Turkish Sociologist Declares Children With Autism Born Atheists


Recently, Turkish sociologist Fehmi Kaya declared in numerous Turkish media outlets that children with autism are “atheists due to a lack of a section for faith in
their brains.” He elaborated by saying, “That is why they don’t know how to pray, how to believe in God. It is necessary to create awareness [or religion] in these children through methods of therapy.” Digging the hole even deeper he declared, “Research says atheism and autistic children are linked. Researchers in the USA and Canada say that atheism is a different form of autism.”  His organization plans to hold sessions to help autistic children embrace religion beginning this June. 

Frighteningly, this man is the head of the Health and Education Associations for Autistic Children in his native land. When I tried the links to articles about his statements, they were all broken. Turns out, after a firestorm of anger he apologized to autism families, all the while never backing off of his initial premise: “The message I wished to give was not about autism and atheism, but to highlight that these children cannot communicate, cannot form empathy, live in their own worlds and are isolated.  I meant that we should take them out of their isolation
with proper therapy methods”. 

It’s tiresome to hear someone, especially someone with power and influence in the Turkish autism community, declare children with autism constitutionally incapable of empathy, especially when there is widespread acknowledgement that autism spectrum individuals can actually feel other people’s feelings too intensely to cope. And unable to communicate? Certainly, communication skills exist on a very broad spectrum. Is it offensive to give children with autism intensive therapy to sensitize them to religion?

Let it be said that Kaya isn’t making up his ideas out of whole cloth.  There is some credence to the idea that the concrete thinking of autism and the propensity of individuals with autism to navigate their world through logical reasoning lends itself to atheist thought. If something can’t be proven, logically it does not exist.  In 2011, a study by University of Boston did suggest that those with high functioning autism were ‘more likely’ to be atheists. 

Yet atheists are displeased with Kaya as well.  According to Carlos Diaz, president of the Atheist Alliance International, “There are scientifically valid methods for treating children with autism, but these have nothing to do with religion. It would be best for the child if treatment focuses on what actually works instead of a highly spurious goal of creating belief.” 

My major problem with Kaya is the rigidity of his declarations. In my own microcosm, one of my twin sons with autism is a spiritual quester, and the other an avowed atheist. In reflecting upon what has worked for my one son in his forays into religion, I suggest that more creativity and flexibility is required on the part of churches in order to reach members with autism.  My son Jackie attempted a formal worship service at a local church, but the hard-surfaced pews and the sheer formality quickly sent him into a tailspin. He couldn’t sit still and remain quiet and people around us glowered and “shh-ed” him. The end result was us bidding a hasty retreat as he starting melting down. 

In contrast, an “Experimental Worship” with stations featuring hands on activities such as lighting candles, weaving a prayer tapestry, asking for a blessing, dropping a stone in a bowl of water to represent letting go of a hurt, etc. was a wild success. As in any environment, accommodation is key. 

Discussions of religions are always fraught with peril. That said, I see my one son’s belief in an orderly universe governed by natural laws as his own sense of God.  And my other child’s spiritual sojourn as a quest for a spiritual community that accepts him as he is.