The Imprinted Brain

How genes set the balance between autism and psychosis

Mentalism Constrains Belief in God

Being autistic and male reduces religious belief as predicted.

According to the diametric model of mental illness, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is symptomatically deficient in mentalism (or theory-of-mind skills), and a psychotic spectrum disorder (PSD) such as paranoid schizophrenia is correspondingly hyper-mentalistic (implying pathologically over-developed theory-of-mind skills). Paranoid schizophrenics’ delusions often take on a strong religious flavor—the paradigmatic example being those of the most famous paranoid schizophrenic of all, Daniel Paul Schreber. Furthermore, because women tend to be more mentalistic than men, the theory also predicts the widely-found enhanced religiosity of women as explained (along with the Schreber case) in The Imprinted Brain.

A neuro-imaging study has revealed that thinking about God activates regions of the brain also active in mentalizing, notably networks involved with interpreting intent and emotion, abstract semantics, and imagery. Another study using functional magnetic resonance imaging found that, by contrast to making wishes to Santa Claus, subjects who were praying to God activated specific patterns in the three main brain areas involved in mentalizing: the temporo-parietal junction, the temporo-polar region, and the anterior medial prefrontal cortex. Indeed, it found that these areas were particularly active in personal praying by contrast to formal praying (such as reciting the Lord’s Prayer). The study concluded that “praying to god is an inter-subjective experience comparable to ‘normal’ interpersonal interaction,” and that its Christian subjects “mainly think of god as a person, rather than as an abstract entity.”

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But if this is the case, and if ASD is indeed the diametric mentalistic opposite of PSD, autistics ought to be notably non-religious, and in The Imprinted Brain I devoted considerable space to trying to show that this is indeed the case. I pointed out that where autistics seem to be religious, their religion tends to be what Richard Dawkins calls Einsteinian rather than supernatural. By this, Dawkins means a purely metaphorical or nominal belief in God as a first cause, or ultimate reality, but without much in the way of personal, emotional commitment—an “abstract entity,” in the words of researchers quoted above. Dawkins cites Einstein (who has been posthumously diagnosed with ASD) calling himself “a deeply religious non-believer” and explicitly adding that “I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic,” insisting that “The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve.” Translating this into the terminology of the parallel modes of cognition proposed by the diametric model, you could say that traditional, supernatural religion was highly mentalistic—in fact, hyper-mentalistic—but that Einstein’s religion was notably hypo-mentalistic.

This conclusion is strongly endorsed by a recent set of studies which tested three hypotheses suggested by this way of thinking. These were:

  • that autistic tendencies are inversely related to belief in God;
  • that mentalizing explains the finding;
  • and that mentalizing explains the fact that women are generally more religious than men.

The analysis found new evidence for an inverse link between autism and belief in God that was explained by deficits in mentalizing—just as predicted by the diametric model. It also confirmed that women’s generally greater mentalizing abilities explained the striking sex difference in religious belief. The researchers found that the effect of autism on belief exists even after removing the considerable overlap between belief in God and religious attendance. They also report that the inverse relationship between autism and belief cannot be solely a by-product of the more challenging social circumstances of autistic individuals because identical patterns emerged when autism was measured as a continuous variable in a non-clinical sample of university students sharing similar social circumstances. 

The authors point out that a possible alternative is the reverse situation: “that religious involvement somehow causes higher levels of mentalizing, which in turn predict low scores on the autism spectrum. One causal path for this alternative is that belief in God encourages greater social involvement in religious groups and activities, which in turn increases mentalizing tendencies and decreases the likelihood of being on the autism spectrum.” However, "holding constant frequency of religious attendance did not eliminate the effect of mentalizing on belief in God. Moreover, it fails to account for the gender findings (belief in God cannot cause gender), whereas the mentalizing hypothesis parsimoniously explains both the autism and gender effects." 

The researchers also considered the possibility that “the autism spectrum is associated with interest in math, science, and engineering”—what I would term mechanistic cognition—“which in turn reduces religious belief.” However, controlling for mechanistic cognition like this did not independently predict religious belief, and nor was religious belief found to be linked to general intelligence or to education. Additionally, the two basic personality dimensions that are most reliably predictive of religiosity, agreeableness and conscientiousness, similarly failed as mediators of religious belief.

The authors conclude that “a reliably developing social cognitive mechanism”—what I would call mentalism— “is a key foundation that supports the intuitive understanding of God or gods.” They go on to assert that the “Present findings bolster this hypothesis, and further demonstrate that mentalizing deficits undermine not only intuitive understanding of God, but belief as well”—just as the diametric model predicts.

Finally, the authors note that their “findings contribute to this debate by providing an important and previously overlooked psychological explanation for the over-representation of men among disbelievers.” 

According to the imprinted brain theory, mentalism receives a positive push from maternal genes and a negative one in the opposite, mechanistic direction from paternal ones. And because all mothers are female and all fathers are male, the female preponderance in religiosity and male tendency to disbelief is ultimately explained by the same factor that explains the diametric model. This is the sexual conflict written into our DNA, built into our brains before birth, and fought out ever afterwards in our minds—and nowhere more crucially than in our beliefs, religious or otherwise.

(With thanks to Jonas Förare for bringing this to my attention.)

Christopher Robert Badcock, Ph.D., is author of The Imprinted Brain: how genes set the balance between autism and psychosis. 

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