Religious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism


The cognitive science of religion is a new field which explains religious belief as emerging from normal cognitive processes such as inferring others’ mental states, agency detection and imposing patterns on noise. This paper investigates the proposal that individual differences in belief will reflect cognitive processing styles, with high functioning autism being an extreme style that will predispose towards nonbelief (atheism and agnosticism). This view was supported by content analysis of discussion forums about religion on an autism website (covering 192 unique posters), and by a survey that included 61 persons with HFA. Persons with autistic spectrum disorder were much more likely than those in our neurotypical comparison group to identify as atheist or agnostic, and, if religious, were more likely to construct their own religious belief system. Nonbelief was also higher in those who were attracted to systemizing activities, as measured by the Systemizing Quotient.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Goldstein Squad Member

    WTF? Is there some suggestion here that atheism is a form of mental disorder? I know that the GNU atheists have suggested that religious beliefs are a from of mental disorder but its a strange twist to see atheism come under that category.

    (Of course, it is not much of a sampling so its a little hard to take seriously.)

    • Eli

      That’s not how I took it at all…. “We hypothesized that traits typically displayed among HFA individuals such as attraction to scientism and hyper rationality would render these individuals less likely to embrace supernaturalism and religious belief,” and “We suggest that individual differences in cognitive styles is an important predictor of human belief systems…”

      To me, this says simply that both belief or non-belief is related to how people perceive the world. I don’t see this as saying that an attraction to science and rationality over the supernatural is a mental disorder just because people with autism prefer it, only that rationality and supernatural believe don’t really go together, and autism, and an extreme, highlights this. If anything, I could see this as implying that being more “neurotypical” makes people less rational.

  • Blue Devil Knight

    Goldstein: I think it is that they don’t have the same kind of hyperactive agency detector others have, so their increased atheism would be predicted by many theories of the origins of belief in personalistic deities. E.g., we tend to see agency everywhere, even when it is not warranted. Autistics are the opposite, they tend to see it less (some even say they never see it), even when it is warranted. It’s like shifting the criterion for agency detection and finding the consequences for religious belief. Sort of cool.

    • Jeffery Jay Lowder

      Nitpick: remember that the H in HADD stands for hypersensitive, not hyperactive. (I made that mistake myself in a previous post.) :)

      Also, FYI, a lot of people on the autism spectrum take offense to people calling them “autistics.” “People with autism” is the preferred expression, I think.

  • Blue Devil Knight

    While it is cool, obviously we should add the caveat that if this is an internet survey there are confounds. E.g., computer nerds tend to be atheists (not that everyone online doing surveys is a computer nerd, obviously). I haven’t read the paper, so do not know how tight the methodology is or if they tried to control for such confounds.