Atheism, autism and naivety.

”Politically or in other ways, [people with Asperger’s] views are often held very strongly, and are black on white. They are typically convinced by the rightness of their beliefs, and given the chance will spend hours relentlessly trying to convince the other person to change their view. They feel their beliefs are not beliefs in the sense of being ”just one point of view”, a matter of subjectivity. Rather, they believe their own beliefs are a true reflection of the world, and as such, correct. Coming up against a different person’s belief therefore can mean trying to persuade you that they are right and you are wrong” (Baron-Cohen, 2005, p.23).

Atheism has long been linked to autism in popular culture, as both share many behavioral similarities. Indeed, some accuse atheism of neglecting the social value of organized religion, paralleling the low interest in the social world that defines autism. Moreover, impairments in imaginative thinking are some of the earliest behavioral manifestations of autism (Charman & Baron-Cohen, 1997), and have been theorized to promote religious disbelief. Lastly, some believe that the rational and systematic cognitive style of people with autism leads to atheism.

Recently, the relationship was investigated by psychological research. The hypothesis that people with autism have a higher likelihood to be atheist was empirically verified. Yet, it remains unclear how autism hinders religiosity. The current academic view holds that difficulties understanding the mental states of others renders the conceptualizing of a God troublesome. Consequently, people with autism, having an impaired social cognition, would not be able to contemplate the existence of a deity with its own mental states. On the other hand, popular culture believes that the rational and objective thinking style of people with autism is the source of their atheism. Putting these hypotheses aside, I suggest that the key to understanding atheism in autistic people might rather originate in processes that are not exclusively religious, but in the transmission of cultural knowledge. In this way, the lack of responsivity  towards the social world leads to religious disbelief via a disinterest towards cultural norms. Hence, low social motivation promotes religious disbelief, not objective and rational thinking.

What does the research say?

Caldwell-Harris, Murphy, Velazquez, and McNamara (2011) conducted two studies to investigate the religious beliefs of people with autism. The first study used 192 posters from the forum, where people with autism can safely discuss among each other. The results indicated that people with autism were much more likely to identify as atheist. Furthermore, they were also more likely to be agnostic and to construct their own religious beliefs. In their second study, 61 respondents with autism filled a survey about their religious preferences. Similar to the results from the first study, people with atheism were less likely to belong to an organized religion.

Norenzayan, Gervais, and  Trzesniewski (2012) have conducted four studies that provided similar results, while providing additional details. Using a sample of adolescents, a sample of Canadians and two samples of Americans, they concluded that autism decreases the belief in God. The magnitude of the relationship between autism and atheism was mediated by mentalizing deficits, that is, the ability to infer mental states to oneself and others. Atheist identification increased with increased mentalizing problems. It is often assumed that people with autism do not follow organized religion due to their logical and rational thinking, but the findings did not support that hypothesis. Indeed, systemizing failed as a mediator of the relationship. The inability to understand others’ mental states explained atheist beliefs, not rational thinking. Most interestingly, the results have given empirical support to explain the sex gap in religious beliefs. Women have long been shown to hold more religious beliefs than men. As autism has often been seen as an extreme male brain (Baron-Cohen, 2002), it is no surprise that people with autism even less religious beliefs than neurotypical men.

Explanations (or lack thereof) from researchers

A handful of possible explanations have been brought forward by Norenzayan and his colleagues to account for the relationship between atheism and mentalizing. First, they suggested that adversity causes people with autism to attend less religious services, and consequently decrease their beliefs. This proposition was not supported by their data. Second, they suggested that religious attendance causes more mentalizing. This suggestion was also discarded on empirical grounds. Third, they suggest that an innate interest for the hard sciences discourages religiosity in people with autism. Once again, this hypothesis did not hold, as systemizing failed as a mediator. Last, individual differences in conscientiousness, agreeableness and intelligence were often linked to religious beliefs, have been believed to play a role in religious disbelief in people with autism. None have shown to mediate the relationship between autism and atheism. The pathway from mentalizing deficits to religious disbelief is at best very ambiguous. The papers mentioned mention it in just a few vague, evasive words. In the case of Caldwell-Harris and colleagues, they simply assert that ”individual differences in cognitive styles is an important predictor of human belief systems, including religious belief”(p.3366). Norenzayan and colleagues explain it as such: ”mentally representing supernatural beings (and their mental states) requires mentalizing capacities. This in turn implies that mentalizing deficits would constrain intuitive support for belief in God”(p.1). In short, they believe that mentalizing deficits directly impede the conceptualization of supernatural beings.

Do religious beliefs originate from a belief in God? No

By claiming that mentalizing deficits hinder the belief in God, and consequently decrease religiosity, Norenzayan and colleagues implicitly suggest that religiosity originates from a personal connection with God. That would suggest that religious beliefs are intrinsically motivated and individually developed. In a similar vein, it implies that the belief in God is the ultimate cause of religiosity, and is necessary to identify as religious. As the belief in God is neither the end purpose, nor is it necessary to identify as religious, the proposition that religious disbelief is solely caused by an inability to infer mental states and motivation to others, resulting in an ability to connect with fictional entities, is unlikely. The answer must reside elsewhere.

First, only 79% of Roman Catholics and 48% of Jews believe in God (Harris Interactive, 2003). Believing in God is apparently not necessary to practice religion. Regardless, God is a minor aspect of organized religions, in terms of religious practice. Most religious people rarely attend religious services, and even if this was the case, religious services mostly do not require coercive (subjective) contact with God. The absence of belief in God does not prevent attending church, accepting religious values, etc. If it does, it does only via decreased motivation.

