By the time I learned I was autistic, I had already begun examining and forcing all that I believed through a sieve. For the first time, I looked back at all the knife-sharp thoughts, the blood-painted verses, I really looked. And from there, I unfound my faith, I rejected belief.
That, of course, sounds easier than it actually was.
Fundamentalism is its own peculiar brand of dancing, intricate music that weaves its own spells. Each instance of faith, each verse, it is carved from belief. They take the words, and decide almost capriciously which ones are taken seriously, and which are to be relegated to ‘just the culture of the times.’ These rules are as difficult to read as the expressions and cues that march across a person’s body, their face.
Part of how autism affects me is that I have a hard time reading cues, knowing what someone is expressing. I struggle to know when someone is serious or joking.
In the middle of that, comes belief.
Belief was the reason, the center of the world. They lined it all up, sharp knives, words, that would slice away the sin of unbelief. And I believed. I took the words, I took the knives, I swallowed them. Even when they made no sense, I made myself believe; to ask questions was to doubt.
Doubt was the worst sin.
Fundamentalism isn’t just about Sundays; it’s not just about one service a week. It’s about every day, every minute. We were to meditate on g-d’s words all the time. We memorized verses every day, writing them out multiple times. Each mistake was a sin, because the verse about not adding to the Bible was taken literally. Miss a word? Add a word? They would hit the backs of my hands until I got it corrected. And I knew that they were right, I had committed the sin of changing the Bible.
Rev. 22:19 said that I deserved to have my name removed from the book of life. So a few spanks to the backs of my hands was nothing. It was hard to think in the middle of believing, and I believed so very much. I was convinced that I was losing my salvation every time I messed up a verse.
I taught myself to remember even better.
To this day, I can turn on a facet of listening, and repeat almost word for word what someone has said. I have hundreds, hundreds of sermon phrases memorized like this. I would use them to force myself to believe. I’d lay in bed every night, repeating the verses, repeating the sermons, praying over and over to be saved. Because even though they taught that no one could lose their salvation, the Bible said that it was possible.
And so I believed.
‘Just the King James Version, G-d’s words truly translated,’ they would say. ‘G-d said it, I believe it, that settles it’ — this was their favorite refrain, and any questioning was answered like this. Then years later, I would tell someone this story, and they laughed a little saying ‘Oh, that’s not a literal translation, it’s a metaphor.’
No one told me that this verse was another one of those they delicately severed fact from belief. I felt stupid, much like I would when I’d discover that the butt of the joke was me. It had to be all true. After all, they were still hurting me for the sin of changing the Bible’s words. It had to be true.
No one ever admitted to these rules, I only found them out as I began to question why I had to carry the sharp knife of belief with me at all times. I used it to cut myself, soul and mind. I used it to force myself to believe.
Everyone else made belief seem so easy, gentle. They talked of grace, of love, but I knew it was all a lie. Because with each verse I discovered more rules. This one was literal to the end, that one metaphorical, and still this other verse was cultural. Fundamentalism had secret rules about which parts of the Bible were really true, and which were to just be politely ignored.
What is belief like for an autistic?
I cannot answer that question categorically, only personally. Belief varies by experience, even among our community. One thing that comes with my brand of autism is a need to have things make sense. I crave the solidity of facts that line themselves one way along the page, numbered and ordered, snowflakes and shadows, all strung into beauty. This was knowledge to me, this was what I wanted.
So I gave myself permission to question.
The harder I questioned belief, the worse it got. I prayed the prayers, I said the verses. I lined up every dark word of the bible, accused myself, sought forgiveness. According to the bible, I was wretched, evil, and so I sought grace’s redemption. But it never came. The relief they spoke of, when one confesses their sin, it never came.
There was only the deeping dark. It hovered all the time, even in full sunlight, dark mocked my hopes, my dreams. The selfish part of me wanted only sunlight, wanted gentle love, wanted grace. Habit forced pain back upon myself, though. Habit formed my prayers, my recitations. Habit kept me trapped in belief.
Each cry for relief was met with the slashing of another verse’s accusation.
Even in the middle of all the questioning, the verses remained. I knew, somehow, that I was doing it wrong. There were verses that spoke of a light burden, of an easy yoke. I never found it to be true. It weighed my soul, it dripped of blood, it drank my tears. Believing was so hard.
I envied the surety others had. I envied their lightness. They embodied light; surely they knew a better g-d than I did. Surely g-d loved them more, because he never hurt them with his words. This was what I wanted. I didn’t want to leave, to lose my belief. I wanted the beauty of faith to shine. I wanted a world that made sense through a creator, through a book that would explain away the horrors of sin. I wanted a book that would promise good eventually would come.
I never found it. Each reading of the bible left me bleeding. Words of love and grace mocked light’s fading hopes. Each explanation of a verse’s secret rules left me more and more sure that the only truth was the pain. Pain that came with reading was true. No one ever explained that the pain wasn’t supposed to exist; they said it was a sign of sin. That I needed to work harder to believe. They said faith brings hope.
How I searched for that hope. How I searched for that faith. But each time I quoted a verse, each time I prayed, my broken-boned soul ached anew. There was only darkness. Heaven was a myth, a place I would never earn. It leered its light from above, while hell’s fiery torment made itself a home in my skin. I could feel dark crawl across light; it ate my dreams of love.
There was no love in belief.
I had to question it. I had to leave. It was killing me slowly, painting the world in sadness, hopelessness, despair. I had to leave. Bit by bit, I took the words, the sermons, the verses, and held them against the light. When I stripped away the rules, the strict belief, I found…nothing.
There was nothing without the rules. All the words strung themselves, shards of supposed truth. They sharpened themselves upon my soul, but I still questioned.
When I allowed my autistic nature fuller expression, the questioning came easier and easier. I would bring my questions, and they’d explain this rule or that intricate method of believing a verse. The shame at missing their secret rules lessened, and my anger grew. With that anger, I felt more and more free to notice that, I came away less and less satisfied.
I was less and less willing to force belief upon myself.
I was learning to love myself first, and g-d second, or even last. With that love, my belief faltered even more. There is one verse I’ve found to be true in the middle of all this, and it’s ‘perfect love casts out fear.’ The more I love myself, the more the belief fades.
Where once I had trusted the verse ‘whom the L-rd loves, he chastens,’ I now trusted myself. I trusted myself, and learned that pain did not have to be the reason for belief. I learned that fear-driven belief was worthless. All the nightmares, and all the dark ghosts that haunted the shadowed corners of my mind, they meant nothing. I could slay them with kindness. I could slay them with love.
I do not have to believe.
And really, once I found nothing beyond the fear, the darkness, I couldn’t keep believing. I owed myself freedom. So I keep pursuing that freedom, because even though fundamentalism and I never really got along, I still managed to absorb a lot of the poison and dangerousness of its ways.
And I am now committed to love, freedom, truth.
Image by Shade Ardent. Copyright ©2016 sagebrushMoon Studios; used with permission
Shade Ardent loves photography, Legos, and cooking. They have a fierce need to express truth and kindness to the world through written and spoken word. They write about the effects of fundamentalism at The Unspared Rod.