‘I just can’t understand how someone with a maths degree and a brain like yours can believe in God’, a relative said to me once. Oddly enough, this was years before either of us learned about my autism (or Asperger Syndrome, as I ended up being diagnosed with). But even back then, it felt like I wasn’t ‘supposed’ to have religious faith.
To be fair, if you could design a stereotypical atheist it would probably look like me. In terms of gender, age bracket, ethnicity, level of education and country of birth, I fall into the categories that are either low down on the rankings of religious faith, or right at the bottom.
So how do I match up my helplessly logical, fact-driven brain with a lifestyle that depends largely on belief in the unseen?
I’ll give a few insights below. But first, a few important points/disclaimers:
The main religion I will refer to will be Christianity, since this is mine. With that said, I suspect several of my points will be transferable across religions.
I don’t like the word ‘religion’, by the way. To me, ‘religion’ is about the way people do things and ‘Christianity’/‘Islam’/etc is about the faith itself. In this article, I simply use the word ‘religion’ as a plural for multiple faith systems.
People are more than welcome to leave their perspectives in the comments, ask questions and so on. This is absolutely a topic worth discussing. However, I will not be entering into any debates or arguments. I stopped doing so years ago, when I realised that when people choose to start an argument rather than a discussion, it means they’ve already made a commitment to being unreceptive to the other person’s point of view.
So, off we go. I have five insights in total and I hope they help, whether you’re just curious about my perspective or whether you’re exploring your own belief system.
1. My mathematics degree brought me closer to God.
I have always wanted answers. Straightforward, clear, objective answers without any wibbly-wobbly ‘matter of opinion’ obstacles. Call it an autism thing if you want, but to me it’s a fairly standard approach. (That said, there seems to be a disproportionate number of autistics who think this way.)
I remember one November 5th at university, when I was watching the fireworks with a friend. (For those outside the UK, November 5th is Guy Fawkes’ Night – when we blow up half the sky to celebrate the Houses of Parliament not being blown up 400 years ago.) Whilst watching the awesome explosions, I told her how amazing I thought it was that the firework designers know exactly what materials to put in, what quantities and which order, all to design a chemical burning reaction which looks pleasing to the eye.
Her response was ‘no, don’t tell me that! I just want to believe it’s all magic.’
My reaction was probably what you’d expect.
(Ironically, she was the atheist in the conversation. And a mathematics student.)
Because that was always something that bothered me before university: I knew so many Christians who firmly believed that God’s works were the result of some kind of magic rather than science. It felt like intellectual dishonesty to agree with them, but I didn’t have the breadth of experience to know that I could disagree with other Christians and still be a ‘valid’ Christian myself.
You see, I have always believed that science was God’s ‘computer’, or at least his OS. Just the same as how nobody designs a game without a playable set of rules, you wouldn’t create a universe without a decent set of physical laws, and a few handy mathematical constants.
Honestly, the deeper I looked into mathematics and its uncompromising logic, the more I appreciated how beautifully God crafted the universe. Religion encourages us to find God’s amazing works in the mountains and rivers and sunsets, but if you have a mindset like mine and want to witness God’s glory, take a look at his OS.
Perhaps the most memorable example of maths helping me with my faith was during a Sunday school session I was helping at. The conversation went something like this:
Boy: “So… who created God?”
Leader: “God has always existed. He didn’t need to be created.”
Boy: “But how could something have existed before the universe did?”
The leader struggled – after all, it’s a very good question.
And suddenly, an answer flashed into my head. (I’m not saying it was divine intervention, but I’m not quite sure how else it got there.)
Me: “Well, who created numbers?”
Boy: “…The Egyptians, wasn’t it?”
Me: “I don’t mean who invented the symbols. What created maths? At what point in history did one plus one start equalling two? I think those sums would have been correct whether the universe was around to see it or not.”
