GUEST POST: Atheism, Autism and the Soul

This is a guest post by Kile Jones, a religious studies PhD candidate at Claremont Lincoln University and founder of the Claremont Journal of Religion. He’s also a contributor to the Feminism and Religion blog. It’s a really fascinating essay about what our understanding of autism means for conceptions of the soul.

Atheism, Autism and the Soul by Kile Jones

As an atheist who occasionally works with people on the autism spectrum, I am constantly thinking about how religious people who believe in a “soul” understand the neurological and cognitive nature of this disorder. I mean, how does one understand the “soul” of a person with severe autism? Does this person’s soul relate in any serious way to her neuro-developmental disorder? If so, does this indicate anything about her soul? If not, does the soul have no interaction with the brain, no causal efficacy with the body, and is simply idle?

Since time immemorial, philosophers and theologians have tried to understand the relation of the “soul” or “mind” to the body. Descartes thought it was through the pineal gland that the soul met the body, and since his discourse on this in his Treatise of man, people who believe in an interaction between the soul and the body have tried to explain how this mysterious (and, quite frankly, dubious) relation works. If someone were to believe in an interaction between a soul and body, what would it look like to think of this happening in an autistic person?

The problem with saying that the soul does interact with the brain of a person with autism, is not only “how” it does such a thing, but also what it says about this soul. If the brain is not properly functioning, does this mean that the soul is not as well? Or is the soul as pure as the breath of God (ruach), but the brain tainted by the so-called Adamic and noetic effects of sin? We are all too familiar with the Christian idea that sin damaged not only humanity’s relationship with God, but harmed the souls and bodies of humans, as well as the earth created for their habitation. Many mention how Paul talks about how “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22, NIV), or that to “those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure…In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted” (Titus 1:15, NIV).

It should not take anyone long to see how this can lead to an unhealthy of view of, and unethical way of treating, persons with cognitive disorders. In Christian Europe, for instance, many mentally challenged persons had their skulls drilled (trephining) in order to release the demons that possessed their glands. They were thought by many to be influenced by Satan, possessed by demons, or were that way because of their own sins. It is unfortunately understandable that Christians thought this, especially when Luke gives instances of epilepsy (9:39), muteness (11:14), and kyphosis (13:10-13) as ailments caused by demonic possession.

If you have ever been around persons with autism you will quickly know why many religious persons considered them possessed. Some of them mumble, moan, scream, repeat themselves, and flail. The cacophony of noises can sound rather scary sometimes. Someone who believes in demons could easily make the leap to thinking they are possessed. But when we view cognitive disabilities as something even closely related to a soul, we risk demeaning and dehumanizing those who have them. It is a peculiar irony that, against the notion that a materialist philosophy leads to a degrading of human integrity, when you realize that what is happening is strictly neurological; you respect their dignity and do not assign an unfavorable “spiritual significance” to the issue.

When you think that with enough faith a person can be healed of any physical dysfunction, as some “name-it-claim-it” Pentecostals do, than what follows is the idea that autistics simply do not have enough faith. Similarly, in Christian Science, the material reality of autism is not actually real; it is an illusion of sorts. If they only followed Science and Health and aligned themselves with the Divine Mind, they would be impaired no longer. Both of these philosophies are horribly disturbing when applied to people with autism. The idea of faith healing, when consistently applied, leads to kids like Terrance Cottrell dying inside of Faith Temple in Milwaukee, while a group of people circled him in prayer to exorcize his “evil spirit.” And yes, he had autism.

Today, there are innumerable preachers and ministers that think autism can be cured by God. Andrew Wommack, for instance, talks about a couple whose two sons were miraculously cured of autism, and says on his website, “While many suffer from these diseases and believe them to be lifelong, the McDermott’s testimony will challenge those beliefs. Deborah would not accept the report, and called out to God for help. Her family’s story can be seen in the video below, and it is proof that nothing is impossible with God—nothing is incurable.” What superstition and false hope! And it is not just Wommack—but people like Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, and Pat Robertson—who espouse this chimera.

