My struggle with Philosophy and Belief (PB/RE) – autism, religion and existential crisis. (Part 1)

So, as the title suggests, I’ve had several struggles with religion and philosophy which were undoubtedly informed by my autism. A lot of these revolved around secondary school Philosophy and Belief (PB) lessons, but they also influenced my home life and my internal spiritual philosophy. I did some research online and found that many autistics have struggled with similar things, and so thought it might be useful to finally share my experiences on this subject.

This is going to be a long account — originally I planned to split it into two parts, but now I see it’ll probably be best if I go year by year over the course of my school career — I haven’t finished editing this all yet, so I don’t know how many parts there will be (I’ll update this post when they’re all done), but I plan to cover my entire journey with philosophy and belief, right up to the present and my current attitudes towards religion and spirituality, exploring how I’ve found my peace with it and how my autism has influenced my experience. This first part will first provide some background of my early education, and cover my first year at secondary school (joining year seven) and my first interactions with PB in a classroom setting.

Last thing before we get started: please remember to like and follow this blog if you find it interesting — I know WordPress makes you create an account, but you only have to do it once and it takes two minutes to set up, and it really helps out this blog. Thanks so much. Now let’s get to the post!

So, first a bit of background. As a child, I attended a fairly small Church of England primary school. Under the first headmistress it was quite religious, then when I was in Year Two (about eight years old) we got a new headmistress who made the school more secular. Throughout this time I never particularly considered my faith — I was Christian by default as it were, because I had been christened, and I didn’t know of any other option. All I noticed about the change in headmistress was that now we sang a couple of different songs in assembly and not so many hymns. I liked going to church on special occasions because it was exciting, and the only times I really considered my faith was in the way that I linked it with being good. I was taught that being a good person meant being a good Christian, in the same way, for example, that being a good student made me a good person. I was Christian because in my mind that was the good and obvious thing to do — it was what everybody around me did. At home, my family weren’t particularly religious. We went to church at Christmas and Easter and whatnot but besides that we were just happy at home.

It all started when I got to my secondary school, which was a secular state school. As my horizons expanded, I started out calling myself agnostic, and then pretty quickly decided on atheist, but this wasn’t such a big deal in my mind, more of a natural shift. Most people I knew now were atheist — and after talking to them I quickly saw the logical inconsistencies in my beliefs. I think it was easy for me to shed them because I wasn’t particularly invested in my faith.

At secondary school, Philosophy and Belief (PB) (which was basically what I had done in primary school under the name of RE, or Religious Education, only this time slightly more secularly taught) was a compulsory subject, from Year Seven through to GCSE.

In Year Seven, I generally managed well in PB. I’m good at essay writing so I found it quite easy, and I didn’t mind learning about the different religions and their customs. The curriculum was very Christian-centric, and while now I criticise the lack of breadth and diversity, at the time it meant I was basically already familiar with most of the content, having come from a Christian primary school.

Then we got on to the topic of big questions. ‘Universal’ questions. Questions like: Why are we here? Is there a god? Is there such a thing as objective morality? I kid you not, at one point our teacher actually presented us, a class of twelve-year-olds, with the trolley problem and let us debate our responses.

All of this was earth-shattering for me. I had never before considered these questions on anything more than a surface level, and I was, to put it mildly, existentially alarmed. What could I do with this new existential awareness of my own place in the universe? Where could I put the anxiety that arose in me at the thought that maybe there wasn’t inherent meaning to life? What could I do with my newly formed doubts about the nature of morality, ethics and the role of religion? My autism meant that my way of viewing the world was very black-and-white, and that I saw authority and institutions as rigid and unchanging things. All my life I had thrived on the assumption that the world was logical, that there was order and stability, and I used my routines to establish security. But there were no routines that I could build to help me cross the minefield of existential dread. My newfound atheism meant that I had no god to ascribe the creation of the world to, no comforting explanations for life’s apparent lack of meaning. My dichotomous moral framework was incompatible with the nuanced ethical dilemmas I was now being confronted with, and as such each lesson in this topic became a whirlwind of emotions.

Now, this in itself was not a bad thing. I think it was incredibly valuable for me to have my beliefs and way of thinking challenged. I bring this up in order to illustrate how this process, which should happen to everyone at some point in their lives, was made rather more distressing than it might have been had I been neurotypical, because of my asperger’s.

What was worse was that while everyone else seemed to shrug it off when the lesson ended, I couldn’t. I would stare in bewilderment as students who, five minutes ago, had been lamenting the meaningless of it all with all the grand ostentation of preteen nihilism, would, the moment the lesson changeover bell rang, be bright and cheerful as usual, apparently entirely unconcerned with the fact that the world to me still seemed to have no inherent meaning. I change moods very slowly — things that affect me on an emotional or intellectual level usually stick around in my brain for a while and continue to trouble me.

Now, while these topics troubled me, it’s important to say that I didn’t dislike this subject. As I said already, now I think it’s important that we are confronted with new material that challenges our beliefs, but even back then, I thought PB was of the utmost importance. However, my approach was to try to figure out these questions through extensive pondering. My autism and resulting desire for straightforward, logical answers made me highly reluctant to accept initially that there simply weren’t proven answers to my questions. That was the most painful thing, and my belief in the importance of PB made it worse. I saw the question of ‘the meaning of life’ as raised in my PB lessons as one that was imperative for me to go on living — I didn’t understand how anyone could carry on without having it answered definitively. I kept thinking: Why hasn’t somebody figured it out yet? My belief in rationality of the universe was shaken, and that shook me.

The important thing during this time for me was the reassurance of my parents. While they could tell me all day that it was okay that there were no concrete answers, I was still immovable. What made it bearable was their willingness to talk calmly about these topics, not dismissing their nuance but presenting it to me slowly, allowing me to debate it with them, over and over again. It was this constant repetition which allowed reality to eventually sink in. I’m so grateful that my parents had the patience to put up with my questioning, which in the end was less about expecting real answers and more about venting my incredulity, frustration and subconscious terror at the revelation, and which was nonetheless a crucial part of my development.

So, I managed to get through Year Seven with only mild emotional turbulence. At that time PB was one of many subjects I was taking, so it didn’t take up much of my week, which gave me time in between to calm down about the questions it raised. Something that will become a recurring theme in these blog posts is my young self trying to grapple with concepts she just didn’t have the maturity to grasp, and I think this was the first stages of that.

But that’s all for today. In the next part, I’ll look at Years Eight and Nine, including a specific anecdote from my Year Eight PB class which resulted in me leaving the class for almost the entirety of the year. I’ll talk about some of the strategies we developed to cope with my existential distress and how we managed aspects of my emotions that were heightened by my ASD. So I look forward to seeing you in the next one! Please remember to like and follow if you got something out of this blog, and share on social media if someone you know would be interested. Thanks so much for all the support, and leave a comment with any questions you have or things you’d like me to cover in future posts. Thanks again!

One thought on “My struggle with Philosophy and Belief (PB/RE) – autism, religion and existential crisis. (Part 1)

  1. clairesagecounselling July 10, 2022 / 11:36 am

    Hours and hours of debate.😆. But they were as valuable to us as they were to you!
    Did I mention there were hours….possibly days…months…😉

    Liked by 1 person

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