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.
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.