Tag Archives: soul

Autism changed my religion

I occasionally talk about autism and religion, but not very often. I tend to believe that religion is incredibly personal – my beliefs are mine alone, and I have no interest in convincing other people to believe what I believe. So while my diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome had a profound impact on my beliefs about self and soul, it kind of feels awkward to talk about it here. Nonetheless, I think I’m going to anyway.

So to go over the beginning – it all started with my diagnosis, then with my reading, as I do. I learned that autism is neurological – it’s in my brain. I read about a number of studies showing structural differences between autistic brains and neurotypical brains. To put it simply – autism is physical. It’s right there in the structure of the brain.

Then, not long after, I heard someone in my religious group talking about the (fairly typical, in my experience) religious belief of, basically, “you are your soul, you have a body.”

Suddenly I realized that this common belief, one I grew up with and did not really question, did not fit me anymore. I do not see my autism as something simply attached to me, like a body that a soul happens to be sitting in at the moment. Autism is intrinsic to who I am. Which means my body is intrinsic to who I am. I cannot separate the two anymore.

At first this just caused confusion and some level of angst. I looked for opinions from other people, but I was still struggling to put the concept into words. Also, I was friends with many atheists who simply didn’t believe in souls at all and took the questions as a “nature vs nurture” thing. That was not what I was trying to get at at all.

Now, just so I will hopefully not be too confusing – my beliefs are fluid. They have been ever since I went away from christianity and towards paganism. I have notice that many people find the fluidity of my beliefs confusing, as well as the peace I have made with the fact that what I believe now will change over time, not always in predictable ways. For me, a change in my beliefs is not painful, it is simply part of life.

One of the first major changes was moving from a transcendent view of reality – where the physical and the divine are separate, towards an immanent view of reality – where the physical and divine are together as one. Since I cannot separate myself from my body, perhaps I cannot actually separate my soul from my body either. Maybe that’s not how it works. Maybe I’m not some coherent soul going from body to body through rebirths, or into some kind of afterlife with a deity. But then, what am I?

Well, my body is almost like a wave of matter through time. I am made up of the matter and molecules that I consume (and convert), and those atoms and molecules and cells of my body are constantly rotating through. I am always losing molecules (for instance, the outer layer of skin flaking off, as it does, and my body generating new skin beneath, as it does), and I am always gaining new molecules through my food and drink. Yet while the matter itself is constantly coming and going, the structure of myself remains much, though not entirely, the same. My brain continues it’s autistic structure, my skeleton stays the way it is, my basic layout does not change.

So now I seem to believe that my “soul” (however much I believe in a soul) is much the same. It is simply the current iteration of “me,” made up of… well, I don’t know yet. The current collection of some small portion of all that is sacred and divine. What are souls made of anyway? I also seem to have some version of panentheism going on. Everything is god – including the gods (so yes, I am still a polytheist as well). Everything is sacred, everything carries a portion of the divine. The portion of me that is divine is, basically, my “soul.” And perhaps when I die, my soul will disperse into the greater universe the same way my body will decompose and return to the earth it came from.

All that change, from one little (huge) diagnosis.

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Asperger’s and Religion

Quite a while ago a blogger I like to read sometimes talked a bit about the intersection of religion and the autism spectrum. He ended it with an appeal to his readers to talk about how religion and ASDs intersected for them. He probably meant in the comments, but I thought I might make a blog post out of it. Partly because I am sooo not his target audience (as he appears to be primarily talking to Christians) and partly because I wasn’t sure I could sum it up enough for it to make a good comment. Since then it’s been burbling around in the back of my head, and I think I’m finally ready to talk about it. Fair warning: there’s going to be a lot of just talking about religion here. It only gets intersectional at the end.

So I want to talk about the use of religion. What is it for? Why be religious? There seem to be two dominant answers to that question – to have a sense of morality, and to explain things that otherwise cannot be explained. I grew up christian, and both of those reasons for religion were drilled into me quite firmly. To me, they seemed to be totally logical and reasonable, even more so since I also grew up a tad anti-science. However, eventually my beliefs crumbled and many of the things I was taught no longer made sense to me. I was no longer able to accept what I was told on face value.

This loss of my christian beliefs had a number of different effects. One was that I realized that even the most deeply held belief can change. End result – my religious beliefs are now fluid. They have a tendency to change over time and I am very comfortable with that. Another effect was that during this transitional period, religion was suddenly no longer able to be my source of morality, or my answer to life’s questions or science’s confusing parts. So what happens then?

Well, I became ok with that. I realized that I did not actually need religion in order to have a sense of right and wrong. My sense of right and wrong comes largely from myself, though I grudgingly admit that the society in which I live has an impact as well. Religion simply is not necessary. In fact, it has gotten to the point that the idea of viewing morality as commands from a god or otherwise entirely external to oneself kind of skeeves me out.

Also, science is awesome. No, scientists do not have all the answers, but the methodology of looking is pretty nifty. Nor am I interested in having a God(s) of the Gaps. I don’t view gods as scientifically necessary and I am ok with that.

What this basically means is that the two primary reasons people seem to want religion in their lives simply don’t apply to me. My gods do not hand down rules to live by in order to create my sense of right and wrong, nor do they challenge science in any way.

So that brings us to the question – why do I have religion?

First and foremost, religion is, for me, something to experience. The experience of rituals, of standing in the rain, of whatever things I do in the practice of my beliefs. It’s about how I feel during those experiences, and the general sense that they are a positive aspect of my life. After I described my religion to someone once, they called it “experiential religion” and I really like that. I think it describes it well.

Beyond that religion is one of my tools for self improvement. This is where it gets a bit intersectional. I highly value the general process of improving myself and growing and stretching in various ways. Also, due to being on the autism spectrum, I am developmentally behind. I just am. So in some ways, my whole life can feel like I’m just running to catch up, only I never actually will. Religion helps me keep going, and it challenges me to be better. It was religion that finally forced me to add nuance and shades of gray to my strict black-and-white worldview. My religion (among other things) tells me that I am not allowed to stagnate. The fluid nature of my beliefs helps me to be more fluid in general, which is useful as I tend to want to be rigid.

Religion and Aspergers has also collided in another way for me – the concept of ‘self’ as ‘soul.’ I grew up with the idea that people have souls, and that our souls are, essentially, ourselves. Our soul is where our personality and identity live, and they are separate and apart from our bodies. However, autism spectrum disorders are, by increasing evidence, neurological. It shows in the very structure and pathways of our brains. There is also an increasing culture that autism is identity – that you cannot separate the “me” from the autism. Which calls into question this ‘self as something separate from the body’ thing. I haven’t figured this one out yet, but I have found my beliefs changing – less transcendent and more immanent.

On a tangential note, sometimes I wonder if this soul problem is one of the reasons why some people (parents) really want to see autism as something separate from personality or identity. That there is a person “trapped behind” the autism or something. Because facing the idea that something as base and physical as neurology can directly impact who we are might simply be too much.

Overall, my religion and my neurology certainly do intersect. I imagine they did when I was a Christian as well, but it’s harder for me to dig out exactly how so. Nevertheless, being on the autism spectrum is pervasive, and it has an impact on everything – including how I experience religion.

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