A Little Evidence That Atheists and Theists Don’t “Simply Think Differently”

In order to respond to certain misunderstandings based on this post’s original, provocative title (Do Atheists Just Have Asperger’s?) I have re-edited it and retitled it.  There is now a new opening paragraph and extra concluding paragraphs.

It is often suggested that the difference between theists and atheists might simply stem from differences in their naturally given (or is that “God-given”?) brains.  Some people, the hypothesis goes, are just born to believe and some are just born to not believe.  I find this thesis has a hopelessly crude view of biology and is refuted by my own life experience of having both been first a theist and then an atheist (what happened, was I “born again”, only this time as an atheist?).  And, worse, if true this hypothesis would imply that epistemology was hopelessly unable to overcome psychology.  If our brains are conditioned such that we cannot help but think there is a God if we are born one way and we cannot help but think there is not a God if we are born another way, then there is no way to adjudicate between the claims of the believer and the unbeliever since they are simply believing the only way they know how.  This would either put an end to rational investigation of the question since inevitably people’s conclusions would be conditioned by this innate belief or disbelief and claims by believers that unbelievers are missing some rational piece of evidence would only reflect their initial believing or unbelieving natures.  All the arguments adduced in one direction or the other would be unpersuasive rationalization of a brain-prejudiced position.

I saw a bit of evidence against this “different brain” hypothesis in a study that compared atheists to those with Asperger’s syndrome.  The study discovered a different way that atheist thinking diverges from theist thinking than the way that Asperger’s influenced thinking does.  The difference is one that illuminates that atheists do not naturally and inevitably miss the theist’s categories of supernatural/superstitious explanation for natural events but rather can think in such categories but deliberately reject such thinking as invalid.  The contrast revealed in the study is between those who have Asperger’s syndrome who do not even cognize supernatural/superstitious explanations as among the available options in the first place and atheists who have  supernatural/superstitious explanations occur to them before going ahead and rejecting them as irrational/unsupported/invalid, etc.

The study apparently just asked people “why” certain major events in their lives happened and atheists specifically noted that the connotation of “why” that implied “purposeful (presumably non-human) agency” was illegitimate and that only natural causes were explicative of why natural events unfolded as they did.  On the other hand, those with Asperger’s did not even cognize that a “purposeful (presumably non-human) agency” could be the sort of reason being asked for and proceeded just to give the natural causal reasons they thought brought about the events:

Working with experimental psychologist Jesse M. Bering (author of the “Bering in Mind” blog and a frequent contributor to Scientific American MIND), she asked them to speculate about why these important events happened—for instance, why they had gone through an illness or why they met a significant other. As compared with 34 neurotypical people, those with Asperger’s syndrome were significantly less likely to invoke a teleological response—for example, saying the event was meant to unfold in a particular way or explaining that God had a hand in it. They were more likely to invoke a natural cause (such as blaming an illness on a virus they thought they were exposed to) or to give a descriptive response, explaining the event again in a different way.In a second experiment, Heywood and Bering compared 27 people with Asperger’s with 34 neurotypical people who are atheists.

The atheists, as expected, often invoked anti-teleological responses such as “there is no reason why; things just happen.” The people with Asperger’s were significantly less likely to offer such anti-teleological explanations than the atheists, indicating they were not engaged in teleological thinking at all. (The atheists, in contrast, revealed themselves to be reasoning teleologically, but then they rejected those thoughts.)

So, for the atheists there was a more deliberate decision to reject unfounded hypotheses, whereas for those with Asperger’s there was less need for a deliberate decision since their minds apparently were not inclined at all to consider interpreting these non-social kinds of events in the wrong (social) categories in the first place.  It is unclear, of course, whether the atheists actually themselves first thought in teleological terms of agency behind the events and then explicitly were rejecting them, or whether they were pointing out that there was no teleological cause because they were more socially sensitive and so alert to the possibility that their questioners thought that way and meant to ask about that connotation.  I wonder if the study actually explored that possible interpretation of the atheists’ behavior.

But in either case, it was clear that the purposeful connotation of “why” and the supernatural and superstitious mode of reasoning about natural events that thinks that way did occur as something comprehensible and possible to the atheists and, also, as capable of dismissal.  The difference between the atheist and the theist mind seems simply to be in the willingness to reject such possibilities as unfounded, but not in an inability, or lack of a general propensity, to think of them in the first place.

I think the ethical challenge and difficulty for the average mind, including the average atheist’s mind, is to overcome the faulty normal cognitive wiring that leads us to interpret even non-social interactions in social ways.  If someone does not have that faulty wiring to begin with (like, presumably the average person with Asperger’s), then no virtuous struggle is required.  If someone does have the normal faulty wiring, and yet can will herself to assess things in rationally grounded terms, rather than according to her mind’s natural propensity for projective, anthropomorphic thinking, I would call that an intellectual virtue of an ethical kind, rather than of an involuntary natural power sort like many with Asperger’s seem to have (as their trade off for the unfortunate loss of other involuntary natural powers of social perception).

