So, someone has finally come out and asked the question: Joe Carter of “The Evangelical Outpost” inquires, Are Atheists Autistic?
Great, I thought, when I first read about this. Next thing you know, we’re going to have organizations with names like “Cure Atheism Now”. And their supporters will make all kinds of claims about how this terrible developmental disorder, atheism, prevents people from making friends easily, makes “fitting in” difficult, makes people less likely to be trusted, makes it impossible to get certain kinds of jobs or be elected to public office, cuts people off from the “religious community” (a strong source of social support), and denies them the comfort of belief in an afterlife.
Atheist children will be subjected to intense behavioral therapies involving being forced to sit at a small table until they ask for a [Holy Book] or a picture of [Deity or Guru], at which point they will be hugged and praised or rewarded with M&Ms. Older atheists who decide that they are perfectly fine with how they are “wired” will be told by well-meaning others that it’s very nice that they’ve learned to live with their limitations, but that they still have no idea what they are missing.
Okay. Now, for the (relatively) serious stuff.
I’ve actually been expecting this, or at least something like it. I haven’t written about it until now because it is extremely difficult to write about anything pertaining to religion or spirituality (or lack thereof) without risking re-igniting the same old flamewars that tend to dominate the Internet’s philosophical landscape. I hope I can offer some commentary on the article linked above without anyone trying to subsequently steer the discussion in the direction of arguing for or against the existence of various deities. For the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t matter whether any religious claims are true or not.
Most of the issues I write about are irrelevant to religion. Neither atheism nor theism is a prerequisite to supporting life extension, or neurodiversity, or morphological liberty, and these are the topics I tend to focus on, so I’ve mainly left religion out of the picture. I plan to continue this for the most part, since there are plenty of blogs you can go and read if you feel like wading through pages and pages of repetitions of Pascal’s Wager, deconstructions of the Ontological Argument, and anecdotes about watches and eyeballs. But I did want to make an exception to comment on “Are Atheists Autistic?”
There are a lot of stereotypes about atheists. And as “Are Atheists Autistic?” demonstrates, the stereotypes about atheists are actually quite similar to the stereotypes about autistics. Atheists and autistics are, according to some:
- Insensitive - Lacking in emotional depth - Self-centered - Abrasive - Disconnected from the community
Bear in mind that I am not in any way equating autism with atheism or suggesting that any of these things are actually true. Nor am I suggesting that the author of “Are Atheists Autistic?” was doing so either.
In some respects I think I can actually grok what theists who encounter “real live atheists”, or neurotypicals who encounter “real live autistics who are not Rain Man” for the first time experience. When a person is raised in a culture (and most likely, a family) wherein a particular religious worldview or neurotype predominates, finding out that there are some people who do not share that worldview or neurotype (but who are still people, with minds and thoughts and feelings) can be as weird as finding out that there are unicorns living on the moon.
I am, of course, referring to the very real, very human phenomenon of culture shock. Finding out that some people think differently than you do, or believe differently than you do, or communicate differently than you do, can be psychologically jarring. It can take a while to re-adjust to this new information. But as ethical individuals, I would suggest that we actually have something of an obligation to consider new information as it arrives—especially if this new information could affect how you interface with an entire demographic of people.
My own informal observations seem to have revealed a fairly even split between autistic atheists and autistic theists—in short, whether a person is autistic or not doesn’t seem to have much influence over their religious convictions (or lack thereof). To his credit, Mr. Carter includes a disclaimer in his piece that expresses a similar observation. He writes:
1. No, I’m not saying that all atheists are autistic. (The evidence seems to show that is not true.) 2. No, I’m not saying that autistic people tend to be atheists. (I have no idea whether they are or not.) 3. No, I don’t think that autism causes atheism or vice versa. (I think there is a correlation, not a causal relationship between the two.) 4. No, I’m not trying to offer an argument. I’m merely raising what I think is an intriguing question. 5. Yes, the title of this post is intentionally provocative and ultimately answered by an empathic [sic] “no.”
But despite the disclaimer, the “intriguing question” he asks is still a bit on the squirm-inducing side. Carter posits that perhaps, if autistics suffer from a “theory of mind” deficit, this might explain why some autistics may have difficulties with the God-concept:
If the belief in other minds is analogous to belief in God, then individuals who have a propensity to “mind-blindness” would likely be “God-blind” as well. With effort, high functioning autistics may be able to overcome their inability to attribute mental states to other physical beings. But while they may be able to learn to accept the rationality of other minds, they may find it more difficult to develop a belief in a Being who is both non-physical.
If this is true and there is a correlation between autism and atheism, what would be the implications? Would it change the apologetic approach that Christians take in dealing with such unbelievers? Should it affect how we respond, knowing that the anti-social behavior is connected with their atheism?
