Atheism and Autism--Are They Correlated?

kellym78's picture

This month's issue of Psychology Today has an interesting piece that reminded me of everybody's dear friend, Vox Day. He asserts in his blog and his book on many occasions that atheists are more likely to suffer from what he terms "social autism"--disorders such as Asperger's Syndrome or mild forms of autism. He bases this on informal internet surveys that questioned people on their personality traits. But is the correlation really there, or is this just another attempt to disparage atheists?

 

"It's All Geek to Me" by Benjamin Nugent discusses the difference between the systematizing brains of so-called "nerds" and the empathic brains of the more socially inclined. Although nerds, the "intellectually gifted but socially awkward" (p.39), do share some traits of those with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorders) but not to a severe enough degree to be classified as a pathology. In fact, the behavior can be brought on solely by parenting style according to Dr. Mel Levine, and the socially inept can be taught the skills necessary for more intuitive social interactions. This is where nerdiness differs from ASD. ASD is persistent despite attempts at socialization.

 

So what does this have to do with atheism? Vox insists that atheists are more likely to be “socially autistic,” which is slightly redundant since autism necessarily entails a type of social ineptness, but I think that the correlation there is purely coincidental. We already know that atheism/nontheism is more prevalent among those of above average intelligence. If people with above average intelligence are also more likely to be “nerds,” or have S-type brains, then it stands to reason that the true connection has nothing to do with atheism and everything to do with the fact that there are more educated and intelligent people in the atheist community who have the aforementioned traits. It is also important to keep in mind the fact that social awkwardness does not imply a pathological disorder.

 

Obviously, this is not a scientific study. This is my own inference based on what appears to be a logical correlation—as opposed to the completely illogical idea that atheism somehow causes autism or that autistic people are more likely to be atheists. Vox will probably backpedal and say that he was using the term “autistic” loosely, but he does spend quite some time reiterating these sentiments both in his book and on his blog.

 

Anybody with Lexus-Nexus or JSTOR subscriptions—I would love to get copies of any journal articles that may be relevant to this topic if you wouldn’t mind sharing. Smiling

 

Atheist Books

shelley's picture

kelly i have a lexus-nexus,

kelly i have a lexus-nexus, j-stor, and netlibrary subscription through GMU.  i'd be happy to give you my user id... e-mail or PM?

I'm not so sure there is a coorelation

In my experience, people with AS live by "rules."  If they grew up in a house where god existed, then that's a "rule" and it's not likely to be broken.  If they grew up questioning or in a family with no god, then they are more likely to at least be skeptical.  People with AS are highly intelligent but once they make up their mind on something, it's very hard to change it.    My husband is undiagnosed but I've found support groups and I haven't seen more atheists in these groups. 

Psychology and Brain Chemistry

I can't remember which book I read this in, or it might have been a TTC lecture, but as more and more people with different brain chemistries are catalogued, there are going to more and more "disorders." Everyone will have a different one, so whose to say what is normal?

I'm slightly socially inept, but I would blame that on my parents and them sending me to a school with the same 12 kids/class for 7 years. I'm also an atheist with degrees in Physics and Electrical Engineering, so I guess he would probably classify me as autistic then as well.

Back on topic, you should suggest to Vox to check out the TTC lectures on Psycology along with "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" by Carl Sagan and "Mapping the Mind" by Rita Carter, to at least be somewhat educated on what he spews from his mouth.

The problem with psychology

The problem with psychology its that its always been one of the more politically and socially effected sciences. The reality of gravity or evolution is not effected by which country the scientist was born in.

The posting you put up at least implies that 'atheism' is in some how unusual and make up an interesting subject matter. That however is a highly 'American centric' view point.

Atheism is the 'norm' or at least close to the norm in most Western countries the only real exception to this is America.

Now if these psychologist wish to demonstrate  that 'autism is of a higher level in Europe than it is in America (I have absolutely no idea if that is true or not)  and that the reason that it is higher is due to a lack of religion there then we would be looking at some interesting research.

 

It's a bit like saying are Americans more prone to violence due to their abnormal religiosity ( its a question which in itself is loaded)

 

 

 

 

DJ's picture

On the note of American Atheism

"In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies (Figures 1-9). The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly."

Here's the refrence. http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html

I'm American and I love my country, but this is just ridiculous. We even know the cause of the problem!

