Field of Science

Autism and atheism

A new paper on the potential links between autism and lack of god-belief has caught the attention of the blogosphere. You can read Razib's take on it over at Gene Expression.

Prof Catherine Caldwell-Harris, the psychologist at Boston University, own wrote her own very lucid interpretation of what the results mean over at Science and Religion Today. Heck you can even read the paper itself, if you're interested!

I'm not going to go into the study itself. Basically, they reviewed some online discussion forums, and then also ran a small questionnaire survey, and concluded that people with more symptoms of autism are also less likely to believe in god.

It is, as Caldwell-Harris acknowledges, only quite preliminary evidence. It would probably be wrong to read too much into it. And yet the result seems intuitively correct.

Why? Well, Caldwell-Harris explains that autistic people are less social, less likely to 'mind-read' (i.e. understand what's going on inside other people's heads), and are less bothered about fitting in.

Any or all of these could contribute to lower religious beliefs among autistics compared with so-called 'neurotypicals'. Personally, I find the mind-reading 'mentalization' argument the most compelling.

After all, we know from neuroimaging research that when people pray they use they same parts of their brain that they use when trying to interact with real people. If autistics aren't interested in making real friends in this way, why would they be interested in having an imaginary friend?

If it's hard for them to see that real flesh and blood people have a mind, then it's bound to be a darned sight harder for them to accept the idea of a disembodied, invisible mind!

But what does this tell us about atheists in general? Well, not a lot, I think. It's not easy to get a good handle on how common autism is - a lot depends on how you define it and how thorough people are in trying to identify it. Even in the USA, which has the highest reported numbers, it's still fewer than 1%.

And yet in the countries of Northern Europe, non-belief rates are currently hitting 50%. Given that two-thirds of the autistics in Caldwell-Harris' sample were believers, then autism clearly is a minor factor.

This is still a fascinating piece of pychological research. Caldwell-Harris wants to do some more research into just why autistics are less interested in religion. And that research could throw an interesting perspective onto why religion is quite so popular!

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. i thought s. korea had higher reported rates of autism?

  2. I agree, it is intuitively obvious that autistics would be less prone to seek an invisible friend.

    I wonder if some theists will try to say, "See, Atheists are just unhealthy like autistics are." So indirectly It will be yet another stab at autistic folks.

    I have heard folks try to define "Evil" as lack of empathy. But "empathy" (like 'mind reading') is something autistics often are highly deficient in. Yet we have no evidence of increased violence in autistics.

    Our machinery of 'mind-reading' and 'empathy' are very handy, but they come with drawbacks too -- drawbacks that I bet autistic folks see in neurotypicals and perhaps joke about behind closed doors.

  3. I wonder if the people they surveyed disproportionately included Americans. That could explain it right there, without even the theory of mind stuff entering into it: In America, irreligiousness is spuriously correlated with all sorts of traits, simply because of the tautology that Americans who are Christian "fit in", and Americans who "fit in" are Christians.

  4. Razib, yes, you're right. I see there is a new study report 2.5% prevalence rates for autism in South Korea. I would take single studies with a hefty pinch of salt, however. Looking at the study, it wasn't a systematic survey, and cultural differences could play a role. Incidentally, though, South Korea is a pretty religious place!

  5. Sabio, if you don't have a theory of mind then there's no need to joke behind closed doors ;)

  6. James, interesting point. The survey was US, and so was their analysis of the discussion board. But then that fits into Caldwell-Harris' suggestion that it's the reduced need among autistics to 'fit in' that could explain their low religiosity.


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