On Wednesday, Carly Fleischman (a teenage non-speaking autistic whose amazing story some of you may have seen on 20/20) fielded a question about her personal struggle with believing in God due to her autistic wiring and need for tangible things. Hers is a struggle that I fully understand and I was able to be part of the discussion.
In follow up emails I have been asked by several other autistics and parents of autistics if they could have a copy of my response - that's why I'm posting it here.
I pray that this will give a small (ok - maybe miniscule) glimpse into some of my own journey towards belief - a journey that at times is still filled with great warring in the land of unbelief. This is not a full treatise by any stretch of the imagination and there is MUCH that could be and should be written on this subject. Doubt appears to be a very common thread for many on the spectrum (the most recent statistics suggesting that autistics are only 11% as likely to believe in God as their neuro-typical counterparts). As I have mused and meditated on the issue over the past year I have a number of thoughts on the "whys" of that struggle and on the need for the church to understand the deep reality of that struggle. Perhaps another day - for now, my response to Carly! :)
Thanks for the question you have posed. I, too, am autistic and am a former atheist. The "idea" of God (as God was often presented) was an incredibly difficult concept for me for many years. “Blind faith” (which was what folks told me I had to have) was an utterly inconceivable prospect to me because, as an autistic, I don't to do anything “blindly” (I have a feeling you understand me regarding that statement).
The supernatural seemed too nebulous and too abstract. The seen, the finite, the tangible, and the temporal always trumped (to my autistic mind) the unseen, the infinite, the intangible and the eternal. I wanted answers - real answers to real questions about life and its meaning, death and its outcome, existence and its source. I delved and dug around in a number of religions and philosophical worldviews (Buddhism, Hinduism – reading the Bhagavad Gita, Islam - perusing the Koran, Humanism, Nietzschian thought, and Christianity – skimming the Bible). It seemed that I found illogical leaps, contradictory assertions, duplicity, guile and just plain frustration in most of my excavation. My autism caused me to dig deeply, to dissect deeply, and to doubt deeply. I questioned everything – EVERYTHING - not stubbornly, but honestly (well, as honestly as I knew how). I wanted to know truth – whatever truth was and no matter what truth cost. I didn’t care about landing in some comfortable corner, some place of peace, some hill of hope – I wanted to land at real, honest, and true – even if real, honest, and true were horribly hard and awfully ugly.
In my searching I would have to say that Christianity - (and I speak here of true, Biblical Christianity as it is revealed in the Bible - NOT as it is sadly often portrayed by those who claim it, nor in the vast plethora of institutions and denominations that fight and fuss, bicker and bludgeon, and give ample ammunition to any who wish to find fault) - Christianity intrigued me the most. Christianity also bothered me the most.
Christianity intrigued me because it was different from the other religions I looked at. Surprisingly, it didn’t tell me that I had to DO anything – Jesus had already DONE everything. It told me that I didn’t have to be good enough – Jesus had come to earth and been good enough for me. It told me that I didn’t have to work harder, try harder, or be better. It wasn’t a treadmill where I had to earn favor or burn off folly. No, instead I, weary and broken one that I was, simply had to rest in Jesus and then find myself enabled by Jesus to live the good life that in and of myself I was incapable of. In Christianity, God didn’t love me because of what I did – He loved me in spite of what I did or didn’t do. It was a message of glorious grace! Good works were the fruit of GOD’s work in me rather than the root which would cause God to accept me, love me, and save me. There was freedom from the will-to-powering process that was my autistic life. That was a MAJOR difference between Christianity and every other religion, philosophy, and spiritual fad that I examined.
In Jesus, there was rest – REST - real rest! I think I was intrigued by this because, being autistic, I don’t rest – I never rest – I mean NEVER EVER rest. My mind and my body are always going (sound familiar?) and I am often - OK, I am perpetually - exhausted. Suddenly, in this Christianity there is an offer of rest. Rest?! Really?! It had to be too good to be true!! Oh, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was true? Yet, being wonderful does not a truth make and I would not believe it simply because it sounded sweet. Arsenic is sweet, but arsenic is deadly. Thus, palatability alone can never be the standard by which we sup.