"Life Is Far Too Important A Thing Ever To Talk Seriously About" Oscar Wilde

D-cubed's picture

I wasn't aware "social

I wasn't aware "social autism" was an actual condition.  Then again, my DSM is out of date.  I suppose he's just using it as a phrase like Deepak Chopra likes to use quantum mechanics despite quantum mechanics having nothing to do with the garbage he spews.

So why don't we just claim religious people have a case of underlying cyclical mild schizophrenia.  It usually tends to reveal itself on Sundays and on religious holidays.  It's not a real condition but, in the world of scientific illiterates, it sure sounds plausible especially if you are wearing a nifty lab coat.

Hambydammit's picture

Autism of all forms is

Autism of all forms is significantly more prevalent in males.  Interestingly, Simon Baron-Cohen, of Cambridge, and his student Svetlana Lutchmaya, have done studies that seem to indicate that autism may be an overabundance of instinctive male behavioral traits.  In babies 24 hours old, males preferred to look at a mechanical mobile slightly more often than their mother's face.  Females preferred to look at their mother slightly more than the mobile.  At  one year, the difference is pronounced.  The really interesting thing is that within the males, the degree of interest in the mobile was proportional to the amount of prenatal testosterone they had been exposed to.  In other words, the more testosterone in the womb, the more someone is geared towards how things work instead of how people relate.

In a related study, young children were asked to solve a simple problem involving an error in physics and an error in empathy.  Boys consistently identified the physics error faster than the empathy error, and again, there was a correlation to prenatal testosterone.  Boys with signs of autism seldom, if ever, identified the error in empathy.

The bottom line is that it does appear to be a scale, not an on/off switch, and it does appear to have something to do with prenatal testosterone.

As far as the assertion that autistic people might be more inclined to be atheists, I don't see why that would be an insult.  The disorder often manifests itself as prodigious talent in logic and math.  Duh.  The reason so many people with Asperger's are engineers and physicists is that they are really freaking good at it.  The reason they are not swayed by the emotional appeals of religion is that they don't get it.  They are unaffected by appeals to emotion, or at least are significantly less affected than people without the condition.

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/
Books about atheism

pyrokidd's picture

That's funny, my parents

That's funny, my parents seem to think I'm over social. Especially during summer I spend a huge amount of time with friends. My dad even has tried to limit me going out at night to two nights a week, with no success.

I think the results of this "study" are referring to an atheists tendency to avoid mainstream society, probably because we can see all the bullshit in it. And of course when society distrusts you (and America certainly doesn't trust an atheist), you tend to also distrust society.

"We are the star things harvesting the star energy"
-Carl Sagan

There was a thread about

There was a thread about this a while back (started by a girl in her intro post - but she never came back.) I thought maybe because those of us with ASD tend to be more logical that we realize that religion makes no sense quicker than others would. Notice how many of us on here have Aspergers. We also don't care as much about being socially acceptable so we're more likely to admit to atheism.

Matt Shizzle has been banned from the Rational Response Squad website. This event shall provide an atmosphere more conducive to social growth. - Majority of the mod team

Vox's own social autism

Rather than being speculative in response to Vox Day's oft repeated accusations of 'social autism', why not just point out that he himself possesses such 'social autism' in spades?  Go through his blog and count the number of times he refers to Barack Obama as "the magic negro".

There's a difference between

There's a difference between autism and being an asshat. Vox Day is the latter.

whoa

im kindof autistic... so is my galfriend... whoa (real short higher note surprised kind of whoa slightly comical to)

p.s my eyes got a little bigger reading that.

Badwolf's picture

evolution theory

i tend to notice the people with autism tend to have high intelligence or good ability's in certain area'a such as math and language learning

although they do have trouble communicating it to other people is a down side they have.

but what if it an evolutionary attempt at increasing intelligence of mankind just the mutation didnt queit go right but will adapt in the future providing enough of them manage to have enough social skill to reproduce.

autism and athiesm

There might be a connection between autism and pantheism of a one of those beliefs that suggest a horizontal diety as opposed to one that comes from above. Consider that autism is an evolutionary condition, derived from those with a matrifocal neurology, characteristic of the ancient goddess religions.

Visit http://www.neoteny.org/?cat=7 for details.

