Field of Science

Atheists lack empathy and understanding

This is actually a study from the middle of last year that I never got round to covering (there was a run of studies from the same team, and this one ended up at the bottom of the pile!). But I'm glad I did.

The study leads were Ara Norenzayan and Will Gervais at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, and they collaborated on this one with Kali Trzesniewski at the University of California, USA.

They were intrigued by an earlier study which found that autistic people were more likely to be atheists. They wanted to know if this was true and, if it was true, they wanted to know why.

So they ran four separate studies. The first matched a small group of autistic individuals with a group of neurotypicals, and found that the autistic individuals were less religious.

The second looked at a group of Canadian students, and found that those who reported more symptoms of autism were also less religious. Study Three broadened this out to a group of 725 American Adults recruited via Amazon's Mechanical Turk, while Study Four looked at a different sample of 425 Adults (they were part of a paid survey panel).

Again and again, they found that symptoms of autism correlated with lack of belief in God.

But their analyses went further. They also asked them about their empathy (using questions like "I often find it difficult to judge if someone is rude or polite" and "I am good at predicting how someone will feel.").

They found that empathy also correlated with belief. Not only that but, using a statistical technique called "bootstrapping",  they found that the most plausible explanation for the correlation was that autism was related to a lack of empathy, which in turn was related to lack of belief (see the figure).

In other words, lack of empathy was the 'in between' factor that mediated the relationship between autism and lack of belief.

Now, they tested a bunch of other potential explanations too. For example, they also measured something called systemizing, which is all "about aptitude for, and interest in, reasoning about mechanical and physical objects and processes", and is measure using questions like "‘‘I am fascinated by how machines work," and "I find it difficult to understand information the bank sends me on different investment and saving systems".

Like empathy, systemizing is correlated both with being male and the degree of autism (although in the opposite direction: autistics are better at systematizing than neurotypicals). But, unlike empathy, it wasn't found to "mediate" the effect autism on religion.

They also looked at aspects of personality (Agreeableness and Conscientiousness), and assessed whether church-going was relevant - the idea here being that going to church with a group of other people might simultaneously improve empathy and increase belief in God. But none of these could explain the effect.

In the fourth study, they also tested another measure of mind-reading. In this one, the participants were shown pictures of eyes and asked to pick out which words best describe what the person in the picture is thinking or feeling. Again, high ability on this task was found to mediate the relationship between religion and autism.

So, in the end, this is really good evidence that, at least in the kinds of religion favoured in the USA, an inability to empathise and read other peoples minds is linked to decreased belief in personal gods. But why might this be?

Well, actually it fits well with other research which finds that loneliness can increase belief in the supernatural. And it also fits with brain imaging studies that found that highly religious people who engage in personal prayer use the same parts of their brains as they would when talking to a good friend.

So it seems that an essential part of the belief in a personal God is the ability to relate to it as a personal friend. It perhaps then isn't surprising that people whose minds don't work that way are less likely to believe.
Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W., & Trzesniewski, K. (2012). Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036880

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


  1. I have a little bit of trouble with the title to this post. It seems a bit of a stretch to generalize that all atheists lack empathy based on research that is merely considering why autistic people might be atheists, but that is what the title implies. Certainly, not all atheists are autistic... but it seems that is what you are claiming with your title.

  2. Completely false title. At best the title could read, "people who lack empathy tend to be atheists "

    As for the person who wrote the title, go screw yourself and the theistic propaganda you push. If you had any empathy, you'd know your pos title would enrage anyone who can accurately read a study without the lens of a pro -theism agenda.

    1. You sound like you lack empathy. Stop proving us right. You're making this too easy for us.

    2. Re: Edward, absolutely A+
      Re: Anonymous absolutely ignorant. How would you like it if your religion (assuming Christian here) were attacked as part of an article, would you be pleased? No. Empathy doesn't apply here. It is showing caring for others, sympathy. It has nothing to do with rightly deserved anger.

  3. It would be interesting to see if there's a context effect. That is, we see these results when the questions are asked in a majority-theist setting. Would this be the same in China? If (as I suspect) what we're seeing is lower empathy affecting this question through lower agreeableness (which I believe OCEAN trait studies have already shown) then atheists in a majority-atheist setting would have no difference in empathy or agreeableness.

