Autism, Atheism, and the Soul

As an atheist who occasionally works with people on the autism spectrum, I often wonder 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? Is it 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 ever since his discourse on this in 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 a 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 isn’t functioning properly, does this mean that the soul isn’t either? Or is the soul as pure as the breath of God (deemed the Holy Spirit), while the brain is tainted by the so-called Adamic and noetic effects of sin? We’re 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 point to Paul’s declaration that “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 shouldn’t take anyone long to see how this can lead to an unhealthy 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 supposedly 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’s 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’ve ever been around individuals with autism you will quickly know why many religious people considered them possessed. Some of them mumble, moan, scream, repeat themselves, and flail. The cacophony of noises can sound rather scary at times. 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’s a peculiar irony when, against the notion that a materialist philosophy leads to a degrading of human integrity, you realize that what’s happening is strictly neurological; you respect a human being’s 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, what follows is the idea that autistics simply don’t have enough faith. Similarly, in Christian Science, the material reality of autism is not actually real; it’s an illusion of sorts. If they only followed Science and Health and aligned themselves with the so-called Divine Mind, they would be impaired no longer, the thinking goes. 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 the Faith Temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 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 who think autism can be cured by God. TV evangelist 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 … is proof that nothing is impossible with God—nothing is incurable.” What superstition and false hope! And it isn’t just Wommack but other powerful religious figures like Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, and Pat Robertson who espouse this chimera.

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

In the end we need to find better ways of thinking about the mind, especially as it relates to 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. It’s the brain that’s valuable, as is our continuing study and understanding of it.