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Autism and Belief in God

Autism and Belief in God
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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.

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77 comments

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5:14AM PDT on Oct 28, 2013

I am Autistic. I go to church every Sunday. I think one day I would like to be the pastor at my church.

9:31PM PDT on Jun 9, 2012

Haha wow second load of trash Ive read on care2 come on care2, no the lack of believing in fairy tails is NOT due to "mentalblind" I swear man idk how people come up with this stuff, NOT believing this trash shows intelligence, independence and leadership, NOT ignorance, relieve on others to make them feel good & being a follower, you wanna ague that let me ask you one question what is there was no god, no crunch to feel better about death, point in case, there are MANY MANY things in this this is just one exp

6:42AM PDT on Jun 6, 2012

Thank you Alison V!
green stars to you....this is exactly what i was wondering...
uuuhhh ....why not ASK autistic people? Do we think the autistic are incapable of telling the truth?

6:37AM PDT on Jun 6, 2012

I'd like to give my opinion here. I'm an adult autistic woman who can verbalize for myself quite competently. I am an atheist. Not because of any so called "mind-blindness", I'm fully aware that other people also think and feel. No, I'm an atheist simply because, as an autistic, I am entirely logical in my thought processes. And the idea of a god to me is just a silly concept, one that is on a par with the tooth fairy and Santa Claus - a nice fairy tale for children, but not one that should be confused with observed reality. Also, I do wish so-called "experts" like Baren-Cohen would stop putting their words in my mouth. I can speak for myself quite adequately. If you want to know why so many Autistics are atheists, just ASK us.

10:54PM PDT on Jun 5, 2012

the article could have been written in lay-man terms to make it more interesting

4:47PM PDT on Jun 5, 2012

It's not a deficit to not blindly believe in whatever higher being someone throws at us.

I wish the so-called scientists would stop doing such studies and instead try to understand the autistic community better. There are as many religious people, btw, among us than in the neurotypical community. Just that there are less Christians, as it seems. And that's not a deficit.

4:47PM PDT on Jun 4, 2012

Complicated issue.

3:40PM PDT on Jun 4, 2012

With all due respect to anyone with Autism i feel they have their own thoughts and beliefs, are happy provided they are in a happy environment, are loved and i think they know when they are loved but i know absolutely nothing about Autism but what i see on tv. If that is proof of anything i might just even be a little bit correct but what do i know?

3:06PM PDT on Jun 4, 2012

Thank you for sharing.

9:07AM PDT on Jun 4, 2012

thanks for posting.

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