Why Are High-Functioning Autistics More Likely to Be Atheists or Agnostics?

As a psychologist, I’m interested in understanding the multiple, interacting factors that influence our personality characteristics and our life pursuits. For religious belief, important factors include family upbringing, societal values, and individual temperament, which itself is the outcome of genetic and environmental factors. People with Asperger’s syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism, like all other individuals, display the full spectrum of religious beliefs. However, there are reasons why those with Asperger’s may be statistically less likely than other groups to believe in God or join a religious community.

To activate your own ideas on this topic, consider the reasons why people believe in God or have at least some affiliation with a religious tradition. It seemed obvious to theorists of prior centuries that religion served the purpose of explaining the world, including aspects of the natural world, and giving humans a sense of purpose. With the rise of scientific explanations, religious traditions are expected to diminish and ultimately disappear (the secularization hypothesis). Still, most people continue to have some religious and spiritual beliefs.

In the last decades, evolutionary psychologists have proposed that a propensity to believe in a supernatural power derives from something very fundamental: humans’ highly developed mentalizing abilities, which are part of our evolutionary heritage and are believed to have evolved to help us live in complex social groups. Mentalizing abilities include our frequent need to imagine what others’ are thinking, and our tendency to anthropomorphize. We may jump to conclusions such as believing that damage to our property was purposefully caused by that neighbor we’ve been arguing with, rather than thinking it was caused by some natural event or accident. Evolutionary psychologists such as Scott Atran, Justin Barrett, and Jesse Bering have proposed that believing that a supernatural being was active in events around us is only one step removed from this kind of daily inference about others’ motives.

But what does mentalizing have to do with Asperger’s syndrome? Neuropsychologist Simon Baron-Cohen was among the first to popularize the notion that autistic individuals either have lower mentalizing abilities than neurotypical individuals, or are simply less interested in the drama of others’ internal beliefs and motivations. The inference is that if autistic individuals are less likely to mentalize and anthropomorphize, they may be less likely to believe in God.

Religion is a cross-cultural universal for more reasons than just the tendency to infer humanlike causation even in ambiguous circumstances. Religion serves powerful social needs, such as belonging to a group and obtaining the benefits of in-group altruism. This has been eloquently argued in David Sloan Wilson’s book Darwin’s Cathedral. Although all humans are social beings, with social needs and social abilities, people differ widely in their social interests and skills. Some want primarily a romantic partner and a friend or two. Others enjoy having a large network of friends. Some people enjoy chit chat with a stranger at a bus stop, while others find such activities pointless. One of the characteristics of autism is what is typically referred to as “social impairments.” For people with Asperger’s, this may mean weaker social skills, decreased interest in socializing, or more socializing that is restricted to people with similar interests. The implications for religious belief and Asperger’s is that individuals with Asperger’s may find religion to be less relevant to their lives because they don’t mind skipping the social benefits that accompany participation in a religious community.

Theorists such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have speculated that religious belief is a viral meme. Memes are ideas that compete in the marketplace of ideas. Religious beliefs are usually learned from family members in development. Even if a person is skeptical of the religious-as-meme idea, it does seem plausible that humans get a good deal of the details of their religious belief during childhood because childhood is the time when it is profitable to be willing to learn from authority figures, so that we don’t have to engage in costly trial-and-error learning. This willingness to accept cultural teachings confers huge learning advantages. Along with these benefits are some traits that could sometimes be disadvantageous, such as a propensity for conformity to group norms. Assuming that Asperger’s individuals are less prone to conformity (given generally lower sociality), they may attend less to adult teachings during childhood.

