What atheism and autism may have in common

My post below on atheism and autism caused some confusion. I want to quickly clear up some issues in regards to the model which I had in mind implicitly. In short I’m convinced by the work of cognitive scientists of religion (see Religion Explained and In Gods We Trust) that belief in gods and spirits is intuitively plausible to most people. It does not follow from this that when you have an intuitive belief that that belief is unshakable. This explains the variation in levels of atheism across societies as well as shifts of views across one’s lifetime. But, it also explains why in pre-modern societies acceptance of supernatural entities is the null or default position, if not necessarily universal.

But what’s the basis for the idea that belief in gods is intuitive? To reduce a lot of results down to a few sentences, humans live in a universe of other actors, agents, which we preoccupy over greatly. Additionally, we can conceive of agents which aren’t present before us. In other words, the plausibility of supernatural narratives derives from our orientation toward populating the universe with social beings and agency. There’s a lot of evolutionary psychological models for why this phenotype is adaptive, but that’s not relevant to us here. The point is that religious beliefs and systems use these intuitions and impulses as atoms with which they can build up more complex cultural ideas.

This is why autistic individuals are of particular interest. They either lack, or are highly deficient in, a great deal of naive social intelligence. If the root source of religiosity is a minimum level of social awareness of other agents, then one might suppose that autistic people may have difficulty finding supernatural agents, gods, plausible. Above I stated that I personally found the work of cognitive scientists of religion about the root causes of this phenomenon plausible. The reason I stated it in this way is that I’m one of the minority of human beings who has never found supernatural agents or spirits plausible. I had to read in a book why other people found gods so compelling as a concept. Reflectively I understood the gist, and I was indoctrinated in their existence as a small child, but these entities were never “real” to me. I suspect that this is due to a more global deficit in modeling other agents.

This is why the empirical results on the correlation between atheism and high functioning autism are important. High functioning autistic individuals are a “boundary condition” of normal human psychological function, and if conventional religiosity is strongly dependent on normal human psychology you would expect it to be generally lacking among high functioning autistic individuals. When I say conventional religiosity, I’m leaving an opening for unconventional religiosity. There are stories of autistic children when told of the concept of the afterlife who formulate a plan to kill themselves, because they accept at face value the promise of a utopian afterlife. This is not the normal human reaction, and it goes to the complexity of cognition, where multiple inconsistent views can be hold together simultaneously. But, I do think that a subset of religious fundamentalists are in fact the inversions of the atheists who find religion implausible on the face of it. To be plain about it, the beliefs of most religious systems imply a lot of crazy things if you work out the logic. But most people don’t behave in a crazy manner.

Also, as I noted below the psychological profile of atheism is going to vary by society, because the proportions of atheists varies. In a culture where religion is strongly normative, such as Palestine, atheism will be espoused by a particular personality profile willing to go against a very strong grain. In contrast, in a nation like Estonia there will be little difference between atheists and theists.

Finally, some people were angry that I seemed to suggest that atheists were antisocial weirdos. Well, there is some data to back that up. This doesn’t mean that more atheist societies are worse than more theist societies (e.g., Estonia vs. Romania). But when it comes to individual differences this seems robust in many societies, though probably not all. I’m curious if people who are aghast at my generalization have a lot of experience in person with atheist organizations? (I do)

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