Autism Impedes Religiosity

New Findings Suggest that Religiosity and Autism Are at Odds

Posted Nov 05, 2012

According to a recent article in the Travel section of the New York Times, various airports around the nation and the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) have taken steps to help families with autistic children deal with the peculiar challenges presented by commercial aviation and the security measures it involves. 

Families with autistic children can, for example, now make advance arrangements for an opportunity to practice going through airport security and learning about the standard procedures for passengers on commercial aircraft.  Parents of autistic children interviewed for the article expressed gratitude for these and other measures aimed at ameliorating the stress that flying poses and at preventing emotional meltdowns, especially at security checkpoints or at 30,000 feet.

A decade ago when I began to seriously consider the obstacles to religious understanding that autistic people would likely face, I was intrigued to learn that many religious groups, churches, and synagogues across America, just like the airports and the TSA, had various special arrangements in place for addressing the peculiar challenges presented by religious belief and practice.  A casual internet search yielded dozens of links to guides for parents and for religious leaders about ways to make religious education and participation for the autistic, if not understandable, then at least less stressful. 

As I have noted in an earlier blog, I and other cognitive scientists of religion have maintained that the ability to draw intuitive inferences about the contents of other people’s minds – that is, possessing theory of mind -- plays a pivotal role in religious cognition.   The best evidence for this contention ten years ago was the extensive provisions instituted in some quarters to enable autistic people to participate in religious life. 


New Experimental Evidence

New, more systematic evidence is now available.  Recently, experimental psychologists have begun to explore these questions empirically.  The increasing attention that theories of religious cognition have attracted has inspired scientists to test my (and others’) predictions about the obstacles that autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) present for religious susceptibility and understanding. 

Ara Norenzayan and his colleagues report in a particularly intriguing paper on four empirical studies about the connections, or the lack thereof, between ASD and religiosity.  Two hypotheses they examine are, first, that placement on the autistic spectrum will prove inversely related to belief in God and, second, that this relationship turns on individuals’ theory of mind capacities or “mentalizing” abilities.

In their first study Norenzayan and his colleagues compared two samples of adolescents in Florida matched on numerous demographic and social factors.  One of the groups was made up of individuals who had been clinically diagnosed with ASD.  Parents of the individuals in each group rated their own child’s mentalizing capacities by means of a standardized instrument for measuring a person’s Empathy Quotient.  This instrument examines such things as interests in others’ mental states and abilities to take their perspectives and to comprehend their emotions.  The parents’ ratings clearly differentiated the two groups, corroborating the clinical diagnoses.  Participants in the study rated four items measuring belief in God on a seven point scale.  The findings, in short, were that autistic participants were only about one tenth as likely as the controls to voice strong belief in God. 

In three far more extensive studies Norenzayan and his collaborators further tested the two hypotheses.  They looked at much larger samples with hundreds of participants in which they assessed ASD as a continuous variable as measured by participants’ Empathy Quotient scores, rather than on the basis of clinical diagnoses.   These studies used additional measures of ASD and of religious belief.  They examined the influence of other plausible explanatory factors including age, IQ, education, income, religious participation, and interests in science, math, and engineering.  They tested other plausible mediating variables such as agreeableness and conscientiousness.  In short, the findings in the three additional studies supported my and others’ hypotheses that religious belief and understanding is obstructed by ASD and that this results from impaired theory of mind capacities.

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