I proposed three reasons why most people believe in God, and how persons with Asperger’s syndrome may be cognitively or socially different from the general population in a manner that detracts from religious beliefs and behaviors. The implication of this is that those with Asperger’s will be more likely to be atheists or agnostics. But is there empirical evidence for this? Colleagues and I reported preliminary evidence at the Cognitive Science Society this summer. We analyzed self-reports of religious beliefs that appeared in postings on the wrongplanet.net website, where many individuals self-identify as having Asperger’s syndrome. These were compared with postings on a discussion board for religious discussions on websites that were not specifically designed for those on the autistic spectrum. Individuals who self-identified as having an autistic spectrum disorder (usually Asperger’s syndrome) were only half as likely to identify as Christian or Jewish, and were twice as likely to identify as an atheist or agnostic. In addition, individuals with Asperger’s syndrome were more likely to say they had constructed their own religious system. We followed up this content-analysis with a more conventional survey about beliefs and religion, which found a similar result.

An important next step is to try to link one or more of the specific reasons for not believing in God with individuals’ actual reasons for self-identifying as atheist or agnostic. These reasons are: lower mentalizing abilities, lower social abilities or decrease social orientation, and reduced tendency for social conformity and social learning in childhood. We might expect different types of religious behavior to co-occur with lower mentalizing vs. lower social abilities or reduced tendency for social conformity. The last of these, for example, might be expected to lead to people constructing their own religious system. Less need for social interaction might lead to a lack of interest in religious activity, without any special emphasis on disbelief in God. Lower mentalizing, if accompanied by high emphasis on logical reasoning (or systemizing ability, see the work by Simon Baron-Cohen), could lead to rejection of religion for “not making sense,” similar to what occurs with scientifically minded individuals who reject religion because it conflicts with a materialist worldview (as evidenced by the high number of scientists who are atheists).

These ideas are consistent with a specific view of Asperger’s that is becoming increasingly popular: Individuals with Asperger’s can be characterized as having a different social/cognitive profile, but they aren’t automatically to be seen as having disability, impairment, or a psychiatric condition. An implication of this view is that neurotypical individuals who also have low socializing, less conformity, and a systemizing approach to information processing rather than a mentalizing approach would also be more likely to identify as agnostic or atheist compared with neurotypicals who are more social, more mentalizing, and more socially conforming.

Catherine Caldwell-Harris is a professor of psychology at Boston University.

Category: Q&A

Tagged:

22 Responses

  1. Diane says:

    My son has Asperger’s Syndrome, will be 18 in a couple months and graduates school next year.

    Asperger’s is at the least an impairment because it is going to cause great difficulty with his finding and keeping a job.

    A very, very high percentage of people with Asperger’s Syndrome are unemployed or underemployed.

    I feel that makes Asperger’s is at the least an impairment…

    JMTC :)
    Diane

  2. Pinkoddy says:

    God is quiet abstract in concept and in my experience those with Asperger’s like things visually, concrete, provable.

  3. pete says:

    isnt the genetic fallacy not written all over this article? GF is suggesting a belief is false based on its origin. Even if we are to agree that belief is God is the result of metalizing etc, that doesn’t for a second imply that the belief is false! Sorry, seems to me that the this piece of writing is flawed at its core.

  4. Bobbler says:

    This article makes perfect sense.. I suspect I am a touch autistic myself, because (in retrospect from reading the article) I have always been somewhat socially impaired.. Also as the article says, my focus as child was (like the scientists) whether beliefs made sense or not (rather than socialization or metallization pulling me in at a young age when brainwashing is easier to take hold). I was in catechism in second grade, and the penguins hated me (in retrospect I believe because they could tell I didn’t believe what they were selling).. I cannot mentalize what the other kids were thinking. But the message I was hearing from the church was that god split himself up, then sacrificed himself, to “himself” (with truly shockng grizzly torture) to save humans.. So the part about not making sense reminded me of my path to becoming an agnostic, then an atheist..

  5. Lisa says:

    Postings as research? Self reporting? Discussion boards? These count as empirical evidence? My 16-year-old son has Asperger’s and is also a Catholic. He is very devoted to his faith and his “special interest” in history has only further cemented his beliefs because historical documentation backs up most religious claims. I think it is more likely that kids who believe do so because their parents made a commitment to pass on their beliefs.

  6. billy says:

    Pete, you have totally missed the point of the article, which says literally nothing about whether beliefs about God are true or false.

