The Strengths of the Autistic Mind and Atheism

I saw this post on The Friendly Atheist that explored the link between autism and atheism. In short, there does seem to be some sort of connection, but it’s complicated. This researcher was exploring the question of whether a persons with autism’s impaired ability to understand the Theory of Mind played a role in atheism and didn’t find a connection.

One of the things I liked about the interview was the focus on the fact that there’s not one way to be autistic and there’s also  not one way to be atheist, and that people have different reasons for their atheism. I also liked that it blew the ToM hypothesis out of the water, because I found it a bit insulting.

As a child I was diagnosed with autistic tendencies. And as an adult I grew up to be a mental health counselor, so go figure. I won’t debate about whether or not I would be diagnosed on the spectrum today. However, I have a very developed ToM and a strong, painful sense of empathy which is so antithetical to the concept of a person with autism that I don’t really know what to make of it, other than the fact that autism IS complex.

On the other hand, my fanatical Catholic mother-in-law has one of the most poorly developed ToM’s that I’ve ever encountered. She really can’t see through any eyes but her own and can’t fathom a viewpoint not steeped in Catholic dogma. I’ve wondered if she is a high functioning autistic, though, it doesn’t seem to fully fit.

In some ways, though, I can see how some religious traditions can impede the development of ToM because they discourage any viewpoint but their own. With atheism there also tends to be a valuing of free inquiry that can be conducive to the development of ToM!

The other thing that bothered me, though, was that people first assumed that it was some sort of cognitive deficit attributed to people with autism that they assumed led to atheism. Because the way I see it, some of the strengths of the autistic mind are things that could lead someone to atheism. For instance, people who are autistic tend to be resistant to the phenomena of groupthink.

Groupthink occurs when people within a group value consensus and getting along while working on a project more than paying attention to evidence or ideas that don’t fit in. A good example could be a group of detectives focusing in on evidence that says Person A committed the murder while ignoring the evidence that exonerates him. People with autism tend to be resistant to this phenomena (though not bullet proof!)

And as someone who has resisted groupthink, it doesn’t make you popular. I can remember many situations where I was the only one pointing out contradictory information or putting forth a new way of thinking and the group ended up turning against me. That I was later proved to be right was often a hallow victory, because, well, as they said in Harry Potter, it’s easier to forgive people for being wrong than it is to forgive them for being right.

Considering people who are atheists tend to speak out against orthodoxy and consider evidence that contradicts the belief that there is a god, well, there are some parallels between what we see with people who challenge groupthink.

Further, people with autism likely aren’t going to do something or follow a trend just because it’s popular. And they also aren’t going to stop enjoying something because it isn’t popular. I’ve written about how I loved Star Trek so much growing up that even being thoroughly teased for wearing my communicator badge in elementary school was not enough of a deterrent for me to stop wearing it. I loved that show, and I was going to wear that badge, and though the bullying hurt, I wasn’t going to let them have that control over my life. Meanwhile, my sister, who is not on the spectrum, stopped wearing her prized Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shoes the moment she got teased for liking a “boys” thing.

And just like I wasn’t going to stop enjoying something because it wasn’t popular, I also wasn’t going to pretend I liked something because it was. I remember talking to one of my friend’s moms when I was in junior high and she said she only watched soap operas in college because her roommate did and to fit in. That baffled me, and I replied I wouldn’t even do it to fit in. It’s only as an adult that I’ve realized how this trait of mine makes it difficult for me to fit in.

Pretty much there is a theme among my friends and family of trying to get me into things they really, really like, and me having no interest in it. And the more they push, the more it backfires.

This also seems to be an autistic trait as a lot of people will feign interest in things that other people enjoy to spend time with them. I won’t. On the one hand it was bad for my ability to make friends, on the other hand, my mom said she knew she didn’t have to worry about me ever being pressured into smoking or drugs growing up because there was no way I was going to mess with that stuff just to fit in.

But consider the element of conformity with religion. People with autism who aren’t worried about conforming also aren’t going to worry about that with religion.

Here’s the other thing. I agree that the way a neurotypical person’s mind works gives the false impression that there is a god. I don’t think this in an of itself is pathological. For instance, people had to understand the relationship between cause and effect because there is a survival advantage. Yet, what happens is people often correlate cause and effect when none exist. As a fun example, when driving my dad will yell in German at stop lights to make them turn green. And sometimes when he does this, it actually happens! But it doesn’t mean that it turned green because of my dad’s yelling.

In most people this ability to correlate cause and effect where none exist is not pathological. But then there’s schizophrenia, where people go overboard seeing correlations when none exist, and schizophrenia is a devastating mental illness.

I do wonder with autism if you see the opposite end of the spectrum. Someone with autism is less likely to see correlations between events. While this can be hindering in some respects, it also makes them more skeptical about claims that lack evidence. And for me, skepticism forms the base of atheism. I am always questioning things, and I see the certitude of people who are religious, and am torn between feelings that that level of certainty in belief is dangerous and “gee, it must be nice not to constantly question everything!”

I do find the research into what sort of connection there is between autism and atheism fascinating. But I do wish it would stop approaching autism from a pathology tinged viewpoint and instead look at some of the strengths that the autistic mind has.


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