Autism and Religion: A silent anxiety

A few weeks ago, tragedy struck my neighborhood. A boy my sister’s age killed himself. Getting my head around this was not easy. The biggest hurdle was understanding how someone could give up their claim on heaven.

For my whole life, I’ve been a Catholic. And the Church says suicide is a ticket straight to hell.

Back when I sat in church, each time that a priest talked about anything, I listened and believed it was the absolute truth.

About the time I turned fifteen, I started doubting how things could be happening, like child abuse, and what they said could still be true. But because I don’t speak like other kids, I never voiced my doubt.

Hearing that hurting others was a sin, I spent years calling myself a sinner because I did hurt my parents, even though I couldn’t control how I moved.

Being in constant fear of damnation got the best of me. How unfair that I should be made to feel like that.

It was only by unlucky chance that I got the opportunity to put these concerns into words that my mom could hear. Good grief, that is not right. Can you imagine the weight that was lifted when she told me that people created religion and people are not infallible?

How freeing to not be trapped inside a dogma that seems archaic at best and abusive at worst.

And yet, I am also furious. How could boys and girls be exposed to these teachings and not talked to about their right to free thought? Maybe most kids are, but do we actually make an effort to dissect church teachings with those of us who can’t talk back?

How hard is it to say to your kid, “Listen. No one knows for sure if church gets it right. So attempt to be a good person and don’t have anxiety over every word you hear in church. Cast doubt on anything that is inherently wrong or unjust.”

To the parents out there who take your nonspeaking kids to church, let’s try having more faith in your kids. Have faith that they are listening, faith that they understand, and for g-d’s literal sake, talk to them about what gets taught in religion.

My soul is lighter after the many talks I’ve had now with my mom. I gained the understanding that I can be a faithful guy without being a religious one.

As always, the bottom line is to presume competence.

If my family had thought that I was experiencing that much torment, they never would have insisted I go to church.

Believe in your kids’ intelligence and the conversations that matter.

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13 Responses

  1. Trevor, I’m glad your mom heard your fears and was able to help free you from them. As a religious person myself, I hate hearing the awful things that are said and done in the name of religion—especially to young people. In the same way, as a person who values science, I hate the horrible things that are done in the name of science, again, especially to young people—like cruel behaviorist therapies. I’m glad we don’t blame all of science for these negative things. Unfortunately, all of religion as a whole does tend to get blamed for the negative things that some religious people say and do.

    1. That brings to mind something heard or read way back in pre-internet years, it went along the lines of : “When people do bad things in the name of religion people say religion is inherently bad; When people do bad things in the name of profit people say profit is inherently bad; When people do bad things in the name of science people say science is inherently bad; When people do bad things in the name of government people say government is inherently bad; but have you noticed that every one of these is “people do bad things” but when you say people do bad things because people are inherently bad, people say you are a mean person and out of your mind.”

        1. Since I go by what Jesus said instead of what people-created churches say I am unable to suppose that, and hell is no ‘threat’, the very instant you accept Jesus Christ as your savior hell becomes a non-issue for you, it is that quick and that simple, that’s all it takes and I don’t understand why more people don’t do it.

  2. Going to a liberal church would be like going to a doctor who says, “I don’t want to scare you by using the word ‘cancer,’ so go ahead and smoke all you want.” Either there is a hell (a place of separation from God) or there isn’t. We don’t get to choose according to our preference. But scottfw is correct: if it turns out that there is a hell, Jesus offers a total solution and so there is absolutely nothing to fear. That’s a 100% cure rate—even more effective than quitting smoking!

    1. Not if there’s a hell and Islam is who is right about it. You could do your Jesus solution and as a result go to hell for not being Muslim. Because a plurality of different religions threaten hell and you can’t convert to them all, nobody can escape the threat. We can only, by rational reasoning that it’s ridiculous and an obvious crook-scam for personal control, escape from believing in it.
      You realise that “nothing to fear” and “non-issue” are logical fails to tell all the folks who have family who have not bought into the belief? And that to help you convince them, there is no factual proof of what Jesus said about anything: nor of any supernatural reason why it matters what he said: because we are only told about him through third hand biographies of unverifiable authorship dating from years after his time?

  3. Thank you so much for this Trevor. You described almost exactly my experience with religion. Reading this made me feel understood.

  4. spectrumfairness, you could definitely be right in everything you say. None of us can be certain about these things. That’s life.

    This probably isn’t the place for a full-blown theological discussion; and mainly, I was just addressing a certain kind of thought process. If someone does a horrible job presenting scientific ideas (happens all the time), we don’t dismiss all of science. If we don’t like certain scientific facts (cancer, global warming), we don’t dismiss all of science (or even just those facts). If science is presented in a ridiculous way or as part of a crook-scam (like the current Theranos court case), we don’t dismiss all of science. If there are competing theories in science (there are many), we don’t dismiss all of science. But if similar things happen with religion, there is more of a tendency to reject it as a whole.

    1. Because scientific facts are evidenced. Real ones.
      But not everything scientists say is fact or evidenced, but folks are acculturated to trust them, + need to scrutinise them more critically. Which however can also make some folks react into conspiracy positions completely the other way, like the anti-vaxxers.
      But as part of being liberal religious, I certainly dismiss claims that the arrogant atheist science establishment claim are facts but don’t prove so. Their dogmatic denial of the entire paranormal, materialist interpretation of the brain, and silly untestable cosmology theories about surreal subatomic “fields” inflating and breaking their “symmetries”.

  5. The pursuit of truth is a real tightrope walk, isn’t it?

    There are things we can only know through experimental science; other things we can only know through our own lived experience, reflection, and intuition; and, if there is a God, still other things we can perhaps only know by revelation. Those are three very distinct categories of truth; and with all three types, we can make all kinds of errors and fall into all kinds of traps and deceptions.


    Still, there must be some ultimate truth to things, and we can’t give up on trying to discern it. But to go back to the original theme of Trevor’s post, I wish everyone the best in pursuing truth in openness and freedom from unnecessary, imposed fears.

  6. I think making a clear distinction between spirituality and organised religion is crucial. A lot of religious dogma is aimed at fear, control, unthinking compliance and deference to the hierarchy. In this respect it is a useful adjunct to capitalism, and keeps everyone in their place thus perpetuating certain power structures. On the other hand a sense of wonder, storytelling, ritual and the use of metaphor and symbol are essential to creating meaning and purpose in a human life. This should never require the switching off of the analytical and critical faculties but this is precisely what happens when mythology is framed as being fact and damnation promised for those who cannot accept this. Talk about negative reinforcement. It is metaphysical ABA.

  7. Thank you for this. I’m 28 years old and coming to terms with the fact I’m likely on the autism spectrum. For my entire life (until recently) I have lived in fear that I was going to hell because of my black and white thinking. Like I couldn’t repent enough or because my repentance was never sincere enough. I couldn’t figure out how a decent person, like myself, (I consider myself a good human) would end up in hell for not feeling sincere enough in my repentance.

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