I can’t say for sure where my tendencies towards depression and extreme emotional responses to change first came; my grandmother has dealt with the same in her life, as well as the compulsive need to take a look at charities and noble causes. I know mental issues like this can be heritable to the point where geneticists have hypothesized that a section of chromosome 3 may be the cause of symptoms like this. I am more certain however that the mind on the autistic spectrum, with its tendency toward trust of others, anxiety over disruption, and proclivity towards intense areas of focus can make a person particularly susceptible to the more emotionally-damaging aspects of religious indoctrination and other dogmatic ideas.
Much has been said already about the possibility of linking religious fervor with other aspects of known psychology, from borderline personality disorder and narcissism to more self-harming diagnoses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it is known that such syndromes can heighten the feelings of guilt or righteousness that are encouraged by religious piety, but meanwhile the idea that autists raised in a world of online radicalization and frequent loneliness is rarely spoken of except to talk about whether people on the spectrum are more likely to go for the lone wolf tactics we often see in extremist youth.
More unsettling however is the idea that the psychological profile of someone on the spectrum, not unlike that of someone with severe mental illness, can be susceptible to the rigidity of thought that religion demands whenever the individual in question tries to run away from modern-day anomie. In future articles, I intend to discuss my teenage exploration of Catholic theology; what needs to be stressed though is how easily I was seduced by its way of appealing to my fear of sexuality as a teen, as well as my search for codes of honor and love for the intricacies of the past. I was all too willing to take the Church’s claims as fact against my own cognitive dissonance and better desire to grow out of loneliness.
While I can’t give a personality summary of all people on the spectrum, I still have the ability to describe the worn-down persona with which I continue to struggle in times of emotional distress: I was angry and volatile towards any change which took attention away from my own focus of the day, I gravitated towards people who spoke politely and eloquently about the world around them (and wished death on internet toxicity) and I unconsciously reasoned outwards from my own needs and priorities. On top of all, I demanded perfection and a sense of order in everything around me or related. All of these traits beg for exploitation to be made into an appealing, kindly gatekeeper for more toxic ideas, when the result was that I hurt myself emotionally trying to process why I felt so out of step with the rest of the world. Only in my college years have I found a friend who has seamlessly integrated awe for the religious traditions and texts of the world with a life free from societal guilt.
Cognitive dissonance is not always something that can be discarded whenever it’s inconvenient; for people like me and others who spend of our time rummaging through our personal collection of thoughts, it attacks the very lifeblood of how we work and operate according to the norms we see in the rest of society. I was lucky enough to be raised in a family of secularists who saved church for Christmas and Easter, but many neurodivergent children are unfortunate enough to be born into communities where dogmatism is enforced under threat of social isolation, where they are caught in a battle between their desire for social acceptance and the inability to suppress their own introspection.
About a decade ago, it was suggested among the disciples of New Atheism that religious upbringing under certain conditions could be defined as a kind of parental abuse, if only because even the children born to moderates continue to carry a sense of unnecessary shame and rigidity as they grow to stunted maturity. While I would not go as far as to paint the rearing of children in one’s own faith as ipso facto a form of abuse, my blame rests on the larger institutions of the faith-based establishment which allow for religious parents to neglect the emotional development of their charges in favor of enforcing adherence to a worldview the child did not find on its own. And I worry about how neurodivergent people raised in dogmatic isolation will have to overcome yet another obstacle to successful interaction with the rest of the world.
So much benefit in this life is gained from opening the mind to perspectives of others, both in terms of opportunities for personal and career growth and also in an increased capacity to handle the problems of our present with empathy and clear thinking. Instead, a child’s ability to pick up the surfaces and only the surfaces of whatever comes to interest, a trait outgrown to be replaced by deeper intellectual understanding, is instead seized on to create a new generation of fanatics and political fodder.
Kyle Cope is an agnostic writer and academic publisher from the Greater Richmond Area who specializes in writing about topics from formal art critiques to popular books about history and the autism spectrum. He is committed to secularism from a center-left perspective, both in his articles and his commitment to tracking the progress of social justice within the United States.