  4. I agree that the title is simplistic and oversimplifying, and that we don't know the direction of causality (although they do test and reject the most likely reverse causality, that of church attendance).

    Also, they didn't just look at autistic, they looked at normal people with a range of empathy skills, and found that the worse you were at empathy, the less religious you are likely to be.

    Thing is, I regularly post titles like this about the religious (by their nature, titles are simplistic summaries). So it was interesting to do the same with bad news for atheists! (By the way, Edward, I'm an atheist and this blog is generally considered to be pro-atheist, although I try to be as neutral as possible).

  5. Michael, yes, I suspect there would be some cultural differences. But I don't think it would be about majority-minority status for atheists. Rather, I think that many religions have quite impersonal gods. It would be interesting to see if these were attractive to people with less empathy.

  6. "They also asked them about their empathy (using questions like 'I often find it difficult to judge if someone is rude or polite' and 'I am good at predicting how someone will feel.')."

    I don't think those questions measure empathy well. Someone with symptoms of autism (or someone who's simply different from the norm) may express his feelings differently, making it harder to judge neurotypical people by comparing with one's own reactions. It wouldn't surprise me if autistic people would be *better* than neurotypicals at judging the body language and reactions of other autistic people (E.g. "A person at a party sits huddled in a chair, rocking back and forth. What is the person feeling?" or "You asked an autistic person why your boyfriend broke up with you and he answered 'Maybe he thought you were ugly?' - do you think his answer was meant to make you feel bad?")

  7. Possibly but, except in the first study, they weren't studying autistics. Just normal people (students and two cross-sections of American adults). And also they used an additional measure of empathy in the fourth study (trying to interpret photographs of eyes).

  8. It looks to me like the statistical methodology was mediation analysis and the relevant sampling distributions for mediation analysis were obtained via bootstrapping. (Bootstrapping is a very general collection of techniques based on resampling the data in some fashion dictated by the particular methodology at hand.)

    This is not a major deal though -- it's more a matter of emphasis.

  9. And now the previous comment has disappeared (so you could remove the followup).

    It said something along these lines -

    The statistical technique used was essentially mediation analysis.

    [Bootstrapping is really just a general suite of techniques for calculating things like standard errors or distributions of test statistics and so on using some form of resampling of the data, the particular form of which depends on the analysis being done. So I could do a regression analysis using the bootstrap (obtaining standard errors of coefficients using it, say), or a "t-test" kind of analysis using the bootstrap or I could compare correlations using the bootstrap, and so on.]

  10. Is it possible that what they are measuring as "empathy" is not how much one understands how someone else is feeling, but how much one thinks he understands what someone else is feeling?

    Some of us may just be a bit more aware of the fact that often we don't actually understand another's feelings, our intuitions in this arena frequently being facile and mistaken.

  11. Wonderful review, Tom. Thank you.

    I agree with Anon that you have a real journalistic habit in titling your posts! But I am use to it now. The title could have been "Empathy and Believe" -- but such a title wouldn't sell as many papers.

    But as for the body of your excellent review and the results, and your speculations: they make a great deal of sense to me. I see lack of empathy especially for certain types of Atheists who are found most commonly among the "natural" atheists [those who have always been atheists].

    As I started blogging, I discovered atheists very different from myself -- those that couldn't even imagine having an invisible friend or mystical experiences, for instance. These atheists thought anyone having these delusions must just be stupid. I felt an intense lack of empathy among them. I am an ex-smoker/chewer, among other things, and when I hear people criticize such things, I can tell those who understand from those who don't.

    Many of us Atheists are "natural" believers -- we used to be believers who felt all the right things but then lost or faith for whatever reason.

    But that is because religion is complex and different believers are in for different mixes of factors. So are largely in for the social aspect and some are in for the loneliness-suffering aspect and some are in because it is the right thing to do. (to mention a few).

    So I would change your last sentence to read:

    "So it seems that for many believers, a large component of their belief in a personal God is the ability o relate to it as a personal friend."

  12. Another meaningless and misleading correlative study - pseudoscience.

  13. Somehow I feel like there is something amiss with this study or more perhaps, the conclusion. I think there are other factors that are missing in order to generalize a large group of people like this.

