Psychobabble: Autism and Atheism

By Keir Liddle

It has recently been reported in the Daily Mail that there may be a link between autism and atheism this link is based on research conducted by a team led by Catherine Caldwell-Harris and Patrick MacNamara of the departments of psychology and neurology at Boston University.

The research is in the bold and controversial new field of the cognitive science of religion which believes that belief arises from normal cognitive processes such as theory of mind and our ability to detect signals from noise. Previous studies have linked religiosity and IQ and have also found Religiosity to be a multidimensional phenomenon encompassing behaviors, beliefs, and experiences.

Studies also report that Individual religious beliefs are the outcome of multiple causes, including personality, reasoning style, family socialization, and views of larger society. and it has been suggested that evolved psychological mechanisms may play a part in the religious beliefs people hold.

The study explores the hypothesis that differences in personal belief will reflect differences in cognitive processing styles and High functioning Autism is here essentially used as an example of an extreme processing style that will predispose towards non-belief (atheism and agnosticism). The study also reflects more current thinking on ASD that suggests the thinking styles of people with HFA are on a continuum with normal functioning and represent a difference, not a deficit.

The researchers tested their hypothesis by content analysis of discussion forums about religion on an autism website (covering 192 unique posters), a comparison content analysis with a neurotypical website, and by a survey that included 61 persons with HFA.

The content analysis of both websites dealt with religion and philosophy and the researchers coded users religious beliefs as Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Other Theistic, Own Construction, Neo-Pagan, Non-theistic, and Other.

One possible issue with the researchers approach is the selection of websites as there may be slightly different community standards and types of interaction between the type of forum that exists primarily to support people with a health condition and those that simply exist as discussion forums. Specifically that one might expect a website where the common ground is a health condition to encompass a wider range of religious belief where as a community forum might be more likely to attract people based on commonality and thus have show less variation in religious belief.

However the researchers also undertook a second interview based study to test their hypothesis comparing 61 HFA individuals with One hundred-and-five undergraduate neurotypicals.  One potential issue with the interview study is that all participants self identified as either neurotypical or high functioning autistic which possibly leaves self diagnosis or non-diagnosis as confounds.

The results of study two were consistent with study one and the researchers concluded that individuals with HFA have a higher rate than neurotypicals of endorsing atheism and agnosticism. They also suggested that HFA individuals resemble another group of high-systemizers scientists, who also reject religious belief at a relatively high rate.

While there may be some slight methodological issues with the study the idea that individual differences in cognitive styles is an important predictor of human belief systems does appeal and seems to be gathering a degree of support from other research.

Tackling the issue from the opposite angle is another new piece of research which aims to test the arguments that belief in God is intuitive, a natural (by-)product of the human mind given its cognitive structure and social context. Further suggesting that the strength of ones belief should be influenced by one’s more general tendency to rely on intuition versus reflection.

The researchers in this case conducted three studies testing this hypothesis and have built a convincing case in it’s support. In the first participants completed the Cognitive Reflection Test (which employs math problems that, although easily solvable, have intuitively compelling incorrect answers) and those who gave more intuitive answers on the CRT reported stronger belief in God irrespective of education level, income, political orientation, or other demographic variables. Study two controlled for IQ and various aspects of personality and came to a similar conclusion. Study three, which employed an experimental method to induce a mindset that favors intuition over reflection, reported a short term causal link between more intuitive thinking and belief in God.

The tendency of those with HFA to have cognitive processing styles that differ to more intuitive (and thus prone to the errors in the CRT test) neurotypical styles may indeed explain why there might be a higher proportion of atheists who happen to have high functioning autism.

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