Autism Study Contributes to Finding the Origin of Faith in God

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have found a much lower degree of theism amongst the autistic, linking their lack of belief to their diminished mentalizing capacity. Mentalizing can roughly be defined as the ability to imagine what other people are thinking and to perceive or interpret behavior in accordance to intentional mental states (understanding needs, desires, reasons, etc). Original research available here.

It has long been understood that people with autism have diminished mentalizing capacity. What does this have to do with religion? Well, most people interpret God as a real personality with intentions, goals, feelings and a relationship to the believer. This sort of construct is something that would likely require the capacity for mentalizing. One way to confirm this is to look at belief in gods in a group of people with mentalization defects. People on the autism spectrum were the perfect candidates and, in fact, confirmed the mentalization-religion relationship. The study also found a few other interesting tidbits:

  • No positive correlation was found between I.Q and belief in the sample of autistic patients.
  • Men were more likely to be nonbelievers than women, and this was related by the authors to a diminished capacity for mentalizing on the part of men, something that has been well established in the past.
  • An interest in math, science and engineering was not found to be predictive of disbelief in the sampled groups.

Though obviously not the object of the study, I find the lack of correlation between IQ and nonbelief very interesting. Many within the atheist community believe, publicly or privately, that nonbelief must correlate positively with intelligence. It’s a belief as self-serving as it is widespread. Beyond the issue I have with using IQ as a universal predictor of intelligence (which would fill a post of its own), I think that we need a larger study that focuses on the relationship between intelligence and religiosity.

The already well-known difference in religious faith between men and women is confirmed here. The authors mention more than once that the origin of this difference continues to be “vigorously debated,” which is a very polite way of putting it. Relating the differing rates of belief to differing mentalization abilities suggests an origin that is more than superficial but it would be very difficult to weed out to what degree it’s ingrained. Because men and women are socialized differently, it’s hard to separate nature from nurture in many cases. However, it’s also not honest to simply dismiss the possibility of biological differences. Autism is often diagnosed when a child is a toddler, before most socialization has occurred, and it affects more boys than girls, even when you account for diagnostic bias. It could be that some of the same variables that make men more likely to suffer from autism also facilitate nonbelief.

None of this means that religiosity is totally inextricable from humanity, though it is obviously very well entrenched. The more we understand about both the cultural and biological, the better able we’ll be to give people the tools needed to extricate the particular imaginary intentional agent that is God.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Claudia

I'm a lifelong atheist and a molecular biologist with a passion for science and a passionate opposition to its enemies.

  • Martin

    It makes sense, religion being a tool for socializing, and autism being a variation in humans with symptoms relating to socializing in “normal” human settings.  The rise of autism if genetically inherited could just be a matter of evolution, past socializing methods for human populations relying on far spread communities with people coming and going, needing a common social tool to belong to outside groups losing frequency in an environment where everything is connected 24/7 with very very close populations.

  • Fsq

    SEXIST!!!!!!

    How dare they suggest men are less inclined to believe than women…AH AHH AHHHHHHHHHH MISOGYNIST!!!!!!! SEXIST!!!!!!

    • Wild Rumpus

       Look, can we please stop discussing men’s rights on this blog – it’s supposed to be about atheism!!!!

    • http://www.facebook.com/tiffy422 Tiffany Thorne

      of all places, …you took it there?

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

         What did you expect, something reasonable from a troll?

        • Fsq

          You must hate men based on your post.

          Manhater.

          What can we expect from a sexist.

          • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

             Go fuck yourself with a rusty chainsaw.

            You’ve proven, time and time again, to be a troll. Shove off.

            • Fsq

              manhater.

              You are a sexist.

              • M J Shepherd

                I actually choked on the phallic-shaped irony.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

      …and yet, I don’t see one comment here implying that this research is sexist. It’s pretty commonly known that women are more likely to be religious than men. Why would we claim sexism over a simple fact?
      The fact that you’re mockingly crying “sexism!” when no one here actually took it as sexist at all shows that you obviously have no understanding about sexist issues. Women don’t scream Rape!, Sexism!, or Harassment! over nothing. We are actually smart, capable people and there are reasons that we claim some things to be sexist, whether or not you see those reasons.
      It’s great to see people like you who are hard at work making sure that no one believes us when we claim something to be sexist. Awesome.

