Sunday, September 27, 2009

Is the bible obsolete?


In medieval times, people managed by decree and threat. The King made a proclamation, and said, “Fear this, and tremblingly obey!” You ignored the King and his nobles at your peril, as most anything could be a capital offense. Stealing a loaf of bread, or murdering your neighbor – either could send you to the gallows. In a world like that, the bible’s threats and dogma seemed right in line with the way of the world.

Today, things are different. Managers manage by motivation. Instead of saying, “Do this or we will have you executed,” they think of ways to make people want to do things. Bosses talk endlessly about self-motivation and actualization. The goal today is to make people want to work for The Man. Parents have even jumped on the bandwagon. Today’s kids must want to cooperate. Threats and spankings are out the window.

It seems to work. People stay at work sixty hours a week at times, with no threat of transportation or execution. Some would say we have lifted behavior or at least motivation to a higher plane. Others would say its just brainwashing but that’s a subject for another post.

The fact remains, threat and dogma are passé when it comes to management in most of the Enlightened Western World. But through it all, the Bible has remained the same. Do as I say, or feel the wrath of a vengeful God.

I didn’t give that dichotomy much thought until speaking with Boston University psychology professor Catherine Caldwell-Harris. At a talk last winter, she said, “Why do you think Aspergians tend to reject the Bible and religion more often?”

“More often than what,” I asked? She directed me to Asperger sites Wrong Planet and Aspies For Freedom, where the prevailing sentiment when spirituality is discussed is indeed the rejection of Western religion. I got that impression from a quick perusal of the forums, but she knows it for sure, based on statistical analysis.

She’s done some follow on studies where people are interviewed in more depth; in fact she has one here that you can check out and participate in:
http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=7eHrc2JY6Wj8_2b7A_2faRzrag_3d_3d

The studies so far suggest that high functioning people on the spectrum – those who participate in studies like hers and online in forums – are significantly more likely to reject religion than nypicals. I meet quite a few people myself, and my observation tends to confirm Catherine’s. But what does that mean? I’ve thought about that question quite a bit.

I’m not a follower of any traditional American church. Yet I consider myself a spiritual person. Furthermore, I think I have a good and solid moral sense, and a reasonable grasp of right and wrong and how to behave. I know from experience that many adult Americans would describe themselves the same way, be they Aspergian or nypical.

Do I reject traditional American religion? Upon reflection, I guess I do. I reject the “Do what we say or you’ll suffer damnation!” I don’t need a priest’s threats to stop me from looting the neighbor’s house and ravaging his females. The idea that I’d go to a church to hear those kind of threats just isn’t very appealing, no matter how subtle they may be. When you add a priest with his hand in your pocket and all the diddling scandals certain churches have, the picture is even worse.

The reason I do not go looting and pillaging is that I believe it’s morally wrong to do so. Since I already believe that, threats will do nothing more than annoy me. And that’s not all. The bible is full of passages that say, in essence, “Believe this or else!” Why? I’m okay about believing many things, but I want a more solid foundation than, “Because I say so.” I had a problem with my father saying that forty years ago, and I have problems when preachers say it today.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized rejection of organized religion is very different from rejection of spirituality or the concept of a God. I began to wonder . . . do Aspergians like me tend to reject religions like Catholicism because we are exceedingly logical people, and the Church’s threats and dogma are anything but?

We reject lots of things in life because they aren’t logical. Why not the bible? Why indeed. Maybe we Aspergians are just on the cutting edge here, because of our predisposition toward logicality.

I wonder if the time has come to update the language of the bible to reflect modern times and customs. Perhaps if we toned down the threats, more people would embrace it. Maybe if we added a little more logic, it would find wider acceptance. We’ve done that with every management tome, and most parenting tomes. What is the bible if not the pre-eminent “how to behave” manual for society. When all the lesser works have been revised should we not revise this one too?

Or maybe I’m just nuts, and it’s perfectly good the way it is to 99% of the world. What do you think?

I will say this. I’ve visited a number of churches, in small towns and inner cities. This is what I have seen: The rougher and meaner the environment, the more the successful and popular preachers focus on practical life matters. Threat and dogma are virtually ignored in favor of logical sensible living advice. Are they onto something, those inner city Baptists?

