Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not

A naturalist examines the cognitive and cultural foundations of religion, science, and more

Some Human Minds Will Inevitably Find Religion Baffling

People with autistic spectrum disorders do not understand others' minds.

Older Fathers and Autistic Children

As recently reported in Nature, an Icelandic firm studying the genomes of 78 families has found that the older a father is when his child is conceived, the higher the probability is that he will pass on mutations to his offspring.  This finding goes some way toward explaining the rapidly rising rate of autism in children that has been recorded over the last decade, as researchers have shown more and more genetic factors contributing to autism and as the number of babies fathered by older men has been increasing.

Autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) range from Asperger Syndrome to classic autism.  These people have, to lesser or greater degrees, problems with empathy and social interactions and with language and communication as well as preoccupations with order, routine, and repetitive behaviors, among other symptoms. 

 

Mindblindness

Simon Baron-Cohen (Sasha’s cousin), a researcher at the University of Cambridge, has described autistic people’s empathic and social problems as “mindblindness,” in his book of that title.  Children with ASD fail to recognize, in the ready and natural way that other children do, the things in their environments that have minds.  Consequently, children with ASD often treat other people the same way that they treat objects.  Even in adolescence many fail diagnostic theory of mind tests, such as the false-belief task, which most children pass in their fifth year.  This indicates, in effect, that they do not understand that other people can have false representations of the world.  If people with ASD do not easily distinguish between the things in their environments with minds and those without, they are not alert to behavioral clues about others’ states of mind, and they generally lack empathy. 

It is important to understand, however, that ASD has virtually nothing to do with the cognitive abilities that pertain to measures of general intelligence.  This population exhibits the same normal distribution with regard to IQ that the rest of the population does.  Moreover, although they are impaired with regard to theory of mind and social understanding, they are comparatively gifted with regard to pattern recognition.  People with ASD are often sensitive to systematic properties in the world, such as mathematical relationships between license plate numbers, to which the rest of us are oblivious.  Consequently, those with high functioning ASD can use their systemizing abilities to laboriously construct, in place of a naturally developing theory of mind, a sort of guidebook for handling various social arrangements that they have learned to recognize, rather like a list of rules in a Victorian book on etiquette. 

 

Minds Unprepared for Religion

In my previous blog I outlined how religions rely on engaging natural dispositions of the human mind and theory of mind especially.  Religions are naturally appealing from a cognitive perspective, because, among other things, they traffic in representations of intentional agents whose states of mind and actions are readily understandable to anybody who has acquired theory of mind the normal way, that is, as a body of intuitive knowledge.  The assumptions, skills, and default inferences that accompany theory of mind automatically enable people to comprehend and manage religious worlds effortlessly and without reflection, just as they comprehend and manage their everyday social world.  Just like our neighbors, the gods have knowledge, desires, interests, and preferences that inform their conduct and that we can ascertain in order to predict what they will likely do.

Theory of mind is not the only system of cognitive dispositions that religions exploit, but it is far and away the most common and the most important.  Its centrality to religious conceptions of the cosmos means that those people whose minds have not naturally developed theory-of-mind-equipment are unlikely to grasp religions’ stories and accounts of the gods and angels and devils and demons any better than they grasp the world of human affairs. 

My suggestion is that people with ASD are constitutionally challenged with regard to religion.  Their families may include them in religious events and educate them in religious matters.  The ritualized behaviors of religions may attract them, excite them, and, perhaps, even inspire them.  Regardless of all of this, of their abilities to memorize religious formulae, and of their levels of general intelligence, my prediction is that people with ASD will prove significantly disabled in carrying out the sorts of spontaneous inferences about the gods’ minds and probable actions that come naturally to other people, whether they are religious or not.   Some human beings will inevitably find religion baffling. 

Robert N. McCauley, Ph.D., is the author of Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not. He is William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor of Philosophy at Emory University.

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