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Rev. Ouabache

    Many within the atheist community believe, publicly or privately, that nonbelief must correlate positively with intelligence.

    It may not correlate with intelligence but it does correlate with education which is still interesting.

    • Bubba Tarandfeathered

       I am a high school dropout with no college degrees and I am a firm disbeliever.

      • eonL5

        That’s ok. Correlation is almost never even close to 100%.

    • Pseudonym

      Education also correlates with homosexuality and conversion between religions, and probably for the same (hypothesised, but likely) reason: education encourages more self-discovery, and allows you to mix with people you didn’t grow up with.

      As you know, the biggest predictor of your religion is the religion of your parents. Education probably acts as a counter to that effect. It’s not the only thing that can counter it, but it’s been the biggest so far.

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Thomas Lawson

    I know that you know that I know that you know that I can tell what you’re thinking. Yet I’m still not religious. Curious.

  • Wim

    Researcher Evan Kidd says kids generally become more social and empathic when they have imaginary friends because it allows them to develop a better theory of mind. Our evolution as a social species may have made us prone to imagine the minds of others, and by extension some kind of super-mind. Could be evidence for belief in (a) god(s) as a byproduct.

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    Well, if religious belief is based on the tendency to see agency inappropriately, then it makes sense that those who are not good at seeing agency (the autistic) do not believe in God.

  • advancedatheist

    And yet we see all these functionally autistic (FA) people who attribute agency and minds to fictional characters in geek-oriented pop culture; to FA extraterrestrials who they imagine resemble themselves (in having similar interests) and whom they want to communicate with; and to “artificial intelligences” they think will appear some day in the world’s computers. Just refer to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s fans for examples of the latter. 

    • Esattezza

      I’m pretty well associated with both “geek-oriented pop culture” and the autism community, bu I have no idea what you’re talking about… Though I suspect you overestimate the number of geek-oriented pop culture characters that would likely be diagnosed. The best candidate I can think of is Sheldon. And, besides… You know…. Fiction.

    • texting_and_scones

      You seem to be suggesting that neurotypical people don’t attribute agency and minds to fictional characters. Have you ever been part of a literature class? Attributing agency to fictional constructs (“the author is dead,” after all) is a good third of what people do there. Spirited, dedicated, informal exegesis of Star Trek novels doesn’t mean participants are literal believers in Kahless.

  • Miko

    It’d be better if they first proved that autism actually is correlated with diminished mentalizing capacity.

    • I_Claudia

       The association of autism to diminished mentalizing capacity is, as I understand it,  well established (some references below) and thus was not the subject of this study. In any event they did not merely assume that individuals on the autism spectrum had diminished mentalizing capacities and then ask them about their faith. They measured mentalizing capacity and were able to correlate a diminished one (which they did find in the autistic) to lower prevalence of religious belief. They also measured it in a normal population and also found a link between diminished mentalizing and atheism.

      Refs provided by the authors, if you want to check them out:

      Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S (2004) The Empathy Quotient: An investigation of adults with Asperger Syndrome or high functioning autism, and normal sex differences. J Autism Devel Dis 34: 163–175.

      Crespi BJ, Badcock C (2008) Psychosis and autism as diametrical disorders of the social brain. Behav Brain Sci 31: 284–320.

      Castelli F, Frith C, Happe´ F, Frith U (2002) Autism, Asperger syndrome and brain mechanisms for the attribution of mental states to animated shapes. Brain 125: 1839–1849.

      Gray K, Jenkins AC, Heberlein AH, Wegner DM (2011) Distortions of mind perception in psychopathology. Proc Natl Acad Sci 108: 477–479

      • revaaron

        At least Miko didn’t accuse anyone of ableism or neurotypical oppression.

  • Fang

    Really interesting subject, and it inadvertently furnished an answer to a question that had popped into my head.

    “Why are women so much more religious then men?” or something along that terms.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

      Well the mentalizing capacity seems to be a promising explanation. Men have a lower mentalizing capacity, which gives them a slight advantage in rational thinking, but a disadvantage in social areas. Women have a higher mentalizing capacity which gives them an advantage in social skills, but a slight disadvantage in rationality.

