Fundies and Aspies
Religion and Asperger’s Syndrome do not play well together, so I’ve been led to understand. There are different theories for why this should be the case. A study published in Scientific American suggests that people with Asperger’s syndrome are unable to see any higher purpose behind their life, as this is generally a result of social thinking. Meanwhile, Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre, believes that the issue has more to do with the Aspergian brain being unable to properly anthropomorphize, to attribute a personality to things not human.
Regardless, it does seem that people with Asperger’s Syndrome are far more likely to be atheist and agnostic than are neurotypicals. What is it like, then, to be both born with Asperger’s and raised in a religiously fundamentalist household?
Ned Spodos is a 39-year old metalhead living in the American Bible Belt. He’s a large man with long hair and can make for an imposing figure in his heavy metal T-shirts, though I found that he had a gentle way about him on the online religious forums in which we met. He was skeptical but not antagonizing, full of questions.
“I just lack a belief in God,” he told me. “I’m an agnostic atheist. I believe in the possibility of a God. But any dogma that has ever been written in ‘his/her’ name I am pretty sure is all man-made invention.”
But that was not always the case.
Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner: Tell me about where you grew up.
Ned Spodos: It was in southern Iowa, near the second-poorest region in the country. Lots of farms. I was an outsider, not just because of my condition, but because we had moved there from Ankeny, about 45 miles away. Most of the families had been there for many years, so there was this unspoken fraternity. A few rather well-off farmers owned lots of land around us. Our livestock got into their crops all the time.
I remember my dad had a thing for using anything he could get used at farm auctions, so we never really had very good fences because it was all old material. That’s why our livestock always got out. The other farmers had a bad temper about it.
Local farmers’ tempers were so bad, it culminated in a murder some years back. One of my good high school friends, his dad was killed by another farmer over usage of land for cattle. I’ve heard it said of the local farmers, “You can burn down their house, kill their family, steal their money, blow up their truck… but as soon as you start messing around with their land…look out.”
What was the religious climate like?
My parents had grown up Catholic, but were introduced to the idea of ‘being saved’ in the late ‘70s. From what I understand, we were asked to leave because my dad was preaching non-denominational dogma to the kids in the catechism classes at The Lady of Perpetual Help,near our farm. He even dealt with other Christians who put signs up in their yards that said JESUS IS LORD, saying that that was an abomination because it somehow violated the idolatry clause in the Bible.
My dad was more of a hellfire-and-brimstone type than anyone I knew, even the pastors. He was extremely verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive, all in the name of trying to get me into heaven. If he got it in his head that something was “of the devil,” I couldn’t go near it.
For example, we had an Australian Shepherd named Shep. He had a tan brown and white coat which made him difficult to see among the dry, fall corn stalks. Once, my dad was harvesting the corn with his combine at early dusk. Shep got sucked into the corn-catcher apparatus. My dad blamed this on me, saying that I had “opened the door for the devil,” because we had been arguing beforehand.
He was a religious psychotic. I haven’t ever met anybody so radical, so… malicious with their faith like he had been.
At the time, however, I had begun trying to emulating him. For me, becoming a fundie was a power play, to feel like I was somebody and could have a voice. By the time I entered high school, years later, I became pretty hardcore myself. A jihadist Christian, telling other kids they were going to hell.
And one day you came to school dressed as “Faggot Killer”.
Yes. That was the most extreme thing I ever did.
I wore a ski mask and a leather jacket to school. People asked me what I was supposed to be, so I told them.
“I’m Faggot Killer.”
Faggot Killer was based on a Marvel comics character called The Foolkiller. It was my idea. I had a friend who had been an aspiring comic book artist back then, and he was good at sketching ideas of mine. He drew up a picture in which Faggot Killer goes to Gay Pride parades with his “Straight Stick” and shotgun. He also drew men in dresses with gunshot wounds. Then Faggot Killer would rip out a page from a porn magazine of a hot, naked woman and shove it in their mouths.
Were there gay people at your school at the time?
