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Religion on the Spectrum

Before I say a word on this topic, I want to specify that I do not speak for everyone on the spectrum. These are my personal perspectives, and while I hope that they'll provide insight for some, they're not intended to represent the views of anyone but myself.

Within the autism community -- as anywhere else -- I've seen a lot of polarized views on religion. When the topic comes up, there are more than enough comments condemning anyone willing to believe something unproven by logic; I've even seen comments stating that you can't be religious if you're "really autistic," because apparently the autistic preference for logic precludes the possibility of any of us ever believing in or engaging with anything unproven. At the other extreme, for some, religion can become a special interest. The latter was my experience, which had both pros and cons -- largely depending on how I approached it. I'd like to speak a little to the experience of religion on the spectrum, to try to explain some of the experiences that may have caused some dissonance for others as well as myself.

So, what aspects of religion may particularly appeal to people on the spectrum?

First, religion offers a predictable social experience. After attending a religious service a few times, you can pretty easily predict what the next one will look like. The songs become familiar, you get to speak in harmony with those around you, there's the illusion of dialogue, and the scripted nature of a service makes it difficult to stand out or make mistakes. For me, I never get overstimulated at a religious service, because the auditory input is predictable and it's easy to find a seat far enough from other people to maintain personal space. I get to feel included in a community without feeling at all out of place.

The social benefit isn't limited to going through the motions of service, though: religion is a topic with which countless people have connected throughout history. I doubt there's ever been a time in human history when there was no form of religion. It resonates with some part of humanity, regardless of the label we give it. That's not to say that there's no other way to get that feeling, but when you find one that works for you, it's worth holding onto. Participating in religion can, for some of us, help to connect with countless people throughout history, helping us feel more connected with humanity. So many social outlets -- clubs, sports teams, sororities or workplaces -- evaluate worthiness before accepting a new member; I've never been to a religious event where anyone was anything but happy to encounter me.

Aside from the social benefits, religion also offers a source of routine. Prayer, ceremony, and regular rituals are cornerstones of religion. The amount of routine can be personalized, from simply celebrating major holidays, to reciting a brief prayer before consuming any food or drink.

For some on the spectrum, the use of foreign language in religious prayer may serve as an auditory stim. Growing up, I preferred to pray in Latin whenever possible. Today, I'm in the process of converting to Judaism, and -- setting my actual reasons aside -- I especially enjoy the use of Hebrew. In moments where I'm distressed or overstimulated, my verbal capacities sometimes suffer; repeating a prayer in Latin or Hebrew can be soothing enough for me to regain the ability to communicate.

Lastly, religion as a special interest includes centuries of literature in virtually every category of study. You can gain insight into history, social dynamics, music... You can even find discussions of the medicine that may have been interpreted as miracles before the science was understood. It's a special interest where, approached correctly, you can find infinite sources of engagement without spending a penny (that is, if you make wise use of libraries).

A (not so brief) comment on the logic of religion, because I do want to help to reconcile literal thinking and preference for logic with engagement in religion: I suspect that those who think religion is by its very nature illogical may have a limited sense of what religion can mean. I'll use my own faith as my example, because its the one to which I can best speak. If you read sources in Judaism discussing what "God" is, you'll find that the answer varies so greatly, even within a single person, that it's impossible to simplify to one response. It's rarely just a conscious entity who craves praises and exerts control over His subjects.

I personally believe that God is that which is good. I believe that when texts specify that there is only one God, what they're identifying is that that which is good, no matter how many forms it may take, is of the same key source: goodness, or to take a common Jewish term, loving-kindness. Whether you express good by defending someone, comforting someone, doing volunteer work, or even simply feeling empathy, at the core what you are doing is GOOD, and while good comes in many categories, good is a single force. I feel this also explains the omnipotence of God in the face of all that is wrong in the world: the possibilities are limitless when people unify with purely good intention, but that doesn't mean that good can exert itself by force. If everyone in the world approached every problem with nothing but goodness in their hearts, the possibilities would be endless, but God, goodness, is expressed through living beings. Thus, omnipotence when we choose to channel it, but not omnipotence to force its expression. Finally, this would explain why God would pursue a covenant with humanity (not simply a commandment, and not leaving humanity alone entirely because why bother with a lesser form of being? -- but a covenant, which implies that both parties benefit): because it is through humanity that goodness is able to be expressed, and without people to express it, goodness lacks outlet. Was any part of the Torah written with literal intention? I'm not sure; maybe small parts have some historical basis. I think it more likely that a group of people set together to express, through a series of stories and writings, some key messages about what is right. Maybe by the time they were writing it down, they'd forgotten the origins of stories which had been passed down over generations. But, to the topic of logic, I find the existence of a force of goodness not only highly likely, but entirely logical. I think that there are moments in reality when evolution alone doesn't explain good deeds; self-sacrificing behaviors certainly don't improve the likelihood of reproducing in great numbers, and our positive emotional response to stories of self sacrifice and heroism could surely represent that we value things even when they do not result in heightened odds in natural selection. Is it illogical, then, to think that there is a universal good, and to engage with that good through prayer (exercises in mindfulness) and community? Maybe you still think yes. But if you thought that being religious could only mean believing in a guy in the sky who wants to hear a series of praises repeated to him by every human, several times a day, I hope I've at least inspired a new understanding of what religion can be.

All of that said, it is worth taking a moment to recognize some possible risks in religion. Religion, for anyone, can become unhealthy if not integrated into a balanced life. It can be used as a weapon by cults, a tool by manipulators, and history speaks clearly to what happens when the masses trust the word of religious leaders over moral reasoning. Some of these dangers happen to target particular challenges common in autism: when something becomes a special interest, it can be difficult for us to disengage, and if we apply our rigid thinking to interpretation of religious word, we can fall into extremist viewpoints. If we're unable to recognize when we're being manipulated, and choose to center our whole lives around a religious special interest, we may become easy targets.

Autism is summarized as two main areas of impairment: social communication difficulties, and "restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests." Religion can offer a social connection that looks past individual differences, a place to socialize without surprises (and thus with less overstimulation), a source of routine, and a special interest with unlimited possibilities. It has the risk of becoming unhealthy and even dangerous for someone who hasn't found their balance yet, as is also true for neurotypicals. However, if approached in a healthy way, the benefits of religion can be substantial in coping with, and embracing, autism.

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