• Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God – why it is unfair that autistic people, men and scientists are less likely to believe in God

    Here are some extracts from a fascinating paper – “Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God” by Ara Norenzayan, Will M. Gervais and Kali H. Trzesniewski. Gervais is certainly a name which keeps popping up in conversations about the cognitive functioning of people with regards to their beliefs and so on.

    The basic conclusion to be made form this work is that people on the autistic spectrum (think particularly Asperger’s Syndrome) have, due to their cognitive functioning, a much higher disposition not to believe in a personal God. The is largely due, it appears, to a lack of empathy. Empathy seems to underscore our beliefs in a personal God. This can be seen in believers needing to put themselves ‘in God’s shoes’, so to speak. In other words, in all your words and deeds as a believer, what would God think of you? This intersubjectivity, placing yourself out of your body and imagining ‘you’ from another point of view, is something that particular groups of autistic people struggle with. And this, it seems, is why they have less propensity to believe.

    This paper looks to evidence such a scenario.


    Religious believers intuitively conceptualize deities as intentional agents with mental states who anticipate and respond to human beliefs, desires and concerns. It follows that mentalizing deficits, associated with the autistic spectrum and also commonly found in men more than in women, may undermine this intuitive support and reduce belief in a personal God. Autistic adolescents expressed less belief in God than did matched neuro-typical controls (Study 1). In a Canadian student sample (Study 2), and two American national samples that controlled for demographic characteristics and other correlates of autism and religiosity (Study 3 and 4), the autism spectrum predicted reduced belief in God, and mentalizing mediated this relationship. Systemizing (Studies 2 and 3) and two personality dimensions related to religious belief, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness (Study 3), failed as mediators. Mentalizing also explained the robust and well-known, but theoretically debated, gender gap in religious belief wherein men show reduced religious belief (Studies 2–4).


    Belief in God and other supernatural agents is culturally and historically widespread, and is a deeply affecting aspect of human life [1]. Yet relatively little is known about the cognitive foundations of these complex sociocultural beliefs. Believers intuitively treat gods as intentional agents with mental states who enter into social relationships with humans, using supernatural powers to assuage existential concerns, respond to human desires, and monitor their social behaviour [1][5]. Cognitive theories therefore converge on the hypothesis that supernatural agent beliefs are partly rooted in ordinary human social cognition. Specifically, the social-cognitive capacity to represent and reason about minds-termed mentalizing, theory of mind, or mind perception [6][7] -also enables the mental representation of God and other supernatural agents [2][7]. If mentalizing supports the mental representation of supernatural agents, then mentalizing deficits associated with the autistic spectrum and also commonly found in men more than in women [6][8][9] may undermine intuitive support for supernatural agent concepts and reduce belief in God [1][10][13]. Here we examine the hypothesis-long predicted, though currently untested- that mentalizing deficits constrain belief in God.

    In neuroimaging studies, thinking about [14] and praying to [15] God activates brain regions implicated in mentalizing; thus mentalizing might be a necessary component of belief in God, without being a sufficient cause. When adults form inferences about God’s mind, they show the same mentalizing biases that are typically found when reasoning about other peoples’ minds[16][18]. Developmentally, children’s reasoning about God’s mental states, and about other non-physical agents, tracks the cognitive development of mentalizing tendencies [19][20]. Finally, mentalizing is deficient at higher levels of the autism spectrum [8][9][21][22], and interestingly men are both more likely to score high on the autism spectrum [23] and more likely to be non-believers [24][26]. These lines of evidence suggest that 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. Recent unpublished findings by Caldwell-Harris, Murphy, Velazquez, and McNamara (2011) provide some indirect support to this line of reasoning. Adults who reported being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder were more likely than a neuro-typical comparison group to self-identify as atheist and less likely to belong to an organized religion.

    It is not just a causal effect / correlation between autistic spectrum subjects and a propensity not to believe in God; there is a similar pattern with men, as opposed to women (obviously), being less prone to believing in a personal deity. This fits with other research that shows that women are more empathetic.  We also know that women are more likely to attend church. Here is an interesting extract from an article in the Business Insider:

    Men, on average, score worse on the ability to sense emotion (but better on prime numbers, a talent that demands no insight into anyone else’s feelings) than do women; and university professors do worse again, while scientists come at the bottom of the list.

    People with autism score even lower. Those severely affected live almost detached from the world around them. They lack empathy, concentrate on themselves and may be obsessed with a particular talent (such as being able to tell what day of the week any date will be), combined with loss of other mental abilities. Children with a milder version of the condition, Asperger’s syndrome, are often clumsy, shy and tongue-tied.

    Others do much better, for they have “high-functioning autism”. Such individuals are successful, but have little insight into the emotions of others and often show a deep interest in things mechanical and numerical. The personality type is much more frequent among males than females and, at least in its most severe forms, has a strong genetic component.

    On the emotion-sensing tests, those with autism proper do worst, then Asperger’s patients, followed by the high-functioning group, and then — in order — by scientists, professors and men. Women come top.

    People with autism are mainly interested in the banal reality of what surrounds them and find it hard to consider the abstract world. They are, as a result, highly resistant to the idea of an invisible deity for whom no tangible evidence exists and whose thoughts cannot be penetrated. Teenagers with the condition are far less likely to express a belief in God than their unaffected classmates. The high-functioning group are also much more willing to class themselves as atheists than are their fellows — and, in decreasing order of scepticism, people with autism, Asperger’s patients, scientists, professors, men and women (in some studies, men are only half as likely to be believers as are their partners).

    Perhaps a logical, systematic and self-centred personality is disposed to doubt, while a more responsive mind is more willing to summon up the divine. Believers are in emotional contact with their deity. They feel that He responds to their prayers, knows their thoughts and guides His subjects in their proper paths. They empathise with their angel and accept what they imagine to be his instructions. Those with autism, scientists and men are happier with their own thoughts.

     As Live Science reports, looking at research into higher religiosity amongst women:

    A new analysis of survey data finds women pray more often then men, are more likely to believe in God, and are more religious than men in a variety of other ways.

    The reasons, analysts say, could range from traditional mothering duties to the tendency of men to take risks — in this case the chance they might not go to heaven.

    The latest findings, released Friday, are no surprise, only confirming what other studies have found for decades. Still, the new numbers illustrate interesting and stark differences. They come from a fresh review of data that was collected in a 2007 survey and initially released last year by the Pew Research Center. The percent of women (and then men) who:

    • Are affiliated with a religion: 86 (79).
    • Have absolutely certain belief in a God or universal spirit: 77 (65).
    • Pray at least daily: 66 (49).
    • Have absolutely certain belief in a personal God: 58 (45).

    The survey involved interviews with more than 35,000 U.S. adults by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

     So back to the original paper by Norenzayan et al, and on to their general discussion (I have omitted all the description of the studies and methodology, which is still worth checking over if you follow the original link to their paper):

    General Discussion

    We found new evidence for an inverse link between the autism spectrum and belief in God that was explained by mentalizing, as predicted by cognitive theories of religion [10][13]. Mentalizing also explained the widely observed [24] gender gap in religious belief. Our findings should be interpreted with some caution; although the results held controlling for several key socio-demographic characteristics, further research conducted in other cultural contexts should assess generalizability of findings [33]. Most of the measures were self-report (or observer-report in Study 1), which are known to have their limitations. Moreover, the correlational natures of the observations are another limitation and preclude definite causal inferences without further experimental research. Nevertheless, results were robust to various methodological checks, including different sampling strategies, alternative measures of autism, mentalizing, and religious belief, and the inclusion of several theoretically relevant control variables addressing several alternative accounts.

    Specifically, one alternative is that high levels of autism cause adjustment difficulties in social situations, leading to lower levels of religious attendance, which in turn reduce religious belief. Contrary to this prediction, the effect of autism on belief in God remained significant after controlling for religious attendance (Studies 3–4), and disappeared only after controlling for mentalizing. This demonstrates that the effect of autism on belief exists even after removing the considerable overlap between belief in God and religious attendance. Relatedly, the relationship between the autism spectrum and belief cannot be solely a by-product of the more challenging social circumstances of autistic individuals, as identical patterns emerged when autism was measured as a continuous variable in a non-clinical sample of university students sharing similar social circumstances (Study 2).

    A second possible alternative is reverse-causation: that religious involvement somehow causes higher levels of mentalizing, which in turn predict low scores on the autism spectrum. One causal path for this alternative is that belief in God encourages greater social involvement in religious groups and activities, which in turn increases mentalizing tendencies and decreases the likelihood of being on the autism spectrum. This interpretation did not receive support in two studies, because holding constant frequency of religious attendance did not eliminate the effect of mentalizing on belief in God. Moreover, it fails to account for the gender findings (belief in God cannot cause gender), whereas the mentalizing hypothesis parsimoniously explains both the autism and gender effects. Another reverse-causation pathway is that religious involvement leads to greater levels of mentally-simulated social engagement with supernatural agents believed to have elaborate mental states, which in turn encourages more mentalizing, and lower autism scores. Future research could test this hypothesis, but we note that this alternative pathway is compatible with the hypothesis that mentalizing deficits constrain religious belief.

    Third, it is possible that the autism spectrum is associated with interest in math, science, and engineering (IMSE), which in turn reduces religious belief. However, Study 4 statistically controlled for IMSE, which did not independently predict belief in God (Table 2). Similarly, systemizing, a variable closely linked to IMSE, failed as a mediator (Studies 2–3). Fourth, the link between autism and low belief in God was not explained by general intelligence: autism remained a significant predictor of low belief in God even after statistically controlling for IQ (Study 1), and education (Studies 3–4), which is typically correlated with IQ. Fifth, the two basic personality dimensions that are most reliably predictive of religiosity, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness [30], similarly failed as mediators.

    Cognitive approaches to religion emphasize that a reliably developing social cognitive mechanism-mentalizing or theory of mind-is a key foundation that supports the intuitive understanding of God or gods. Present findings bolster this hypothesis, and further demonstrate that mentalizing deficits undermine not only intuitive understanding of God, but belief as well. Furthermore, these findings suggest one reason why, despite rich sociocultural diversity, key aspects of religion reoccur across history and cultures. Additionally, the robust gender gap in religious belief has been recognized for decades, although its origins continue to be vigorously debated [24][26]. Our findings contribute to this debate by providing an important and previously overlooked psychological explanation for the overrepresentation of men among disbelievers.

    Finally, we emphasize that our data do not suggest that religious disbelief solely arises through mentalizing deficits; multiple psychological and socio-cultural pathways likely lead to a complex and over-determined phenomenon such as disbelief in God or gods. Therefore, mentalizing deficits are one pathway among several to disbelief. Analytic cognitive processing that suppresses or overrides the intuitions that make theism cognitively compelling [34] and exposure to secular cultural contexts lacking cues that one should believe in God or gods [35]also likely promote religious disbelief. In other words, the present results suggest that disbelief can result from mentalizing deficits, but it can also arise from multiple other sources, holding constant mentalizing tendencies.

    A complete scientific account of religious belief and disbelief therefore requires consideration of not only cognitive underpinnings such as mentalizing and other core cognitive biases such as dualistic intuitions and teleological or purpose-driven thinking [12][36]. Equally important in explaining their cultural prevalence, supernatural agent beliefs­once cognitively available-can be co-opted for motivational and social functions, because of both their palliative effects on existential anxieties [1] and their facilitative effects on cooperation in large, anonymous groups in a cultural evolutionary process [37][38]. Finally, the prevalence and content of supernatural agent beliefs, although constrained by core social cognitive capacities, respond to and fluctuate with socio-demographic conditions across time and cultures [39]. Within this broader theoretical landscape, these studies present new evidence for a social cognitive mechanism underlying one source of individual differences in religious belief.

     This is all fascinating stuff. And this brings me to an argument against God, or at least against the fairness of God. The basic issue is this:

    How is it fair that certain subgroups of humanity have naturally less chance of being able to access God’s love? Autistic, and then scientists, and then men are less likely than other groups to believe in God – and this must be for a reason – in the case of autistic types, a mentalising deficit. This deficit can manifest itself as a lack of empathy, amongst other things, and carries over to men and scientists more so than women and non-scientists. In fact, this would appear to be the cause of why many similar such people ‘do science’ and is partly responsible for why so many more scientists are men. Let us look at a syllogism:

    1) God is omnibenevolent and being such will have fairness as a benevolent attribute

    2) God wants humans to enter into a loving relationship with him

    3) God has designed people (or the system that designs people) to not have equal fairness and opportunity to access a loving relationship with him

    4) God also has the power to level the playing field ex post facto but appears not to do so

    C) God is not fair, and thus not omnibenevolent

    I think this is a good argument, but I would like you lovely readers to critique it and tighten it, so please comment below.

    [H/T to Reasonable Doubts for mentioning this paper in one of their awesome podcasts]

    Category: Demographics of religionPhilosophical Argument Against GodPsychology


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce