Some of the more convoluted religious discussions I have participated in have been on the topic of salvation for the mentally disabled. Many religions claim that entrance into heaven is conditional upon certain acts of contrition and ritual manifestations of belief. Arbitrary acts of compliance, such as baptism, confession, communion, sacraments, endowments, and so on, are meant to show an all-knowing god that you really mean it--that you really do super-duper believe.
The question becomes, "since many mentally disabled people do not fully understand the meaning behind religious ceremonies, or are incapable of understanding what a god even is, are they required to go through these rites of passage in order to make it into heaven?"
I first encountered this question while on my mission, when a middle aged woman requested that her mentally retarded 20 year old son be baptized. As missionaries, we looked forward to any baptism. Even so, it seemed unnecessary to baptize a grown man with the mind of a five year old. Surely god would allow him into heaven based on his condition, which surely god had imposed on him in the first place.
A few years ago autism was reclassified and broadened to a spectrum disorder, which allows for gradation of symptoms and severity of the condition. Still, there are many things which are in common of autistics as a whole. For instance, autistics tend to be analytically minded, and black and white in their thinking. This makes nuanced social and moral situations difficult for them to process. Because of these attributes, autism is especially interesting when discussing the salvation of the mentally challenged.
A Mormon associate of mine has an 11 year old autistic son (let's call him Peter) who told his mother that he doesn't want to go to church anymore because he hasn't seen any evidence for Jesus. In contrast, a Mormon relative of mine also has an 11 year old autistic son (let's call him John) who loves going to church and often makes decisions concerning social interactions based on lessons he has learned at church. Peter is very independent—almost to a fault—and John depends greatly on his parents and younger brother for guidance.
When Peter's mother told me about his decision to stop going to church, several people in our group reassured her that "he will come around." In Mormonism this means that at some point Peter will have a spiritual experience, or a "burning in his bosom," which Mormons believe is a sign that god is talking to them.
This burning sensation, as far as my ex-Mormon mind can understand, is no different than a "burning" desire for a proposition to be true. Meaning, Mormons believe that because they "have a good feeling" about Mormonism, this means that Mormonism is true. But to me, this is hardly a sound reason to assume the supernatural.
Based on other encounters Peter's mother has shared with me, I don't see Peter "coming around" to Mormonism solely based on feelings. Mormons will likely dismiss his unbelief as a symptom of his mental state, and claim that god will (probably) forgive him accordingly. This makes heaven a consolation prize for those inconvenienced by god's extra-strength cruelty in this life, leaving those who only experience god's regular-strength cruelty to fend for themselves.
If god can so easily forgive a mentally disabled person predisposed to unbelief, why can't he do the same for the rest of us unbelievers? Why is belief in something for which there is no evidence so important for our eternal salvation? What kind of plan is this?
John, on the other hand, has come to rely on church lessons for moral context and pro-social behavior. Mormonism has become his “Rosetta Stone” into social interactions. He is one of the few people I have met who really values and thinks about phrases like "What Would Jesus Do?"
John will likely remain in Mormonism as an adult because he has developed a comfortable routine out of it--another attribute of many autistics. Mormonism helps him understand right and wrong. I have discussed in other posts how difficult it is for many people who have based their moral standard on a belief in god to reconsider their morality after realizing god doesn't exist. For an autistic person who has made religion a social barometer and a routine, this becomes exponentially more challenging.
It will be interesting to see how John turns out, especially considering his affinity for science and space exploration. I wonder how his mind will process a potential faith crisis after, say, praying for someone to get well and waiting in vain for a response from god. After all, the scriptures are clear in the chain of events: pray in faith for something righteous and god will grant it. Will he so easily accept the inconsistent ad hoc rationalizations offered by believers for god's apparent negligence? I can't say. I hope that if that day comes, he finds a secular worldview to be just as useful in determining his morals and social behavior.
South Park weighing in on the subject:
South Park weighing in on the subject: