Home > Religion/Non-Religion > Theory of Mind, Atheism and Religion – Part 2

Theory of Mind, Atheism and Religion – Part 2

(I apologize that there are almost no pictures in this post, besides the graphs.  But honestly, finding appropriate pictures for this is near impossible.  Plus, this is one of the few times I don’t want to be irreverent.)

Alright readers, here it is, part two of the (tenuous) connection between autism and atheism.  (Unrelated note: calling you all “readers” is boring.  I’m officially taking suggestions for what I can call you guys that is a little more exciting.)

If you have not read the About Me: Atheism or Theory of Mind, Atheism and Religion – Part 1, I’d strongly suggest that you do so now.  There is a lot of information in those posts to which I’ll be referring in this one, often without re-summarizing. So unless you’re an expert on theory of mind and/or neuroscience, you want to brush check those out.

Autism and Atheism

When last I left you, intrepid connectors (that just doesn’t work), I had explained the connections between theory of mind and autism and theory of mind and religion.  Now is the mind-blowing part of the post where I…blow your minds.  But before I get to that—so maybe I’m not blowing minds now, but I will shortly—I’m going to talk about the link between autism and atheism.

After learning about theory of mind, and considering my paper from my freshmen year, I reasoned that it seemed that those with autism would be less likely to be religious.  Here’s the logic: if religion and theory of mind were linked (something I considered strongly likely), and autism meant decreased or absent theory of mind (something that research available to me at the time seemed to indicate), it would follow that those with autism would not be religion. In other words, if any of the assertions from my first post on this topic have any merit, we should see an increased prevalence of atheism in people with autism.

At the time that I came to this conclusion I was in school and, fortunately, had access to massive databases of scholarly journals that I might not have otherwise. I spent a good two weeks feverishly trying to find any source—scholarly or otherwise—that hinted at some kind of connection between these two things.  At the time, I either wasn’t looking in the right place or there just did not exist such evidence, because for all my searching I could not find it.

In the years since I did this search, however, it seems that the science and studies have either caught up with me (I’m awesome!) or has become more widely available.  Either way, when I started writing this article the first thing I searched was for some evidence of this link, since my entire point would be weakened if there was no such research.

And I’ll be damned; people with autism are more likely to be atheists.   In a study conducted by the University of Boston, researchers used a novel method to collect data:  they looked at a popular forum for people with autism and used the posts, available polls and questionnaires to see if there was a link.  There is one catch, though: these results were within people with high-functioning autism.  This is, however, understandable as more serious cases of autism would make such studies difficult.

I can hear some of you raging about the methodology of the study in terms of it being the result of self-reporting.  While this is a valid scientific study, keep in mind that religion is always about self-identification.  If you meet someone on the street who claims to be a Christian, you do not demand the phone number of his church to verify with his pastor that he attends. (Hopefully you don’t.  To do so would be invasive and, honestly, kind of scary.)  Similarly, we accept atheists at their word.  To do otherwise would be a classic example of my favorite logical fallacy, No True Scotsman.

For more detailed breakdowns of the study, please visit this link, where you can read it in its entirety.

Declared Religion in Neurtypical vs. Autistic Participants

Anyway, what this study found out, as shown in the graph above, is that 15% of the group studied identified as Christian, versus nearly 40% in the control group of NT individuals.  More interesting, people with autism were about 25% atheist in the study, compared with 17% in neurotypical individuals.

The graph is a pretty stunning display of this correlation: people with autism are less likely to be Christian and more likely to be atheist than the NT individual.  There are two major components to that statement, so let’s look at them individually.

First, the most important part of this is that people with autism were way less likely to be Christian.  This seems to be completely in line with the idea of theory of mind being necessary for religion.  After all, if you cannot feel the love, presence and other emotional parts of religion that we often hear about, you’re probably not going to be convinced that such religion has any factual basis.

But then, what was way more interesting were the amount of people who identified at atheist being 7% greater than NT individuals.  Keep in mind that going from “not being Christian” to “being atheist” is a huge step.  Not being Christian just means you don’t identify with that system.  But actively rejecting belief altogether is another thing, and that autistic people are far more likely to do so is telling of that connection.

Again, theory of mind is not required just for Christianity, it is necessary for all religion.  It makes total sense, then, that so many of the autistic individuals identified as agnostic or atheist.

Declared Religion and Autism Quotient

Equally interesting is the correlations between autism quotient and religious identity.  For those not familiar with it, Autism Quotient (AQ) is a number generated by a questionnaire that evaluates parts of personality common to or extremely uncommon in autism.  All of the questions are rated on a scale of four points from “Definitely agree” to “Definitely disagree”.

Some of the example statements evaluated are “I often notice small sounds when others do not” or “When I’m reading a story I find it difficult to work out the characters’ emotions”.  The resulting number, based upon the answers, is your AQ.

Important note: this AQ questionnaire is not a diagnostic tool used to identify autism. Rather, it is a tool used to help measure, to some degree, the severity of autism within the individual.  The idea is that if two people with diagnosed autism–and have different severity of symptoms–take the test they would get two different scores that are a crude measure of that severity.  It is not a perfect system by any means, but it does help in specific cases–like ours.

(Those of you curious about your AQ can go to the Wired website to take it.  Interestingly, I scored a 37 AQ.  For reference, Wired reports that “[e]ighty percent of those diagnosed with autism or a related disorder scored 32 or higher.”  They go on to point out, however, that “many who score above 32 and even meet the diagnostic criteria for mild autism or Asperger’s report no difficulty functioning in their everyday lives.  So don’t take the test, get a 37 and declare yourself autistic.  I don’t know why you would want to do that, but who knows with these things.)

Anyway, so the idea is, higher AQ means more severe autism.  Notice on the graph above that  the higher the AQ of the participant, the less likely he was to identify with a major religion.

This particular revelation is important in that it reinforces the theory of mind connection.  The more impaired your theory of mind (and thus, the more severe your autism and the higher your AQ), the less likely you are to identify with a defined religion.

So from this we can take away that theory of mind, being necessary for religious experience and being impaired in individuals with autism, does seem necessary for religion.  That is all this entire portion really is: further support for the idea that theory of mind enables or enhances religious experience in enough of a manner that impairment of it would lead to someone being non-religious.

Autistic Individuals and “Own Belief”

I want to address the part described as “own belief” in this study. At first, I was honestly totally unsure what to make of this.  After all, depending on the system the person creates, it could easily be considered a faith-based belief system, confounding the results of the study and hurting the case that theory of mind is necessary for religion.

I struggled with this for some time, trying to find a way to rationally explain that.  While I’m not still fully satisfied at my explanation, I think the best way to look at a belief system of one’s own construction is that this person has, effectively, created his own God–and this creation of the deity or religion (or both) circumvents the need for theory of mind.

What is interesting about this is it goes back to the concept of false belief and attributing states to others.  To accept the existence of God (or major deity of another system), the person in question has to understand the outside signs that would indicate this.  That is, the person has to see the patterns and attribute some form of human, causal behavior to it (the idea of a deity being in the world around us) and then, additionally, understand that said deity has unique emotional states, desires, etc.  Theory of mind makes this difficult for the individual with autism, as I’ve shown. False belief–and the linked idea of divergent mental states within different people–is necessary to believe.

However, the creation of one’s own belief system in effect internalizes the major deity of the system (if there even is one).  The person in question does not have to apply theory of mind because the deity of his construction is internalized, in reality a function of himself.

Thus, these particular people have gotten around the necessity of theory of mind in religion.  To use the radio example from my first post on this subject:  if belief in God is receiving God’s radio signal in your head’s transmitter, creating your own religious belief system is just humming your own tune and calling it religion.  It’s glib, but I think it’s the best way to conceptualize that particular internalization of religion.   This deity would never have divergant mental states from the believer, it would follow, because the deity is the creation of the worshipper and, thus, does exactly what the worshipper expects and wants it to do.

The Implications of It All

There are far-reaching implications of all of the conclusions contained herein.  First, let’s go back to the radio metaphor again.

In that metaphor I liken God to someone transmitting radio signals and belief in God to the ability to receive radio signals.  Our minds are the radios, and theory of mind is our receptiveness to the radio signal or the antenna.  Still following?

In people with autism theory of mind—the antenna for the deity’s signal—isn’t working as it should, thus they cannot receive the radio signal being transmitted around them.  As a result, they identify as atheist or create their own music (creating their own religious system).

But how, then, does this apply to the neurotypical atheist and the neurotypical believer?  In essence, I am proposing that there is something inside the theory of mind of the atheist that differs from theory of mind in the believer, causing that antenna to be unable to receive the message of a deity.   I think it is that simple. Now, obviously I wouldn’t have written two lengthy posts to just come to the conclusion that the brain of the atheist is functionally different from the brain of the theist.  That would be silly and wasteful.

What I have been doing is supporting my case with various forms of evidence.  My assertion from the very beginning has been that the atheist and theist have different brain functions.  Now that I feel I’ve established that, I can talk about the implications that arise from knowing that.  While this study on autism and atheism seems to have gotten little fanfare, I think it could easily herald in a new understanding of religion and non-religion.

Particularly evangelical or militant—or whatever word you want to use use—atheists and theists could very well use this information to claim that the other side has some mental deficit.  The atheist can claim that the brain function of the theist is an outdated holdover of a once-useful evolutionary trait.

The atheist, however, would probably himself on the losing side of that argument. Since our brains would appear to have more in common with someone with autism than the theist, it is extremely possible that theists could assume that all atheists are simply socially inept, brain-damaged individuals.

Science further proving these connections could easily be turned by the vicious believer or non-beleiver into weapons against the other side, what I propose is that we use this as a tool of understanding to help bridge the gap between the two once and for all.  Many atheists and many theists spend a great deal of time trying to convert the other side to see things as he does.  Understanding this information means that on some fundamental level, such conversions will never be entirely possible.

Consider that a theist could convert the atheist, but chances are–because of these different brain functions–he will never really buy into the religion because he will never see it the way other believers do.  Given that the feelings of love and fulfillment that people report coming from belief, it would be an empty religion, following the motions without receiving the benefit that comes from it.  (At best, the atheist could potentially create an internalized religion, but then the theist would probably not be satisfied with that as an actual conversion.)

Conversely the atheist could convert the theist, but to do so would also be a hollow victory, in that there would be some part of the theist that is always thinking back to what he is now missing, now that he has converted.  As he goes about his life he would realize all the feelings of love and faith that once flooded him are either not there, or he has had to block them out.

But this also explains why conversion seems so out of grasp to both sides all the time.  I often found myself—in the days when I more actively tried to dissuade people from their beliefs—exasperated by theists who just couldn’t seem to understand the self-evident, that which was right in front of them.  I have no doubt those theists felt the same way about me.  Each side sees the other as totally misguided, apparently willingly ignoring evidence directly in front of them.

What I am proposing is that further study of this—totally neutral study—could usher in an era of understanding between believers and atheists.  If both sides understand that there is a biological reason why some people feel the deities around them and others don’t, it certainly could help to remove some of the tension.  Granted, there will always be extremists on both sides who wish to convert others, but that is not something that can ever change.

I realize my view of this may seem naïve, but ever since coming to the hypothesis that receptiveness to religion is a function of the brain—and seeing proof for it—my view of Christians has changed immensely.  I now understand that there is something that they see that I don’t, something that I will probably never see, that makes them believe.  It is not a matter of level of intelligence, ignorance or anything else.  It is a matter of what our brains let us see.

But the key to this kind of understanding is further neutral study.  (I don’t often bold stuff, so consider that my hint that this is damn important.) You see, throughout this post I have always talked about hearing the signals that come from the deity.  I have tried, and I sincerely hope succeeded, to not touch the question of whether or not God exists.  As an atheist myself, I do not believe there is any God sending signals at all, and that said signals are just a further functions of the brain, functions beyond what I’ve discussed.

But I am not concerned, in this post, with answering whether there is someone sending those signals or it is biological.  To question that would be to try to prove or disprove god, and that is a question that science should not burden itself with answering, nor that theists should ever bear the burden of defending.  It is the ultimate unknowable and we should leave it that way.

What would the theist gain by proving God?  The atheist would still be unable to experience Him.  If the atheist disproved God, does that make the feelings people associate with religion any less real?  The answer to those questions: nothing and no.  Proving or disproving God, in the light of this difference in neurology, only antagonizes one side.

Instead, to foster in an understanding between believers and non-believers, I feel that science should task itself with explaining what makes the brains of each different in a manner that never bothers to ask “is God actually there”, but just acknowledges that, so long as people believe, he is real enough to let the question remain unanswered.  In return, I hope that theists will no longer see atheists as in some misguided rebellion of religion, or some kind of subspecies of person willingly turning away from religion. Rather, I hope they will come to understand the atheist as people who follow our hearts to answers, wherever that might take us.  In that way, we are–believers and non-believers alike–all the exact same—differences in the brain or not.

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  1. April 22, 2012 at 6:35 am

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    • April 22, 2012 at 6:22 pm

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  2. June 17, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    I think it’s a level of making irrational connections. Going super emotional vs. super logical. Some people’s emotions just go haywire and for some more than others.

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