31 comments:

Barry Atric said...

I have come to believe that people take the Bible at faith and use doublethink to dismiss fallacies and contradictions in trade for emotional comfort, while people who are more Aspergian in tendencies have trouble living with the idea of following a lie. So they aren't generally as religious.

We are "addicted to being right". Once we see the lies, so to speak, you can't "unsee" them. The whole churches full of hypocrisy and followers who profess one thing while acting another is just more confirmation, even though it's not logical confirmation.

Jeff Kooistra said...

Hmmm--unfortunately John, most of your arguments are directed against a straw man, a caricature of what churches were like and how they are today. Granted, you can find examples here and there of what you describe, but they practice in a way that has little to do with "Love thy neighbor" or "Judge not, lest ye be judged."

Indeed, if American churches have any fault fairly common to them all, it's the refusal to take a side on right or wrong at all.

By the way, I write The Alternate View column for Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine, and I "reviewed" LOOK ME IN THE EYE in my Jan/Feb installment. I greatly enjoyed the book--it is one of the best autobiographies I've read in some time.

Veda said...

I could not disagree with you more. I don't know what churches you might have attended in the past, but we only have one priest and that is the high priest, Christ Jesus. And by Him all things were made that was made, even children born with any type is disablitiy. God so LOVED the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in HIM(Christ)can have everlasting life.

That does not sound like hate to me, that sounds like unconditional love; love for the sinner because we are all born sinners. For there is none righteous, no not one.

Yes, God will judge those who do not come to Him, but to those who come to Him, God will in no wise cast out.

If you are right and I am wrong, what do I have to lose? BUT, if I am right and you are wrong what do you have to lose? An eternity with Christ Jesus and the love of such a wonderful Saviour who gave His live for me.

John Elder Robison said...

Jeff, it may be that churches suffer when some of us represent the straw man we see or imagine without experienceing what's really there.

That said, my statements regarding the threat and dogma in the bible itself stand, and I believe I ask a valid question with respect to revising the language and approach

Rima S. Regas said...

I have some comments...

1. Had the survey of people on the spectrum included those who don't belong to the forums you mentioned, I would take the conclusions more seriously. I would posit that there are probably as many people who are on the spectrum that are active and observant of a faith, as there are people on the spectrum who have rejected religion. I would also posit that they are probably equally entrenched in their respective beliefs.

2. There is no such thing as the "American Church." There are various flavors of the major religions, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, etc. Within each of these you will find varying and equal degrees of enlightenment, ignorance, tolerance, and intolerance.

3. The bibles (New, Old Testaments, Koran, etc.) and the thousands of tomes written by learned clerics over the centuries to interpret the sacred writings, are as irrelevant as history, law, and ethics are to man. You take from the Bible what you are taught and understand from it, not what you read at first glance.

4. Accepting or rejecting something should come from a position of knowledge. How much did you study the sacred literature of your family's religion? Did you use that knowledge to reach your current conclusions? How about the people with whom you had discussions?

5. I studied the Old Testament as a high school student in Israel. While I read the original text, I did most of my learning from the old scholars and commentators like Rashi. He was a medieval Rabbi who wrote a complete commentary on the entire Jewish Bible. Without his writings and that of a couple of other commentators, and taken it at face value, I too might have thought that the Bible is "passe." My current view is that although my outlook is more humanistic, my heritage is relevant.

6. The things you heard in the churches you attended, they're not what any Bible or Koran tells us to do. Man interprets his gospel how he sees fit, not necessarily in the way it was intended. I think this is reflection of the societal problems we have, rather than an outcome of religion per se.

7. Have you ever wondered how many of the more erudite theologians of our day might be on the spectrum?

Gavin Bollard said...

Wow John,
Lately you seem to be cornering the aspie blog market on sensationalism.

I have noticed a lot of aspies with unusual views of religion but not always in the negative.

Many aspies seem to take their religious rules to extremes. You see that a bit on WrongPlanet too.