There is a reason why spiritually minded persons have had trouble with issues like autism: because it lends itself to a physicalist interpretation of the human person, and that the neuronal activity in the brain is all one needs to understand the behavior, and impairments, of persons with cognitive dysfunctions. After all, if I remove a certain part of the brain and you can no longer see or feel, than what’s to say all of your perceptions will not be gone when the whole brain is removed?

In the end we need to find better ways of thinking about autism and those who live with it. We should recognize how harmful it can be to think of autism as anything besides a cognitive brain-related issue. If you believe in a soul, think about what that would mean in relation to autism. Don’t buy into the soul; we have cash-value in the brain.

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  • chisaihana5219

    The Catholic Church teaches that children with severe autism have pure souls because they can not sin. If a child can not be taught what a sin is and what actions are sinful, then they are exempt from sin. When my young autistic sister-in-law died at age 25, she was considered a shoo-in for heaven because she could not understand the concept of sin and her “original” sin was washed away when she was baptised. As an atheist myself, none of this matters. The RC church is surely backwards in some matters, but on the treatment of autistic children they believe it is a brain disturbance, not a soul problem.

  • Michael Heath

    Kile Jones:

    Andrew Wommack, for instance, talks about a couple whose two sons were miraculously cured of autism . . .

    Do you have a credible cite about what’s actually happened with the two people who were supposedly cured of autism?

  • freemage

    chisaihana: Of course, that’s the current teaching; at best, back in the day, they would’ve sent the autistic soul to Limbo with the aborted fetuses, until that got removed from the theology.

    Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Brain injuries and diseases often produce remarkable changes in personality and ethics. How does the concept of the ‘soul’ work in those cases? Did the soul get hit across the skull, too? Does it suddenly sprout a tumor?

  • The works of Oliver Sacks really drove that home for me. The case of the man with a legion that took out his vision center completely – he not only lost the ability to see, but the concept of sight itself. He couldn’t understand what people were talking about with this ‘vision’ stuff.

    Check out “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” for a very readable set of case studies. Dr. Sacks is a neurologist who writes like he swallowed a poet.

  • I’m seconding the recommendation to read Sacks. The depths of his compassion and ability to humanize his subjects, rather than treat them as clinical case studies, is amazing.

    The case of the woman who lost the ability to perceive the left side of anything particularly sticks with me. She had to train herself to rotate her plate so that she didn’t leave half of it behind, unaware it existed.

    And of course, the titular man who mistook his wife, who lost the ability to understand visual perception conceptually. If you asked him what a glove was, he could describe one in as much detail as you’d like. Show him a glove, and he had no idea what it was, other than a brownish, floppy thing.

  • suttkus

    Back when I was arguing with creationists regularly, I used to like pointing out to them that the science that most challenged basic Christianity wasn’t evolution, it was neuroscience. I’d point out the famous historical example of Phineas Gage, who underwent extreme personality changes after having his brain damaged. But this is just a particularly obvious example of brain-changes resulting in different behavior. It is, conceptually, no different from drugs changing your behavior, or even the food you eat influencing you. We know that changing your body’s chemistry changes your behavior.

    It’s one thing to accept that catastrophic damage can change personality, and I’ve often seen the religious make the metaphor that the soul is the puppeteer, and the brain the puppet strings, damaged, the soul isn’t responsible for everything that results. But when you realize that even a normally operating brain is influenced by it’s chemical environment, it starts to look like the puppet strings aren’t very good, ever. It’s like bodies are never under the control of the soul at all, at least not fully!

    My sister gets jittery, angry, and nasty on caffeine. Naturally, she prefers to avoid it. But let’s say she orders a caffeine-free coke and the wait-staff get lazy and just give her a regular one. My sister drinks it and turns into an angry rage-creature, and commits some heinous sin as a result. Does this sin reflect on her soul?