      Obviously, the differences are very slight, and by no means definite. Any woman can be more rational and any man can be more social/emotional. There are still plenty of religious men and skeptic women. But the effect of mentalizing capacity is much more pronounced when you look at autistic people. They have a very difficult time understanding the emotions of others. Think how hard it would be to understand the thoughts and emotions of someone they can’t see.

      One thing I have noticed during my years growing up in the church was that men were less likely to care in the first place. I mean, there were tons of guys I knew that were very serious about their faith and are now training to be pastors or youth leaders. But there were always some where you could tell that it just didn’t make sense to them. They were dragged along to church by their parents, but they never felt anything religious at all. It was much rarer to see that with the girls.
      I think it’s just a little bit harder for women to overcome the feelings of it. It’s more natural for us to feel what others are feeling, which makes it easier to feel what a hypothetical deity would feel. We can still be pretty rational about it, but it seems like we just have an extra obstacle in the way before we stop believing. 

  • Steampoweredflight

    As someone on the Autism scale, and someone who has spent time in the Autism community.  I do have to say that a large percentage of people with functional Autism are at least agnostic to atheist, and the ones who call themselves Christian are due to being accepted by the people in their church, and not because they overly care about god or Jesus or the bible stories.  A very small percentage are full on believers, from what I can tell.

    This isn’t the first time an article has shown up talking about Atheism in the Autistic community. I suspect that the more likely explanation for the majority of atheists in the Autistic community is the shape of the brain.  Autistic brains, to different degrees, tend to be different shapes from average brains.  Autistic brains tend to have smaller areas where social, communication and short term memory is stored.  Perhaps the part of the brain that encourages belief in god in the majority of people, is also smaller.

    I was raised in a very Christian household, where we went to Sunday school and church.  I hated it all, and didn’t really understand or see the need for it.  My Mother would tell me about heaven, hell, god, Jesus and all of the bible things.  It just seemed like tales of Santa Claus tales.  I always assumed people went to church out of habit, their parents did it, their parent’s, parents did it and so on for hundreds of years and people just never thought of not going to church.  Of course I learned after arguing with my Mother, when I wanted to stay home to watch Ren and Stimpy that it wasn’t just a ritual that people did out of habit. 

    http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2011/09/02/spotting-autisms-unique-shape-in-the-brain/

  • Steampoweredflight

    As someone on the Autism scale, and someone who has spent time in the Autism community.  I do have to say that a large percentage of people with functional Autism are at least agnostic to atheist, and the ones who call themselves Christian are due to being accepted by the people in their church, and not because they overly care about god or Jesus or the bible stories.  A very small percentage are full on believers, from what I can tell.

    This isn’t the first time an article has shown up talking about Atheism in the Autistic community. I suspect that the more likely explanation for the majority of atheists in the Autistic community is the shape of the brain.  Autistic brains, to different degrees, tend to be different shapes from average brains.  Autistic brains tend to have smaller areas where social, communication and short term memory is stored.  Perhaps the part of the brain that encourages belief in god in the majority of people, is also smaller.

    I was raised in a very Christian household, where we went to Sunday school and church.  I hated it all, and didn’t really understand or see the need for it.  My Mother would tell me about heaven, hell, god, Jesus and all of the bible things.  It just seemed like tales of Santa Claus tales.  I always assumed people went to church out of habit, their parents did it, their parent’s, parents did it and so on for hundreds of years and people just never thought of not going to church.  Of course I learned after arguing with my Mother, when I wanted to stay home to watch Ren and Stimpy that it wasn’t just a ritual that people did out of habit. 

    http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2011/09/02/spotting-autisms-unique-shape-in-the-brain/

  • http://twitter.com/moother moother

    not one mention of “theory of mind” in that article… boo hoo…

    is it not also possible that autistic kids are not forced to go to church/sunday school and are therefore less indoctrinated?

    i hardly think it’s because of a lack of imagination.

    • texting_and_scones

       There are different degrees of autism. The poster children for autism that are shown on manipulative TV spots emphasizing the plight of autistic people’s *families* might not be expected to participate fully in Sunday school, but the majority of autistic children are reasonably capable of, and therefore expected to, make nice in public, which includes standard schooling and, if their parents are so inclined, Sunday school. Rather than cry “lack of imagination,” I’d more say imagination is directed elsewhere, towards the physical world, where practical results are more likely and we start calling it “creativity” and “outside-the-box thinking.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    Here, the paper does not appear to say that IQ is not correlated. Rather, it says that autism remains a correlation, even when IQ and education are statistically controlled.