On Edit:

I’ve been getting comments that imply people have misunderstood my point or the point of this research, so I want to make a few points clear.

1.  The research is not saying that atheists suffer from a developmental disorder, it is showing a specific way in which we should not see atheists as just cognitively abnormal as some religious apologists argue.  Rather it is showing only (a) that those who suffer from Asperger’s syndrome have a trade-off benefit of not having to work to get themselves to cognize natural relationships properly (even though they struggle with social relationships), and (b) that atheists can understand supernatural/superstitious ways of understanding natural events as caused by intentions of unseen agency and yet still do not believe in such things.  This means that atheists do not simply have different categories for processing natural events or a brain that naturally avoids using social categories for explaining natural events automatically that distinguishes them from religious people.  But, rather, atheists can understand such thinking, have it possibly occur to themselves, and yet still reject it.  The comparison to people with Asperger’s syndrome helps illuminate this point by showing an example of what a genuine inability (or near inability) to sponteneously think supernaturalistically might look like and making clear that atheists do not have this inability.

2.  So, this research is providing a piece of evidence that atheists and theists do not simply have incommensurably different cognitive wiring.  While every individual is of course unique, the average atheist and the average theist are likely born with the average propensities for thinking in terms of supernatural agency and superstition and the difference is that the atheist and the religious person either choose to accept such explanations or to reject them.  If both the atheist and the religious person start out with the same propensities both to think supernaturalistically and if they both have the ability to reject thinking supernaturalistically, then rational disputes with genuine prospects for rationally determined conclusions are possible.

In other words, if atheists are just as capable of supernaturalistic/superstitious thinking as theists are and yet we reject such explanations out of adherence to stricter and more justifiable epistemic criteria (criteria for determining true beliefs from false) then atheists do not simply have different brains from the average, religious one, but atheists have the same natural cognitive biases and are rationally choosing to think more strictly and rule against judgments that are conditioned by cognitive biases and not supportable by deliberative reason.  And in that case, the theist would not be explicable as someone naturally wired to think with cognitive biases in an irremediable way and, thus, someone who should not be reasoned with (since he’s supposedly cognitively incapable of not believing in God).  Rather we can infer that theists, just like atheists, have the ability to override their reliance on certain cognitive biases toward anthropomorphism and that rational appeals to convince them to do so are not inevitably futile.

If theists can respond to reason, if they do not simply have “different mental categories” than atheists, then it is false when people tell us atheists that it is at minimum a waste of time and at maximum riskily counter-productive to try to reason with theists against their belief in God and instead that we should simply patronize their beliefs, hide our own, and hope for the best.

That theism or atheism is not “biologically fated” is patently obvious to me, as someone who was once passionately and devoutly religious and who went through a highly rationalistic deconversion and rejection of faith-based thinking based on years of both informal and formal philosophical and theological studies.  But, nonetheless, there are definitely different degrees of propensity towards different ways of forming judgment between different people.  That’s equally obvious.  What we need is evidence that the categories in which atheists and theists actually think are not themselves completely different and foreign to each other’s, such that we can show that it really is just (alterable) degrees of propensity in one direction or another and extent of social conditioning and differences in rational exposure and training, etc. that all make up the differences in beliefs.

Any evidence that atheists and theists share the same cognitive categories and yet make different choices about where to assent with belief and where not to within the deliverances of those categories is good news for anyone who hopes that disagreements are in principle rationally resolvable by people who sincerely love and prioritize truth above their other biasing interests.  It is also good news for those who hope that questions related to the best beliefs concerning God’s existence or non-existence can be explored rationally and not be a matter of psychologically irresolvable disagreements that make discord or patronization the only options.  If we share the same default ways of thinking and if we share the same kinds of rational processes for investigating beliefs and for grasping strengths and weaknesses in various kinds of evidence, then, hopefully, with enough careful investigation into what parts of our common patterns of inference are error-prone and what kinds truth-conducive, and with enough commitment to truth and reason above all else, our debates can at least be productive, rather than futile.  I am pretty confident this is the case and that’s why I have hope for rational debate as a valuable and effective endeavor.

This study offers just a bit of confirming evidence for my view and against the fatalists.

Jesse Bering’s forthcoming book is The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life.

Thanks to Jessica for the link.

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  • No Way

    Sorry to be so late to the party:) This is fascinating. One of the things that you pointed out very well is that theists/NT’s see everything as a social relationship. Even though they know that the toaster isn’t burning toast to get at them they still experience it that way? This mirrors how someone with aspergers sees people as being like machines. Someone has done a study showing just this. NT’s in the study reacted differently when they were told they were playing against a machine. Those on the autistic spectrum reacted the same way irregardless of whether they were playing against a person or a machine.