Autism study strengthens idea that we read God's mind
- 22:01 30 May 2012 by Andy Coghlan
People with autism appear less likely to believe in God – a discovery that has strengthened theories that religious belief relies on being able to imagine what God is thinking, a capacity known as "mentalising".
One of the hallmarks of autism is an impaired ability to infer and respond to what other people are thinking, so the investigators wondered whether this would affect their likelihood of believing in God.
In a study of adolescents questioned on their beliefs, those with autism were almost 90 per cent less likely than non-autistic peers to express a strong belief in God.
The study – along with three others that questioned hundreds of people about religious belief and mentalisation abilities – also showed that men are worse than women at mentalising. This correlated with them being less likely than women to believe in God.
"We reasoned that if thinking about a personal god engages mentalising abilities, then mentalising deficits would be expected to make belief in a personal god less intuitive, and therefore less believable," says Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and joint head of the investigation. "We found support for this in four different studies."
In each of the studies, jointly reported on 30 May, Norenzayan and his colleagues asked participants to rate their agreement, on a scale from 1 to 7, to questions about their beliefs, such as: "When I am in trouble, I find myself wanting to ask God for help".
They also asked them to complete a standard questionnaire called the Empathy Quotient, which asks respondents to rate themselves on statements such as: "I am good at predicting how someone will feel".
In all four studies, professed belief in God correlated with higher mentalising scores.
The researchers caution, however, that the findings do not prove that belief in God relies exclusively on mentalisation. "We cannot infer causality without further research," says Norenzayan, pointing out that there are many other reasons why people may or may not believe in God, whether or not they are good at mentalising. Norenzayan's own research team has shown, for example, that analytical thinkers are less likely to believe in God.
Conversely, says Norenzayan, people may adopt religion for a host of psychological and cultural reasons independent of "mind-reading" abilities.
"Several studies have recently shown a relation between mentalising and the belief in a personal god," says Uffe Schjødt of Aarhus University in Denmark, whose own studies have shown that regions of the brain vital for mentalisingare active when people pray. "Their finding that deficiencies in mentalising, as seen in people with autism, correlate with a decrease of such beliefs is hardly surprising, but it now finds support in solid empirical data."
Journal reference: PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036880
In : Science
Tags: autism "new scientist" belief
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