Does Autism Lead to Atheism?

In most religions—and arguably anything worth being called a religion—God is not just an impersonal force or creator. He has a mind that humans can relate to. Maybe you’re not gossiping on the phone with him late at night, but he has personality traits, thoughts, moods, and ways of communicating with you. If you didn’t know what a mind was or how it worked, not only would you not understand people, you would not understand God, and you would not be religious.

That’s the theory, anyway. Scientists who study religion have come to agree that belief in God (or gods) relies on everyday social cognition: our ability—and propensity—to think about minds. (See chapters 6 and 7 of my book.) Which means if you are autistic, and unable to “mentalize,” you would be an atheist. New research published today in PLoS ONE provides fresh evidence for this claim.

But first, the existing evidence.

Jesse Bering, in a 2002 paper, noted that in autobiographical accounts written by people with high-functioning autism, God is more a principle than a person. He/it provides order but isn’t much concerned with human affairs—the idea of him satisfies the intellect rather than the emotions. Temple Grandin, for example, described God as the entanglement of millions of interacting particles.

In line with such a conception of the divine, Simon Baron-Cohen, who proposed the mindblindness theory of autism, told me that “sometimes I meet people with autism who are religious, but their motivation is driven more by the rules (the system) in theology rather than the anthropomorphizing.”

One outcome of the ability to mentalize is the ability to think teleologically—to see the purpose of objects or events. (Rocks and rainstorms have no purpose, but shovels and showering do.) I found one blog post by a woman with Asperger’s syndrome who wrote that as a child, “The world I perceived was a random, self-sufficient system. It wasn’t built; it grew. (When I was little, I thought houses and roads were some kind of large plant that grew out of the ground; if you had told me people made them I would’ve been thunderstruck).” She didn’t get that some things were created for a reason.

When people see an event as divine intervention, or a result of intelligent design, they’re just letting their teleological bias run amok. They’re attributing purpose where there is none. Bethany Heywood, in collaboration with Jesse Bering, found in her Ph.D. research that even atheists tend to say that certain things happened to them “for a reason,” e.g., to teach them a lesson. But subjects with Asperger’s gave significantly fewer teleological responses than a control group did, and several even expressed confusion regarding the questions about purpose. One, misinterpreting a prompt for “a coincidence you saw meaning in,” wrote, “in practical application, I wear nice clothes and make my hair presentable. Coincidentally people are more friendly towards me.”

The strongest connection between atheism and autism before now was a paper presented at a conference last year by Catherine Caldwell-Harris and collaborators at Boston University. Survey respondents with high-functioning autism were more likely than control subjects to be atheists and less likely to belong to an organized religion. (They were also more likely to have religious ideas of their own construction, perhaps something similar to Temple Grandin’s.) And atheists were higher on the autistic spectrum than Christians and Jews. But the researchers were not able to demonstrate that mentalizing deficits were responsible for the connection.

That’s where the new paper comes in. Ara Norenzayan and Will Gervais of the University of British Columbia and Kali Trzesniewski of UC Davis report on four studies. The first study replicates the finding of the BU research: 12 autistic and 13 neurotypical adolescents took part, and the neurotypical subjects were ten times as likely to strongly endorse God.

The other three studies went further. They included hundreds of participants from a variety of demographics in the US and Canada and used various measures of belief in God and of mentalizing abilities. The results of all three followed the same pattern.

First, people with higher scores on the Autism Spectrum Quotient (items included “I am fascinated by numbers,” and “I find social situations [difficult]”) had weaker belief in a personal God. Second, reduced ability to mentalize mediated this correlation. (Mentalizing was measured with the Empathy Quotient, which assesses self-reported ability to recognize and react to others’ emotions, and with a task that requires identifying what’s being expressed in pictures of eyes. Systematizing—interest in and aptitude for mechanical and abstract systems—was correlated with autism but was not a mediator.) Third, men were much less likely than women to say they strongly believed in a personal God (even controlling for autism), and this correlation was also mediated by reduced mentalizing.