Okay. Aside from the problematic suggestion of “anti-social behavior” (no, you don’t get to call someone “autistic” just because you find them obnoxious—sometimes it seems like “autistic” is the new “gay” in terms of it having been co-opted as a means to express a negative opinion of someone), there’s the implicit assumption that autistics do, in fact, lack the ability to attribute mental states to others. I realize that this assumption may have been offered for the sake of argument alone, but it is still worth exploring here because it is an assumption that many people do actually make.
I’ve written before on the fact that “Theory of Mind” appears to be more of a learned skill than an innate one for all people, and that much of what looks like “Theory of Mind” in typical people is simply a reflection of the fact that typical people are more likely to be neurologically similar to those around them.
The best informal critique I have ever encountered of the “Theory of Mind” studies can be found in the article, Deconstructing Sally-Anne. Essentially, the idea that autistics lack Theory of Mind was based primarily on the outcome of studies involving a poorly-designed experiment that did not take into account the language-processing differences autistics tend to exhibit.
But the “Theory of Mind Theory” of autism still seems logical to many—probably because autistics respond atypically to social overtures and perhaps do not trigger the expected “acknowledgement circuits” that typically-developing people are wired to look for. This may very well have something to do with how autistics tend to perceive the world, however, not necessarily in the way one might think. In my personal experience, for instance, I remember feeling as a child that everything was potentially alive—it wasn’t that I didn’t think other people had minds, but more that I didn’t feel much of a distinction between people and objects in the first place. Everything, from toys to rocks to water, could have been animate as far as I was concerned. I was very attached to certain objects and even to certain places, and I used to have a very hard time watching the latter half of Short Circuit 2 because of the scene in which the robot character gets beaten up by hooligans.
I haven’t ever seen a poll on whether this sort of early perception is common in those on the autistic spectrum, but I strongly suspect that it is. Even though I now understand that my coffee cup is not consciously reflecting upon the heat of its contents, I still maintain a general sense of my environment as being a gigantic, complex, singing, breathing, undulating tapestry of wonders. People are an important part of this tapestry, for sure, but not the only important part, and not even the part that I will always notice at the expense of everything else. This might be a bit difficult for some people to understand, but it certainly doesn’t count as “mind-blindness”.
But regardless, I’m still confused by the very notion of “God-blindness”, and not just because I’m personally an unbeliever. It seems strange that a believer would posit such an idea in the first place. After all, trying to attribute someone’s non-perception of God to something physical seems to go against the very idea of spiritual matters as being somehow transcendent. If something is truly transcendent, as God(s) and spiritual phenomena are said to be, why should the physical even matter at all? Wouldn’t an all-powerful superbeing be plenty capable of manifesting itself to everyone, regardless of how their brains are wired? And why would such a being, if benevolent, deliberately create entities incapable of ever perceiving it?
Absurdity aside, I should probably also mention here that in general, when I talk about diversity, neurodiversity, and morphological/cognitive liberty, I am not just talking about autism. I am talking about the simple fact (and value) of pluralism, of having different kinds of minds operating at once within the population of sentients. When people suggest that we need to “wipe out” every possible manifestation of autism because it supposedly makes people suffer, I can’t help but imagine people saying the exact same thing about other modalities and variations (e.g., homsexuality, atheism, shortness).
And regardless of my critique here, I don’t see why it might not be possible that atheism could have a genetic component. What if there really are certain brains less likely to accept religious claims and tenets? What would the social consequences of this be? Here’s a potential clue: some members of the Far Religious Right (which is by no means representative of all people of faith) are already backpedaling somewhat on their usual anti-biotech stance; Albert Mohler suggests:
If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin.
As members of a society that ostensibly values democratization and diversity and liberty, it is crucial that we not fall prey to simplistic ideas of what it means to suffer, or what it means to “sin”. Sometimes, it seems as if “suffering” has been co-opted by secular would-be eugenicists in order to justify the elimination of a morphology or modality that makes them personally uneasy. And “sin”, apparently, has been co-opted by the fundamentalists to mean “things that prompt mental images that I find either icky or strangely compelling”. Both demographics ought to keep in mind that regardless of what great biotech advances are developed, no single one of us (or group of us) gets to re-make the world in our own tidy, whitewashed image of what we think it ought to look like.
Certainly, we can offer people options, and enable the consensual adoption of various modifying technologies—a process which, if done right, will be a fantastic celebration of creativity, diversity, and respect for the myriad forms that a person’s life might take. But it is one thing to acknowledge the very real problems experienced by various minority groups (regardless of whether those problems are due to intrinsic or extrinsic factors); it is quite another to suggest that homogenization is the solution to these problems. And while we’re at it, I honestly hope never to see an entry for “God-Blindness” in the DSM-2012 or whatever the next celebrated psychology tome happens to be.