The Religious and Atheist Experience in Autism Spectrum Disorder

The Religious and Atheist Experience in Autism Spectrum Disorder March 27, 2023
Credit: Jens Paaby

“’Imagine what it’s like. A person smiles at you—you’re confused because you don’t understand a smile. You can’t get your usual breakfast cereal—your whole day is in disarray because you can’t cope with your routine being upset. And someone tells you to pull your socks up. But you know you’re not wearing socks, and it’s very bewildering’ (CitationJenkins, 2007). If the experience of autism is a bit like that for many people, then the problems with bringing together autism and religion become apparent. Imagine what it is like. Someone begins to tell you stories about a man dying and being resurrected and living inside of you. Where exactly does he live? Heart? Lungs? Kidneys? What a disturbing thought! Then they tell you that God is here but you cannot see him, although he is in control of your life nevertheless! And such truths for Christians come before anyone suggests that they gouge their eyes out if tempted by lust!”

– Swinton, J., & Trevett, C. (2009). Religion and autism: Initiating an interdisciplinary conversation. Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, 13(1), 2–6.


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has achieved a remarkable amount of visibility and recognition within the last 20 years. Going back in the early history of psychology, it is suspected that a considerable amount of people diagnosed with schizophrenia were, instead, autistic.

Despite the massive amount of research which has been sunk into understanding ASD, it is a disorder which continues to stump or astonish researchers with new and even contradictory findings.

A somewhat neglected sub-field in ASD research is how individuals with autism experience religion. Not long ago, I was contacted by a man who followed my research. This man was a deconvert from religion, explaining his interest in my work. However, this man was on the autism spectrum, which he said played significantly into his story of religion and religious exit. When he asked me about the unique relationship between ASD and conversion/deconversion, I had to confess I was stumped. This prompted me to take a look at the research.

The Enigma of ASD

One of the difficulties when it comes to talking about ASD is that no two individuals with ASD are alike. ASD covers such an astounding array of cognition and behavior that it practically defies category. Neurologists who study ASD do not refer to it as “autism,” but rather as “the autisms” because they look and function so distinctly person-to-person. This is why the word “spectrum” is so key to the acronym “ASD.” Consequently, any conclusions researchers have made regarding this slippery phenomenon cannot be taken categorically.

With that disclaimer out of the way, it is time to examine the literature about autism and religion.

Autism and Religion

One of the common symptoms of autism is a difficulty thinking symbolically or metaphorically. Generally speaking, it doesn’t take a child long to recognize idioms and expressions, such that “letting her hair down” or “going out on a limb,” if heard often enough, can be associated with the idea of relaxing and taking risks respectively. At some point, a person can even begin to recognize and interpret new idioms simply by context.

This sort of metaphoric or idiomatic language has historically been very difficult for an autistic to pick up, as they are generally to be very literal thinkers. This necessarily literal way of thinking made researchers initially suspect that religion would be very difficult for an autistic to buy into, considering that so much of religion seems to lie in the realm of the abstract.

Ingela Visuri (2018) found that the opposite might be the case. Religion has the potential to be very attractive to a person with ASD. Firstly, because interaction with invisible agents (Gods, angels, etc.) may be far more comfortable than the sorts of social interaction which have historically been difficult for autistics, and secondly because the abstract world of religion is predictable, comfortable, emotionally coherent, and friendly in a way that the physical world is not.

To illustrate this, consider an entirely different realm of research on ASD conducted by Paola Bressan (2018). This research concerned the relationship between autism and mathematics. Bressan discovered that, far from being a stereotype, evidence strongly suggested that ASD was very compatible with high achievement in mathematics. Why? Because autism was friendly to the sorts of non-physical, orderly, predictable, rule-driven patterns found in mathematics. Given that science and religion are frequently seen as being enemies rather than bedfellows, it may seem surprising that the non-physical, orderly, predictable, rule-driven patterns of religion have a similar appeal as math.

Autism and Atheism

To understand the assumptions researchers have when studying the relationship between autism and religion, one needs to first understand the assumptions researches have about religion.

Researchers begin by expecting that religion is a process of attributing events to external agents and minds. “That pile of rocks was stacked by another person,” “that noise was caused by a ghost,” “I can’t find my keys because someone stole them.”

To attribute events to external agents, one has to have a fairly concrete idea of personal identity: “I am a unique mind capable of making decisions.” Once one has an idea of one’s personal identity, one may begin to externalize that to other people, “My mother is a unique mind capable of making decisions.” After one has externalized the idea of personhood, one can abstract that by saying, “There are unseen agents with unique minds capable of making decisions.”

In the past, researchers have assumed that since autistics appear to struggle with externalizing personhood, this fundamental step to religious reasoning would be difficult, and so atheism – meaning attributing causality to natural events rather than agents – would be the easy and natural stance for the individual with autism to take. However, says Visuri, “Results from empirical studies are … ambiguous, and replications have failed.”