“It’s hard to have an experience of God in your life unless you think of him as a person, with mental states, who you can pray to, who will answer your prayers, who cares about you,” Norenzayan told me a couple years ago, when he was conducting this research.

He and his collaborators point out that mentalizing deficits are of course not the only path to atheism. There are also cultural and educational influences—exposure to other skeptics, say—and cognitive style—some people are more likely to use rationality to second-guess superstition.

But the finding that religion and mentalizing are so tightly bound emphasizes an argument I make in my book: magical thinking is just a natural extension of the everyday thinking that makes us (neurotypically) human. As far as the brain is concerned, God is one of us.

19 thoughts on “Does Autism Lead to Atheism?

  1. A few years back, we looked at correlations between autistic and schizophrenic traits in a student population. We found strong associations, which we were initially quite excited about given historical and theoretical links between autism and schizophrenia. But then we realised that half the items on the autistic traits questionnaire were essentially rewordings of questions on the schizotypy questionnaire. This might tell us something about our conceptions of what autism and schizophrenia are, but the correlation itself was boring in its inevitability. I’d worry that the same thing applies here. To what extent are the questionnaires just asking the same question and calling it different things?

    As for people with autism having impaired mentalizing, there’s a big difference between not having a concept of other people’s mental states and being unable to compute those mental states in real time. Most people with high functioning autism or Asperger syndrome clearly have difficulties with the latter but not the former (if you need convincing, just read any article on the Autism and Empathy blog). I’m not sure how that squares with the theory being put forward.

    • So belief in God was quantified by a four item questionnaire:

      I believe in God

      When I am in trouble, I find myself wanting to ask God for help.

      When people pray they are only talking to themselves

      I don’t really spend much time thinking about my religious beliefs

      Note that each of those questions involves a mental state and self reflection on that mental state. Question 4 involves reflecting on your own reflection in your own beliefs. That’s meta-meta-cognition!

      • That’s a good point, but the scale has been validated against other measures of religiosity. All self-report scales will involve some amount of metacognition, but one’s ability to reflect does not necessarily predict what one will say when one does reflect. (“Yes I do enjoy church” vs “No I don’t enjoy church,” etc.)

        • That argument might hold for the first question. But the third and fourth questions are about metacognition itself (the metacognition doesn’t just come from the self-reflective nature of the questionnaire). So it’s entirely predictable (and thus uninteresting) that the religiosity questionnaire correlates with the “empathy” questionnaire, which if you look at it is also all about metacognition.

          • The fourth question taps directly into mentalizing, but the third I would argue does not. It takes no more theory of mind to believe that the recipient of prayer is someone else than to believe that it is oneself. (They’re both second-order TOM.) Further, most of the questions on the Intrinsic Religious Motivation Scale, which has been used to validate this scale, do not directly measure metacognition.

  2. “As for people with autism having impaired mentalizing, there’s a [HUGE] difference between not having a concept of other people’s mental states and being unable to compute those mental states in real time.”

    Boom!

    (Thanks, Jon!)

  3. Don’t forget this: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2010/05/29/people-with-aspergers-less-likely-to-see-purpose-behind-the-events-in-their-lives/

    Nonautistic atheists reason teleologically, i.e. they’re basically religious. It might be a fair guess that nonautistics’ oxytocin-regulated awareness of social hierarchies gives them a god-shaped hole to fill.

    Is it really a widely held belief that autistics aren’t aware that other people have intentions? Has anyone thought to ask them?

    • “Nonautistic atheists reason teleologically, i.e. they’re basically religious.”

      exsqueeze me?

      as far as I know, I’m not even mildly autistic;
      but I definitely have been an atheist since earliest childhood; and I’m also quite aware that the universe is non-teleological.

      atheism is the logical outcome of beginning from a null hypothesis; so is a non-teleological perspective.

    • “Is it really a widely held belief that autistics aren’t aware that other people have intentions? Has anyone thought to ask them?”

      It’s not just a widely held belief; it’s how atheist is defined. The greater awareness you demonstrate of others’ intentions, the lower on the autistic spectrum you are diagnosed.

