Autism and Belief in God
Autism May Diminish Belief in God. When I first read this headline, I thought the following article would be on the order of some I’ve read before, about how the experience of finding out your child is autistic, addressing his or her daily challenges and planning for the long term when your child is an adult and you are gone can lead one to existential, theologically-heavy thoughts echoing the Book of Job.
The study in question, “Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God,” is not about the “dark night of the soul” among parents of autistic children, but about the religious experience of those themselves on the autism spectrum. It is published in an online scientific journal,†PLoS ONE, and its conclusion is that being on the autism spectrum is “inversely related to belief in God” due to “mentalizng deficits,” to difficulties, noted by other researchers (notably the British psychology professor Simon Baron-Cohen), that autistics have in conceiving the mental states of others (Baron-Cohen refers to this as “mindblindness“).
These conclusions are drawn from four studies, all of which involved the participants filling out questionnaires about religious beliefs, mentalizing and the amount of their “empathy quotient” — involving perspective-taking and understanding others’ emotions — as well as their systematizing tendencies, their interest and ability in “physical and rule-based systems.” (Baron-Cohen has written about autism and what he calls “the male brain” (PDF) as defined by the extent to which a person has empathizing or systematizing tendencies). Twelve of the participants for study 1 were autistic adolescents, the other thirteen neurotypical. Study 2′s participants were†327 Canadian students; Studies 3 and 4 involved “broad national samples” of Americans.
The PLoS ONE study’s authors draw on the notion that “religious believers intuitively conceptualize deities as intentional agents with mental states who anticipate and respond to human beliefs, desires and concerns.” Thus, not being able to “mentalize” others — i.e., a supernatural being or beings — is associated with not being religious. Drawing on the work of Baron-Cohen and others that autistics are “mindblind,” with a tendency to systematize rather than to empathize and thus having “mentalizing deficits,” the authors come to their conclusion about autistics being less likely to believe in a personal god and to be religious. The majority of autistics are male (by a ratio of 4 to 1); the authors cite a similar gender gap in religious belief.
The PLoS ONE study’s reliance on the notion of “mentalizing” †will lead more than a few to question it. Baron-Cohen’s work is often referred to but in practice, both autistics and parents of autistic children (myself included) have questioned the notion that those on the autism spectrum are “mindblind” and unable to conceptualize the mental states of others. My own son being minimally verbal, I can’t know for sure what he thinks but he is extremely attuned to people’s emotions; he picks up on these not only from their words but from all kind of non-verbal cues, including body language and tone of voice: He can “read” mental states and others on the spectrum, and other parents of autistics, have been wary of the “mindblindness” theory too.
There are also some aspects of religion, or of some religions, that could be reasons some autistic individuals are drawn to them, a phenomenon I’ve thought about as both my husband Jim and I teach at Jesuit institutions of higher learning; my husband indeed teachers in a theology department and I teach ancient Greek and Latin. A number of my students want to learn these languages because they are, indeed, deeply religious and want to be able to read the New Testament in the original koine Greek or to read medieval philosophers (such as Thomas Aquinas or Abelard) in the Latin they wrote in.
Anecdotally, some of my (male) students who are very religious, with strong stances about Church doctrine, the Trinity and abortion, display more than a few tendencies of Asperger’s Syndrome. The rituals of Roman Catholicism and of the Orthodox Church cohere, perhaps, with to a certain need for order and routine. In addition, the study of Latin in particular has much that might appeal to someone on the spectrum as Latin grammar is systematic and orderly. Latin, the language of the Catholic Mass for hundreds of years, remains the language used by the Vatican.
Many families we have known have made great efforts to provide religious instruction for their children, in part from a wish to involve a child with difficulties with social interactions in a community more likely, it is hoped, to be accepting and compassionate.
Is defining religious belief in terms of mentalizing too limiting, in studying a potentially huge topic?
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