks in the woods, let him explore the ground and gaze at the sky, encourage his interests, play music for him -- there is plenty in the world to inspire awe and a feeling of being loved (by family and friends, etc.).

Also, you might be interested in reading this blog, by a woman who has an autistic son about your son's age.

Loki said...

I find it intriguing that Serotonin is implicated in both Autism and religious experience.