    The question is the relation between religiosity and intelligence, in light of other variables. For example, controlling for belief in the Bible (as Inerrant, Inspired, or Fable), religiosity decreases with intelligence among those who consider it as Fable, but increases among those who consider it Inerrant or Inspired. The median intelligence for the three groups differ; nonetheless, this indicates it can’t be a pure and simple relation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cburschka Christoph Burschka

    I’m dreading the wave of stupid that will arise if anti-vaxers and evangelists (already cozy groups) ever combine their conspiracy theories and start saying vaccinations are evil because they cause atheism through autism. :/

    • revaaron

      That sounds like an excellent racket. If only I want weighed down with ethics… Sigh.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000603298236 Thomas Spademan

    As the father of an autistic child, I very much object to the use of the term “defect” here — my son is not defective.  I find it especially odd here in light of the possibility that the “defect” might be linked to disbelief.  In any case, I would point out that if the correlation turns out to be a link, many disbelievers would then be properly described as autistic.  :)

    • revaaron

      I think you misunderstand. Being positively correlated doesn’t mean there is a one to one correspondents between autism and nonbelief. Smoking gives you an increased chance of lung cancer, but it’d be absurd to assume that means anyone who gets lung cancer must be a smoker.

      You also seen to be assuming that anything with a defect is defective. I may be mistaken, but this sounds like a category error. An orchestra may have a single Japanese violinist but that doesn’t make the orchestra Japanese, does it?

    • Fsq

      Without being rude, yes, indeed your son is defective. No parent willingly wishes for an autistic child, or down’s syndrome child etc…In fact, there are only two communities I know of that have actively gone out to try and have children with their own afflictions: the deaf and little person communities.

      Humans are a rare species that actually spends more time and money tending to offspring that will not or cannot develop into beings capable of true self-sustaining life. The reality is, most humans born with defects would die if it were not for the funds and time spent. These are facts. This is not said judgementally, but factually and observationally.

      You can call a stone a fish, but you will never teach it to swim.

      • Silentbob

        Without being rude, yes, indeed your son is defective.

        I’d hate to hear you when you are being rude.

        The autistic can have abilities that exceed those of the non-autistic. We must not make the assumption that because someone is different, they are inferior (as the word “defective” implies). I hardly need point out that that kind of thinking has caused a great deal of misery throughout human history.

        A good case can be made that Isaac Newton was autistic.

  • Leamander

    I find that most neurotypicals don’t understand the autistic mind. Autism is a spectrum syndrome. I don’t consider my autism to be a disorder. There are autistics who are religious and can understand religious, abstract concepts. Many of us don’t.
    I am able to work and raise a family. However, I have difficulty understanding that others have separate thoughts from mine. I could not even begin to guess what another person is thinking. Facial expressions mean little to me as well as other nonverbal gestures. I don’t disbelieve in gods or religions because I have had bad experiences with them. I don’t believe in them because they make no sense. I see no need in gods that interreact with humans, prayers to nonexistant beings, and human literature considered the words of gods. I understand that neurotypicals have a need to connect with “higher powers”, but I really don’t know why.

  • Silentbob

    Mentalizing can roughly be defined as the ability to imagine what other people are thinking and to perceive or interpret behavior in accordance to intentional mental states (understanding needs, desires, reasons, etc).

    Maybe I’m being a grumpy old fart, but in my day we had a perfectly good word for this: empathy. Why do we have to invent a new one?

    • texting_and_scones

       I would say because “empathy” basically means “feeling with,” rather than “thinking along with.” Once clued in, I can empathize pretty damn strongly with someone, even if I don’t understand the mental processes that got them there.

  • texting_and_scones

    Claudia, when writing about human populations, could you work towards using less stigmatizing/otherizing language? Using “the autistic” as a noun, collective or not, is rude on the same level as writing about “the Negro”: it presumes the author and his/her readers are not part of the group in question, and negates their common humanity. Referring to differences in mentalizing ability as “defects,” particularly in an article where reduced mentalizing capacity is identified as leading to a more realistic worldview, is similarly off. This particular autistic atheist would appreciate more carefully-chosen language in the future.


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