Do autistic people believe in God? Can they? The stereotype says no. The stereotype says that autistic people have a preference for all things logical, scientific and systematic, and therefore God, accessed only through the medium of metaphor and subjective experience, must be beyond the autistic ken.
But we all know about stereotypes – they rarely serve us well. As it turns out that there are quite a few autistic people in churches, worshipping a God in whom they supposedly cannot believe. In fact, at the Centre for Autism and Theology (based at the University of Aberdeen) we have whole programme of research dedicated to understanding what it means to be an autistic person of faith.
It is not only true that autistic people can and do believe in God (some, anyway), but also autistic Christians can teach the rest of us a thing or two about the assumptions we make when it comes to why people live a life of faith. For example, if we assume that anyone with a preference for all things logical, scientific, and systematic is not going to believe in God, then we are also assuming that that faith is some kind of considered, intellectual choice; a conscious decision that Christians have made on how to approach the world and the experience of living in it.
But is faith really a choice? For many centuries the church was mired in this very argument about free will versus predestination. The matter never really got settled, indeed some theologians still earn their bread and butter by carrying the discussion on. Meanwhile, here in the academic cheap seats (so called ‘practical’ theology) we ask a different question: not do people have free will to choose the Christian faith, but do people feel like they have free will to choose the Christian faith? And what difference does this feeling make?
If I reflect on my own life as a Christian, I know there have been times when I’ve stumbled into prayer, angry or in despair (often both), feeling as if I don’t like my faith all that much. Or that maybe that God just doesn’t like me. More than once I’ve prayed, “I’m going to keep following you, God, no matter how hard you make this!” Is this great faith, or just sheer bloody-mindedness? I like to believe that I can walk away from practicing my faith, but can I really walk away from having it?