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« Should Writers on Religion Disclose Their Beliefs? | Main | Is Religion a Spandrel? »

Is Religion the Inverse of Autism?

I’d like to elaborate on one of the theories of religion discussed in “The God Experiments.” The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie proposes that religious experiences—and particularly those involving visions or intuitions of a personal God--may stem from our innate tendency toward anthropomorphism, “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things or events.” Guthrie called his book on this theory Faces in the Clouds, but he could have called it Jesus in the Tortilla.

Recent findings in developmental psychology dovetail with Guthrie’s theory. By the age of three or four all healthy children manifest an apparently innate ability to infer the state of mind of other people. This so-called theory-of-mind capacity has obvious survival value, because it helps us predict the actions of others for our own benefit. Psychologists postulate that autism stems from a malfunction of the theory-of-mind module. Autistics have difficulty inferring others’ thoughts, and even see no fundamental distinction between people and inanimate objects, such as chairs or tables. That is why autism is sometimes called “mind-blindness.”

Neuroscientists have linked autism with damage to the amygdala, which underpins emotion and social interactions, and to mirror neurons, which help us distinguish between ourselves and others. (See my post “Autism and ‘Mirror Neurons’”.) But many of us have the opposite problem—an overactive theory-of-mind capacity, which leads to what the psychologist Justin Barrett calls “hyperactive agent detection.” When we see squares and triangles moving around a screen, we cannot help but see the squares “chasing” the triangles, or vice versa, even when we are told that the movements are random. For the same reason, many of us intuit divine intentions behind hurricanes, earthquakes, shooting stars, rainbows, tsunamis, sporting events, Presidential elections and even suicidal attacks on skyscrapers.

In other words, religion may be the pathological inverse--the mirror image--of autism. But does that mean belief in God is always a delusion, as Richard Dawkins argues? More later.



I guess a working definition of God would be in order. Those that think their brand of religion, say Christianity, is compatible w/ Science(evolution), may want to rethink what that actually entails. As Natalie Angier pointed out in her essay, My God Problem, this sort of consilience doesn't really work. A virgin birth is an act of parthenogenesis that defies everything we know about mammalian genetics and reproduction. Are christians ready to jettison this belief along w/ the resurrection?

Or are we talking about the mystical side of religions: the cloud of unknowing, advaita, or zen. Where the objective is to examine the psychological self for substance, which coincides w/ what some neuroscientists and psychologists aim to do.


Doesn't it seem like the height of presumption to think that we, with the most minimal understanding of our *own* behaviors, could possibly begin to understand Divine intention?

You want to make a world free of war? Make psychology classes a mandatory part of high school education.


I do think the human tendency to attribute human characteristics to non-human events and things is part of what motivates religion. But I think something is missing from that explanation. Religious thinking not only blames hurricanes on God, it often claims some sense of one-ness or connectedness with the world/universe. I've seen and read enough to suggest that the human brain also produces this effect. Maybe it is a by-product of some bonding behavior? Maybe some people have a hyperactive one-ness module in their brains, which leads them to religious feelings. It is not hard to imagine how some people could attribute this entirely natural phenomenon to God, just like the hurricane.


Given the thesis that a predisposition to acceptance of religious explanations as a cause of various events, represents "...the mirror image--of autism," the reported presence of Asperger's syndrome in such geographic areas as Silicon Valley could provide a ripe source for validation of this hypothesis.

Silberman, in his Wired article (Issue 9.1, December 2001) The Geek Syndrome, reports a rapidly increasing frequency of Asperger's in the children of those involved in technology professions, particularly concentrated in Silicon Valley.

Asperger's presents behavioral attributes readily determined by survey. Personality attributes, educational attainment, and employment experience vs. level of religious belief could prove a fruitful line of discovery.

John Horgan

Iceman, did you see my post "Are Scientists More Likely to Have Autistic Kids?" at
It describes a theory that autism is merely an extreme case of the "systemizer" personality, the opposite of which is the "empathizer." I agree it should be possible to test whether systemizers--including people with Asperger's syndrome--are less likely to be religious, spiritual, whatever. I'm pretty sure how that study would turn out, but I'd love to see real data.

Sandeep Gautam

I guess the hypothesis that religiosity is the mirror image of Autism, is compatible with my own schizophrenia as a mirror image of autism.

I've already highlighted the too-much-anthropomorphism/intent/causality skew in Schizophrenia vs the tendency toward seeing animals as no distinct from things in Autism. Combine this with the broad and loose associations of Schizophrenia and you have a framework for feeling of connectedness with universe, an anthropomorphic god and in general the god delusion. Interesting to note that delusions are a characteristic symptom of schizophrenia and many of them suffer grandiose, religious beliefs.

My post ( Autism vs Schizophrenia explores exactly that dimension, while a latter post ( Two cultures continued explores the different incidences of schizophrenia and Autism in the American and east Asian culture. (which definitely also have different views toward religiosity/ spirituality.

Hal K

There is another aspect of this connection between "inverse" autism and religious belief, which is that for many people religious belief is reinforced socially by membership in and interaction with a group of other people (something that would tend to have less of an effect on someone with autistic tendencies).

Perhaps a person with autistic tendencies could still be religious if he/she associated that religious belief with a close bond formed with another person early in life.

Sandeep's links don't work unless you delete the right parentheses in the links, by the way.

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