Sunday, September 12, 2010
Making Religion Asperger Friendly (More Texts, More Rituals and More Opportunities to be Sociable Without Having to Actually Talk to People)
There is a running debate as to the relationship between Asperger syndrome and atheism. Are Aspergers more likely than the general population to be atheists and if so why? (See John Elder Robison and James Pate) I certainly know a number of Asperger atheists and anecdotal experience indicates that people on the spectrum are more secular than the general population. I think it has less to do with religion or no religion than it does about what type of religion. The Asperger mind is not socially based like that of most people, but is more rule-based. One does not relate to people, but to abstract ideas and concepts. This creates a problem in that, not surprisingly, most religions were designed and evolved from a neurotypical perspective and to suit neurotypical needs. Particularly, they rely on social relationships as a means of forming and maintaining themselves. For the purposes of this post I will limit myself to the case of Orthodox Judaism and my own personal experience with it; I would be interested in hearing from those with practical experience with other religions as to what extent what I say here is relevant.
Judaism, as a minority and often persecuted religion, evolved a strong sense of its own vulnerability and of the need to take active measures to pass itself on to the next generation and keep its youth in the fold. What many of these methods have in common are that they rely on creating attachments to other people and, as such, are distinctively ill suited for dealing with Aspergers. Thinking in terms of my own personal experience growing up, it was no good to tell me that I was part of a link in a chain of tradition [mesorah] connecting me to my parents and grandparents and ultimately to the Exodus and the Revelation at Mount Sinai. Regardless of what I might think of the historicity of these claims, the very concept of being attached to other people was foreign to me. (As a historian let me add that the notion that you could have a tradition connecting one generation to the next to the extent that one can draw straight lines and use equal signs is an absurdity.) I was never very good at forming an attachment to a rabbi to learn from. I never found praying as part of a quorum to be spiritually uplifting. The threat of what the people around me were going to think was not going to keep me in line; I was usually blissfully unaware of what other people were thinking.
Orthodox Judaism, though, does have certain features that did speak to me; these have played a major role in keeping me within that orbit. Texts play a major role in Orthodox Judaism and, while I might not relate well to people, I do relate to texts. I might not have taken well to Talmud and being in an environment that forced me to study the subject nearly did me in. I did, though, develop an attachment to the Bible and the commentary of Isaac Abarbanel; reading him for hours on end was certainly a spiritually edifying endeavor. Something should also be said about the role of ritual; Judaism offers things for me to do every day to structure my life. If I were a Christian I do not know how I would deal with my "getting right with God;" am I a good Christian, living up to the Sermon on the Mount? As I Jew, I can wash my hands in the morning, pray, eat kosher food and believe that I am at least on the right track to forming a relationship with God. (One of the ironies of Christianity is that, while it claimed to replace the unfulfillable demands of an Old Testament deity, it is the religion that is truly unfulfillable.)
I would like to end with something that occurred to me over the previous days of Rosh Hashanah, which may sound somewhat counter-intuitive. Being stuck in a room for six hours, two straight days, reciting texts is enough to get anyone to start asking some serious questions about what he is doing and why he is doing it. My father once pointed out to me that Jewish prayer is not very interactive and, if you are an outsider experiencing it for the first time, it can prove quite boring. Most of it consists of people reciting things under their breath and a cantor to pace everyone. Ironically enough, this actually works very well for me because it allows me to be "sociable," for hours on end even, on my terms, without actually having to talk to another human being. I get to read, meditate and think about the things that I like to think about and that I normally do by myself in my room. Now, since I am doing all of this, not in my private bedroom but in a room full of other people, what was something that might have invited reprimands for being anti-social, becomes the exact opposite. Now that I have been such a good sociable person for hours on end no one should be able to deny that I have earned the right to turn back into myself to my heart's content for a few days.
This is one Asperger Jew's take on thing.