    But how is her brain on caffeine less “real” than her brain in any other state? Her behavior reflects the chemical state of her brain. Caffeine-free-sister is as much a construct of chemistry as caffeine-containing-sister is. In neither case is there much point in attributing anything to a soul.

  • Sastra

    When you think that with enough faith a person can be healed of any physical dysfunction, as some “name-it-claim-it” Pentecostals do, than what follows is the idea that autistics simply do not have enough faith. Similarly, in Christian Science, the material reality of autism is not actually real; it is an illusion of sorts. If they only followed Science and Health and aligned themselves with the Divine Mind, they would be impaired no longer. Both of these philosophies are horribly disturbing when applied to people with autism.

    I know New Agers who also follow this belief that illness and disability are mental illusions caused by being insufficiently “spiritual.” Though they try to lay the responsibility for this on this world and its propaganda for a materialist paradigm, it still ends up turning into victim-blaming awkwardly re-labeled as “empowerment.”

    What exactly is the soul supposed to do? I’ve asked many of its proponents what would be the difference between an ordinary person WITH a soul and one which was identical in every way EXCEPT that it didn’t have a soul. Some of them duck the question, some of them insist that the soul-less hypothetical would not be alive .. and some of them seem to have never considered this question at all. Once or twice I’ve had the soul-less person described as “someone who can’t appreciate beauty or relate well to other people” which sounds suspiciously like someone with a form of advanced autism.

    Which sounds suspiciously like another way to demonize autistics: no soul.

  • I too have often wondered what people mean when they, for example, boast that something is “Good for your body, mind, and soul!” When the totality of “you” is divided up this way, what territory does “soul” cover? It seems to me that people often restrict “mind” to conscious and ratiocinative functions. That leaves everything else as the province of the soul, such as emotions, instincts, moral and social decisions that aren’t taken consciously, etc. It would explain the people telling Sastra that a soul-less person couldn’t “appreciate beauty or relate well to other people”.

    Mind you, modern neuroscience shows that consciousness and reason simply can’t be separated out from the rest of the brain/mind, there is no such thing as emotionless pure reason for example.

  • magistramarla

    This makes me think about something that used to bother me in the high school where I taught.

    There was a girl in the ALE class who had either cerebral palsy or severe autism or both.

    She was confined to a wheelchair and I would often see her being wheeled through the halls or riding on the elevator. What really bugged me was that her parents (I assume) had pasted religious stickers all over her wheelchair. The one that truly bugged me was the one that said “marriage = 1 man + 1 woman”.

    The young lady in the wheelchair had no way to understand, let alone agree to this.

    I thought that this was absolutely wrong of those parents.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    The medical rebel Paracelsus, in the early 1500s, declared somewhere that the mentally ill/handicapped had no moral blame for their condition.

    Expressing this in religious language (what other choice did he have?), he claimed that God would no more judge someone “wrong” for mental disorders than for lameness or blindness. Some biographers (I’m too flu-ridden to look up sources, sorry) imply this came from his mother’s mental issues, and was the first written statement in defense of the mentally disadvantaged in European history..

  • briandavis


    …he claimed that God would no more judge someone “wrong” for mental disorders than for lameness or blindness.

    I thought God did blame people for their lameness and blindness, and forbade them from approaching his alter.

    Lev 21:18 For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous

  • dingojack

    Thought provoking stuff!

    But some questions and thoughts:

    a) What is a ‘soul’?

    b) Could the ‘soul’ be working on an unconscious level (only leaking into the conscious mind in some individuals)?

    c) What if the ‘soul’ is working on the brain but the brain is not working properly (like trying to stop a car when the brakelines are cut)?

    d) What about people with Tourettes Syndrome? Are they ‘sinful’ because they exhibit unconscious impulsive behaviour?

    e) Is all impulsive behaviour non-rational? If so, is anyone culpable for their own impulsive behaviour?

    f) Do we have a ‘ conscious mind’ at all? Or is it a rationalisation for unconscious decision making?

    g) If there isn’t a ‘ conscious mind’ at all, how can the individual be responsible for decisions they didn’t consciously make?

    h) Who are you (or I) really?

