Are autistics less religious? Yes.

Connor Wood

Autism

Religion is often characterized as a human universal – researchers claim that nearly every society  boasts some form of religious belief. But it’s also no secret that individual people often vary dramatically in their levels of religious belief. You might be a Bible-believing Christian, while your neighbor – who speaks the same language, eats at the same pizzeria, and enjoys the same movies – is a dyed-in-the-wool atheist. So where do these religious differences come from? A new research paper claims that the answer might lie in people’s ability – or lack thereof – to imagine the mental states of others.

One of the most common findings in the social scientific study of religion is that men are less pious than women. Across cultures, in different times and places, men report less belief in God than women do. And if you comb through the data, other patterns also begin to stand out: scientists are, in fact, more atheistic than the general public, and elite scientists much more so. In fact, more education in general seems to correlate with less religious belief. So what’s the deal? Is it just that smarter people are less religious?

Well, unless you want to make the politically explosive claim that men are smarter than women – and you probably don’t – the answer is no. In fact, a new research paper explicitly shows that I.Q. is not a predictor of religious belief. Instead, the findings focus on…autism. UBC-Vancouver psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Will M. Gervais teamed up with human development researcher Kali H. Trzesniewski to study whether mentalizing, or the ability to imagine the mental and emotional states of others, would correlate with religious belief.

Because social skills are so vitally important to human survival, significant portions of our brains’ real estate are devoted to mentalizing: to imagining, predicting, and comprehending why and how others behave. Over the last two decades or so, a growing body of research has suggested that belief in gods and spirits may be the product of our minds’ social cognitive hardware – the neural circuits that allow us to do this vitally important understanding and empathizing. And indeed, neuroimaging research has shown that praying to God activates the same brain regions we use to interact with and think about other people.

So mentalizing is an important part – although almost certainly not the only part – of believing in God. But, Norenzayan and his colleauges noted, people with autism disorders are typically deficient in mentalizing abilities. They tend to be less skillful at interpreting others’ facial expressions, for instance, and rate themselves as less socially skilled than non-autistic people. The researchers hypothesized that autistic people would be less likely to believe in God than neurotypicals, or non-autistics, and that this difference would be explained by autistics’ reduced ability to mentalize. What’s more, the researchers hypothesized that the difference in mentalizing abilities would also explain why men are often less religious than women, since men usually score much lower than women on the ability to understand others’ mental states.

In four separate studies, Norenzayan, Gervais, and Trzesniewski measured volunteers for autistic traits, mentalizing abilities, and belief in God. In the first study, the researchers actually recruited both autistics and non-autistics from the Miami area, while in subsequent studies volunteers simply filled out surveys that measured their empathic abilities and tendencies toward autism. (Autism is typically measured on a spectrum, so that even neurotypical people may show some  autistic tendencies.)

In all four studies, men showed less belief in God than women, and greater autistic tendencies were strongly correlated with nonbelief. In statistical analysis, the researchers found that the both correlations were mediated by impaired mentalizing abilities. In other words, the reason that both men and autistic people were less likely to believe in God was at least partially because they were less likely to see the world as being made up of personalities. Instead, autistics – and, to an extent, males – were more likely to see the world as being composed of impersonal objects and patterns.

This research implies that these cognitive patterns extend to the metaphysical, or “big picture,” level. That is, people with strong mentalizing abilities are more likely to see the cosmos as being somehow fundamentally personal, while those with reduced mentalizing abilities are more likely to experience it as being more impersonal and abstract.

The researchers tried to control for several other possible explanations for their findings, including the possibility that autistic people, who can be intimidated by social gatherings, may be less likely to go to church. According to this model, autistic people would believe less in God not because of reduced mentalizing abilities, but because they would be exposed less often to social conditioning that encourages belief in God. However, the connection between autism, weakened mentalizing abilities, and reduced religious belief held true even after the researchers controlled for religious attendance. The same was found when the results were controlled for interest in math and science. And finally, intelligence – as measured by I.Q. – was found to have no correlation with religious belief one way or another.

The best explanation for the researchers’ findings, then, appears to match their original hypothesis: both males and autistic people believe less in God because they interpret the world less personally than women or neurotypicals, respectively. That’s a lot of generalizations in one sentence, but it does seem to fit the facts. Naturally, individual people very rarely fit the boxes that social scientists produce – but those boxes do help us understand how things work.