(Moment of silence, a couple of nodding heads)
Me: “When you think about how numbers didn’t need creating, and can’t ever be destroyed either, it makes sense that other things can be timeless as well.”
Yeah, I was hardly a conventional Sunday school helper. But it’s always healthy to have multiple perspectives on important subjects.
2. Real, absolute proof doesn’t exist for (almost) anything.
You know what attracted me to maths? The fact that it’s the one place in the universe where you can prove things. It’s not English or art where it’s a matter of opinion, or history where it’s a matter of studying different perspectives. It’s not even science, where theories can be 99.999999% likely to be true, but still not recognised as certainties (for good reason, to be fair).
Strictly speaking, we’ve not even proven gravity. It’s just the best theory we currently have for why we’re stuck to the surface of this planet. Tomorrow a better theory might come along and replace it. Mathematics is the only subject in the whole universe where you can ever have absolute proof. It’s the nice checkmate we always have over the traditional scientists. (Yes, there’s some rivalry there.)
What this means is that everywhere I go in life, unless I’m solving a mathematical equation, I’m consciously aware that I’m relying on faith. Faith that my family loves me. Faith that the periodic table isn’t a pack of lies. Faith that gravity really is what we think it is.
Every non-mathematical thing I ever meet requires a leap of faith. But the more facts you can use to build a bridge, the shorter the remaining leap becomes. Facts and research can decide whether that leap is the length of an ant (like the faith required to believe in gravity) or the length of the Grand Canyon (like the amount of faith I would need to believe the earth is flat).
Unfortunately, I recognise that for some people any leap is a leap too far. A close friend of mine whom I had debated with for years (we had very similar thought processes but reached polar opposite opinions, which made him a great discussion partner), almost became a Christian when I presented the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection (more on that later). I was astounded that this once-unshakable atheist was so close to becoming a Christian – he even tried coming to church.
Ultimately though, he did not become a Christian. No matter how many facts went into building that bridge and how short the remaining leap of faith became, he couldn’t bring himself to jump.
Apparently, no matter how far you go with your research, faith remains a very personal choice.
3. Yes, you’re allowed to be an evolutionist and a Christian at the same time.
I am well aware that there’ll be Christians out there who will read this and accuse me of detracting from the Word of God. But understand this: without being ‘allowed’ to believe in evolution, I (and millions of others) would be forced to choose between an extremely solid scientific theory, and something that must be taken on faith. Like it or not – in declaring that you can’t believe in evolution and still be a Christian, you’re slamming the door of God’s love in the faces of countless people who may otherwise have come to know him.
For someone who takes people literally to a pathological extreme, my opinions on how literally to take the Bible may not be what you’d expect.
In some religious circles, we’re made to feel like we’re ‘not allowed’ to interpret the Bible in any way other than being 100% literal. I mean, surely it’s the inerrant, infallible Word of God? How can it not be 100% perfect? There are even atheists who use people like me to highlight how religious folk act like we’re at a ‘pick and choose’ buffet.
I’m not picking and choosing. I’m saying various parts of the Bible were never meant to be taken literally in the first place.
Allow me to explain.
So, let’s talk about Adam and Eve. In my experience, when young people in church start falling away from Christianity, it begins when they realise they can’t believe in science and the Garden of Eden at the same time. But it’s only in the post-Enlightenment years that this has even been an issue.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the generation after Adam and Eve would have required boatloads of incest. (Wow, I never thought I’d use the phrase ‘boatloads of incest’ in an Autistic Not Weird article.) And many look at this and think “how can anyone believe this? How did the ancient Jewish people believe it?”
Well, I doubt they did.
People haven’t changed in thousands of years: we may have more understanding of science and technology, but people themselves are the same as they always have been. (That’s why Jesus’ teachings remain so relevant today: they focused on people rather than culture.) So the ancient Jewish people would have been smart enough to notice the little incest plot hole in the Adam and Eve story.