This does not, however, mean that autistics are more prone to be religious than not. In her ethnographic research on autism, researcher Olivia Bustion (2017) “lurked” on message boards and forums for autistic communities, and noted that the majority of the members were not religious, with a number of them intruding on religious discussions with comments like, “being a Christian would make anyone depressed” (16 May 2014) and that the original poster evidently “needs more of the Kool-Aid” (17 May 2014). In fact, the moderators of these groups warned new members against entering the religious forums which, they claimed, had been hijacked by atheist members simply to debate and discourage religious belief.

In other words, atheism is more strongly represented than religion in the ASD community.

A Potential Problem

Researcher Olivia Bustion (2017) is not convinced by the theory that autistic individuals are unable to form a sense of personal or external agency as suggested above. She cites autistic activists who point out that saying an autistic person has trouble or is unable to introspect, experience emotions, and reminisce; delegitimizes the testimony and self-expression of autistics when they report on their thoughts and experiences of self. Instead, Bustion took another route of research: she began observing autistic individuals as a way of gathering their perspectives on religion.

Individuals with autism tend to prefer online interaction to face-to-face interaction as it eliminates the sorts of social cues such as facial expression, body language, and voice tone which is difficult to interpret. Consequently, these digital gathering places for autistic individuals serve as thriving communities. Bustion’s preferred technique, therefore, was to log into digital communities for autistics (with permission from the moderators), and observe the conversations.


The first hurdle in her research was that mentioned above: it was difficult to find a place where religious autistics were able to freely converse about their experiences and ideas without meeting resistance from atheists in the forum attempting to shut down or re-direct the conversation. She was, however, eventually able to find a forum wherein religious autistics felt they could communicate their experiences freely. Individuals within this community expressed gratitude and relief for being able to speak freely of both their autism and their religion as an integrated experience, whereas in other communities they felt they needed to compartmentalize the two rather than integrate them both. In fact, several members confessed to hiding their autistic diagnosis entirely, trying to “act normal” while in church, as painful as that was.

This integration piece is key. Conversion researchers tend to rely on community integration as the measuring stick by which they define if religious conversion has been completed. However, these individuals described two all-but-impassable barriers to integration within religious communities. The first of these was the sensory overload that came with church participation: loud music, clapping, and the sorts of uncomfortable physical interactions (handshakes, hugs, and back slapping, for instance). The environment was also restrictive in preventing the autistic individuals to go through the sorts of physical movements (known as “stims”) which their autism insists on them.

The second aspect of religious communities which was all but impassible was the feeling of rejection, isolation, and disdain they received from the other church attenders. Church attenders did not understand them, their feelings, and their behaviors, and consequently they were left alone. As a result, many of the participants described attending long enough for the service, and then fleeing the building.

Alternatively, these message boards were thriving communities in which they understood one another’s experiences and offered prayer, shared Bible verses, and conversed on theology. Under the classical theories on religious conversion, these individuals could be said to be converts, albeit non-traditional ones whose communities and testimonies existed in the digital space.

Autism: Bug or Feature?

Despite the fact that a number of the autistic members confessed to efforts at hiding their autism, this was for the sake of the other churchgoers, not out of a sense of shame. A general philosophy was forming among the members that ASD should eliminate the ‘D.’ Autism, they said, was not a “disorder,” just a very different way of processing, understanding, and experiencing in the world. Different, but not invalid.

One of the ways that autism might serve as a valuable way of knowing and processing is the unusually powerful way in which autistics are able to narrow their interests with a strength, focus, and intensity to which non-autistics rarely aspire.

One of the ways in which this so-called “neurodiversity movement” intersects with my research is that the movement champions autism as an identity and lifestyle in the same way as race, gender, and sexuality are considered. Autistics trying to mask their identity would like to “come out” and be accepted for who they are in the religious community.

This is not unlike a very similar sentiment among deconverts who feel marginalized and uncomfortable within their family and friend group (and society at large), but fear the consequences of “coming out” as atheist.

In fact, some members argued, autistics arguably struggle less with the sorts of sins that “neurotypicals” describe. They are practically incapable of lying or being insincere, and they feel the sort of separation from “worldly” living and thinking to which monastic religion could only hope to aspire.

In this sub-culture of autistic Christians, their autism has been sanctified and espoused as a way of glorifying God.

Much like the conclusions of Visuri in her research (2018), autistics within these forums expressed a deep connection with God which they are unable to achieve with other human beings.

Deconversion and ASD

Sadly, very little work has been done on how a person on the spectrum transfers from belief to unbelief. Most work on cognitive pathways to atheism assume a sort of natural resistance to the cultural norms of which religion is a part, or suspect that religion is a function of intuitive thinking and expect that analytical thinkers will naturally wind up in the atheism camp.

Most such studies expect that individuals on the spectrum naturally resist social norms, and tend to think in analytical rather than intuitive styles, and so will inevitably end up in the atheism camp. The above-cited studies suggest that this may be an unmerited generalization. However, as the religious autism forums evidence, there is no shortage of autistic atheists. Discovering how they arrived at that conclusion, and if they ever transitioned away from Christianity appears to be a wide-open field for research at this time.

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