Autistics, atheists, and men, are mentally deficient..? Looking at a recent study’s findings on belief in god.

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.

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14 Responses to Autistics, atheists, and men, are mentally deficient..? Looking at a recent study’s findings on belief in god.

  1. There is so much wrong with this study, I barely know where to start. Clearly, the autism-as-an-empathy-disorder piece is way off the mark. But it’s also disturbing to see the researchers assume that people who believe in G-d believe in an anthropomorphic G-d who thinks and feels like a human being. This is a decidedly Christian belief, and not all Christians believe it literally anyway. That’s the way the way the researchers link belief to theory of mind, and it just doesn’t hold up. A whole lot of us who believe in G-d do not believe in a G-d with the mind of a human being, so theory of mind is irrelevant on that score.

    This kind of study is such a waste of time and money when there are pressing needs for housing, employment, education, and services not being met. Just appalling.

    • Thanks for that comment Rachel. I also took serious issue with their notion of what it means to believe in god, but wasn’t sure how to cleanly explain my concerns with that aspect too, so I focused on the empathy/autism part. Your comment makes good head-way to addressing that other core issue, I’m glad you explicitly brought it up.

    • Sunshine says:

      I would venture to say that only a minority of Christians feel they have a personal relationship with a human-like deity, even. I found it such a bizarre assumption to make about how people believe.

  2. seventhvoice says:

    I’m stunned…. I can not believe (and not in a religious way) that any research body would put such rot out there…. Yes those with autism may hold less belief in G-d (although it would be interesting to see exactly which counter variables they were using to dissect that nifty bit of analysis) but that’s not because they don’t hold empathy, they most surely do. If they don’t believe in G-d it’s because, above all else, they are rational human beings. If scientists want to go out there and search for things like a G-d Gene then fine, have at it, but don’t dare, for one minute, try and tell me my son’s lack of belief in G-d holds any resemblance what so ever to lacking empathy. My son doesn’t believe in Fairies either…. nor do, I suspect an overwhelming majority of the population…… what’s that evidence of….. cold heartedness or sanity?????

  3. Wow..that was difficult to follow. The yahoo page put it into a form of English. Still, with the 4 questions, that was a pretty big jump to equate belief in God with Sociability and Agreeableness…although I have always seen my mother that way. She went to the Vatican and Dad joked she was on the veranda with the pope, and the crowd said, “Well, there’s Adella, but whose that guy in the dress standing next to her.?” Just saying…

    Mental deficiency was equated with autism long before this. We have the world’s authorites on autism to thank for that. I didn’t see that it equated autism with mental deficiency except to reiterate the findings out of Cambridge. But then again, it was Greek to me.

    • The link between “conscientiousness and agreeableness” was rather something they tried to separate out, to help identify if autism in itself was actually a predictor of non-belief in god. In fact, they found that agreeableness was a statistically marginal predictor. So the study doesn’t really accent or turn on those specific terms.

      As for the mental deficiency and autism aspect of the study, their focus of mental deficiency for autistics (and atheists, and men) was centred around theory of mind / empathy more specifically. That particular “mental deficiency” of autism is hotly debated, and with good reason. Broader or different notions of “mental deficiency” related to autism weren’t focused on in the study (or my post); the grouping of “men, atheists and autistics” in the title of my post is specifically referencing, and grouping via, the deficiency referred to in the study.

      And yes, I found some of it fairly Greekish too 🙂

  4. Great post. I just left a comment along similar lines at another post on this study.

    • Excellent comment on that post Jon. I strongly recommend people hop over and read your response there.

      • I’ve just realised that you’re talking here about “mental deficiency” (which is an arcane term for intellectual disability), whereas the paper is talking about “mentalizing”, which refers to understanding actions in terms of underlying mental states (ie another word for “theory of mind”). It doesn’t change the implications of your post – and there’s still the implied insult in the paper that autism, atheism, and maleness are all deficiencies – but there is a subtle distinction between what they’re saying and what you’re saying they’re saying 🙂

      • Hi Jon,

        I did take them as meaning “mental deficiency” in terms of theory of mind; that the mental deficiency is in regards to the ability to do those sorts of tasks. That there is a deficiency in that particular area. I didn’t mean it as a reference to the broader idea of intellectual disability. Perhaps I’m not understanding your critique, or perhaps I didn’t make myself clear enough in my post..?

  5. Ann Memmott says:

    The methodology is very similar to taking a child who only speaks Greek…putting them in a faith study group that only speaks English…noting that they haven’t learned anything about the subject…and concluding that Greek people are deficient in learning about faith because their brains aren’t capable of it. The reality is that very few faiths know how to teach autistic people like me about God in a way that makes any sense to us whatsoever. The researchers in effect blaming us for the resulting lack of faith is interesting, but incorrect. Luckily, good practice exists through the sorts of work that people like me do nationally and internationally (national guidelines for churches on how to welcome those on the autism spectrum, etc).

  6. Angel says:

    I am so glad you wrote this! I wish I had seen it when I went on my rant I would have linked to you. I think you bring up some very good arguments about the study. As well as other things to ponder on. Great post!

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