There was at least one gay student, but I didn’t know about it until years later. He never did anything in reaction to Faggot Killer. But other kids did react to me being a jerk.
“Do you feel that being gay is wrong?” one of my teachers challenged me.
“I don’t feel it is,” I said. “I KNOW it is!”
Did you imagine that Jesus would be proud?
I never imagined Jesus in the picture. A part of my belief had split off and became something all its own. I think that’s how fundamentalism works.
When did you first become diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome?
Relatively recently, in 2010, when I was 35.
I was so happy, I finally had something to name my weirdness. But not only that, I had a wealth of knowledge and research to use to help me tame it.
It was a therapist who diagnosed me, not my psychiatrist, who manages my Adderall for my “comorbid condition” of inattentive ADD. Can’t treat Asperger’s directly, only its comorbid conditions. As I was talking through my problems, she discovered my inability to be free of my routines, which led her to the conclusion. My own further investigation into what Asperger’s was all about described my life to a T.
Being able to think back to those high school days, I had always assumed I was being treated like an outcast just for being true to my Christian faith. But after I was diagnosed, I realized that it was more because of my aspie interpretation of how a Christian should be. And since I was already socially awkward, being an aspie-fueled fundie shut me out of a lot of social opportunities as a teenager that may not have arisen otherwise, even with the Asperger’s. Things might have been a little bit better.
Did your dad have Asperger’s as well?
He won’t really outright admit it. He would often tell these stories about how he struggled in school, and everything he described was basically that of having Asperger’s syndrome. So even if he doesn’t really see that being the case or identify it by name, he does—in his own way—admit it.
Being the way he was, his Aspergian tendencies made him into a radical Christian, as it had for me – because he only saw things that were in his own worldview.
In relating to me, though, he interpreted my Aspergian behavior as me being controlled by demons, or the result of sin.
Sin. That must have been a big part of growing up.
I always struggled with it. In my heart, I always wanted to do good. But my brain had a mind of its own. I couldn’t help myself. In my heart, I didn’t want to do those things.
Disobedience, arguing, lying, laziness, complaining. I’ve since come to this conclusion: if God is real, and sin is judged by Him and not by people, then as an Aspergian, God would know that my mind can’t handle things like neurotypicals can.
Now, I’m not saying I’m one hundred percent innocent, but I always desired to do the right thing. The only time that I don’t do the right thing is when I enter I-Don’t-Give-a-Fuck-ville.
Where is I-Don’t-Give-a-Fuck-ville?
It’s that mode I get into where the stress is so great that I have my breaking point, and instead of driving myself batty, I enter a euphoric state where nothing matters. It’s like the entire world becomes a void.
There’s this prevailing idea that people with Asperger’s have difficulty with religion. In researching the topic, I read one Christian parent who wrote that even though their son has read the Bible and understands it, he just can’t feel God’s love because of his Asperger’s.
For me, it was like God was an imaginary friend that I absolutely knew was real, rather than just merely a faith I had… and all the crazy delusions that came with it. In order for us Aspies to believe in something we can’t see, we have to find something to latch onto, to make it part of our world. My mind ran wild with kooky ideas. Like Faggot Killer.
If God is up there, I may not believe in him, but he would believe in me. And he understands that through my Aspergian brain I have a problem with faith. If a person is debilitated physically, are they committing the sin of sloth because they can’t do things like I can do them? Well, that’s basically what my brain is like. If God is real, He would know that I have a handicap and He would not judge me for it.
When did you become an atheist, was that before or after the diagnosis?
It was before, in 2006.
How did that come about?
I really started looking hard at my life, and at what I was doing. I realized that this was not the way to go. This was not what I had signed up for. How can this be any good? How can this be what Christianity and Jesus Christ are supposed to be all about, if it’s leading me down this dark path?
Meanwhile, my brother had gone to Iowa State University and had taken a religions class. He brought back knowledge that set me on the path. Simple knowledge like, “How lucky are we to have been born in America, that we know Christianity is the one, true way,” in reference to the notion that “all other religions are evil.” To realize the absurdity. And that Muslims are also people.