If religious cognition is, in some fundamental sense, a form of social cognition, then the implications are vast. It would help to explain the connection between religiousness and social organization, from sprawling institutions like the Roman Catholic Church to small-scale pre-agricultural tribes. And it would raise interesting, if speculative, hypotheses. For instance, Europe and some other developed societies have experienced dramatic declines in belief in God and religiousness in recent decades. It’s possible – but certainly not demonstrated – that part of this phenomenon may be due to the reduced need for strong interpersonal connections in these cultures.

Before you roll your eyes, think about the fact that developed societies have, by definition, extreme economic abundance. Grocery stores sell food, bus drivers take us where we need to go, and people we’ll never meet pick up our garbage each week. We still need each other for emotional and social support, but, to a greater extent than nearly any other group of people in history, we don’t need each other for economic well-being. We depend for our bread and butter on abstract, impersonal systems, whereas our ancestors – almost without exception – depended on personal relationships. Interpreting the world as being personal may genuinely be less adaptive in our postindustrial context than it was for our ancestors. And the result may be a slow (or rapid) decline in religiousness. (Important note: This is not to say that Europeans are more likely to be autistics than people in other cultures. It’s a potential implication of the fact that religious cognition may be basically social in nature.)

But for now, the facts are that reduced mentalizing abilities predict a weakened belief in God, and that this association may explain why autistics and men both tend to be less religious than average. Of course, this doesn’t mean that religious belief – or disbelief – is justified or refuted. It just means that, like everything else we experience, our religious beliefs are inextricable from our brains.

Click here for the original article, “Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God,” in PLoS ONE.

  • http://irritually.wordpress.com Per Smith

    “Before you roll your eyes, think about the fact that developed societies have, by definition, extreme economic abundance. Grocery stores sell food, bus drivers take us where we need to go, and people we’ll never meet pick up our garbage each week. We still need each other for emotional and social support, but, to a greater extent than nearly any other group of people in history, we don’t need each other for economic well-being. We depend for our bread and butter on abstract, impersonal systems, whereas our ancestors – almost without exception – depended on personal relationships. Interpreting the world as being personal may genuinely be less adaptive in our postindustrial context than it was for our ancestors. ”

    I can assure you that the world I inhabited in Godless Sweden was much more personal than the one I moved to here in the pious United States. I think these studies are fascinating, but I don’t buy the post-hoc rationalizing about cross-cultural differences. The unstated implication here is that seeing the world as personal necessarily includes a belief in a personal God. Why? I don’t buy it, and my experience in Sweden is why. It may just be that belief in a personal God has been one way in which the personal nature of the world is actualized cognitively and emotionally. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves concluding that it’s the only way.

    • connorwood

      Per I hear you, but it’s not “post-hoc rationalizing.” It’s confessedly conjectural hypothesizing, which I think is one of the most fun things about science, and I’m not going to apologize for it. I specifically state in the article that this conjecture is not demonstrated, and I go on in the final paragraph to reiterated that “for now, the facts are that reduced mentalizing abilities predict a weakened belief in God.” This makes it clear that the previous two paragraphs were a departure from the strict facts.

      I also don’t say, or imply, that seeing the world personally “necessarily” implies a belief in a personal God. Nor is a personal God concept the “only way” to express personal mentalizing. Your language takes my ideas to an extreme, and then you get upset about the extreme to which you’ve taken the points. I am pointing out trends and wondering if those trends are at all applicable to contemporary demographic realities. It’s entirely possible – actually, given my record as a constructor of hypotheses, more like probable – that those conjectures are false. But it’s still worth it to make them.

      • http://irritually.org Per Smith

        Conner I’m not going to quibble over strength of various implications. I overreacted. Apologies for that. However I just think the conjecture is off base, and its frustrating to me when cross-cultural conjectures like this are made based on studies of such limited scope. There is compelling evidence to suggest that irreligiosity is NOT positively correlated with “reduced need for strong interpersonal connections.” I know you’re focusing on belief but let’s look at church membership in the United States (a fair measure of religious community), which steadily *increased* from the mid 19th century till the end of the 20th century along side of the advance of industrialization and modern capitalism. Our ancestors ,who by this logic were more dependent on interpersonal relationships, had about a 17% membership rate! The Western institution of marriage forms is another great historical example. Then there are cross-cultural comparisons like the one I mentioned already. Swedish society is NOT less inter-personally dependent (it is more so) than American society, yet it is much more godless.