Christianity intrigued me but Christianity also bothered me because I’d always heard so many of the other skeptics toss out example after example after endless example of all the "contradictions" that were found in the Bible (online you’ll find "The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible" which attempts to list supposed contradiction after supposed contradiction). I was deeply troubled by these seeming schisms of theological thought and dictated doctrine. At first I bought them and often tossed them out like hurled hand grenades in my conversations with Christians. Often believers were stumped by these contradictory "facts" and just as often they slumped away because of them. I would grin at my altruistic efforts, patting myself on the back for shining the light of reason upon the darkness of dogma. Eventually, someone challenged me and asked if I'd ever actually read the Bible - all of the Bible - or if I was just spitting out what others had told me about it. It was a good question, and the truth was I hadn't really read it, I had merely skimmed it. I decided that, rather than just buying the party line, I'd go looking at the source myself. So, I started studying the Bible – I mean really studying the Bible. Reading its pages book by book and chapter by chapter. Taking notes. Making lists. Cross referencing. I was determined to truly look at what it said rather than just accept what everyone said it said.
To my surprise I found that (when looking at those supposed contradictory things in the context that they were actually written in) the problems weren’t really problems at all! The more I read and studied the Bible the more my brain began to wrap around the things in its pages – things about God and man and morals and the messes that people seem to make of things. The more I read (Old Testament and New) the more I kept being driven back to this Jesus who came and redeemed all of the broken stuff – including broken Lori and offered rest and restoration. I was amazed by the logic of it all. I was blown away by how every piece fit with every other piece. I was floored at how even the strangest seeming things (on first glance) – things like the virgin birth and the hypostatic union (big word for the day) - were completely logical and held practical purpose and necessity if the gospel of Jesus was to really work and really be true. The entire book was a phenomenal schematic of the meaning of life - every piece, particle, and precept fitting perfectly as a unified whole. There’s so much I could type – this forum isn’t the place!
It’s now over 20 years since I began that journey. I still have moments of doubt – sometimes very DEEP doubt. I still have questions arise – that’s OK. I still struggle at times with the intangible nature of an infinite God - I am autistic, you know! :) When those struggles arise, I remind myself that if my brain – even my autistic brain – was able to fully fathom every millimeter of the Almighty then He probably wouldn’t be very almighty after all and I probably shouldn't bother with Him at all! When the grappling grips me and I begin to see my doubts grow deeper, I now take my questions, and quandaries, and conundrums about intangible spiritual things and I go digging, yet again, in that tangible Bible and I end up finding - by glorious grace - solid, firm, and logical answers that keep me believing not by blind faith, but mercifully and marvelously by a reasoned faith in an incredibly kind and patient God.
Carly, after a lot of struggling I have truly come to discover that biblical Christianity has pushed me to develop not a blind faith but a reasoned faith - a reasoned faith in God because I find that, for me, it takes much more blind faith for me to not believe in Him than it ever took me to believe in Him.
Everyone – believer or unbeliever - takes a leap of faith somewhere. For all of us there are things we do not know, things we cannot comprehend, things that our mental and physical finiteness imprison us with. The question for me has been: which leap of faith is most logical? For me and for my autistic mind, Christianity (again, the real Christianity that the Bible teaches - not the cultural crud that is often portrayed on the news and in sitcoms and sadly even in Face Book posts) is that most logical place - honestly, the only logical place. It seems that the more I study the more I find that there is sort of an impossibility of the contrary regarding the existence of God, for without believing in God I have come to see that I can’t really believe in anything (surprisingly not even math, or science, or logic, or love) for He is the sole source of everything. (Alas, that would be a conversation for another day, and one I hope we might have!)
All of that said, ultimately neither you, nor I, nor anyone else will ever mentally get to God in our own strength or own understanding. We can search as for buried treasure, we can dig as for hidden gold, we can ruminate, rummage, and reason – but if our poor blind spiritual eyes are not enlightened by the One who made them we will never see Him even if He were to stand right in front of our face.
Carly, I’ll strive to pray for you as you question, just as other’s prayed for me. Don't be afraid to question - never be afraid to question. God is big enough to handle questions and is not bothered when we ask them. Thanks again for fielding such a great discussion. I’d love to chat more if you’re ever interested. I appreciate you, gal! Keep letting your "voice" be heard and I’ll try to let mine be heard as well.