It seems correct to suggest that there are fundamental differences between the way aspies and NTs view religion but not to suggest that the differences are overwhelmingly in the same direction.

John Elder Robison said...

Well, Gavin, I don't think it's necessarily sensationalist to raise these questions. And professor Caldwell Harris made the original claim on teh basis of research. It's not mine.

cath c said...

well, john, open a can of worms, and they do tend to crawl about.

i am a very spiritual person who has rejected the dogma of a wrathful vengeful god long ago. i spent many years saying i did not like what people do in the name of jesus, when all jesus said was love one another and by the way, don't pay taxes to pontius pilate, etc.
regardless of my personal beliefs, i have found a longtime spiritual home in the unitarian universalist church which largely states we all have our own ways of faith, or not, but we can still be responsible members of a spiritual community and do good works, social justice, personal spiritual journeys et al, and not have to tell anyone else what or how to believe.

frankly, i always found it illogical to claim a loving god, or representation of, told anyone to act hatefully toward anyone for any reason.

e said...

Seeing this article was really creepy - I started a draft this morning of a similar topic.
I wonder if the Aspergian tendency to reject things that are not logical leads to rejection of religion. Not spirituality but religion.
Knowing that the bible was written by humans, edited by men, translated across one culture and another and another with all the different mores and cultural and language differences, I simply cannot believe the message is divine, or at least no more divine than any other spiritually inspirational writing.
My experience is that the organized church breeds hypocrisy, ignorance and even abuse - something else I suspect would be intolerable to an Aspie. It sure is to me.

mama edge said...

My 16-year-old, Rocky, is adamantly anti-religion, though he does believe in a Creator of some kind. He revels in his disdain for "followers", and his favorite t-shirt reads:

"STOP USING ME TO JUSTIFY YOUR HATRED -
SINCERELY, GOD"

For him, religion is inherently tied to homophobia and war-mongering, which is largely the fault of the religious right in this country. But he also questions the logic of religion much as you and several of your readers describe. While I myself am not religious and cannot understand the thinking of people of faith, I do believe that tolerance for all points of view - even if they seem foreign or ignorant to me - is important. I wish I knew how to convince my son of this.

Sorry I missed you when you were in Wisconsin!

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

I have to say "but...but..." Many Catholic theologians base their theological discussions and ruminations upon logic, and Catholicism, from what I have observed, is far more strongly based on upon love of nature and not fear of God (in fact, the Hebrew word fear, as used in the Bible, is better translated as awe, according to many Biblical translators).

ZoriN said...

Yeah, I think the mentally disordered are generally suspicious of organised religion because it's incredibly outdated and tends to discriminate against us.

Might interest you to know that there's absolutely no correlation between morality and religiosity.

Ray said...

As I wrote on your Facebook note, John, I found that organized religion just couldn't hold my attention for very long - mostly due to illogical dogmas and the language used.

I've bounced around a lot of different religions over my 28 years (Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism, Paganism, Atheism, Humanism) and I've basically come to the conclusion that the principles are more important than the mythology: Be kind and generous to others, don't steal, do good works for others, show mercy, etc. Every major religion has these core tenets, so I don't see the point of aligning myself with any single faith when they all say the same thing.

The only thing that irks me about the concept of organized religion is that it can be used too easily to justify hatred and pain - the age-old excuse of "Well God says it's okay." I believe that if your God gives you express permission to subjegate and brutalize, then perhaps it's time to follow another deity (my opinion only). I also cannot fathom how some say "Well my path is the correct one." How do you know? Did you look into any others? Did you study the vast array of belief systems until you found one that was most compatible? Did you try any of those other faiths? Since they all have basic tenets, then they should all be correct, not just one. Either they're all the "right path" or none at all.

This is why I classify myself more as spiritual than religious. Too many questions, too much opinion and mythology to wade through. I prefer to live my life free and happy, rather than bogged down with things that I'm told to accept without understanding.

scott said...

