Atheism as mental deviance

By Razib Khan | September 18, 2011 9:00 pm

Tyler Cowen points me to a PDF, Religious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism, which has some fascinating results on the religiosity (or lack thereof) of people with high functioning autism. I’ve seen speculation about the peculiar psychological profile of atheists before in the cognitive science literature, and there’s a fair amount of social psychological data on the different personality profile of atheists (e.g., more disagreeable). But there hasn’t been a lot of systematic investigation of the possibility that autistic individuals are more likely to be atheist because they lack a fully fleshed “theory of mind,” which would make supernatural agents, gods, more plausible.

You can read the whole paper yourself, but these two figures are the most important bits:


These two figures illustrate two results:

1) Among two equivalent demographic samples differentiated by autism diagnosis state, the high functioning autistics are much more likely to be atheists.

2) Among a sample of autistics and neurotypicals those who are atheists have the highest “autism quotient.”

I doubt this is going to surprise too many people. Additionally, we need to be careful about generalizing here. I think it seems likely that a huge proportion of high functioning autistics are atheists, but, that doesn’t mean that a huge proportion of atheists are high functioning autistics (though a larger proportion than the general population). Social context probably matters as well. In a nation like Estonia being an atheist is a lot less deviant and nonconformist than in the United States. Estonian high functioning autistics might still be atheist, but a much smaller proportion of atheists in Estonia are going to be high functioning autistics.

Finally, there’s another group which I think exhibits many of the same tendencies as atheists in the United States: libertarians.

Note: I am a libertarian-leaning atheist, in case anyone cares.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion
MORE ABOUT: Atheism, Religion
  • Darkseid

    yes, autistic people tend to take things quite literally so, in the case of science, that can be a good thing. i happened to be reading this a few minutes ago fwiw:
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080219203603.htm

  • S.

    As a reader living in “post-Christian” Germany, I think you will want to put massive stress on the social context. In parts of Europe, religion plays no role at all anymore — we live in a small town in former East Germany, and had a hard time finding a baptism greeting card a few weeks ago — and atheism is seen as a sign of sanity. It’s “those American Bible-thumpers” who are the crazy ones. I know quite a number of people who think that belief in the soul is a form of superstition, not because they are radical anti-religious, but as a normal everyday assumption. In contrast, I remember studies that show Americans will happily over-report going to church on Sunday and loath to be called atheist, because there is a social stigma associated with it.

    In short, you might want to tell your readers right away where this study comes from.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #2, yes, but america is more typical than east germany on a world wide scale. additionally, high functioning autistics and people in eastern germany would be atheist for different reasons. the latter are making recourse to social wisdom.

  • AndrewV

    I have long suspected that genetics plays a big part in determining who becomes an atheist. From my own experience I know I never believed, while everyone else around me did.

    I suspect there was some sort of evolutionary advantage to groups with a shared belief in a deity.

  • RafeK

    Very interesting, i have recently been considering the idea that the religious impulse is neurological typical and the lack of it is probably a byproduct of neurological oddities
    (I consider a 3 stdv iq an intellectual oddity from a statistical standpoint and in addition I am ADD and dyslexic so cognitive oddity is not pejorative to me) .

    Which I think gives rise to an interesting epistimilogical quandary. If I lack the credulity to consider the supernatural by some kink of neurological wiring can I privilege that belief over the opposite. I am sure I am right that god does not exist but is that anymore due to logic then my feeling that it is only right and good to by sexual attracted to women and not men.

  • varcher

    AndrewV:

    “I suspect there was some sort of evolutionary advantage to groups with a shared belief in a deity.”

    There’s been a few studies that shows that there’s a general advantage of having a set of common ideals/beliefs within the primal hunter gatherer band; a more cohesive group is better equipped to survive. A common deity is merely a specific case of this.

  • S.J. Esposito

    I’m not sure there’s enough of a gap between autistic atheists and neurotypical atheists for me to believe that there’s a direct — or even an indirect — correlation.

  • wijjy

    To me there are several different hypotheses that are touched on in the manuscript, of which two would fit with these data.

    a) Atheism is the “logical” choice for ASD
    b) ASD care less about social expectations (are less intuitive about the social advantages of fitting in)

    And we also have the expectations that some ASDs might like the structure and the easy way into social relationships that churches bring – Not everyone can find a local linux users group ;)

    If, in East Germany Atheism is the expected standard then one might expect the correlation to be reversed if (b) is the case. But the other variables are going to make causation hard to tease out.

    What do we need?

    Proportions of ASD in for people with the same vs. different religions than their parents.
    ASD in scientologists?