 

The Abstract

People with autism / AS have difficulty with abstract concepts, so I expect religion would not make much sense to someone with AS as it would not fit into their hyper-logical world view.

Couple this with the fact many people with AS are of high intelligence, and you have a recipie for atheism.

Atheism and Asperger's syndrome

I am a man of thirty odd years whom recently has been diagnosed with asperger's syndrome. My life has been quite chaotic but reasonably 'normal' to all acccounts of those I know, yes people with AS can socialise, and live in the world of neuro typicals just on their own terms... I was brought up in a catholic household where by tradition I attended sunday school, mass etc etc etc.. My memory of this time is still clear, I saw or understood nothing in attending such, church/sunday school, except it was another place to be where something else happened. I placed no significance on what was being 'taught', they were just words being spoken by a man in different dress to everyone else in attendance  or an overtly bright and chirpy 'helper' of the church in sunday school.. My reason for responding to this subject is that I am looking into my own self to hopefully begin to write a study on the links between Asperger's Syndrome (NOT ASD) and Aetheism/ or non belief. My first thoughts are, because I personally have difficulty with the idea of 'belief' and belief in something so ridiculous as following the words in a book, to me a person might as well be following the text of shakespeare and treating them as divine or finding spiritual guidance from the actions of a plays character(s).. The idea of believing in something where there is no proof, that is from studies, archaeology, historical text.. I hope to give a insightful account ofwhy a person with Asperger's syndrome is not an atheist but just simply cannot , or has not the ability to indulge in such ridiculous notions as belief/spirituality/religion...... please mail here with your own thoughts, ideas on the subject...

I think there could be a correlation between atheism and autism

I actually wrote an article discussing atheism and autism, among other things, back in 2003. The position I took was that I suspected that there would be a correlation between atheism and autism. However, this should be viewed in no way as supporting any religious idea that compromised neurology prevents people from "seeing" that God is real.


I think that autism would be more prevalent amongst atheists because seeing a God is there involves seeing a mind, intentionality - a person. Detecting minds and intentionality would require the use of "social processing" (this has been called things like "theory of mind" and "mental simulation" before - it is just the processing we do to understand other people) in the brain, which is thought to be less functional in people with autism. Now, this might suggest to a theist that autistic people cannot see a God who exists, but it seems more likely to me to suggest that the more active social processing is, the more likely it is to detect minds that are not there.


It is very important for us to be able to detect when another mind is around. We may do this from seeing complex movement nearby, or by seeing things that have been arranged in complex patterns. The consequences of failing to detect other minds are worse than the consequences of wrongly detecting ones that are not there. This "hair trigger" explanation of god belief is quite well known now, I think. It makes the primary cause of god belief a cognitive illusion, caused by the social processing in the brain seeing minds that are not there. If this kind of processing is less active in, for example, someone with Asperger syndrome, they would be less likely to see gods where they are none: they would be less affected by a cognitive illusion because they have less of the parts of the mind that have that illusion.


If any theists are thinking this suggests that God is real, here is an analogy:
Blind people are not affected by optical illusions. Someone who is affected by an optical illusion, and seeing something that is not there may claim that a blind person cannot see it - but the blind person is right. His/her blindness is protecting him/her from an illusion that involves sight. Similarly, autism may provide some measure of protection from cognitive illusions that involve social processing. Similarly, there are optical illusions that only affect people who are not color blind.


I should point out that I would expect there to be a correlation, but not necessarily a strong one. Of course religious people with Asperger syndrome will exist.
I should also point out that if anyone has looked up my 2003 article on this, it may appear a bit primitive now: my position has moved on a bit since then. In 2003 I made "mental simulation" a big feature of the argument and now I think it works better if it does not take a position on how "social processing" works. In the 2003 article I also argued that this detection of minds was done when faced by unexplainable complexity, to avoid getting stuck detecting any minds at all. Now I may tend more to aligning this with the "hair trigger" view of mind detection which suggests that false positives are less serious than missing minds that are there, but I think the general idea is more or less the same.

I should also point out that this simple view ignores what happens when people start promoting religions, writing books, making "proofs" of god and foriming instititions to propagate religion.  Once religion has got going it will evolve all kinds of ways of exploiting other features of the brain to propagate itself, and may be less reliant on people simply having this cognitive illusion - but I would still suspect that the correlation would be noticeable.


