There’s a new study out (published May 30th 2012), entitled “Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God.” If you prefer not to read the study itself, you can read this news write-up “Autism May Diminish Belief in God.” The idea that autistic people believe in a god less often than non-autistic people, is not itself news. But the explanation for it, and the approach taken in this study to verifying it, is going to really (and legitimately) upset a lot of people.
I’m no scientist – I admit that openly and up-front – but the method used to gather the data for this study, and the presumptions which the study builds upon, appear highly questionable, to say the least. (Indeed, they will appear offensive to many.) I don’t just mean the very small sample size of people who had a confirmed autism diagnosis used in the study. More so, the fact that the guiding and principal method to determine “level of autisticness” (if you will) for the vast majority of people used in the study, was a focus on empathy versus systematizers, using the Empathy Quotient.
The Empathy Quotient test was beautifully and thoroughly attacked by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg over at “Journeys with Autism” (link to her first piece in that series). Rachel also oversees a website that collects posts attacking the supposed wide-spread lack-of-empathy – and lack of capacity for empathy – among autistics (“Autism and Empathy“). If you’re not familiar with the controversy, those two sites are an excellent starting point to get your head around the issues.
This new study links lack of empathy – and lack of theory in mind more generally – with a lower likelihood to believe in god. It links lack of empathy with autistics. Voila, we have a link – a correlation only, as they at least admit in the study – between autism and a lack of god-belief, due to lack of empathy.
The questions asked of the participants in the study were not about why they didn’t believe in god, they were only aimed at identifying level of belief. I would have thought it would be insightful – and highly relevant – to attempt to find out the reason behind the belief / non-belief, rather than the supposition of lack of empathy as key; the idea that a deficit is linked with non-god-belief.
The researchers did attempt to control for other potentially influencing factors – such as IQ (and education, as a typical correlate of IQ), since high IQs are positively correlated with high levels of non-belief – but kept coming back to autism (and therefore, lack of empathy) as the dominant determinate. Which of course comes back to my previous issue with how they even identified autism and autistic individuals. (Another factor they tried to control for was interest in subjects that tend to reduce religious belief, such as maths and science. They also took into account attendance at religious meetings in the lives of participants.) But controlling for such potential influencers, does not address reasons for belief. I suppose they built the reason (or thought they did) into the study itself.
I would have been interested in seeing whether the reason for belief (and non-belief) across autistics and neurotypcials, were the same sorts of reasons. Admittedly one study would struggle to address every question in this area, and figuring out what questions need to asked, can arise after a study like this suggests reason to enquire in the first place.
But none of that stops the news stories like the one I linked to at the start of this post, linking mental deficiency with atheism and therefore autistics. Oh, and men by the way; did you know half the human race is also deficient? “On average, men are less adept at theory of mind than women, studies have shown. And in the current study, men generally scored lower than women on this ability as well, an effect that translated to fewer men with strong religious beliefs.”
I must say – even if the researchers are completely correct about the link between autism and atheism – I just don’t really see the merit of the study. So what if less autistic people believe in god? Choosing to believe in god or not is a question for an individual, at an individual level. I don’t see why we need to know whether a group of people believe in god or not. It doesn’t make them less human – or less anything else – to not believe in god. Except as soon as I say that, I hope you can see the extra concern here; autistics have often been referred to as lacking fundamental humanity because of theory of mind / empathy issues, and so it would not be at all surprising to me, to see this latest study being used in furtherance of that rhetoric; “they can’t even believe in god, they are un-godly…”
At the very least this study does perpetuate the highly questionable link between empathy and autism, and for that alone, it would be deeply flawed.
I reiterate, I am not a scientist. I did my best to understand and think about everything I read in the study; I’m sure others can do a better job of explaining and examining the study than I have (please do provide links to others’ writings on the research, if you have them). If I have goofed up in some way, do let me know, I’m happy to be corrected. In fact, I’d dearly like to be wrong about the messages in the research.