  • Kirk Job Sluder

    The findings are primarily based on Computer-Mediated Communications (CMC) evidence and research. Something that we’ve known from CMC research for a while is that CMC samples are not representative of larger social populations. We also know that certain groups and personality types are more likely to drop out or not participate in CMC for various reasons. Furthermore, discussion groups establish unique norms of linguistic and social behavior so there are biases toward conformity.

    Because of this, generalizing from one CMC sample to another CMC sample is difficult, and generalizing from a CMC sample psychological characteristics of larger populations is probably invalid.

  • Charles Nydorf

    The study assumes that Jews and Christians can’t be atheists but there are atheistic versions of both religions.

  • rampant

    This just in: religion cures autism!

  • http://www.astraean.com/borderwars/ Christopher@BorderWars

    @10 Atheistic versions of Christianity and Judaism? When did the Pope (et al) and Rabbis sign off on that?

    I assume you mean that in finding one’s way to atheism you don’t strictly have to shed the cultural aspects (vs. doctrinal) of your family’s religion along with the specific belief in the deity. But I’m unaware of any institutions that claim to be Christian that deny the divinity of Christ, or Jewish that deny the existence of Yahweh.

  • BJM

    RE #9:
    “a) Atheism is the “logical” choice for ASD
    b) ASD care less about social expectations”

    I think it’s both, not one or the other. Atheism *is* the logical, evidence-based choice *and* ASD affords immunity to social pressures to ignore that evidence. In a society where there is no pressure to disregard evidence for atheism, ASD would be an unnecessary aid to becoming an atheist.

    In other words, I don’t think ASD “sufferers” choose atheism just to be antisocial.

  • Sinjin Smythe

    I think more important is the “high Functioining” aspect of the correlation. This would not be the first article to speak to atheists being associated with higher functioning brains.

    Conversely the prevalence of lower brain functioning and religiosity is also widely reported.

  • Kate

    After skimming the paper I think the sample selection may have led to the results? Maybe I missed something, but where in the study do they show that there is no negative correlation between being diagnosed with HFA and being religious? How do they know religious people aren’t less likely to seek diagnosis? I’m just thinking that a great number of the religious people I know are from small towns, and many of the atheists I know are from urban centres, and that you may be more likely to get diagnosed in an urban centre. So before putting stock into this finding I would want to know that there aren’t a lot of non-diagnosed autistic religious people.

    Really, I think all they’ve proven is that people who identify as HFA are more likely to be atheists, with emphasis on the word identify.

  • Symbiosis

    Is there also a correlation between HFA and higher education (as there is between atheism and higher education)? Or dis-correlation between HFA and law breaking (as fewer atheists, percentage-wise, appear as prison inmates)? If so, we could only hope, as a society, for more people who are NOT neurotypical.

  • Ramrod

    This just in: autism cures the religious impulse! :)

  • Clark

    Discover’s servers have been acting up and it looks like my comments disappeared into the aether.

    I was going to say that it’s a much smaller difference than I’d have expected, honestly. Given the literalist tendencies of fundamentalism I wonder how much of literalism is also explained by autistic spectrum.

    Kate’s point about the difference between self-identified spectrum people versus who actually would fit is a really good point. That study about the incidence in Korea makes me think under current guidelines many more people are autistic than it appears. Atheists are more apt to be educated and thus more apt to self-identify as Aspeberger’s or the like.

  • marcel

    I tried to submit this comment a few hours ago, ubt it disappeared into the ether.

    @ Christopher@BorderWars: “I’m unaware of any institutions that claim to be Christian that deny the divinity of Christ, or Jewish that deny the existence of Yahweh.”

    Check out this.. Of course it contradicts Maimonides’ thirteen principals of faith, but so much the worse for them.

    It appears that we Jewish atheists likely have an autism quotient that is similar to that of agnostics.

  • Jd

    @bjm
    What do you mean that “athieism” *is* the logical, evidence-based choice”?
    I am unaware of any “evidence” either proving, or disproving the existence of a god. But please, if you have some solid evidence for that, please feel free to share.