If this were the case it could be tested. Someone could do an experiment in which subjects were tested on their ability to detect other minds and intentionality (for example, in arrangements of other objects or in movement of objects), and also on their tendency to detect minds that are not there. The further someone is towards the autistic end of the autistic spectrum, I suspect the less likely he/she will be to detect minds that are not there. Such an experimental result would be a bit of a problem for the "Atheists are blind due to autism" people.

It is very logical that atheism and autism are linked

As one of the first children diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, and in my thirties a self-taught social scientist particularly interested in modern-day cultural differences, I have long come to the conclusion that atheism must be correlated with autism. My logic lies, as you can read here, in that lack of empathy and emotional depth associated with autism makes it very difficult to accept firm, orthodox religion. People lacking empathy are likely to be too strong-willed to accept any submission of their own will to authority, or for rules (e.g. against extramarital sex) whose reasoning is based around emotional effects.

In contrast, people who are highly empathetic are likely to understand the emotional effects of non-committed relationships extremely well and are not likely to have the will-power to resist obedience to traditions. Thus orthodox religious faith will be appealing to them.

Evidence I do have suggests that many of the pre-eminent atheist philosophers, such as Darwin, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and Alfred Kinsey, were indeed autistic. I imagine the list would be longer if specialists searched harder through the list of the earliest atheist philosophers, but I can imagine the reaction if people like Paul Vitz find out the result of such research. On the other hand, I imagine people like Vitz have so much trouble understanding Asperger's Syndrome that they themselves would not know what to do.

I have to agree

I too am a 30 something year old man and also a father of three, one of whom is a 7 year old boy with moderate to severe ASD.  That's 'mainstream autism' for the uninitiated.  I am an atheist and am into lots of subjects like gaming, science fiction, history, astronomy, science in general etc. you know, the 'geek' subjects. Since my son's diagnosis I have been given to pondering on the nature of my own outlook on life and have even taken the unofficial ASD test online and scored high on the scale.  Even if this does give cause to suspect that I may have a clinical diagnosis of some sort of autistic disorder, I find myself uninterested in being labelled as such.  This is mainly due to my self belief and general feeling that I am highly self-sufficient in most matters of learning physical skills, and find the slight awkwardness in some social arenas to be of little concern.  My son is another matter as he has difficulty communicating his thoughts in speech and often makes a sound rather than using a word, he cannot control his emotions when frustrated and suffers from a number of the classic autistic syptoms - ticks, flapping of the arms and drumming on things.  However, he is a generally very happy kid and a mischeivious sense of humour and healthy appetite who enjoys playing games etc. in his own way.  He is both a little brother and an older brother and enjoys the usual gamut of healthy playing and squabbling in equal measure with his siblings.

I have recently been reading Professor Dawkins' The God Delusion and following various documentaries and televised debates on the subject of relgion and science - both on and off topic.  When considering my own situation and more particularly that of my son, I can only conclude that even if you ignore all of the rational arguaments and developments in science, most of which I obviously agree with, I could still only see organised religion is a human construct.  The prospect of attempting to explain the concept of a deity to my son is laughable.  I have attended churches on a number of occasions and have never felt anything but contempt for the illogical nature and the expected suspension of disbelief you're required to have when listening to the sermons.  I would guess for many of us that the whole religion idea is simply 'daft'.  And for those who would argue with the groundless logic of that statement I would alude to a quote from one of my favourite authors -'You don't need to eat shit to know that it's going to taste bad'...

Autism, Freudianism and Materialism

 

 The connection between autism and non conformity seems apparent to me.  I suspect parents of autistic children are more often religious agnostics.  My account is a personal story of the time when autism was thought to be the result of maternal rejection and psychotherapy for mother was the treatment.  It can be read at:

http://30145.myauthorsite.com/

After a quick look, it

After a quick look, it appears that no one here actually knows anything about Autism; The Autism spectrum includes various types of Autism and ranges from severely disabling to hardly noticeable to the casual observer. It turns out that many "nerdy" scientists and engineers are in fact "high-functioning" Autistics. They may have trouble forming relationships but their type of intelligence is well suited to the cause-and-effect, rule-based world of their professions. You can see how they can easily dismiss the idea of God since he/she does not fit into their orderly, sensible world view, though this is only my own observation.My own Autistic daughter dismissed the idea of God by age seven.