Second, many people with autism have pronounced interests towards fictional characters. In fact, in popular culture, autism is often linked to massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), cartoons, fiction, role-playing, anime, cosplaying, which are all characterized by fantasy worlds and imaginary entities. It seems that the autistic mind is absolutely capable of connecting with fictional characters, despite being aware that they are fictive. Moreover, people with these hobbies are often extremely dedicated to these interests. The reason that autistic people are mostly atheist does not reside in an inability to connect to an imaginary character.

The hypothesis that deficits in social cognition lead to the inability to conceptualize spiritual entities has no direct empirical support. Meanwhile, some general tendencies of people with autism offer explanations that are more rigorous.

Unwillingness to socialize as the basis of religious disbelief

Some experts perceive autism as an extreme case of diminished social motivation (Chevallier, Kohls, Troiani, Brodkin, & Schultz, 2012). People with autism  show a decrease in the attentional weight assigned to social information. People with autism do not show emotional spontaneity, do not make efforts to maintain interpersonal relationships, do not show interest in social stimuli or attempt to make friends. Importantly, people with autism show little interest for social rewards (Demurie, Roeyers,  Baeyens, & Sonuga-Barke, 2011).

Consequently, people with autism have little interest to conform to social norms, and show little response to social expectations. In order to be an active member in a social group, one has to demonstrate interest towards the implicit norms that guide behavior, and behave accordingly. In this way, active socialization is sometimes costly and consuming. Those who do not need socialization will evade unnecessary investment. In the case of autism, their atheism might originate from the fact that religious belief is reinforced and transmitted socially, and they care little about the social world and its potential rewards. Now that scientific progress is challenging organized religion, the social forces propagating religion are weaker than ever. The incentives to theism being at an all time low, those with a low sensitivity to social rewards are the firsts to reject social expectations, often on the basis of scientific reasoning. Although scientific findings often justify atheism, they predict atheism less than a poor social motivation. In contrast, religiosity is linked to extraversion and agreeableness (i.e socialization; Saroglou, 2002). Since systemizing failed as a predictor of religious disbelief, as opposed to mentalizing deficits, autists’ atheism does not emerge from a rational thinking, but mainly from social impairment.

What does this mean at a bigger scale?

The fact that people with autism are less naive and vulnerable to socially constructed ”truths” goes further than atheism. Indeed, it has been repeatedly noted that people with autism can be extremely offensive, as they do not consider the social value of their opinions. Their unresponsivity to social influences can result in the endorsement of values that are incongruent with their social environment. Importantly, the ongoing politically correct forces that guide the neurotypical mind discourages many ideas that are deemed unacceptable, regardless of objective validity. Accordingly, many opinions could be defended based on empirical support, but are discouraged due to cultural sensitivities, or random cultural fluctuations. In this way, the validity of statements are appraised by two criteria: their social value and their factual validity. Hence, in the neurotypical population, both the factual validity and social value of ideas are considered. In the case of autism, however, the social value is given no weight.

Examples of insensitivity to the social value of a certain element in autism are diverse. First, ”narrow interests” is one of the two core components of autism according to the diagnostic criteria. These narrow interests are often odd and unusual, even inappropriate in some instances. For example, Japanese cartoons are popular among the autistic population, although socialized individuals might arguably see them as childish and socially undesirable. Second, unusual political stances have been documented in people with autism (Baron-Cohen, 2005), such as ”Green Fascism” (shooting those who damage nature). This political model, although somewhat appealing, would not be judged appropriate by the commoners. Lastly, anonymous communities based on unsocialized interests (to say the least) – the infamous image boards, contain the most politically incorrect and unsocialized material known to mankind. Although these micro subcultures evade scientific scrutiny, they are often informally linked to autism in popular culture.

Unsocialized interests indicate that people with autism grant little weight to what is considered socially appropriate. Constantly, cultural forces encourage us to (selectively) consider the social value or objective reality of our environment, and people with autism mostly ignore the former.

Final words

Autism and religious disbelief have shown to be strongly related. The current assumption in psychological research is that deficits in mentalizing impairs the ability to conceive an mental image of an entity with their own motivations and mental states. Disregarding this proposition, I suggest that people with autism show little responsivity to the mode of transmission of religiosity. As a matter of fact, there are many examples that indicate that the autistic mind does not respond to dynamic cultural influences. In this way, mentalizing deficits lead to atheism not by a decreased belief in God, but a lesser responsivity to socialization processes that transmit religiosity. Consequently, the social value is outweighed by the factual value. Autism leads to atheism through a lack of weight granted to what others believe they should accept as true.

The most prevalent theory of autism claims that people vary on a continuum of a need to interact with others. Males, on average, have a lesser socialization drive, and autism is the extreme form of it (Baron-Cohen, 2002). That is why people with autism do not process social information thoroughly, and mostly consider the objective reality as the only source of knowledge. As a result, they are impermeable to social engineering and socially constructed truths like organized religion or other culturally established ”truths”. On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who have a pronounced social motivation. Hopefully, socialized people do not process reality only by social conditioning.

Regardless, whatever motivates family and community involvement matters little. One of the earliest symptom of autism is difficulty in imaginative and pretend play in childhood (Charman & Baron-Cohen, 1997), forcing them into isolation. Refusing to conform to unifying ideologies on the basis of the scientific unlikelihood of Noah’s Ark is a provocative parallel. As the need to belong is one of our most powerful drive and main evolutionary strategy (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), using imaginative and pretending skills to stimulate socialization is as scientific as it gets. Relatives offering their prayers never cured cancer directly, but perceived social support is a major variable in well-being (Sheldon & Wills, 1985) or even physical recovery (Bucholz et al., 2014). Rational thinking can hardly motivate religious disbelief, in contrast to a decreased interest in socializing.


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