  • http://changelog.ca/ Charles Iliya Krempeaux

    @Symbiosis (i.e., #17): You may find part of an answer in this paper:

    “The Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians”

    http://eppl604-autism-and-creativity.wmwikis.net/file/view/BaronCohenWheelwrightEtAl2001.pdf

    Everyone:

    Regarding inclination towards libertarianism and Autism Spectrum, here’s an excerpt from a moral psychology paper:

    http://changelog.ca/quote/2011/09/11/cognitive_style_left-liberals_most_feminine_libertarians_most_masculine

    The full paper that excerpt is from is here:
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1665934

  • lehtovitra

    And: if you consider the following, can we conclude that there’s a link btw atheism and bad carbohydrate digestion 0_o
    #PLoS: Impaired Carbohydrate Digestion and Transport and Mucosal Dysbiosis in the Intesti… http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0024585

  • vel

    I would hazard that those somewhere on the spectrum of autism are those who really need evidence to know how to act in the real world. So we also want evidence of a magical being in the sky that supposedly does things. We don’t see it so we become atheists and also very disappointed that people intentionally lie to us.

    If one defines god with certain attributes, like Christianity, etc, then yes one can disprove those gods with no problems. It’s only when theists need to make their god so vague to keep it, that it’s harder to disprove. However, the original adherents wouldn’t recognize that god or that religion. And thus we see that religions and gods are simply human made creations.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I was at first thinking this was an April Fool’s post, but I realized it is tad early. And if it is a long-winded way of telling us about the blog owner’s own cognition, it is in poor taste.

    What would persons with cognitive deficits tell us of life style choices in the general public? There has been nothing as of yet connecting religion to genes, for example.

    As for the specifics, they are funny too.

    – Is lack of religion the only lack in autistics that are correlated with the condition? It could well be a large complex of lacking social expressions.

    – Also, atheism is not lack of religion but a conscious choice, or a stone would be atheist. These categories were self reported, so if a person lack an understanding of religious agents they may lack an understanding of religion. It would be better to look at behavior.

    – “I doubt this is going to surprise too many people.”

    Modulo the difficulties in understanding the self-reported categories, yes, it is surprising. In most cases cognitive deficit people seem to tend toward religion.

    Finally this is beyond the pale: “there’s a fair amount of social psychological data on the different personality profile of atheists (e.g., more disagreeable).”

    I won’t even ask for the lacking references, because I find it unlikely one can separate out others dislike of misinterpreting criticism of subject with criticism of person. Among skeptics and scientists (aka atheists) they find each other agreeable, more so than in the general population.

    Instead I will rely on prison statistics, where atheists are underrepresented with a factor of 10. (US prison statistics, as I remember it: atheists ~ 4 % of the population, ~ 0.4 % of the prison population.) That is a fair measure how disagreeable to atheists are to society at large.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    There has been nothing as of yet connecting religion to genes, for example.

    religiosity is heritable.

    and you need to chill out. there’s nothing sinful in being a social retard. and american atheists tend to be more socially retarded, on average.

  • downwardly-mobile

    I am an atheist / philosophical materialist.

    But as an atheist who has spent much time exploring meditation and spirituality, it seems to me, that a strikingly disproportionate number of my fellow atheists have never really had a spiritual experience.

    There are very powerful subjective experiences of that for many people arise naturally in life and can be cultivated through meditation.

    They produce powerful emotional and intuitive changes in perception, experience of deep bliss and non-duality of self and universe which aren’t triggered physical pleasure.

    A person could easily ascribe these emotional experiences to the supernatural (eg. Thomas Aquinas interpreted non-duality as union with god)

    Perhaps neurotypicals are more prone to this sort of subjective emotional spiritual experiences than autistic people. This might actually be testable with advancement in neuro-imaging technologies.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I am unaware of any “evidence” either proving, or disproving the existence of a god.

    You are confusing philosophy (“proving”) with evidence based empirism (testing for erroneous facts and theories). Such ideas as “methodological naturalism” and your proposed inductionism (or at least its continued mentioning) originates in theology.

    It is an observable fact of nature that there is only physical stuff. As Carroll terms it, (dysteleological) physicalism.

    It is the success of science, not its content, that shores up its use and the decreased uncertainty that follows. Conversely, it is the failure of alternative methods to compete that makes it the only way to get to facts. To use yet another popular theological term, we end up with “scientism”.

    From the use of (unqualified) naturalism, we observe success. But moreover:

    One main reason why this success is so pervasive is that we observe uniformity. Science would be a lot less compelling, but still feasible, if physics laws would be different between my dining room and my work room or between lunch time and work time.

    But if we think about it, another main reason for success is that we observe physicalist monism. Science would be a lot less compelling, but still feasible, if physics laws would be different between my fork and my pen.

    That is why physicalist monism is very much as observed, and important, as uniformity. My toy model is to use a measurable physical characteristic, say conservation of energy, and test for the prediction of monism.

    Say, a binomial test yes/no over tested observations or hypotheses published. We need ~ 260 000 such publications for a 3 sigma test of a physics theory (outside of accelerators and astronomy). At the current exponentially increasing rate of 600 000 papers a year (IIRC) and estimating 1/10 contains actual tests that would mean a mere ~ 5 years papers.

    So we, as society, likely passed the stage of being able to reject magic dualism of theology for good somewhere in the 70′s – 80′s. (For good, give or take remaining uncertainty of testing.)

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    religiosity is heritable.

    That is not what Jerry Coyne arrives at in a thorough analysis, and he is an evolutionary expert:

    “So we have no evidence for a genetic basis of believing in God, and plenty of alternative explanations that don’t involve natural selection.”

    and you need to chill out.

    Unsupported claims makes me tetchy, yes. Why wouldn’t they? I am a big supporter of science.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #29, i said heritable. and i agree with coyne’s citation of boyer and company.

    I am a big supporter of science

    then you should be able to read between the lines when i stay that religiosity has been reported to be heritable.

  • Marley

    I can’t wait to see how this gets twisted.

  • Julia

    “ASDs might like the structure and the easy way into social relationships that churches bring…” . As an undiagnosed HFA in my teenage years a fundamentalist church in California really helped to reform my social behavior and gave me a chance to observe and understand neurotypicals better. However, once I was able to memorize enough of what was needed to function in society, I let all my doubts “hang out”. Once I was diagnosed with HFA I got so much support from my family and could finally reject theism and stop pretending that it made sense to me . Over a period of 10 years I embraced atheism [with the help of pharyngula web site and a few lectures on the molecular evolution of hemoglobin]. Church people are still somewhat confusing to me because if they say the believe in the god that helps them to “behave like a Christian” why do they behave so inconsistently (and often cruelly–I am much more polite and kind than any “Christian” I know in person)?

    As far as the political stripe of “libertarianism” goes it looks very simple and logical but does not jibe enough with the reality of how neurotypicals live and with the “new” science coming out about how social animals live and survive by being “kind” to others of their species http://atheism.about.com/od/bookreviews/fr/KindnessCruel.htm . It also seems the practical outcome of “libertarianism” would be a new-fashioned feudalism and a destroyed natural world. With my absolute love and fascination with the non-human world I would hate to see the natural world exploited anymore than it already is.

  • Laurie

    Perhaps autistic people are simply more comfortable admitting their atheism? I have had friends who did not believe in God who went to church because they didn’t want their parent/spouse/clients, etc. to know they were atheists. Could there be a self-reporting bias?

  • Derek

    Looking forward to what a genetic definition of “a fully fleshed theory of mind” might be.

    What have we got here?

    Both the graphs are from a comparison of users in different online forums.

    The control forum is supposed to be matched on age but, as far as I can tell, on nothing else. There are many variables that could account for differences between the two groups.

    Similarly, the ASD group is self-selected for that forum and can’t be considered represented of the ASD population.

    Pretty weak.

  • Jeff

    - Or could it be that those with mild autism have a slightly better “resistance” to the emotionally-charged appeals and admonitions (not to mention the urge to follow family traditions) that organized religions rely upon to ensnare members?

  • anon

    I haven’t read all comments, but here’s a reminder:

    Correlation does not imply causality. Keep in mind that atheism and autism seem to have a correlation, but that does not necessarily mean that one caused the other.

  • Dan

    Since atheism correlates to higher intelligence are we to assume intelligence is a mental deviation as well ?

  • Justin

    I love how not believing in bullshit fairy tales is considered to be mental deviance.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Since atheism correlates to higher intelligence are we to assume intelligence is a mental deviation as well ?

    very high and low intelligence is a mental deviation by definition.

  • AndrewV

    @Torbjörn Larsson, OM Says:

    – Also, atheism is not lack of religion but a conscious choice, or a stone would be atheist

    I never believed in the first place and I am amused that you would presume to speak for me. Also try to drop the stone business in future, as it could be construed as the argument of an ideaolog.

    It is an observable fact of nature that there is only physical stuff.

    You would probably be better off staying with the agnostic position that the existence of God(s) can neither be proven or dismissed.

    Finally, if you had trouble with the link you were given, heritable as in “capable of being inherited or of passing by inheritance” says it all.

  • Miguel Madeira

    “I think more important is the “high Functioining” aspect of the correlation.

    This would not be the first article to speak to atheists being associated with higher functioning brains.Conversely the prevalence of lower brain functioning and religiosity is also widely reported.”

    “High Functioning” means absence of mental retardation – attending that 98 % of the general population (vs. 100% of the high functioning autistics) is not mentally retarded, I doubt that this makes much difference in practice.

