Autism and Belief

“The Snake in the Grass or Satan Transform’d to an Angel of Light,” title page by Richard Gaywood, paper, etching. At the sides are a Puritan and a Covenanter. British Museum.

By A. G. Moore

On May 30th of this year, Stephanie Pappas reported in Live Science ( “People who have more traits of autism are less likely to believe in God than those that do not have such traits”. Pappas is summarizing the findings of a group of psychologists who claim to have conducted exhaustive research into this phenomenon (See: Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God
A review of the research paper reveals a fatal flaw in the authors’ thinking. They begin their article with the following statement:“Religious believers intuitively conceptualize deities as intentional agents with mental states who anticipate and respond to human beliefs, desires and concerns. It follows that mentalizing deficits, associated with the autistic spectrum and also commonly found in men more than in women, may undermine this intuitive support and reduce belief in a personal God.”.
This is where my critique of their effort begins and ends, for, as a theory of law approximately suggests: from the fruit of a poisoned tree nothing good can flow. It likewise follows that from the fruit of a flawed premise no good conclusion can be drawn.I wonder, have these authors ever heard of Confucianism, Epicurianism, Buddhism?—to name just a few religions. These religions have represented, over the centuries, billions of followers who do not subscribe to the concept of a “personal God”, a God who responds to “human beliefs, desires and concerns”. Is it truly the position of the study’s authors that adherents to these and other unnamed religious traditions have a disability? That these believers cannot “mentalize”? If that is so, where did transcendental meditation come from?The authors describe in their paper a perceived difference between two groups of individuals. Equipped with this perceived difference, these researchers leap to the conclusion that what they see implies a distinction in innate mental ability. More likely, if there is a valid difference between the two groups, that difference has its roots in history.
The religious norm in the United States (where the study was conducted) is very much a product of its founding ethic. Puritanism, Calvinism and Fundamentalism were all profound motivators in the establishment of the country and these continue today as overarching themes in the national consciousness.If the authors had come to the study without a cultural bias, they might have considered that it wasn’t those on the spectrum who had a “disability”. Perhaps it was members of the other group, the believers, who were “unable”–unable, that is, to leave their emotional comfort zone. Unable to separate themselves from the received truths of family and community.I will not commit the authors’ logical fallacy and jump to a hypothesis about why one group of people subscribes to belief in a personal God and another does not. It could be that people on the spectrum are more analytic. Or, it could be that people on the spectrum don’t need the kind of existential reinforcement that believers seek. It’s also possible that people on the spectrum are used to being apart, to not sharing in a common view of the universe, so it is not a great leap for them to separate from the religious traditions of their forebears.
Who knows why differences in perceptions of religion exist between autistic and non-autistic individuals—if indeed these differences do exist. Since the premise of the study is flawed by cultural bias and narrow perspective, why not suspect its methodology?
Mark this one up to junk science and a mammoth waste of time.

The New Republic: Calvin and American Exceptionalism School of Law: The Religious Character of the American Constitution;Puritanism and Constitutionalism in the United States

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