Autism, religion and the frame of discourse

In his book Neurotribes Steve Silberman details the divergent views of the two pioneers who early on recognized autism as a syndrome.  Briefly, Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger saw autism as an outlier on the spectrum of normalcy and believed that some of its traits/talents, e.g., focus on patterns, mental obsessiveness, contribute to many achievements in art and science.  American Leo Kanner saw autism as strictly pathological that resulted from deficient parenting by a cold mother.  I have posted before about my disdain for Kanner’s approach (see review of Neurotribes9/13/15).

I bring this up to emphasize that how we frame a topic determines to some large extent how we go on to think about it, e.g., normal or pathological, multi-factorial genesis or blame the mother.  I go back to Bourdieu’s conceptualization of the doxa, i.e., the entire realm of discourse, its accepted partition into an orthodox domain, and the rest is heterodox.  Historically religious authorities have treated heterodox thinkers harshly. Science is better but even scientific orthodoxy can limit what heterodoxical views and work can be admitted into the realm of discourse.  Remember Naomi Oreskes‘ work showing how American geologists regarded European Alfred Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics as crackpot (he was not a trained geologist, oh, the horror) only to be proved wrong and Wegener prescient. Also remember that behaviorism in its heyday greatly constrained research into mental phenomena, you know like thoughts and feelings.  Thankfully great scientists like Karl Pribram, A.R. Luria, L.S. Vygotsky, J. Piaget and Noam Chomsky evicted behavioral theory from the house of orthodoxy.

Now I read a curious chapter in The Encultured Brainon autism and religion that asks a heterodoxical (to me at least) question about how people with autism view god and religion.  I had never considered (surprisingly in retrospect) that autists may think of god differently because they think of the world and people differently, but it makes sense, sort of.  How to frame this investigation?  Rachel Brezis studied this question through a neuroanthropological approach.  Evidently J. Bering had proposed earlier “that our ability to infer others’ thoughts and intentions (theory of mind) served as the evolutionary basis for our automatic search for meaning and agency behind events in the world (existential theory of mind).”  Further, given that autists have different/diluted theory of mind, they would have trouble forming a personal and lively relationship with god and discerning the deity’s presence in the world.

Long story short, Brezis research casts doubt on that presupposition.  Studied more systematically autists showed quite robust religious beliefs similar to non-autists.  She thought that maybe the deficit lay in autists’ self knowledge, not knowledge of others.  The frame here is important.  I have not read the background material, e.g., Bering’s hypothesis that our theory of mind, i.e., what I call EC or Empathy Central, influences our relationship with a god that controls the universe, but from Brezis’ summary, this effort seems based upon a Christian, even an evangelical, frame.  Ask a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Taoist or even Spinoza about their personal relationship with a deity and most likely they will stare at you as they wonder just how answer such a primitive question. Brezis did part of her research with Jewish youth who certainly showed that they had inculcated their tradition in forming their beliefs but in my admittedly few conversations with Jewish people, I cannot remember any of them espousing a personal relationship with Yahweh; they are fully engaged with their tradition but this relates more to the Torah, ritual and community than the Baptist tradition I was raised in where personal acceptance of Jesus, etc., was a requirement for membership.

Empathy Central involves social understanding and social skills through empathic feelings and kinesic communication.  How this develops in each of us greatly influences our personality and interpersonal functioning.  This stems from a deep and old biological root and I find our notions of god(s) rather historically irrelevant to this.  Remember the Atargatis (see a post on 11/10/14).  This was a goddess of fertility in the Middle East also around the time of Jesus that even had a coin minted in her name.  To become a priest, the novitiates (all males) worked themselves into a frenzied state of mind, ran through the streets naked with a knife, cutting themselves to be bloody, and at the right moment, castrate themselves. They then chose a house to throw their genitals in the door and that family was required to give the newly minted priest female clothes.  (I have always assumed they chose families whose ladies were fashionable dressers). Now I am not sure what kind of relationship they had with Atargatis but I myself would not call it a ‘personal’ one despite the intimate sacrificial gift.