  • http://changelog.ca/ Charles Iliya Krempeaux

    Dan (i.e., #37) said,

    Since atheism correlates to higher intelligence are we to assume intelligence is a mental deviation as well ?

    Two things…

    First, as Razib said: “very high and low intelligence is a mental deviation by definition.“.

    Second (to address what I think you’re getting at), the concept of a “mental disorder” is not a scientific concept. It is culturally and politically derived. (Note, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t brain diseases. It just means that the concept of “mental disorder” as defined by the DSM, as a whole, does not embody this.) A reference on this is: “What Is Mental Illness?”, by Richard J. McNally. (Or spend some time reading the DSM.)

    Given this, something like atheism could be considered a “mental disorder”, in and of itself.

  • BJM

    @jD #21
    RE: What do you mean that “athieism” *is* the logical, evidence-based choice?

    I’m talking about “choice” (opinion), not proof. Of course my statement is itself an opinion. If you don’t agree, fine. I’m not going to argue the existence of God here.

  • Kirk Job Sluder

    An important distinction between atheism as mental deviance and intelligence as mental deviance is that psychologists have spent over a century developing a theoretical understanding of general intelligence, and still have doubts about the reliability and validity of the tools they use to measure it. I’m not aware that religious identification has been subjected to the same degree of rigorous and skeptical inquiry.

  • TimF

    I think some intersting takes on this study have been presented here.. perhaps it is a biological inclination that may lead one to a more ‘fantastic’ view of reality

    Perhaps a major player is the release from societal norms and social pressures that allow the mind to formulate its own opinions and realizations about life as opposed to what you are told by an older and jaded generation

    Another variable that comes to mind is the focus of the imagination in the formative years.. while child A is perceived as ‘normal’.. he is forced to submit to a deluge of stories and pressures that are designed to ‘steer’ or ‘engineer’ his mental state to that which would mimic his forefathers (thereby justifying their lifelong devotion)….
    while child B is deemed autistic or the sufferer of a wide range of mental malformities and is thusly allowed to focus on things that are more ‘real': the wind in the trees, the colors in the box of crayons, the water as it flows from the faucet.. not that I am attempting to imply that austistic means ‘simple’.. more that, if you are less expected to be a part of the play, you may have time to notice that the story is really rather silly and there are many more beautiful things in the real world

  • Dave

    I’ve long thought that belief in a higher power was a sort of socially acceptable mental illness; this does little to dispute that idea. Just because everyone “normal” does something does not mean that the something in question is sane.

  • Omar Khayyam

    No error bars on the first graph… those can’t be interpreted with any confidence.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    to future commenters: if you leave comments trying to convert people to xtianity or proudly discuss the facts supporting creationism, you will be tagged as spam. if you want to just talk to me, you can email me :-) no one else is gonna see what you say.

  • Clark

    Since atheism correlates to higher intelligence are we to assume intelligence is a mental deviation as well ?
    very high and low intelligence is a mental deviation by definition.

    That has to get comment of the week. Funniest thing I’ve read all week. I love how people can’t distinguish between deviation in a technical sense and being a deviant in a colloquial sense.

  • ackbark

    #28 ‘It is the success of science, not its content, that shores up its use and the decreased uncertainty that follows. Conversely, it is the failure of alternative methods to compete that makes it the only way to get to facts. To use yet another popular theological term, we end up with “scientism”. ‘

    There is some way where this is badly confused, or badly written, I cannot tell which.

    As if science were an exclusionally defined thing like blues music and there were other methods of getting facts that might have been just as good if they hadn’t been outcompeted by science, red in tooth and claw.

  • Paul Moloney

    “america is more typical than east germany on a world wide scale. ”

    Um, doesn’t America have one of the highest church attendances in the Western world? Something like over 40%, compared to 15% in France, 10% in UK, 8% in Australia?

    It really isn’t _that_ typical.

    P.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Um, doesn’t America have one of the highest church attendances in the Western world? Something like over 40%, compared to 15% in France, 10% in UK, 8% in Australia?

    what kind of bullshit move is it to substitute “western world” for “world wide”? i’m not a moron, i’m quite aware of america’s religiosity as a developed nation. that’s why i said “world wide.”

  • Jason Malloy

    “Um, doesn’t America have one of the highest church attendances in the Western world? Something like over 40%, compared to 15% in France, 10% in UK, 8% in Australia?”

    No, not really:

    “Brenner found that the United States and Canada were outliers—not in religious attendance, but in overreporting religious attendance. Americans attended services about as often as Italians and Slovenians and slightly more than Brits and Germans.”

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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