Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Contemplating the Crossroads: My Autism and My Atheism

1. Why I don't typically write atheist essays

I'm not shy about putting what I believe (or don't believe) out there.  If you look around on this blog and on my Twitter profile, I put my lack of religious belief pretty front-and-center, and the other blogs and Tweeps I follow reflect that.  Until now, though, I never really felt the impulse to put up a post contemplating my atheism or advocating for it.  Don't get me wrong--I really appreciate the people who do, and I read their work with enthusiasm.  It just hasn't been as front-and-center for me.  Until now.  Or rather, until a few months ago, and I'm just now getting to the point where I need to write my thoughts out or they will fester.

The main reason that I don't write a lot about atheism, or rather that I didn't, was just because I felt like it was already out there.  I teach rhetoric, and one of the main things I focus on in my classes is the idea of audience.  Arguments need to be targeted at a specific group, and they need to use that group's Warrants (assumptions/worldview) or the audience will not believe that the evidence they are presented with is credible.  This means that an anti-science Ancient Alien theorist is not going to be persuaded by scientific evidence.  If the History Channel is representative, they're not even going to be capable of deciding whether to be persuaded or not.

Similarly, this concept of appealing to an audience through its Warrants makes it rather impossible to bring certain concepts to certain audiences.  For instance, a young-earth creationist who takes the Bible literally will never accept scientific dating and evidence so long as he is firmly a young-earth creationist.  Arguments that seek to change these Warrants are possible, but they aren't my ideal.  I'd rather convince you that a good idea is a good idea using your own values than try to evangelize.  It's more practical.  For that reason, when I engage on issues like separation of church and state, public religion, and faith-based initiatives receiving public funding, I tend to concentrate on convincing members of religious groups that their own faith is at risk under this system.  It's far more effective to convince a Catholic that secularism protects him from anti-Catholic sentiments in, say, Baptist denominations, than it is to convince a Catholic that he should respect an atheist's right to never have to see the ten commandments on a courthouse wall.

When it comes to debating believers about the existence of a god or gods, I simply refuse to do it.  It's not because I'm polite, it's because in addition to being an atheist, I'm ignostic.  If you've never encountered the term, it means that no one has ever given me a definition of "god" that made sense.  Every believer who has ever wanted to engage with me has simply failed to define the godhead in a way that gave it the powers the believer thought it had, yet avoided contradicting itself.  As long as that is the case, I'm simply unwilling to consider this a topic that's open for discussion.

So that explains why I'm not the most avid atheist writer.  How does my autism fit into this?

2. "All the atheists I've met are autistic"

I kid you not, that was the sentence that got me thinking about this topic.  A few months ago, I was drawn into a Twitter conversation with a troll that claimed to be a special education teacher and a born-again evangelical.  She was dominating a discussion with a couple of my Tweeps about why she felt it was appropriate to assign her kids (in a public school) to write/draw/decorate Christian scenes for Christmas.  The breaking point for me was when she made the lame claim that Jewish and Muslim students shouldn't be offended at participating because they still "accept" the historical part of Christianity's claims, that other faiths didn't need to be considered because she had none in her class, and that atheists "didn't matter" because "all of them are autistic" and therefore, atheism isn't a belief, but a symptom of a disorder.

I'm betting even the non-atheists reading this have steam shooting out of their ears about now. I know I did.  I was offended three ways over:  To imply that being autistic somehow makes you "less than" in this way is odious.  It's akin to saying we can't develop morality, or that we aren't fully human because we don't have a soul.  It's disgusting, even as it's wrong.  If you're a believer and you're autistic, or the parent of one, I hope you feel as sick right now as I did when I read this line of thinking.  Remember, this woman represented herself as a special education teacher.

At the time, it was pretty easy to dismiss her.  After all, she was representing herself as a confrontational, close-minded person who wanted to find an excuse to dismiss people she didn't agree with as somehow "less than" her.  I ended the conversation in indignation, and I moved on.

Except that I didn't.  Over the weeks and months after the incident, my brain kept turning the idea over and over.  It didn't help that I've spent most of my life hearing that I think "in a different way" from other people, or that I'm "unusually logical".  I've heard people say that my standards of evidence are abnormally high compared to average (I usually take that one as a complement), or that I'm too analytical and I overwhelm the conversation with extra information (which I do, I admit).  The longer I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that the very foundations of my thinking style are indistinguishable from some (not all) of my autism symptoms/traits/whathaveyou.

Once that thought virus was in my head, I couldn't shake it.  Not that all atheists are autistic or even that all autistics are atheist.  I know this is not true, because my own cousin is on the spectrum, and he is quite sincere in his beliefs.  Now, he's twelve, and I don't know how his faith will develop over his lifetime, but I've also met a few adults with Asperger's who do follow a faith tradition, so I know this isn't a straight "x=y" comparison.  Still, I'm nothing if not inquisitive.

As it turns out, there is a bit of thought and writing on this topic out there.  Some of it is even fairly credible, in that it is nuanced and phrased as theory that needs investigation, not as sweeping generalization.  The general idea seems to be that the "deficit" wherein a person finds supernatural events intuitively implausible is related, in ways that are fairly easy to follow, to the deficits in Theory of Mind that autistic individuals have.  The gist of it seems to be that NTs will usually find the idea of "agents" (conscious beings who act consciously) that they are incapable of perceiving to be intuitively plausible.  While they might weigh the evidence and eventually decide that they do not believe in these "invisible agents", or at least not certain ones, they have to actually consider the question first.  (This also helps explain how people can believe in ghosts but not a god, or vice versa--each possible invisible agent would need to be evaluated on its own terms.)