  7. Carmen says:

    My first question would be – what does the author believe? Do they believe in God or not? IMO, there is a difference between a Religion and a Belief in God. I believe in God but do not particularly care for Religion. IMO, Religion divides us. We don’t see oxygen, yet we know it exists. Oxygen existed prior to its discovery in 1772 or 1775, depending on who is credited with the discovery.

    I really do not understand why anyone would compare information from WrongPlanet.net and a religous sight to come up with empirical evidence. As the author explained – if people like to be around others who have the same beliefs/interests, then it makes sense that several who are on the spectrum and could identify with others who did not believe in God would be a part of a sight where they felt comforrable. The same goes with the religous sight.

    You may not find those of us, who are on the spectrum who believe in God but not in religion to be in either sight. A small group does not represent everyone on the spectrum and only leads to even more misinformation about autism.

    I did think the article was thought provoking, and it seems that is what was intended.

    Thank you for your time and the opportunity to comment.

  8. Ben says:

    This explains PERFECTLY why I didn’t adhere to my Christian upbringing.

    I never began talking until around the age of 5. I’ve always found myself not able to keep a conversation going and was always apathetic to other people. I’d rather stay home alone with my hobbies than go out. I went to church but I felt like prayers were just reiterations of my own thoughts and that there were flaws in my church’s beliefs. I never trusted people and was always cynical about their intentions. I was very egocentric.

    For the longest time, I was confused about why I was different– until recently when I discovered I might have Aspergers. This article is honestly a relief for me; it’s more reassurance that I have Aspergers and that there’s nothing wrong with me. Though many of the signs of my Aspergers are still present, it’s comforting to know what I have and how I can approach my life with it.

    Thanks for the study!

  9. Mados says:

    Interesting topic, but the research doesn’t seem proper, or at least it isn’t presented that way:

    “Individuals who self-identified as having an autistic spectrum disorder (usually Asperger’s syndrome) were only half as likely to identify as Christian or Jewish, and were twice as likely to identify as an atheist or agnostic. “

    ‘Half as likely as…”
    “Double as likely as…”
    - What are the numbers? Was it hundreds, tens, fifty?

    Also, the criteria for a sample to represent a population (here: the population of persons with Asperger’s Syndrome) is random selection. Without random selection it makes no sense to count persons with certain characteristics in two groups and compare the counts (like here), and then say that the result represent ‘neurotypicals’ VS ‘persons with asperger’s’.

    An online forum like Wrong Planet isn’t a random sample – not everybody with Asperger’s use Wrong Planet. If it is completely random which ‘aspies’ use is and who doesn’t not, then that’s OK… if you know that for a fact. But people’s actions and preferences are rarely completely random, there is usually a pattern behind (can be relevant or irrelevant for the topic) so it is unlikely to be random.

    For example: let’s say Wrong Planet has a tendency to have an overweight of atheists. Then religious ‘aspies’ may be less likely to use Wrong Planet. Then the overweight increases.

    Then the researchers come and browse the forum posts and count number of religious VS non-religious self-reports. Then they use the numbers to conclude that aspies are ‘twice and likely…’ and ‘half as likely …’ to be this and that. Obviously that aren’t valid conclusions, because they don’t know if the numbers represent aspies overall, or a specific segment of aspies with particular preferences in regard to the research topic.

    Please note that above is only an example. The point is that in order to conclude something about some numbers VS some other numbers of a sample and say the numbers represent the overall populations, you would need to be sure that the numbers represented a random selection from that population (‘anyone with asperger’s'), not a biased selection (‘aspies with particular preferences/habits/characteristics/attitudes’).

  10. john says:

    mabee as aspergers , we create our own internal religion because we see how horribly violent most of all the other ‘tradtional’religions have been thru out history and it makes us sick to our stomach at the thought jumping in with that crowd .

    why doesnt someone do a study on us aspergers/asd folks
    and compare our internally created religions and see how much they differ from aspie/asd to aspie/asd person? It may suprise scientists and people that we are not the monsters many people think we are.

