Sep 26, 2011
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.