My brother brought all this information to the table. And I think a lot of what has catered to my dad’s beliefs over the years is because he never learned about a lot of things outside of his religion.
It sounds like your atheism has helped you with your Asperger’s.
Yes, it has helped me with it way before I knew I had it. It has helped me think more objectively, and ousted a lot of fearful thoughts that gays were going to rape me and such. People would say things like that to me and before I would have just believed them.
I know now that the concept of faith gets one into trouble. Aspies don’t approach it objectively, we are waaay too creative. I’ve always had problems with faith in the area of using it as a stepping stone, or, “pretending to know things that you don’t know.” Therefore, it is difficult for me to pretend when I can’t know for sure if something is real, especially when I want it to be real.
My brother and I have persisted in trying to educate my dad on this stuff. We say, “You need to learn about this stuff. You need to refine what you believe. You can’t have this narrow worldview of what Christianity is and what other religions are. New information is not always ‘of the devil!’”
One of my favorite quotes about religious faith is from George Carlin: “Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure.”
What’s funny is that my dad has preached Mark Twain’s quote of, “Believe nothing you hear and half of what you see.”
I use both quotes in conjunction with each other. And it leaves my dad dumbfounded. “I still believe what I believe,” he says.
The stereotype is that children from ultra-religious families become atheists and then just pretty much say, “Okay, screw mom and dad, then.” You must really care for your dad to go through that effort.
Yes, I do.
A lot of the things I battled with my Dad about were a result of my Asperger’s syndrome, which he only ever interpreted as sin. Everything came into focus after the religious blinders came off.
And my dad has been trying. He’s become a lot less militant. He is more accepting of gays now since he and I have five cousins between us that are gay. He still thinks it’s sin, but at least he has mellowed out in recent years, which is very big of him.
The abusive man I once knew is no longer with us, thank goodness.
He’ll be 62 this year. He’s had a lot of health problems over the years and he might not be with us too much longer. It scares me to death to think that he will pass on.
Is it easier for you now to make relationships?
Folks tend to avoid me, so I am more alone and that hurts worse. I live about 20 miles from where I grew up. I only see the folks from school on occasion, and any that remember Faggot Killer never bring it up.
Meanwhile, I see all of these neurotypicals who are believers, and they’re all getting perks, getting nods from everybody else in one way or another. It’s like they’ve become part of this nice little fraternity that I could have been a part of, had I remained a believer. My attitude and beliefs are now at odds with theirs. So now I’m looked down upon, whereas if I’d been an atheist back then, I maybe would have had a better social life.
I tell you, I can’t win for losing.
People tell me I need to be saved. I tell them, it’s cool that you believe in Jesus or God, that you’re going to church, but that life for me, as a person with Asperger’s syndrome, that was poison to me.
Have you thought about just going somewhere where no one knows you and starting over?
I’ve met brand new people in different states and offended them right away. It seems like no matter where I go or what I try to do, my “ways” follow me.
I have been trying to kind of fake it, trying to fake a belief in Jesus Christ the way that I used to. I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to actively pass myself off as religious, but I try to be more agreeable and refrain from taking opportunities to interject my atheistic outlook.
There was a scene in the film Spartacus, where a Roman official is talking to Caesar about a sacrifice for the gods. Caesar says, “I didn’t think you actually believed in any of the gods.”
He says, “I don’t, and neither do you. But in public, I believe in all of them.”
To a certain extent I have been trying to garner that type of fake belief for sociability, because always being at odds with people just doesn’t seem to be panning out for me.
The solution is not to leave, it’s to make myself better.
Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner lives just beyond the reaches of Philadelphia, PA, with his beautiful wife and cool son, where they attend the oldest Mennonite church in the country. He believes that non-believers can and must have a positive voice in religious dialogues, not merely one of contrition or hostility. When he's not contemplating religion and faith, he writes and tells children's stories and posts long-winded reviews of picture books at www.PictureBooksReview.com.