    Just my $0.02.

    possibly Dingo

  • dingojack

    Perhaps people with Autism are ‘children of a lesser god‘. [/sarcasm]

    After a momentary silence spake

    Some Vessel of a more ungainly Make;

    “They sneer at me for leaning all awry:

    What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?”

    Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (ca. 1120ce) {as ‘translated” by Fitzgerald).


  • eric


    What exactly is the soul supposed to do?

    Survive death. IMO, that’s why it was invented and its primary theological purpose; to give believers a (superficial) reason to think their “I” will survive death and continue in some way, shape, or form. Mechanics and questions about what it does are completely secondary and, for most believers, I suspect entirely irrelevant.

    Interestingly, I am not sure the concept is even needed for that purpose any more. If your consciousness “you” is the pattern of activity, then “you” are disrupted and remade every day, as you fall asleep and then wake. And if that’s the case,the question of whether some future artificial remakings (via technological or medical means) is really “me” or just “a copy of me” has been sufficiently answered: start-trek transportered-me or AI-me will be “me” in the exact same way that today-me is the same person as yesterday-me. No more, no less. An extra soul is not technically needed for the ressurrection of me.

  • dingojack

    Surely if the reconstructed ‘me’ can’t be distinguished from the original ‘me’, then it’s effectively is ‘me’. (A sort of derivation of the Turing Test).


  • Interesting, thanks. By the way, note the difference between “then” (temporal) vs “than” (comparative).

  • I see a lot of dualist thinking behind various anti-vaxxers, autism curebies, and so forth when they talk about how autism stole their “real” child or how dangerous quackery will help them reclaim their “real” child. This leads to another variant method of demonizing autistic children: Treating them as if they aren’t real children or aren’t even there. That rhetoric makes it hard to believe that they’re sincere in their desire to help their child: They’ve allowed their vision of an ideal child to lead them into neglecting or even abusing the child they have here and now.

    To add a can of worms, I’ve seen it argued plenty of times that autism is an inherent part in who they are. Curing them would be a radical personality change if it were possible. I’ve got Asperger’s, and I can identify with that argument. While I can appreciate some of the advantages neurotypical people have, I wouldn’t trade in my quirky, geeky passions for them. What I enjoy is an essential part of who I am.

  • matty1

    @17 In fairness your Asperger’s may not put you at as many disadvantages as some other types of autism do and those are the hard cases. If someone has trouble communicating how do you decide if they would prefer to be better able to communicate?

  • In my experience I can agree that if anything can be a major threat to religious ideas about the relationship between the body and the self, that would be neuroscience.

    Without neuroscience my own Tourette Syndrome would be called demon possession in another age. TS not only comes with the urges to make physical movements and sounds, but it also comes with a whole slew of emotional intensity and control issues. Without my hobby of reading brain anatomy and psychology articles I could see myself finding relief in a narrative that explained what I feel in terms of some other thing besides me.

    But while what I feel can be compared to “something else” making me feel like I have to do certain things, I have papers that even show me where the breaks are broken in specific tissues. Instead of thinking that someone is playing with my strings, I have a rational explanation about how the mind is stored distributed across the brain and that specific parts that normally have to do with smoothing actions are coming unlocked inappropriately.

    I love science.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    dingojack @ # 13 – You added a bit of extraneous punctuation to that last quoted line.

    And the answer is, “Dumbledore’s hand.”

  • dingojack

    Pierce R. Butler – to which are you objecting? The repeated single quotation marks around the word ‘me’ or the comma? 🙂



    If you mean the penultimate post: Nope that’s exactly how it was published. Those crazy Victorians go figure..