The idea, then, seems to be that since autistic people have problems perceiving agency, some autistics might intuitively find "invisible agents" completely implausible.  Since autism is a spectrum disorder, though, this doesn't mean all of them will.  It seems, rather, that the exact deficits that an individual has in perceiving agents need to line up a certain way.

This seems to imply, then, that at least some autistic atheists are totally incapable of considering the idea of a supernatural being as a real, possible idea.  For me, this seems to be the case.  The articles I linked to earlier don't directly address whether it's a "severity" issue, or simply a certain collection of traits, but I wish they did, because now I have new questions about the relationship between my lack of faith and my autism.

3. My mental architecture

Learning these things, even learning that these things are being seriously studied, changed me.  It did cause me to re-evaluate a lot of what I thought and how I behaved.  Looking at the possibilities of faith and the arguments for/against gods again, I went back and forth.  I re-read some of the Thomas Aquinas I had laughed off while I pursued my philosophy degree, as well as some C.S. Lewis, and I did talk to a few people of faith.  I also engaged anew with Sam Harris and the atheist/theist debates available on Youtube that feature various speakers.  Most importantly, though, I found Dan Barker's Godless.  Barker was someone who found religion to be intuitively plausible at one point in his life, and who changed his mind for entirely NT reasons.  He struggled with his beliefs, and he found an emotional affirmation in atheism that I had never even thought about, so I considered his reasons for leaving his faith to be the other side of the atheism coin from my own inability to conceive of these propositions as having any sense in them.

In my attempt to find any kind of argument, on either side, that engaged with a definition of godhead that made sense to me, I failed.  In fact, most of the people (including Barker) who engage with theists come to the same conclusions that were intuitive to me.  In Godless, there is even a rather detailed explanation of why the commonly accepted definition for "god" in the monotheistic religions is not possible (that definition is: all-knowing, all-capable, and all-benevolent simultaneously).  It was a healing moment for me when I read these things, because my own reaction to the Ontological Argument was simply to throw the book across the room as my brain recoiled from reading strings of words that created propositions that violated their own ability to exist--I never managed to actually put words to my rejection, because I could not force myself to read the argument all the way through.  Not that I didn't want to--it became the equivalent of attempting to understand genetics by reading a gene sequence--all symbols that had an internal pattern, but no connection to anything I had a working definition for.

Once I came to grasp the NT atheists' ideas about the way that belief and unbelief worked, I realized that thinkers like myself are unique, in that we might have reached the "right" (excuse the indulgence) conclusion in the "wrong" way.  That is, I would assert that even if there really was a godhead, I would not be capable of conceiving of it.  That part of my life is tied directly to my inability to maintain long-distance relationships, my problems with object constancy, and my inability to perceive the line between what I know and what everyone knows.

That leads me a little further into a weird rabbit hole, though, and this is what has been eating at me for some time.  If my mental architecture is such that I automatically and viscerally reject notions that contradict themselves, even complex notions that have subtle contradictions, then is that a good thing or a bad thing?  For example, it's not just the godhead that I can't conceive of as a concept that makes sense.  I also don't know exactly what I'm referring to when I say "faith", because no one has ever given me a definition of it that makes more sense than "choosing to believe in something because you find it psychologically rewarding, regardless of the reality of the idea", which is also how people define "delusion".   I can perceive that there's some nuance there that other people can find, but no one has come up with a way of describing it to me that doesn't turn into noise.  I simply don't have "faith."

I have seen a few overly verbose attempts to describe "faith" as a function of the perception of agency and patterns in the primate mind.  These attempts relate those two concepts to object constancy in order to describe how one can have the conviction that something is there without knowing it, but the rare description of faith in these terms still leaves me with the impression that it is an artifact of the way the brain works that proves that perception is flawed, not a positive attribute of the way the mind functions.  As a result, the scientific description allows me to perceive how it might function, but not what it is.

There are similar issues with my ability to accept that the word "spiritual" describes anything real.  In that case, all of the definitions I've been presented with reference "the way it feels when" or "the process of dealing with" or some other metaphorical method of arriving at the idea.  I have trouble with that, because most of the metaphors fall apart for me.  If spirituality is, as some people have described it, the "feeling of connection to the universe and humanity at large", then I don't have it.  By definition, my neurological differences preclude it.  If it is "the reflection of my moral character", then any use of it to refer to supernatural beliefs stops making sense to me, because supernatural beliefs are a by-product of the brain that don't seem to relate to reality, and my morality governs the way I act toward real individuals and animals in real situations.  If it is the "reflection on my place in the universe", then I can accept that, that that definition makes most of the sentences that I've seen that use the word "spiritual" nonsense, and I don't believe that the people who talk about spirituality think that they're talking about nonsense.

What all of this really comes around to is a set of questions.  Do I accept that this is something I will never be able to have a concept for, something I'm blind to?  I have accepted that about micro-expressions, since I not only interpret them wrong, but I have trouble looking at someone's face long enough to see them.  Do I accept that certain ideas will always be words that I use without understanding?  How does that affect my ability to be a novelist?  If I don't think that faith is something real, does that make every story that I write that involves religious people into a fantasy story?  Am I in danger of writing work that other people will find nonsensical, because they are using concepts to interpret what they read that I simply don't have access to?

Most importantly, can I engage in the skeptic/atheist discussion honestly if I have no choice about being this way?  Or am I always going to be a spectator in that community?

Suddenly, I feel like Pinocchio.