Our modern notion of god, especially in cultures where scientific and technological advancements have been incorporated, must be quite different from the pagan and animistic religions of the past, including those later polytheistic ones and I have to wonder about the early days of any monotheistic beliefs, not to mention the Buddhist and Hindu beliefs of 2500 years ago.  My point is that “a personal relationship with god” based upon a person’s functioning Empathy Central is not really an adequate frame for discussion.  Humans have evolved a powerful EC; our capacity for empathy and intimacy is in the rarefied zone but it is still closely tied to our mammalian heritage and operates with kinesic information focused on the present, specious as it is, and its higher level integrations are about our real relationships.  What this frame of EC lacks is the understanding that spiritual beliefs and religious institutions are evolutionarily more recent and are based primarily upon our symbolic capabilities and their transformation of our intellectual abilities much more than our EC.

Spiritual beliefs, from which religious institutions emerged with all the features of any other human institution, derive, I think, from a deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind and this aesthetic in a spiritual domain operates on a symbolic level.  It is an aesthetic that enables us to find patterns, to complete incomplete patterns, to imagine patterns that are nowhere apparent, and to apprehend somehow where a pattern should be but isn’t.  This last one is key because it presages our sense of the mystic beyond and the universe, large and small, beyond our phenomenal apprehension or science’s ken.  Further, the deep aesthetic includes our sensitivity to the fitness of a pattern internally and in context and, here is the crux of the matter, to the energy or beauty or luminosity of that pattern. (Remember the 3 aspects of an aesthetic: integrity of parts fitting together, unity of the whole, and luminosity of the form as composed by the artist and then beheld by the audience).

This is quite a different frame from seeing spiritual beliefs as reflecting our ‘personal relationship’ to a god.  High functioning autists of the sort assayed in this study are generally keenly sensitive to patterns in all their aesthetic grandeur, even though they may not rhapsodize on their beauty as some of us (like me) might, and even as their engagement in the empathic side of relationships is a little thin.

Let me end by suggesting another frame. Jacques Monod attributed humans’ proclivity to religion and spiritual beliefs to 1) our discomfort in apprehending our solitude in the grand scheme of the universe and within our own subjective isolated domain, and 2) our insatiable appetite for final certainty. People of all sorts vary in their anxiety about being alone and in their need to know for certain (even when it is wrong, like conspiracy theories).  Maybe someone could study these psychological variables and their relationship to religiosity.  If I were younger, I would consider it, but I am not, so I take my approach from Monod’s colleague, Albert Camus, and say, “Yes, we are alone, so what?  That just makes it all the more important to abide by the golden rule, to treasure your loved ones, listen to the music, and cherish our lovely Gaia carrying us around in space.  And yes, there is no certainty, get over it and get along with what you have to do to mitigate exigencies and exploit chance.”  This, I think, follows from Monod’s postulate of an ethic of knowledge and its corollary that we grow with a knowledge of ethics.

I will reiterate that that The Encultured Brainis a positively provocative book and add that at least in some respects it carries a fault common to many recent books and intellectual traditions in its failure to recognize the importance of symbolization as a basic concept.  Up until the 1980s or so, we had a strong tradition of considering symbols as basic to our mind’s functioning, from C. S. Pierce through Ernst Cassirer to Susanne Langer, and then for some reason associated, I think, with the developing power of machine intelligence and the incredible understanding brought about by genomic science including molecular biology, we forgot in our rush to advance.  Travel on, I hope, to a place where symbols and their remarkable functional complexity are remembered.  No need to hurry.


One thought on “Autism, religion and the frame of discourse

  1. My son is high on the spectrum with classic autism. He enjoys church, but he often has a hard time understanding some of the concepts. For example, he asked if Jesus is a zombie because He rose from the dead.

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