  4. Pingback: De interessante correlatie tussen autisme en atheïsme « Taede A. Smedes

  5. I know this post is over a year old, but would anyone know of simular studies to this one, particularly if they are on open access academic databases? I ask this both as a father of two AS children and as a Biblical scholar with an interest in the subject of the role of cognition on theological/philosophical theory formation.

  6. I’ve only read a little bit from you so far, I was turned on to an article about trick math questions and belief in God and I have to say, Matthew, you’re down the road of really bad logic.

    First that article, I can tell, and everyone who is unbiased can tell, you’re trying to make the argument some kind of intelligence is related to lack of belief, but its not.

    Not only did I get the trick math questions right, but it occured to me that all you would have to do to undo your results is do a second control test where you warn everyone ahead of time that the questions will require ‘more thought than it appears at first’ and I promise you everyone, believer and non believer alike would get around the same statistical result.

    So all that little test proves is how suspicious someone is of math questions before recieving them, to put it comically, it proves a kind of correlation, but nothing near causation.

    And like I said I got your questions right, and I’m a complete believer in God, and Jesus Christ. The only difference between me and a test subject is that variable I just mentioned, whether or not I am suspicious of math questions that look like tricks.

    And now I see this article, about Autism, about the girl there who thought roads ‘grew’. And if you’re trying to promote atheism or the idea that rational healthy minds are less likely to believe in religion you’re doing the opposite here, to summarize the implication of the title of your article and including that example I just mentioend: Brain damaged people may be more likely to be less religious or have erronous ideas about what is intelligently designed and what is not.

    Likely your motivations for doing these kinds of articles are varied, like earning a living, and so on and so forth. But I’ll be honest with you, in my opinion, anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see you’re not whole heartedly after the truth.

    • You suggest that telling people to think carefully about the math problem would eliminate the differences between people. If that were the case, it would actually support the supposition that the trick math problems (without a warning) are a good indicator of who tends to automatically think carefully about things. And that they can be used to show a link between having that tendency and being a nonbeliever.

      Also, if my motivation really were “to make the argument some kind of intelligence is related to lack of belief,” I would not write that researchers “showed that paranormal beliefs were only weakly related to cognitive ability, consistent with previous research.”

      I’m happy you got the math problems right, but it will take more than one outlier to break a statistical correlation.

  7. Interesting article, but perhaps it isn’t that the Autistic mind tends toward atheism because of insufficient “mentalizing” abilities, but rather, the Neurotypicals tend toward religion specifically because of an acute sensitivity to cultural norms. That is, an NT becomes religious and professes religious experiences because it is known that this is expected behavior. Perhaps it is worth pointing out that by and large, the religion that is presumed to be true, the absolutely correct explanation of the universe, and that all others are false, is a function of where a person is born. The implication is that the “correctness” of a given religion is a heavily acculturated one, rather than an actually logically provable one. The Autistic is detached from the ability to become readily acculturated, so the logic of teleology and theology falls apart when rationally dissected.

  8. First, people with higher scores on the Autism Spectrum Quotient (items included “I am fascinated by numbers,” and “I find social situations [difficult]”) had weaker belief in a personal God.

    Fascination with numbers is on the test for Autism? That doesn’t sound right. That kind of stereotyping makes it hard for me to take ASQ seriously. Maybe they should’ve polled people diagnosed with an ASD regarding their belief in God and compared it to Neurotypicals?

    Second, reduced ability to mentalize mediated this correlation. (Mentalizing was measured with the Empathy Quotient, which assesses self-reported ability to recognize and react to others’ emotions, and with a task that requires identifying what’s being expressed in pictures of eyes. Systematizing—interest in and aptitude for mechanical and abstract systems—was correlated with autism but was not a mediator.)

    The eyes test doesn’t help you determine whether or not someone is Autistic. You can probably guess from this post that I’m on the spectrum. I’ve taken that test and many other people on the spectrum have taken it and scored in the average range. You can take as much time as you need to read the expressions from a still photograph.

  9. Pingback: All Paths Lead to Magical Thinking | The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking

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