John as I said on your facebook as an aspie Christian I have to say that I feel the bible is as important now as it ever was. It's not the book that is lacking, it is men that misunderstand and twist it's meaning to suit their agendas. The bible is a source of moral truth and moral truths are just as true for an atheist and a Christian.
Do not kill, do not lie, or steal are good moral compasses no matter who you are. Anytime humans are left to interpret anything be it scientific data, the weather, or the bible, there will be varying opinions, and we will screw it up. Funny how scientific theorys that we thought were fact for decades are now being disprove, yet we were so sure of the truth. Like the new data showing that body parts that we once thought were useless like the appendix. New data is proving that is really useful after all. However, for decades doctors would cut it out without a second thought because every doctor and scientist knew it was just some left over piece of junk from the theory of evolution.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21153898/

M said...

The Bible has many, many messages. It does not consist chiefly of threats.

The threats are found, for the most part, in the first five books of the Old Testament, also called The Torah...the sacred texts of Judaism. Christians, on the other hand, orient their ethical codes more on 1. the life of christ and 2. the letters of Paul, both found in the New Testament.

The story of Christ is one of service...helping others...sacrifice...pacifism.

"Threats" are still there, certainly, even in the new Testament, but text is far more complicated than what you're presenting here. There are threats...and numerous rules relating to charity, altruism.

I mention it because there are plenty of people....many, many people...who focus on those aspects of the bible that are constructive, relate to helping people. My parents are very religious. They love the story of Christ. Each week, they spend time at homeless shelters, volunteering, as well as other activities along these lines.

Since they are volunteering based on biblical teachings, does that mean they are less logical? Maybe. But to me, that would mean logic is not always the best option. It can be great. But faith...when it inspires good works, charity...can be valuable.

I guess what I'm saying is, I don't know that I'm comfortable ranking logic and faith, as if one is inherently better than the other. Both can lead to good deeds. Both can lead to bad deeds. I think their nature...and the content of the bible...is complex, nuanced.

I'm not saying this as a Christian, I'm a non-believer, but I'm hoping Asperger's can be talked about in a positive way. "Maybe we're more advanced": I'm uncomfortable with this. But, I appreciate you setting up the issue, the discussion.

Shawnda said...

The heaven's declare the glory of the Lord. Times change, people change but the Bible never changes. It is very much as relevent today as any time in history. Most people who are quick to criticize have never even read the Bible from beginning to end and really have no idea what is inside the Bible. I ask anyone who reads this who is quick to say it is obsolete to actually take the time to read it first from beginning to end before they make that decision.

John Elder Robison said...

M and Shawnda, you both make the excellent point that most of the bible is not threat and dogma, and it is indeed filled with practical advice for living.

However, the threat and dogma is in there, and I suspect some people reject the whole thing when they hit those parts. I know I respond poorly to being threatened and I'm surely not alone in that.

Are Asperger people more inclined that way? I don't know.

I also don't know if our logicality is the reason for rejection; that was suggested by the professor doing the study.

Ray said...

I consider the Bible a nice read, with stories that have an underlying moral to each of them. However, it's not something I take literally - otherwise I probably would reject it entirely.

I can't speak for your professor friend, but logic does play a large part in my decision.

M said...

I guess I would just be more comfortable if this were divided into two seperate discussions (not here necessarily, but just in general).

Does Asperger's make one more likely to reject religion?

That's a legitimate question one could study, generate statisics for.


What is the nature/validity of the bible?

This is a complex and deeply personal issue that, ideally, would be kept seperate from a discussion on Asperger's. It's an apples and oranges sort of difference. Suggesting that people with AS are more advanced than those with faith...I just think this takes the discussion in a divisive direction, sort of creates a adversarial tone.

Not that you're at all wanting to be adversarial...I know you're just sounding out the issue, offering it up for discussion. I was just concerned about that shift: from the interesting question (does having AS mean rejecting religion) to the uncomfortable conclusion (people with AS may be more advanced than the religious).

Understanding, education about AS is good, but I'm always worried about an 'us versus them' dynamic kicking in, shaping the conversation.

Anyway, thanks for the topic.

Eric said...

I first saw this on your Facebook page John, and I can accept most of what is written for this reason. I know that myself, being both an Aspie and a loyal Methodist, went through a rather extensive period of contemplation. My problem ended up being the word faith. I know that I tend to take things very literal, either it's there or it isn't. Faith means a fog in between and it doesn't work for me. I simply know in my heart and my mind that God is there. Once I reconciled myself to that, church started meaning a great deal to me, and I have in fact grown as a person.