With this in mind, there are two possibilities: either our ancient ancestors didn’t notice the gaping hole in the story, or they never took the story literally to begin with. (And the ancient civilisations laid the foundations for everything we understand today. They were not stupid people.)
Which begs the obvious question… why include the story when it’s not literally true?
Well, imagine you had to explain the world to a small child. You have a choice between using child-friendly language, or confusing them to the point where they lose patience.
If God had revealed the universe in terms of subatomic particles, primordial soups and big explosions in the middle of literal nowhere, even the most intelligent ancient minds would not have comprehended it. More to the point, they’d have learned nothing about their creator.
The Adam and Eve story is a spot-on allegory for why mankind is the way mankind is. Created from a loving creator for a noble purpose, but unable to stay perfect because of their human nature. Our ancestors would have gained far more from that than any story with molecular physics.
That is essentially why I believe there is no necessary conflict between religion and science. It is entirely possible to believe in the delicate, slow elegance of macroevolution and the awesomeness of God’s creation at the same time.
But a central point behind all of this is that there is one thing that unifies all Christians: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It gives me great comfort to know that me and my Christian friends can disagree all our lives on evolution, or whether Moses parted the Red Sea, or even on whether the Earth goes round the sun, and none of it matters. If you believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, it’s impossible to not be a Christian (even if it is possible not to act like one).
Incidentally, some may be asking why I believe Jesus rose from the dead. This article, and this one, and this one, all do a better job of explaining it than I do. There’s far more evidence for the Resurrection than it gets credit for.
4. Never judge a religion by its followers.
When I use this phrase, people usually respond by thinking of Islam and how it’s been misrepresented by the actions of a few. And they’re right: despite what the media tells you, nobody hates Islamic State more than Muslims. They are many, many times more likely to be killed in terror attacks than non-Muslims, and to add insult to injury their religion’s reputation is suffering worldwide as they are being murdered. (To demonstrate my point: if you believe that ‘jihad’ actually means holy war then you have been grossly misinformed.)
When I used to debate religion at university, a lot of people would go straight to the actions of religious people to further their argument against it. (Me being me, I was more concerned about the objective truth of God’s existence rather than the actions of his fan club. Surely God would exist- or not exist- independently of human actions.)
This is a quote that in my opinion should be read by every Christian everywhere:
“More people have been brought into the church by the kindness of real Christian love than all the theological arguments in the world, and more people have been driven from the church by the hardness and ugliness of so-called Christianity than by all the doubts in the world.”
-William Barclay, 1975
(Some versions incorrectly use the phrase “so-called Christians”, but the point is the same: if you have the wrong attitudes, it can sabotage other people’s opportunities to come to know God.)
In my experience, if your personal experience of Christianity has involved more judgement than love, you’re attending the wrong church. If God put judgement before love, then Jesus would never have been crucified.
If you’re part of the LGBT community and you’re reading this, I can only apologise for the actions of my Christian counterparts. For what it’s worth, every year my church attends Chesterfield Pride immediately after its Sunday service. Thanks to our LGBT members, we understand that the Pride movement isn’t entirely about being proud, but a positive form of protest against the discrimination you’ve suffered.
Seriously, I feel genuine anger towards those who place barriers between LGBT people and God. I was 17 when I had a chat with a lesbian Catholic friend about faith and sexuality, and (in a rather joking manner) I asked “you don’t really think Jesus’ salvation is so small and insignificant that you can lose it over something like just being a lesbian?” I was rather sad when she replied “wow, you’re the first person who’s told me that! Thanks!”
I feel devastated whenever someone from the LGBT+ community tells me they don’t feel ‘allowed’ to be a Christian. Pardon me for being pedantic, but I’m pretty certain that non-heterosexuals are God’s children too. And woe unto anyone who deliberately makes a child feel unwelcome in their Father’s presence.