  11. Ash says:

    I was baptised methodist and later on went to a catholic school. It was during a trip to a local church around aged 8 that I suddenly thought that this was all nonsense and gave up on religion (the hypocrisy in the two denominations that supposedly worshipped the same entity yet treated each other prettily shabbily if you didn’t worship it in the same way helped of course.
    I said “grace” and all that to keep extended family members happy or more accurately my mom happy after I was scolded for politely declining to join in.

    I would consider myself informed Agnbostic-Spiritual however purely based upon my own experiences. I have documented such experiences and cross referenced them and to the best of my ability scientifically investigated them, which leads me to the conclusion that there is some super conscious force at work and with proper study using parapsychology and quantum physics could be tapped into to greatly benefit mankind.
    However it is my firm conviction that religion gets in the way.

    As for constructing my own beliefs yes I have done this in a big way even coming up with hand signs etc, but I think in all reality everyone sees everything their own way which is why there are so many denominations in the first place when a particular view gets spread by charm or violence.

  12. bo moore says:

    The important question is, Why would anyone believe in an imaginary supernatural dimension that is the source of psychotic beings who control human thoughts and actions?

  13. Mark says:

    I have a stereotypically blunt aspergers answer for you, you’ve got it backwards, people with aspergers generally have a higher intellect than people without, they don’t like to say it because it’s not socially popular, but the truth is they tire of tolerating neurotypical peoples ignorance. It is particularly difficult for them to socialize with people that are far beneath them intellectually. They find it incredibly frustrating to constantly have to hold back and bite their tongues. It’s like driving a 500hp hot rod and never getting over 30mph. Put a bunch of aspies in the same room and see if they’re as socially awkward. Probably seem like it to regular folks that don’t understand much they are saying, but awkwardness is relativistic. Maybe they think they are the normal ones and the majority have it wrong. They create their own religions because by the time they filter all the complete nonsense and utter ridiculousness out of pretty much every religion there is, there isn’t much left, and they’ve got something that doesn’t fit any categories defined by neurotypical Neanderthals. They are expected to pretend that they are not way smarter than normal people and all the while they are silently laughing at normal peoples feeble-minded attempts at trying to understand them and bring them back down to their own normal level, by creating even more ridiculous categorizations and cures, when all along the aspie is wishing they could cure the normal persons stupidity so they could communicate without wanting gag them. Normal people want to believe that really smart people are only a little smarter, like the difference between an A and an A-, but the hard truth is smart are accumulating knowledge at a much faster rate than normal throughout most of their lives. They are to normal people what Shaun White is to a recreational snowboarder, what Michael Jordan is to a rec league player that didn’t make the high school team. They have to pretend to be like everyone else, and that’s something a normal person can never experience to know how hard it is.

  14. christopher G says:

    @Mark
    Ah, so we are fools, eh; those of us who are not on the autism spectrum. You have to be able to actually measure “smartness” first, to see if it is “greater” or “less than” the smartness found in others; and how would one do that? Certainly not by saying that everyone else’s notions of religion are ridiculous, therefore by default yours must be the correct ones.

    Claiming superiority over others like this is not a particularly desirable trait; I’ve seen it in my own aspie child so I’m not talking through my head. I very much doubt that aspies are a “superior” section of the community, simply different in their thinking and analytical capabilities, many of which are great assets when correctly channeled.

  15. doctor_robot says:

    logic.