I did receive a great blessing last night at Bible study, when a new member asked for prayers for her two sons, both of which are Aspies. I introduced myself to her, and we proceeded to talk for quite a while. It has been overwhelming for her dealing with 2 teenage sons (13 & 16) that also have Aspergers, and I gave her a ton of info that she didn't know about (including your book). The relief that showed in her eyes told me that she no longer felt alone in dealing with this, the same way I felt after reading your book. This showed me that God was at work, and I was merely paying forward the help that I received from you. Yes, some folks will say this is merely faith. To me, this is fact. The only way that I can accept it.

John Elder Robison said...

M, I never suggested that people who reject religion are more advanced. You may have got that from a commenter but you didn't get it from me.

You suggested this post be broken into two, with the first part being "Do people on the spectrum tend to reject religion?" I started form Catherine's finding that yes, they do.

Nor do I advocate we reject the bible. I simply asked if changes to its language might render it more acceptable to certain people, and by doing so, make it a more effective document for today's world.

M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M said...

"Maybe we Aspergians are just on the cutting edge here, because of our predisposition toward logicality."

Cutting edge...I took that to mean "advanced". And I took it from your post.

"I started from Catherine's finding that yes, they do"

Like I said, I think the set up was fine...asking that question, pointing to statistics: interesting, legitimate topic.

But Asperger's = cutting edge; Bible = threats, dogma. I'm expressing a little discomfort here. I'm always curious about how Asperger's is being presented, so some of these assertions stood out to me.

"I wonder if the time has come to update the language of the bible to reflect modern times and customs."

Again, perfectly legitimate line of thought, but it strays from the initial question of "does AS = rejection of religion"...it puts AS in opposition to those with faith. Since the bible is being described as "threats and dogma", I worry that this post can be read as dismissive towards the religious. You're just sounding out the issue, not trying to dismiss anyone, but I was just trying to imagine how others might react.

"the Bible has remained the same. Do as I say, or feel the wrath of a vengeful God."

Just as another example. I think this stands in contrast to the first part of the post, so that's why I was thinking these ideas would be even more effective as two seperate discussions:

1. Are people with AS less likely to have religious beliefs?

2. Is religion obsolete?

Again, apples and oranges and I worry that mixing the topics creates an 'AS versus relion' tone.

Anyway, thanks for providing a format for discussing this.

The Pitman Geek said...

To me, it seems simple. When one looks to the Bible for logic, one will most likely reject the message. Aspies look for the logic and tend to dismiss most of the fallacies and contradictions.

I found "The Hidden Book in the Bible" by Richard Elliot Friedman a turning point for me, it put the Bible in the historical perspective I needed to fully reject it as "The Bible", but to accept it as the literature that it is.

Eileen said...

Hi John:

I don't really want to comment on your question. What I want to say is thank you for writing, "Look Me in the Eye." Recently, a friend who is a special ed teacher suggested we might want to look into the characteristics and traits of Aspergers Syndrome to explore whether or not my husband of 23 years is an Aspergian. After doing some research, I believe he is. Although this diagnosis hasn't been confirmed by a psychologist, I feel like I know my husband well enough to recognize his traits. He read the description over my shoulder and agreed (reluctantly--he questions everything's authenticy) that it does describe him. This revelation only came about three months ago and I'm still trying to take it all in. Anyway, I could go on forever because like you, he has been misdiagnosed, misunderstood, rejected by so many people over the course of our marriage--unfortunately many times by me too. Anyway, thanks for your work. Hopefully, he will be as successful as you have been in putting this new knowledge to good use.

laurieh said...

Interested in the thread. Wondering about empathy.

John, in your book, you wrote about the fact that you could not feel pain or sorrow for a group of people who were not closely connected to you. In social settings, you needed to use "logical empathy" to have some cognitive understanding and then make a socially expected response.

As someone who grew up Catholic and was taught by the nuns in a particular parish in Connecticut, I absorbed a view that religion was about escaping punishment.

