Theory of Mind, Theory of Faith

One of the things that has fascinated me has been linkages between autism and faith.  If you go around the autism interwebs, you will find the common belief among many high functioning autistics and aspies is that they tend to be atheists.  I’ve always found that both interesting and frustrating, being a person of faith.

The whole autism and faith debate has left me wondering why I believe in a god and what causes so many persons with autism to not believe at all.  Something that shed some clues to both issues were found in an article published in May in Psychology Today.  I personally thought Matt Hutson, the writer came off as pompous, but he does provide some insights not only to why so many persons with autism tend to be atheists, but also how those with autism who are believers function. Hutson starts out:

In most religions, and arguably anything worth being called a religion, God is not just an impersonal force or creator. He has a mind that humans can relate to. Maybe you’re not gossiping on the phone with him late at night, but he has personality traits, thoughts, moods, and ways of communicating with you. If you didn’t know what a mind was or how it worked, not only would you not understand people, you would not understand God, and you would not be religious.That’s the theory, anyway. Scientists who study religion have come to agree that belief in God (or gods) relies on everyday social cognition: our ability—and propensity—to think about minds.

The ability to think about minds is key: because this tends to be a skill that those of us with autism lack.  If you have a theory of mind, or the ability to realize there are others around you who have feelings, then you are more aware of a diety working in the life of the world.  However, if you lack that, it might make it harder to believe that there is a god at all.

I have to say that growing up, I always had a hard time understanding God as a person.  Of course, the Bible, especially the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures is full of God acting like any human out there.  If it’s hard for autistic persons to understand the people around them, it is a challenge to understand a being that one hasn’t even seen.

The other thing is that persons with autism tend to not be teleological in their thinking, which means that they don’t think that events have a purpose or meaning behind them.  When my uncle died in late June, my mother and other relatives assigned a reason to why he died.  For me, there wasn’t a teleological end.  For me, my uncle had a long history of diabetes which took its toll.

None of this means that God wasn’t there: what it means to me that God was present but not necessarily directing the events.

So what does this all mean?  Well, I’m not an atheist.  I’m even a pastor.  My answer is that while I have trouble picturing God or assigning meaning to events, I do have something that makes faith possible for me and maybe for other autistics- imagination.  Because you can’t have a good faith life if you don’t have a good imagination.  Faith requires you to “see” things that aren’t there and for me, the way to do that is by imagining.  I think that’s why as a kid I so glommed on to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, because it gave God a form that I had trouble imagining.
Just something to think about.  What about others who are autistic and a person of faith?  What makes you a believer?



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