  16. Alex the Aspie says:

    I have Aspergers and I am proud of my Atheism. I was a Christian for most of my life(from childhood till I was about 25), and went through the other religions. I was a raging fundamentalist due to my Autism. I took everything a lot more literal than my peers at church and they would make me angry due to them ignoring parts of scripture, they weren’t “serious” enough. Religion in my hands is extremely dangerous, I make everyone’s life around me miserable. To add insult to injury, faith always made me nuts because I need things concrete, provable, or it causes me chronic depression, suicidal thoughts, quitting jobs(due to the jobs supporting gay rights for instance out of fear of “losing my salvation”), the list goes on and on. Despite me looking totally normal, and not having vocal quirks, no one at church understood. No one tried to help me. They tried to manipulate me telling me “the Bible doesn’t say that” yet I pointed to it on the page. The same happened with other religions after Christianity. I washed my hands with all of it and said good riddance. So many years I was totally convinced their were mind readers living among us, better tell every person I meet my life story. Tell them all the humiliating things I have done. Full disclosure nearly getting me fired from jobs, a NT person would NEVER say the things I said at work. Religion is my hands is poison for my brain. I can’t handle it, I will never be able to handle it. I was literally yelled at enough at enough churches from NT people who stood in my way to do what it actually takes to fix my behavioral issues(NLP and meditation). Good riddance.

  17. Alex the Aspie says:

    @christopher G

    actually, I feel Marks pain. I have been told by many NT people that the people who act standoffish with me(NT people), are intimidated by me. I can never seem to understand how to not intimidate them try as I might. I no longer come out and shove in their face the contradictions in the Bible, cornering them and demanding an explanation from them because most of the time they change the definitions of words, lie, use adhominem attacks on me, so on and so forth. In other words, pointless waste of my time. If they are too stupid and dishonest to call a spade a spade, they don’t deserve my attention. If I simply ignore them it makes my life so much easier. If they want to be foolish instead of having no religion, that’s not my problem. Let them pat each other on the back in satisfaction in their clique’s and what not. I never fit in with them since I was in elementary school. I do fit in with other Atheists though, people who more often than not are scientifically literate, generally deep thinkers, a lot smarter in reality asking the big questions and NOT relying on a cookie cutter answer IE:thus sayeth the Lord, they don’t believe in conspiracy theories, they don’t believe in angels reading people’s minds, they don’t believe in Santa(Jesus giving them jobs and such), their beliefs are extremely boring and free of drama. Not hitting the hornets nest of irrational religious people is the best way for me to remain free of drama. Avoid “the herd” and “the herd” will avoid me.

  18. Abnax says:

    I was just found an aspie dating site. I was surprised to find so many atheist/agnostic/nonbelievers in the profiles on every page. Makes me wish I’d known these things about myself when I was just a kid! The older I get, the less I’m able to conform… yet it seems to be the reason why I grow happier as time goes on. I’m thankful for the web, for sure.

  19. Bob Simon says:

    Mark sez: ” people with aspergers generally have a higher intellect than people without, they don’t like to say it because it’s not socially popular, but the truth is they tire of tolerating neurotypical peoples ignorance.”

    The criteria for someone to be considered HFA (or as someone with Aspergers Syndrome) is an I.Q. higher than 70. There is no such floor for evaluating the I.Q. for the general public. It’s like saying the average age of high schoolers is much younger than that of the general population

    There is no correlation between Aspergers and intelligence. Any such correlation is either a misunderstanding or an intellectual misrepresentation of the statistics.

  20. ASDgirl says:

    I have Aspergers (or high functioning Autism, according to new terminology) and am a very devout Catholic. I know other Aspies who are also devoutly religious. There is also someone far more clearly Autistic whom I see at Mass every Sunday. I don’t think the Autism Spectrum has anything to do with someone’s faith or lack of faith.

    The only difference between autistics and non-autistics in matters of religion seems to me to be that atheist/agnostic autistics specifically attribute their lack of belief to their autism, while atheist/agnostic non-autistics don’t attribute their lack of belief to their non-autism.

  21. Dawn says:

    It seems a spies can be as religious as anyone else and be zealous about spiritual matters in a clinical legalistic manner, but they are more likely to experience a deconstruction of their faith once they experience how their beliefs are actually false.

  22. AspieCatholic Girl says:

    I don’t think people with Aspergers or High Functioning Autism are less likely to be religious. I have known a lot of very religious ASD Catholics. I do think religious people are less likely to become diagnosed with or realize that they have something like Aspergers.

Leave a Reply