        It is also not clear to me that the ancient and indigenous cultures that you invoke with talk of our ancestors share the type of god belief being measured by cognitive scientists in the contemporary West. We have mentally colonized these belief systems with our own modern, monotheistic, and mostly Christian vision of what “deity” is. Sure they believed in deities in some fashion while depending on each other for survival, but can we really say that it’s in the fashion of these test subjects? Hasn’t the development of Western monotheism also altered the very way that we conceive of deities? Shouldn’t that fact be a serious caution against such conjecture? Just saying…

        • http://irritually.org Per Smith

          Disregard the marriage thing. I meant to remove it altogether because while it is a great example it will take me too long to explain what I mean. Cheers.

  • Derek Michaud

    This is interesting stuff as far as it goes but some of the greatest theologians I’ve met or read have seemed to fit pretty clearly on the autism spectrum somewhere. I mean anyone who witnesses the sacramental beauty of the Mass and is inspired to write the Summa Theologica is missing something but it’s not a sense of religiosity!

    • connorwood

      Generally, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the great theologians ARE on the autistic spectrum someplace, but the greatest theologians also tend to have conceptions of God that diverge, sometimes widely, from popular personal theologies.

      In fact, the slight deficit in mentalizing abilities that you hypothesize would be found among many theologians would, I think, possibly even be a DRIVER of their theological output. Popular, personal conceptions of God might not be enough to satisfy religious autistics intellectually, or might leave them feeling a bit confused as to what religious claims are actually asserting. Systematic theologizing would – and again, this is conjectural, but I think it’s reasonable conjecture – be one obvious way such people could come to terms with God concepts without having to draw on mentalizing abilities or personal sentiments.

  • http://www.is-there-a-god.info/blog unkleE

    If “reduced mentalizing abilities predict a weakened belief in God”, and “scientists are, in fact, more atheistic than the general public, and elite scientists much more so”, does this mean that scientists, especially elite scientists, have reduced mentalizing abilities? Or is there some other factor I have missed?

    This would of course fit one common stereotype of scientists, or academics generally, as “absent minded” and not very social loners who relate to test tubes better than people – not a fair stereotype no doubt, but one that seems to exist – and also fit Derek’s comment about theologians, who might be seen to have a similar stereotype.

    • connorwood

      UnkleE, yes, that’s actually exactly what I would expect. Autistic traits are commonly thought of as existing on a spectrum, as I state above, and many people can exist somewhere on that spectrum without being diagnosably autistic. People who find themselves drawn to the sciences tend to be located slightly further along that spectrum than members of the general public.

      A scientist with whom I work – and who is quite a delightful person – makes no bones about this, and has often joked about being further along the autism spectrum than most people. She forthrightly asserts that this may be part of the reason she’s an atheist. Among the research she cites to back up this connection is this study, which showed that English mathematics and sciences students scored much higher on average on an autism quotient test than humanities students – although mostly not to the point of being diagnosably autistic.

      • http://www.is-there-a-god.info/blog unkleE

        Thanks for your reply. I studied Engineering and also Theology (as a hobby), worked as an engineer/environmental manager, I am a christian, and think I too am a little way along the autism scale. (I have never been diagnosed, because I never needed to, but I have a good friend who has been diagnosed, and we have some things in common.) So I fit some of the study findings, but not others. Which I suppose is just as statistically likely as not. Thanks again.

  • http://www.is-there-a-god.info/blog unkleE

    PS Of course, in asking the question “does this mean that scientists, especially elite scientists, have reduced mentalizing abilities?”, I meant that as a correlation, not as a definite relationship.

  • http://wrymouth.com Wry Mouth

    Neat! This also predicts why autistics and many “top level” male scientists have trouble relating to others — they have a harder time connecting with people. Where a deity might be a person, those having trouble with the “relating to people” parts of their brain would necessarily be at a disadvantage.

  • numenian

    This blog helped reveal a view I held about Conservative and Liberal Christians, something I had not vebalized in quite the manner this study directed my thinking. I look at Conservatives as more involved with preserving traditions and the institutuions, heavily accenting the Word, than with people, and Liberals as the opposite. Wihout probing too deeply into this line of thought, this seems to suggest that the liberals are greter God-believers than Conservatives. Perhaps in this area the”autistic tendency” is the primacy of the Letter over the spirit.


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