    I could see a correlation of empathy to belief and autism to a lack of empathy, but to generalize and say that atheists lack empathy? I think is outside the scope of this study by a very wide margin.

    Perhaps instead it would be better to say "Low Empathy can lead to atheism". Using a flashy or contentious title just to gain viewers is disingenuous. It's worse if you actually believe that your title is correct rather than simply showy.

  14. Correlations are easy; statistically valid proofs of causation are orders of magnitude harder, which this study does not meet.

    Additionally, in the pantheon of invisible friends, some sincere believers may have no obligation to act any more or less empathetic toward others. For example, does one think the radicalized shahib (suicide bomber) has equally high levels of empathy for the innocents they are about to murder?

    Following this study to its conclusion suggests that, if one values empathy, don't go looking for it from an atheist -- which is just silly.

    I've encountered sincere believers with a bewildering lack of empathy, and others with breathtaking levels of altruism. I find equally -- deliberate Atheists generally thoughtful folk, and generally more transparent and honest about their self-interests. And I've unconsciously, and perhaps unfairly, not expected empathy from them.

    With believers, one has to know what their god expects of them before trusting them. As C.S. Lewis opined, "Aslan is not a tame lion."

  15. Does the article suggest that "the kinds of religion favoured in the USA" tend to treat their gods as imaginary friends? If so, it's maybe not so surprising that people with autistic traits don't seem "religious".

    Surely the definition of "religious" is fundamental to any study like this. How did the researchers define it?

  16. That these "scientists" believe that they are getting a person's empathic nature by asking "I am good at predicting how someone will feel" is absurd. A fool may answer yes to this, but any thoughtful person is bound to feel hamstrung by questions like this, causing them to give an indecisive answer. And some wonder why scientists don't recognize the social sciences as such...

  17. This article is insane. I am an atheist, yet I feel sympathy and empathy for others, and I am not autistic. So there.

  18. It's a pretty bold statement made in this article. Even if the correlations are correct, there is no such (logical) conclusion possible. The outcome could also be axplained that "empathic" people are more inclined to go with common sense. Therefore it would be interessteing to see if the same results would be found in European countries which are muche more secular thhan the US or Canada.

  19. I sense a lack of empathy from most of my fellow "commenters"

  20. To address the general comments: this isn't just a correlation study, but a mediation analysis (thanks Efrique - yes I was loose in my terminology!)

    It can't rule out reverse causation (that being an atheist causes you to lack empathy) but they do rule out the most likely mechanism by which this could happen.

    But it is a very sound study, with rigorous methodology (including questionnare and objective measures of empathy, multiple populations, repeated studies).

    It does not just look at autistics, but autistic tendencies in a general population of non-autistics adults.

    No, it doesn't mean that every atheist has this characteristic, and certainly not to the same degree. So yes a simplistic title but most people understand that there are always individual differences and so what we're talking about here is group tendencies. I don;t bother to spell that out every time because frankly it becomes tedious!

  21. I have to echo the sentiments of another poster, who pointed out that "empathy" in this particular study, seems to be classified as how well someone THINKS they understand others or are in tune with others feelings. Is it possible that religious individuals may simply over-estimate their level of empathy with others compared to nonreligious individuals? How would a study like this control for that element? In my experience, empathy is a very difficult concept to nail down philosophically, let alone study objectively in human interactions.

  22. Ok,
    Someone please tell me this is a joke. This is an actual, genuine study on this topic?
    I've seen this kind of thing or attitudes in atheists before, but never would've connected it in this manner.....

  23. Because of my complete lack of empathy I like to torture people who don't disbelieve as I do.
    Oh, wait. Got that backwards.

    The Holy Inquisitions

  24. Clever. Athiests are inclined to be autistic. Or rather, the autistic are inclined to be athiests. The two propositions have nothing to do with each other. People with psychopathic non-empathic disorders may well be atheistic because they're innately unresponsive to the life-enhancing claims of religious fellowship. Atheists not suffering from any disorders may be quite responsive to human fellowship but simply be unconvinced by superhuman and even supernatural claims of religion. Just thinkin'

  25. Maybe there is an aspect of autism that immunes them from the distraction that abstract thought is ('God' being the daddy of abstraction). Neurotypical atheists are not so blessed and have to struggle to see reality through the confusing hurdle that abstract thought presents.

