Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Are Atheists Autistic?

New study findings really don't suggest this but there are interesting aspects to the study. The issue is that it seems there may be a connection between the inability to conceptualize what can't be seen and religious bleief, and autism.

Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God

  • Ara Norenzayan mail,

  • Will M. Gervais,
  • Kali H. Trzesniewski


Religious believers intuitively conceptualize deities as intentional agents with mental states who anticipate and respond to human beliefs, desires and concerns. It follows that mentalizing deficits, associated with the autistic spectrum and also commonly found in men more than in women, may undermine this intuitive support and reduce belief in a personal God. Autistic adolescents expressed less belief in God than did matched neuro-typical controls (Study 1). In a Canadian student sample (Study 2), and two American national samples that controlled for demographic characteristics and other correlates of autism and religiosity (Study 3 and 4), the autism spectrum predicted reduced belief in God, and mentalizing mediated this relationship. Systemizing (Studies 2 and 3) and two personality dimensions related to religious belief, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness (Study 3), failed as mediators. Mentalizing also explained the robust and well-known, but theoretically debated, gender gap in religious belief wherein men show reduced religious belief (Studies 2–4).

 They selected 12 subjects and matched them on SES and demographics. Families of autistic children were contacted through organizations. They used registered clinitions to diagnose the autism for the study, "based on DSM-IV criteria and were free of additional diagnoses.."

 Participants rated their agreement (1–7) with four different statements (I believe in God; When I am in trouble, I find myself wanting to ask God for help. Reversed-coded items: When people pray they are only talking to themselves; I don't really spend much time thinking about my religious beliefs). One additional item (“I just don't understand religion”) was dropped, because it correlated poorly with the overall scale in this sample, leaving a four-item Intuitive Belief in God scale (α = .65, M = 5.03, SD = 1.37). (Retaining this item did not significantly alter the overall pattern of results). In previous research [34], this measure correlated very highly with other scales measuring religious devotion, such as the Intrinsic Religiosity Scale [40] (r = .65, p<.001), and the Spiritual Well-Being Scale [41] (r = .82, p<.001). Belief in God was non-normally distributed and negatively skewed (Kolmogorov-Smirnov p = .08, skewness = −.82). Therefore, this variable was median-dichotomized into high believers (60%) and low believers (40%).

 In study 2 they completed a web based questionnaire. There were actually four studies done.


We again measured and controlled for age, educational attainment, frequency of religious attendance, and added a 3-item measure of interest in math, science, and engineering (IMSE, α = .69, on a 1–7 scale). IMSE was included to assess the possibility that the relationship between autism and belief in God, or gender and belief in God, are byproducts of greater levels of scientific interest among those high on the autism spectrum.


In study 1 they intended to compare autism diagnosis with control group vis belief, the small sample size made this "unfeasible." (their word) They then tried to use IQ as an indicator fur found no connection. This may be another study that's that shows no connection bewteen IQ and belief.

Figure 1. Study 2: Mentalizing, but not systemizing, mediated the effects of both autism spectrum (A) and gender (B) on belief in God (N = 327).
p<.10, *p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001. Note. OR = odds ratio; β = standardized beta; b = unstandardized beta. Values in parentheses are mediated effects. Autism Analysis Covariate: Gender. Gender Analysis Covariate: Autism Spectrum.

study 2 used sample of Canadian Children,, measured belief by self reporting compared mentalizing and systematizing with belief. The study 3 used an American sample and did the same.

gure 2. Study 3: Mentalizing, but not systemizing, mediated the effects of both autism spectrum (A) and gender (B) on belief in a personal God (N = 706).
*p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001. Note. OR = odds ratio; β = standardized beta; b = unstandardized beta. Agreeableness, or Conscientiousness (not shown) also failed as mediators. Values in parentheses are mediated effects. Autism Analysis Covariates: Gender, Age, Education, Income, Religious attendance. Gender Analysis Covariates: Autism Spectrum, Age, Education, Income, Religious attendance.
study 4 replicated study 3.

The findings suggest that boys don't mentalize (imagine mental iamges0 as well as girls, and tendency to believe less in God than girls. This holds true more so for autism. An alternative hypothesis suggest is that autistic children have less attendance in religious instruction due to their problems of adjustment due to autism. The researchers recognize that the data is not broad enough to draw sweeping conclusions from. They also acknowledge that rejection of religion to brieve is too complex to explain through one factor.

Finally, we emphasize that our data do not suggest that religious disbelief solely arises through mentalizing deficits; multiple psychological and socio-cultural pathways likely lead to a complex and over-determined phenomenon such as disbelief in God or gods. Therefore, mentalizing deficits are one pathway among several to disbelief. Analytic cognitive processing that suppresses or overrides the intuitions that make theism cognitively compelling [34] and exposure to secular cultural contexts lacking cues that one should believe in God or gods [35] also likely promote religious disbelief. In other words, the present results suggest that disbelief can result from mentalizing deficits, but it can also arise from multiple other sources, holding constant mentalizing tendencies.

A complete scientific account of religious belief and disbelief therefore requires consideration of not only cognitive underpinnings such as mentalizing and other core cognitive biases such as dualistic intuitions and teleological or purpose-driven thinking [12], [36]. Equally important in explaining their cultural prevalence, supernatural agent beliefs­once cognitively available-can be co-opted for motivational and social functions, because of both their palliative effects on existential anxieties [1] and their facilitative effects on cooperation in large, anonymous groups in a cultural evolutionary process [37], [38]. Finally, the prevalence and content of supernatural agent beliefs, although constrained by core social cognitive capacities, respond to and fluctuate with socio-demographic conditions across time and cultures [39]. Within this broader theoretical landscape, these studies present new evidence for a social cognitive mechanism underlying one source of individual differences in religious belief.

Yet they do see a possibility that autism spectrum is associated with interest in math, science and engineering which "in turn reduces religious belief." While the data is really pretty useless if one is seeking to learn weather atheists tend to be autistic or not it has a couple of interesting aspects. First, it shows no connection between IQ and belief. There are already plenty of studies that do that but here's anther one. Moreover, it also might lend credence to the idea that different kinds of intelligence are reflected in bleief or unbelief. I already had proposed that if there is an intelligence difference it s in kind and not degree. So in other words believers are no smarter than unbelievers nor or they less smart, but use different types of intelligence. The unbeliever would e math/scinece oriented and the believer might be more verbal. In any case that unbelievers tend to be autistic is a possibility suggested by the data but not a probable one.

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