Yet, when I had a crisis of faith 30 years ago, my faith turned much more to the view that relgion was about relationship. In particular, I started to believe in a god who had so much empathy for human beings - and so much of a desire to act on that empathy - that he gave up heaven to walk on earth and tell us about himself.
(Yes, there's a lot more that cannot be contained in this space - things like the extermination commands of the old testament as well as whether Jesus actually was resurrected from the dead.... these things are important - just too complicated for this small space)

It's not that I don't think logical rigor is important. As someone who graduated with an engineering major from an Ivy League college, I have continued to quest for more cognitive understanding of the landscape of my faith.

On the other hand, I do side with those who posit that logic can only take one so far in the understanding of god. There is a quest for understanding until one is at a point at which a "leap of faith" to quote Soren Kierkegaard. It is a leap beyond reason. But, it is a leap that many would say they take because of some concept called trust or faith that seems more to do with who they hope god to be than what they think god's rules are.

John, my intention in writing is not to cause you any distress. I was picqued by your writing about empathy and I just wondered about the connection between your experience and mine.

Thank you for listening to my musing. And, thank you again for writing. I have a dear nephew who is home, hopeless, after failing his first year of college. My sister asked the schools for help but they would not offer him an IEP. She worked very hard to coach him. I can remember a time when he approached his cousins and said, "That reminds me of ... " and proceeded to say something that was not relevant to the conversation.
To their credit, his family - including his cousins - have tried to show him that they do truly care about him. And, that has often taken the form of accomodating his conversation rather than challenging him.... a point you made very well in your book.

Thank you again, Laurie

Izgad said...

John
As a medieval and early modern historian I will tell you that your description of medieval government is a caricature at best, downright libel at its worst. The medieval world was a lot more complicated than people at the top giving out orders and everyone else obeying. In reality the common people, while they may have had less freedom than we do, did have a fair amount of control over their lives, more than we usually give them credit for. It is true that pre-modern societies had the pretense of being hierarchal, even if they were a lot less so in practice, while we modern make the pretense of being egalitarian, even if we are in practice a lot less so. This has important theological implications. People living under a hierarchal model of government are more likely to view God in those terms while people living in a society that values egalitarianism will view God in those terms. The Bible can be read from both sides. For example, earlier today we read in synagogue the story of Jonah. Jonah could be read as a sinful man who is forced by God to get in line. I read Jonah as someone who stands up to God and argues with him. Jonah is eventually compelled to go along but goes right along arguing. Even at the end of the story Jonah is still holding his ground.
I suspect that organized religion holds less of an appeal to Aspergers than it does for neurotypicals because a major part of organized religion is its social element. Aspergers are more likely to want to be spiritual, or not be spiritual, by themselves on their own terms rather than gather with other people to do spiritual things.

tidoubleguher said...

Just as an FYI, there is a version of the Bible written in a more modern language, called "The Message" and was translated by Eugene Peterson.

Navi said...

That's what the new testament is for. Especially the 1st four books or the gospel.

There's a lot of love in there that some religious groups ignore.

Lee said...

As an aspie I do consider myself a Christian, yes there are surely problems in a lot of churches today, but I believe in the divinity of Christ, and his example. That being said, certain stories in the Old Testament give me pause, certainly the parts where Moses had to intervene on behalf of the people to quell the wrath of God against them. The idea of a God who is having a tantrum, so to speak, and has to be calmed by a mere human seems illogical and frightening at the same time. Being all-wise and all-knowing, what's he so mad about?

Kanani said...

Well, I guess you could ask, is the Torah/Koran/Sutras obsolete?

I think anything that acts as a guide to living well, in peace and balance isn't obsolete.

In addition, the aforementioned along with the bible, if one is looking in historical terms, provides documentation of a set of beliefs that have shaped entire cultures.

Now, how we put these into play --well, that's another discusion. Because as we've all experienced, what they mean to the individual or to a group can differ greatly.

So what I don't like, and believe me, we are not as extreme as other countries --is the mixing of religion with politics. This is what creates the unease, pits one person against another.