  26. Here are Some Posts by someone with Aspergers. They might give you some insight.

  27. a resistance to peer-pressure seems a far more likely explanation for being less religious.

    in every study done never has atheist been shown to be less generous or less kind then other groups.

    in fact the only real difference found was that the religious wanted more to APPEAR generous then actually be generous. (the study asked them if they wanted to help but that their help would probably not be needed. The Christians were far more likely to say yes then if you say their help will be probably needed, and the difference was much larger then with atheists)

    The fact far fewer athests are in jail then their population % would indicate is again a good indication that this research does not apply to all atheists.

  28. Strange study, when I took psychology in university they mentioned that self-reports are notoriously unreliable. Why would researchers use peoples' opinions as a measure of what they are really like?

  29. This article is drivel written by a self-righteous religionist disguising his religious narrative as scientific methodology. The title is misleading and disingenuous, at best, as the author essentially admits in the comments section.

    I love how people who believe in fairy tales like a long dead, ancient near eastern peasant named Jesus (if in fact he existed at all) flying out of the sky some future day and "saving the world", yet they try to reduce their "arguments" directed toward those who do not concur with self-contradicting mythological characters to scientific reasoning. It's great fodder for the pseudo-intellectuals gathering at the cafeterias after church to pontificate over their hash browns, but it is absurdity to anyone who comprehends the first chapter of any high school physical science textbook.

  30. Odd to see so many people so worked up by an article they clearly didn't bother to read.

    If you check out the actual article, the authors are pretty clear on two points:

    1) It's not about empathy, per se. That's just the unfortunate title that another researcher picked for their questionnaire. It's really about intuitive mind reading or "theory of mind." How good are you at reading and representing the mental states of others?

    2) It's not saying that atheists lack this ability, it's saying that people who have a harder time with theory of mind tasks are less likely to be religious. Why would this be the case? If you have a hard time dealing with the mental states of others, then the existence of a supernatural agent with nothing but mental states ain't gonna make much sense, will it?

    Framed in that way, 99% of the objections in these comments go away. And if the objectors took the time to look at the research (or even read the abstract), they'd know that.

  31. I would have to say that this is a gross misrepresentation and irresponsible "journalism". This is something that "FOX" news would do. Are you aware that people are quoting your title to attack atheists? Without understanding the nature of the study, or the sample pool. You go on to say that atheists are not empathetic, then you go on to do something that shows a complete lack of empathy. Sincerely disappointed.

  32. Anon @ Friday, February 08, 2013 7:28:00 pm

    Although the researchers use the phrase "Mentalizing deficits" rather than empathy, I'm not sure I do along with that. That's their theory, which they believe is supported by their data.

    But their data are definitely based on measures of empathy. Now, it's possible for someone to have strong "theory of mind" skills but lack empathy - psychopaths, for example.

    So there is some merit to their theory, but I would like them to show that psychopaths are likely to be religious (and I doubt this would be the case!).

    I suspect that it is genuinely to do with empathy, although not in a straightforward way. More on this in the next post!

  33. anon @ Saturday, February 09, 2013 6:46:00 am

    It doesn't surprise me that religionists are using this post to attack atheists.

    On the other hand, the most popular posts on my blogs are ones that that are flattering to atheists. Atheists love to pick up on those to attack religionists.

    I guess that is the way of the world - people pick up on the science that supports their worldview, and dismiss the science that undermines it. (There's quite a lot of scientific evidence to show that this is exactly what happens, by the way!)

  34. >The fact far fewer athests are in jail then their population % would indicate is again a good indication that this research does not apply to all atheists.

    You can be totally un-empathetic and not commit crimes. One has nothing to do with the other.

  35. This was posted on reddit, so you are getting a lot of butthurt autistic atheists commenting on it.

  36. Tom. You have some insanely silly comments in reaction to this post. One often assumes atheists are more critical thinkers - it appears this may not be the case! That atheists, as a generalisation, lack empathy more so than another group does in no way mean that all atheists are unsympathetic of apathetic emotionless zombies! Silly.

    Thanks for putting much more meat on the bones of my post, which looked at using this report as an argument against God:

  37. Yes - just goes to show that atheists are a varied bunch, I suppose.

    I liked your inference at the end of your post - you can also make the same point by pondering why all the key judaeo-christian prophets operated in small patch of the middle-east - a fair-minded god might have spread them out more evenly!

  38. The title is really stupid, mate.

  39. Fascinating article. The reactions are a bit childish and knee jerk, but I remember the same when the whole "Religious people have lower IQs" study came out. Human nature I suppose.

    I remember reading that fundamentalists are similar in having low empathy. I wonder if there is a connection in the inherent brain function. Often when you see this discussed in the context of those who are more liberally religious or Spiritual but not Religious you see both fundamentalists and atheists who are more militant or emphatic in view disown them to the other side. What if they are both right? Perhaps the more Spiritual types are on the other end of a spectrum while atheists and fundamentalists are two branches from the same trunk (one skeptical and curious, one skeptical and traditional, both testing all new information against their favored truth - science/philosophy or tradition/religion). It would seem to be corroborated by that study I read about that said Spiritual but not Religious and those who are more liberal about religion tend to suffer more mental problems than Atheists and Religious folks.

    So, choose between having a low IQ, mental illness, or low empathy (a joke, of course, as it is varying degrees, no doubt, but does explain why it feels like we talk past each other so much).

  40. Way to bring out the extra-wide roller brush!

  41. More accurate studies have shown that religious people are the ones that lack empathy, and atheists are actually motivated by compassion and empathy. Observe:


    Tuesday, November 12, 2013 4:04:03 amq=religious+people+less+motivated+by+compassion&oq=religious+people+less+motivated+by+compassion&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8


  42. Pure anti-atheist (and ever worse, anti-autistic) bias. As an autistic person (with Asperger's syndrome, the milder form) as well as somehow versed in the issue, I can say that autistic people tend to be atheists because of the difficulty or even inability of understanding and fathoming abstract ideas. Any abstract ideas. Most people with Aspergers also tend to have either (or both) dislexya or discalculia, because they can only think in concrete terms, in the form of mental images, symbols like numbers, letters or words being quite meaningless.

    For the lack of empathy, autistic people are able to feel at all, but since they are unable to recognize social cues, facial expressions, body language, as well as understanding other's minds (theirs work differently), thay remain indifferent to people around. I myself can only know what other's feel when I can compare to similar situations that happened to me or when they describe it verbally. I also can't fully predict how would I react to certain things until they happen. And believe me, I cry with TV news, the death os pets, sad songs and even sad stories.

    Not all atheists are autistic.
    As for believers, they can be even more callous. I am not an atheist, but left the church after knowing enough about the sex abuse scandal to wich the soon-to-be saint JPII knew everything since 1960 and did nothing to save the victims, and how the clergy and even the followers dismissed the claims as "greed", "persecution" and blaming the victims. There are plenty of Christians that attend funerals of non-Christians to preach about how the deceased is lost, but the rest can still be saved. One day an atheist asked in a Christian discussion "Why do God give flimsy things to believers, like cars and goos grades as a result of prayers, but does nothing to save African children for starving to death" and the Cristian answers were like "Nobody cares about Africans, why should God?" or "They procreate like rats, it's good to have less of them".

    You should be very careful about what you propagate. There is already much prejudice agains autistic people. They can't get jobs, or are fired from themfor being "unsociable", then are called "lazy bums and whiners" for not working. They are abused at home and bullied at school, hated by Christians, beaten to death by fundamentalist families trying to correct their "sinful behavior" (symptoms) and as a God-believing person you should fear the day you'll answer for every irresponsible word you said.

    1. Thankyou for your comment, Mariane. Just as an FYI. I'm an atheist - not a god believing person.

  43. In my opinion, these results are backwards. Autistics have difficulties in social settings and uncommonly form relationships that will allow them to understand and feel sentiments of empathy which explains their inability to form a relationship with God. It is therefore irrelevant to state that all persons who believe in God have more empathy than those who don't. Autistic individuals, therefore, keeping their social abilities in mind, cannot be utilized in determining the empathic responses of atheists.


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