(Incidentally, if your local church hates ‘the gays’, tell them to at least be consistent with their hatred. According to our theology, heterosexuals who fornicate outside of marriage are neither better nor worse than homosexuals. I’ll understand why this is inconvenient to some of their congregation though.)
Christianity – actual, biblical Christianity rather than ‘churchianity’ – is led by a man who reached out to help prostitutes, had dinner with thieving tax collectors, and was not a fan of the rich or powerful. (Oh, and for the record- he also believed in giving out free healthcare.)
But more than that, everything he did was based on love. If you want to see how close your church’s Christianity is to Jesus’, check their love levels.
I do wonder whether such discrimination would occur in a 100% autistic church. The autism experience has given many of us a load of empathy for those who are made to feel different or excluded. Which brings me to my final point…
5. Like most things, the biggest barrier is fitting in.
I can truly empathise with its author, Brant Hansen. I’ve spent far too much time in church services thinking ‘wait- shouldn’t I be feeling something? I mean, my faith is strong and my love for God is massive… but shouldn’t my emotions be running wilder? Can I still be a “real” Christian without waving my arms in the air with tears in my eyes?’
Well, yes. Yes I can. I’ve had my fair share of joyous moments, and times when I’ve wished God would appear as a physical person so I could give him an enormous thankful hug. But it’s rarely ever been in a church, and it’s never been on command.
If you don’t fit in with the culture of your church, look around other churches. At university I went to a traditional Anglican church, but made an effort to visit others too. I went to an evangelical church who aimed for God’s love to be felt all over Newcastle. I went to an apostolic church which openly admitted their communion wine was Ribena, but what it represented was more important than the alcohol content. I went to a Coptic orthodox church where the services were three hours long and in Arabic. The guy next to me translated for me, and invited me to their community’s lunch afterwards.
And my church right now (the one which reaches out at Chesterfield Pride) is an Anglican one created for people who don’t feel comfortable with the stand-up-sit-down-sing-songs marathon of traditional churches. We sit on bean bags, watch videos, bring and share lunch together, and our sermons focus on the heavier issues which people often think about but don’t tend to raise in front of a congregation (e.g. ‘can I still believe if I doubt such-and-such?’) Honestly, I think communities like those may be the future of Christianity, in a time when traditional churches often don’t adapt as fast as modern society.
You may be surprised at the range of churches out there. God wants you, even if your preferred style of worship doesn’t match your local church’s.
Finally, why this article wasn’t called ‘how to be autistic and religious at the same time’.
Honestly, that’s the title I almost gave this article. But it would have been misleading.
Because, among the many false stereotypes and clichés around autism that we’ve not managed to wipe out yet, there’s a stereotype that autistic people struggle to have religious faith. I can see why this stereotype exists (and without it, this article may not exist either), but in my experience it isn’t true.
A while ago I ran a wide-ranging survey with Autistic Not Weird’s followers, and one of the questions I posed was whether people agreed or disagreed with the statement ‘I have religious faith’.
Because I’m lazy (or just efficient), I’ll copy my findings here.
Even with this sample size, it was obvious that the respondents’ home country appeared to have a greater impact on their beliefs than their neurology.
As I wrote in the article, ‘I’ve heard a lot of atheists claim that Americans are only religious because they were born in a religious country. They get a little surprised when I suggest – by their own logic – that they are only non-religious because they were born in 21st Century Britain.’
This is normally where I say “there’s an extension to this article available to my Patreon supporters”, but I’m making an exception this time. When it comes to my faith I don’t believe people should have to pay to hear my insights, so everything is already included in this particular article.
However, there are extensions to a growing number of other autism-related articles – plus a huge load of extra perks too – to those who support me via Patreon and allow me to write for Autistic Not Weird as an actual job. (Yep, my writing is now my main source of income!) The link to the rewards available is here, for those interested.
And whether you’re a regular follower or simply here for this particular article, I hope it has helped those who are looking for an autistic man’s perspective on faith.
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook