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Religious cognition among subjects with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Defective or different?


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Objective: To assess the empirical evidence regarding theories that link theory of mind and religious beliefs, and to test to what extent people in the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) could experience limits in their religious perceptions and ideas. Method: Two studies have been undertaken: first, an online survey compared the answers of diagnosed autistic and neurodiverse people to neurotypical people; and second, the hypothetic ‘existential theory of mind’ is explored through another questionnaire in several school classes including boys on the autism spectrum. Results: After reducing variables, those factors more related to religious or spiritual perception did not reveal an inferior sensitivity in the neurodiverse or autistic sample compared to the control group. Furthermore, a spiritual factor with items like belief in ghosts, the supernatural and the paranormal had higher prevalence in autism and neurodiversity Conclusions: The results call into question the theories linking autism to deficits in theory of mind with resultant religious impairment; and point to a greater role played by development and cultural environment.
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Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2017) 14, 4, 287-296
Leif Ekblad, Lluis Oviedo
Objective: To assess the empirical evidence regarding theories that link theory of mind and religious beliefs, and to
test to what extent people in the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) could experience limits in their religious perceptions
and ideas.
neurodiverse people to neurotypical people; and second, the hypothetic ‘existential theory of mind’ is explored through
another questionnaire in several school classes including boys on the autism spectrum.
Results: After reducing variables, those factors more related to religious or spiritual perception did not reveal an
inferior sensitivity in the neurodiverse or autistic sample compared to the control group. Furthermore, a spiritual factor
with items like belief in ghosts, the supernatural and the paranormal had higher prevalence in autism and neurodiversity
Conclusions 
religious impairment; and point to a greater role played by development and cultural environment.
Key words: religion, spirituality, autism, Theory of Mind, cognition, culture, development
Declaration of interest: none
Leif Ekblad, Independent Scholar
Lluis Oviedo, Antonianum University, Roma
Corresponding author
The study of autism is revealing many aspects about
the human mind and behavior that have been neglected
when the focus was exclusively on typically developing
from the particular way autistic people learn, think, and
rich source of information helping to better know human
could be considered the broadly shared ‘regularities’.
Recently, psychologists learnt to test theories
using autistic subjects as well as views about human
cognition under special conditions, for instance when
the impairment of a faculty or the over-development
and intensity in some abilities furnish an excellent
       
variables can play in mental functions.
The cognitive science of religion has developed
over the last 15 years a set of theories that some scholars
consider already able to provide a ‘standard model’.
Religion would be built upon mental abilities used for
forms of cognition would often have adaptive relevance,
especially enhancing internal group cooperation
(Smith & Sankey 2012). Such a description renders a
       
     
between adaptive theories and by-product theories.
         
of understanding religious phenomena. A central tenet
of this approach claims that Theory of Mind (ToM)
involves a capacity to conceive supernatural agents as
being able to cause phenomena beyond the common
traits attributed to ordinary subjects (Barrett 2004;
Bering 2002, 2003).
The cognitive study of religion is much more than
this. A clear development can be perceived after the
  
review of authors and published studies to date gives
       
(Oviedo 2017). The study of subjects on the autism
spectrum provides an excellent opportunity to test
some new theories of religion, and particularly the ToM
hypothesis as it relates to religion. Furthermore, the
study of religious cognition among these subjects along
the autism spectrum could reveal important features
regarding their own cognitive and behavioral structure
      
    
religious cognitive systems.
Several choices are available to describe the
autism spectrum. Most studies of autism use Autism
Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as the general term.
Asperger Syndrome (AS) and Pervasive Development
Disorder (PDD) refer to professional diagnoses (DSM-
IV, American Psychiatric Association 2000). The most
recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
of Mental Disorders (APA 2013) provides a description
of the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) based on
© 2017 Giovanni Fioriti Editore s.r.l. © 2017 Giovanni Fioriti Editore s.r.l. 287
      
communication and social interaction”; and “restricted,
repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities”
(APA 2013
The term ‘Asperger’ as a way to characterize a form of
less severe autism has been dropped in that manual.
High-functioning autism (HFA) is a term applied to
people with autism who are deemed to be cognitively
“higher functioning” than other people with autism;
it is not recognized in the diagnosis of the DSM 5. In
the online Aspie Quiz questionnaire (Ekblad 2013),
the terms neurodiverse (ND) and neurotypical (NT)
are used. The neurodiversity concept primarily relates
     
Disorder), Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, and Dyspraxia
(Armstrong 2010, Jaarsma & Welin 2012). NT is a term
for typically developing people that was adopted by
the autistic community and it will be used to refer to
typically developing people.
Literature review
The philosopher of science Robert McCauley
in his book Why Religion is Natural and Science is
Not (2011) devotes a long paragraph to the issue of
autism and religious faith. He considers claims about
    
in acquiring religious beliefs due to their supposed
impairments in ToM, and the possibility of overcoming
if they were to become religious, they would do so at a
higher cognitive cost than NT people, and their religion
    
2011, pp. 252-268).
To date, several empirical studies have been
conducted to gather evidence in support of ToM’s
role in religion. Catherine Caldwell-Harris and her
     
variance comparing religious beliefs between persons
with High Functioning Autism (HFA) and samples
of NT subjects from an internet discussion forum. A
sample of subjects in both groups (61 HFA vs. 105
NT). They found that autistic people were more
likely to be atheists or agnostics, or to build their
own religious system (Caldwell-Harris et al. 2011).
However, they suggest that some personality traits,
besides the ToM condition, characteristic of these
      
Following a similar pattern, Ara Norenzayan and his
associates also published the results of 4 empirical
studies (Norenzayan et al. 2012). In some cases, the
authors report that “the autism spectrum predicted
reduced belief in God, and mentalizing mediated this
relationship” (p. 1). However, in some of their studies
the sample size was very small (12 AS vs. 13 NT); in
      
and belief in God were rather low. This impression was
‘mentalizing’ and ‘belief in God’ of just R= 0.1, even
       
(Willard & Norenzayan 2013).
Other available studies put doubt on the correlation
between variables of ToM and ‘religiosity’. A study
published in Dutch comparing ‘images of God’ and
Existential Theory of Mind (EToM) did not report
      
Abbink 2008, as accounted in Schaap-Jonker Sizoo et
al. 2013, p. 6). More nuanced results are reported in an
empirical study interviewing four young adults with AS,
which questioned conventional views and asked if their
or their cultural context” (Visuri 2012). Other empirical
research with Jewish children and adolescents with
high-functioning autism showed that these subjects
demonstrated, contrary to the hypothesis of some
cognitive studies of religion, “belief in an agentive God
who gives meaning to events in the world” (Brezis 2010,
p. 192). This result could be accounted for based on the
availability of ‘cultural scripts’. Other research based
on some case studies points to creative and logically
built forms of spirituality developed by people with AS
(Dubin & Graetz 2009).
A more complex study did focus on the kind of
God-perception held among people with ASD (Schaap-
Jonker et al. 2013). This more recent and detailed
research show the results of a survey of 78 cases with
      
Reformed Church (considering levels of Church
attendance). Comparing with a sample of general
population – but of the same religious denomination
       
self-reported images of God as being somewhat
more negative among autistic subjects. At the same
time, religious saliency seems to be the factor mostly
predicting positive religious feelings, while social
impairment predicted more ‘anxiety towards God’.
Their conclusion is that “the God-image of people with
ASD has a less reciprocal nature than the God image
of people without ASD, especially those without any
psychiatric disorder” (Schaap-Jonker et al. 2013, p.
156). However, the authors concede that the autism-
related sample (ASD) exhibits overall more positive
than negative traits of God, and being much more
religious than average. The described population within
the broader autism spectrum, exhibiting high indicators
of religiosity, projects some doubts on the views
suggesting that some type of “religious disability”
New additions in that research line published very
  
emotional cognition could exert on religious beliefs.
     
of mentalizing, we found no evidence of a relationship
between mentalizing and religious or spiritual belief”
(Jack et al. 2016). Second, a study testing ToM
and seven aspects of religious cognition in typical
individuals and those with autism spectrum conditions,
minimal impact on the way they interact and think about
gods” (Reddish et al. 2016). The third study moves in
a large sample comparing believers and nonbelievers,
those of autistic tendencies. However the correlation
between ‘autistic signs’ and religiosity is negative but
not that high (R= -0,15) (Lindeman & Lipsanen 2016).
The fourth and most recent study was controlling for
empathy, emotional intelligence, systemizing, theory
of mind, and religiosity. The authors state that “ToM
was either unrelated or negatively related to religiosity
(Vonk & Pitzen 2017).
       
published studies is that the issue is far from settled: it is
not clear whether ToM is related to or even necessary for
one to have a belief in God. A more promising approach
   
on the autism spectrum regarding their religious beliefs.
However, the research has not yet provided outcomes in
which one can trace a proper mental, religious system
Leif Ekblad, Lluis Oviedo
288 Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2017) 14, 4
Religious cognition among subjects with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2017) 14, 4 289
The experiments primarily used the ND and NT
     
properties by using the Aspie Quiz scoring system,
and b) do not rely on a single statement. We used the
diagnosed ASD subjects mainly to check the validity
 
stated otherwise the analysis was based on the Aspie
 
been included.
The questionnaire was composed of 193 items,
where 150 items were the standard Aspie Quiz items
of which 5 were control items to check the honesty of
answers. About 40 items were adapted for this particular
sample to an original test designed to distinguish forms
of institutional religiosity, spirituality, and moral
attitudes, and previously administered to teenagers
from 3 European countries, and after that standardized.
3 Items about beliefs in ghosts, paranormal experiences
      
added to that instrument, since these had been part of
the Aspie Quiz previously and had shown interesting
results. All the 193 items were presented in random
order, so people could not guess the objective of the
Quiz smoothly, and to be able to present them in a
random order with the basic test, the same three answer
alternatives (1 = no, 2 = a little, 3 = yes) were used for
the additional items, and they were presented as direct
personal questions.
Data collection. The window to the questionnaire
was open for several weeks during the autumn 2009,
and 2138 cases were collected. Of these 128 (6%)
were professionally diagnosed with AS/HFA/PDD;
      
and 1332 (62%) didn’t specify their position on the
autism spectrum. The average age was 31 years, with
a standard deviation of 14. ASD diagnosed participants
were younger on average: 25 years. Participants to the
Aspie Quiz were recruited through a large number of
links on blogs, forums, and autism community sites.
No attempts were taken to recruit religious participants
Data analysis. To analyze the collected data,
           
questionnaire devoted to religion, spirituality and
moral attitudes (43 items). To this end, a factor analysis
with Varimax rotation was applied. Eight factors have
been extracted from the 43 items regarding religion,
spirituality, and moral attitudes, with alphas above 0.5.
In the order of importance or descending discrimination,
the factors have been designed as follows (see table 1):
 F1: Spirituality
 F2: Confessional religion
 F3: Negativity
 F4: Social Morality
 F5: Rationalism
 F6: Materialism
 F7: Altruism
 F8: Justice (Fairness).
The second step was to divide subjects between a
group of NTs and another of NDs. Two procedures have
been followed. The simple one used the variable based
on the self-assessment of NTs / and AS/HFA/PDD, plus
those who have been professionally diagnosed with AS/
HFA/PDD. The more complex procedure has applied
two approaches allow us to compare tables of means
and to assess better levels of cognitive diversity in their
relationship with the extracted factors.
or structure in ASD population, which, in principle,
might be very religious.
The current state of research does not as yet allow us
of autism, ToM and religious cognition. However, the
collected data invite us to take more cautiously the
results of quoted studies on ASD and religion, and
to momentarily suspend a hasty connection between
a general concept of ToM, as experienced by ASD
subjects, and particular forms of religiosity. The
available studies suggest the need for a more complex
research, able to account for the several forms that ToM
assumes and their possible implications for religious
cognition: the easy and simple way is no longer the
The main hypothesis in this paper is that ToM is
       
        
paper further claims that autistic people experience
       
 
        
more complex and subtle than the models exposed in
recent research and theory building. To this end, two
strategies have been developed: an extensive online
  
people, which included an instrument to asses religious
       
with AS children schooled in standard schools. This last
approach has produced one study comparing Existential
Theory of Mind (EToM) between NT and AS school
children in a questionnaire.
Experiment 1
We used a popular online survey (Aspie Quiz,
Ekblad 2013) in this study. We exploited the high
visiting rate by presenting volunteers with additional
research questions.
Aspie Quiz was constructed in an iterative process
       
primary factor output by factor analysis of a data set
of human behaviors which contains continuously
distributed traits covering all human diversity. The
secondary factor was named ‘neurotypicality’. The
         
1,800 items using a population of 550,000 individuals.
Scores were calculated by using the factor loadings as
weight factors. Factor loadings for the two factors were
unrelated, but scores correlated -0.96. Because of this
      
between the neurodiverse score and the neurotypical
score was used to group the participants. A score
 
          
The Aspie Quiz was validated against Baron-Cohens
Autism Spectrum Quotient and scores correlated
0.83. An item’s relation to neurodiversity was called
‘the relevance estimate’, and was calculated as the
correlation between answers from the ND and NT
groups. The Aspie Quiz used three answer alternatives
(no, a little, yes) and had a no answer alternative that
was checked by default. Unanswered items were
excluded in the score calculation (Ekblad 2013).
Leif Ekblad, Lluis Oviedo
290 Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2017) 14, 4
Table 1. Factor analysis (PAF, Varimax rotation), percentage of explained variance, and reliability (Cronbach’s
alpha) of a sub-scale on religion, spirituality and moral attitudes (43 items; N= 2138)
Item expression 12345678
Do you believe in ghosts and / or supernatural phenomena? .746
Have you had paranormal experiences? .683
Do you think that living beings are connected in a mysterious
way? .653
Do you think that in this world, there is more than just what
can be seen and felt? .606
Do you think that human beings have both a material and a
spiritual component? .596
Do you think that the soul is immortal? .539 .460
Do you deem yourself as a spiritual person, even if you do
not attend religious services? .526 .494
Do you think that a mysterious force in the cosmos guides us
towards the good? .519
Are you a praying person? .806
Do you attend religious services on a regular basis? .806
Do you try to put your religious beliefs into practice? .756
Are you a believer or have faith? .736
Do you feel more compelled to do evil than to do good
things? .678
Do you often have a reason to do evil things? .649
Do you sometimes perceive the dark side of reality that leads
to evil? .538
Do you think that this life is not but a valley of tears? .497
Do you feel limited in your actions only by civil law? .486
Is there something in you that rules you? .448
Do living in society limit your freedom? .428
Do people work just for money? .406
 .774
 .751
 .731
Do you think that human beings tend at their own perfection
as persons? .417
Do you often behave in a rational way? .664
Do you think that human beings know what is good and what
is evil? .637
Do you think that if you know what ‘good’ is, then you can do it? .505
Do you think that the civil law is enough for humans to do
good things? .441
Do you think that human beings are born to enjoy life? .422
Do you often have a reason to do good things? .413
Do you think that a human being is just a physical entity? .691
Do you think that emotions and feelings are just physical-
chemical reactions? .691
Do you think there is no evil, rather only bad things? .664
common good? .662
 .637
Do you think it is convenient to do good things regardless of
whom it is for .564
Do you think that just behaviour is always rewarded? .763
Do you think that unjust behaviour is always punished? .708
Do you think that in this life each one has what one
deserves? .563
% Variance 17.4 8.32 5.44 3.70 3.53 3.08 2.52 2.73
Cronbach’s alpha .850 .852 .683 .654 .590 .603 .558 .566
Explained variance = 48,6%; F1: Spirituality; F2: Confessional religion; F3: Negativity; F4: Social Morality; F5: Rationalism;
F6: Materialism; F7: Altruism; F8: Justice (Fairness)
Religious cognition among subjects with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2017) 14, 4 291
are on the autism spectrum get 1.69; and professionally
diagnosed AS/HFA get 1.59. The variance between
       
appear as having a little more “spiritual sensitivity”
than others. This result is more evident in the second
table: the contrast between NTs (M= 1.52) and NDs
   
quite revealing. The items wording is: “Do you believe
in ghosts and / or supernatural phenomena?”, “Have you
had paranormal experiences?”. [The cross-tabulation
can be seen in table 4] Beliefs in ghosts and supernatural
     
NDs than NTs (M= 1.64 vs. 1.45); this tendency is
even more evident regarding paranormal experiences
(M= 1.50 vs. 1.24). These outcomes point to a greater
sensitivity on the part of ND subjects towards the broad
spectrum of spiritual and supernatural experiences.
The second factor clusters indicators of religious
practice, like religious service attendance, personal
prayer, and self-assessment as a religious person. Here
again, the means are similar, and the variance is small,
        
people on the autism spectrum, who appear as ‘more
religious’ following the indicators of institutional
religiosity. In table 2
(M= 1.50 vs. 1.39).
The third factor is the one with the greater variance
and clusters 8 items. The main ones are:
• Do you feel more compelled to do evil than to do
good things?
• Do you often have a reason to do evil things?
• Do you sometimes perceive the dark side of
reality that leads to evil?
• Do you think that this life is nothing but a valley
of tears?
In this case people on the autism spectrum clearly
rank higher than others (Suspect = 1.51; Professionally
diagnosed = 1.66; Don’t suspect = 1.32; second table:
ND = 1.59; NT = 1.28). This data might reveal a greater
sensitivity within that sample towards forms of evil
and negativity; or perhaps this sensitivity could be
the consequence of their perception about their own
The third step was to calculate a cross-tabulation
table for each procedure of discrimination allowing for
Table three shows the means of each factor for
each sub-sample. The contrast of means for each factor
shows how the second table – one that can be considered
on self and professional assessment. The analysis of
each factor shows other remarkable results.
      
items (table 1). The 6 with higher correlations are:
• Do you believe in ghosts and / or supernatural
• Have you had paranormal experiences?
• Do you think that living beings are connected in a
mysterious way?
• Do you think that in this world, there is more than
just what can be seen and felt?
• Human beings have both a material and a spiritual
• The soul is immortal
       
       
of religion to distinguish between institutional and
informal or subjective religious forms. Several attempts
have tried to better characterze such distinction and to
avoid overlaps, with not certain conlusion. The items
clustered in this factor come close to what several
scholars have described as ’spirituality’ as distinct
from ’religion’. The point can be seen in the following
description: ”... religiousness and spirituality, with the
former representing an institutional, formal, outward,
doctrinal, authoritarian, inhibiting expression and the
latter representing an individual, subjective, emotional,
inward, unsystematic, freeing expression (Hill &
Pargament 2003, 64).
The results show that people who do not suspect
that they are on the autism spectrum get a mean of 1.56
(on a scale from 1 to 3) while people that suspect they
Table 2. Cross-tabulation of means of 8 extracted factors and 3 sub-samples based on self-assessment of perceived
and diagnosed AS/HFA degree; N= 2138
religion** Negativity**
Moral Rationalism** Materialism Altruism Justice
M 1.56 1.40 1.35 0.99 1.90 1.57 1.74 1.22
N 1332 1332 1332 1332 1332 1332 1332 1332
SD 0.62 0.62 0.43 0.53 0.55 0.70 0.63 0.47
SI M 1.69 1.52 1.51 0.96 1.79 1.57 1.69 1.24
N 678 678 678 678 678 678 678 678
SD 0.66 0.64 0.47 0.54 0.53 0.76 0.66 0.49
PD M 1.59 1.48 1.66 0.99 1.77 1.73 1.67 1.27
N 128 128 128 128 128 128 128 128
SD 0.65 0.62 0.55 0.55 0.51 0.74 0.58 0.49
“professional diagnosed AS/HFA”; Scoring: 0 = no answer, 1 = no, 2 = sometimes, 3 = yes
Leif Ekblad, Lluis Oviedo
292 Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2017) 14, 4
Don’t suspect= 1.56). This variance is nevertheless
        
materialism among ASD people in the way in which
they understand human nature, but again the result is
not conclusive.
The two last extracted factors, ‘Altruism’ and
      
In later version of Aspie Quiz, participants were
asked “Do you prefer to construct your own set of
spiritual beliefs rather than following existing religions
/ belief-systems?”, and this generated higher scores
from NDs than from NTs (N = 1850, p < 0.0001),
supporting previous studies on this topic. However, this
is a personal preference, and not an inability to acquire
religious beliefs.
Since some doubts could be raised to what extent
such results can be understood as evidence against a
connection between ToM and religious aptitude, some
additional tests were performed trying to focus more
on that aspect. As formerly described, the main Aspie
Quiz instrument contains 150 items. Many of them
can be viewed as ‘indicators of mentalizing activity’
       
of social cognition and interaction. A list of such items
includes the following:
•        
communicate with odd & unusual people than
with ordinary people?
• Do you tend to express your feelings in ways that
• Do others often misunderstand you?
• Do you forget you are in a social situation when
something gets your attention?
• Do people sometimes think you are smiling at the
wrong occasion?
• Do you tend to interpret things literally?
• Do people often tell you that you keep going on
and on about the same thing?
• Are you often surprised what people’s motives are?
• In a conversation, do you tend to focus on your
own thoughts rather than on what your listener
might be thinking?
• Is it hard for you to see why some things upset
diversity; or, alternatively, of being victims of bullying
The fourth factor measured attitudes towards social
        
clustered items, the main three are:
• Do you often behave in a rational way?
• Do you think that human beings know what is
good and what is evil?
• Do you think that if you know what ‘good’ is, then
you can do it?
It is interesting that even if the variance is small but
spectrum score a little lower than others (Suspect=
1.78; Professionally diagnosed= 1.76; Don’t suspect=
        
by that sub-sample to recognize in an intuitive way the
   
in a way that is not considered ‘rational’.
The factor 6, named ‘Materialism’ clusters 3 items
describing human beings and their emotions just in
physical terms. Here a contrast emerges between
professionally diagnosed and the other two groups
(Suspect= 1.56; Professionally diagnosed= 1.72;
Table 3. Cross-tabulation of means of 8 extracted factors and 3 sub-samples based on Aspie Quiz classications;
N= 2138
religion* Negativity**
Moral Rationalism** Materialism Altruism Justice
M 1.53 1.39 1.28 1.01 1.97 1.55 1.75 1.24
N 879 879 879 879 879 879 879 879
SD 0.60 0.62 0.38 0.51 0.53 0.68 0.62 0.45
Mixed M 1.63 1.45 1.42 0.97 1.79 1.54 1.73 1.22
N 528 528 528 528 528 528 528 528
SD. 0.66 0.64 0.45 0.56 0.56 0.73 0.65 0.49
ND M 1.68 1.50 1.59 0.95 1.77 1.63 1.67 1.23
N 731 731 731 731 731 731 731 731
SD 0.67 0.63 0.50 0.55 0.52 0.77 0.65 0.49
Note. NT stands for “neurotypical”, and ND stands for “neurodiverse”
Table 4. Cross-tabulation of means of 2 items and 3
sub-samples based on Aspie Quiz classications
N 879 879
SD 0.78 0.66
Mixed M 1.56 1.37
N 528 528
SD 0.86 0.82
ND M 1.64 1.50
N 731 731
SD 0.91 0.84
Religious cognition among subjects with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2017) 14, 4 293
role in religious cognition, an empirical study was
devised to test this hypothesis. Bering describes
EToM as “an independent system that, although built
on the foundations of the ToM, serves not to explain
or predict behavior but, rather, to allow individuals to
attribute meaning to certain classes of autobiographical
experiences” (2002: 4). This move devolves religion to
       
If Bering is right, and ToM is the basis of this more
         
to check levels or areas involved in EToM. This
      
inquiring about levels of religious practice (church
attendance and personal prayer); and the demographics
      
questionnaire poses questions regarding perceptions
of divine providence, the voice of conscience, or the
ability to experience a transcendent meaning in life.
The questionnaire did not intend to distinguish EToM
as an independent variable regarding religious/spiritual
in principle, religious beliefs are in themselves part of
that system of meaning. The scale of responses was
reduced to three levels: ‘yes’, ‘more or less’, ‘no’, to
simplify them and to adapt them to the capacity of a
population of pre-adolescents and adolescents, allowing
for the presence of some subjects with AS.
Data collection. The questionnaire was administered
      
other public. This is a sample of convenience, based
on direct knowledge after looking for schools with the
presence of at last one student in AS condition. The
group’s ages were distributed as follows:
a) School 1a; 1 ESO; N= 30; age M= 11.9
b) School 1b; 4 ESO; N= 30; age M= 15.3
c) School 2; 1 ESO; N= 22; age M= 11.6
d) School 3; 6 Prim; N= 52; age M= 10.9
The total number of children enrolled in this study
was 134.
class professionally diagnosed with AS.
people so much?
• Are you good at interpreting facial expressions?
Clustering this set of 11 items, its reliability
     
       
mean in such cluster has been calculated, to allow for
simple correlations with the two main factors formerly
described: ‘spirituality’ and ‘confessional religion’. The
      
regarding both variables. Since the described set can
     
        
on spiritual or religious scores, or even to a moderate
  
(‘mentalizing activity’ with spirituality,current R=
Additional correlation tests have been performed with
every item on that set and the two selected factors: in all
cases, the correlations were low and positive; the only
exception regards the item “Are you good at interpreting
facial expressions?”, which is positively related too but
goes in an opposite direction to the rest (see table 5).
Concerning the issue on the possible relationship
between ASD and schizophrenic traits, in the Aspie
Quiz study, the diagnosed ASD group was only 6%,
and the answers for the spiritual questions were not
that didn’t believe they had an ASD. In the evaluation of
Aspie Quiz (Ekblad 2013), the Schizotypal Personality
Questionnaire (SPQ-A), which has several spiritual
aspects, had a high correlation to the Aspie Quiz score
(.66). This is consistent with the present study. The
slightly lower scores in the ASD group compared to the
ND group might be caused by some people with both
autistic and schizotypal traits receiving Schizophrenia-
related diagnoses rather than ASD diagnoses. Still, the
Aspie Quiz score had a .83 correlation to the Autism
Spectrum Quotient (Ekblad 2013), which means the
score is more relevant for ASD than for Schizophrenia.
Experiment 2
Following a suggestion of Jesse Bering about
EToM (Bering 2002, 2003) and its proposed central
Table 5. Correlation (Pearson’s r) of Variables ‘Spirituality’ and ‘Confessional religion’ (‘Dependent variables’)
among ‘Theory of mind set’ and selected items
Spirituality Conf. Rel.
ToM 11 items set .264** .181*
Do you tend to express your feelings in
 .173** 117**
Do others often misunderstand you? .177** 131**
Do you tend to interpret things literally? .145** .133**
Are you often surprised what people's
motives are ? .177** .133**
In a conversation, do you tend to focus on
your own thoughts rather than on what your
listener might be thinking?
.114** .107**
Is it hard for you to see why some things
upset people so much? .087** .051*
Are you good at interpreting facial
expressions? .171** .123**
Leif Ekblad, Lluis Oviedo
294 Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2017) 14, 4
This view is compatible with the hypothesis formulated
privately by Justin Barrett: religion needs an initial
ToM to be started, and once on the move, it can assume
forms which lack the contribution of that ToM, and
even the emotional dimension. However, this is a very
The problem with the former explanations is
that secularized societies exert a rather low pressure
regarding religious socialization. On the other hand, NT
children would proceed in a similar way as everybody
else learning and losing their religious beliefs and
practices at a more mature age, or they would just
keep them because of social pressure or environmental
adaptation. The available literature on the sociology
of conversion points to such a pattern of acquisition
and loss of religious beliefs and behaviors. Studies or
data on possible conversions by autistic subjects are
missing, and therefore, any comparison at the moment
is not possible.
The issue related to the ‘behavioristic explanation’
raises some questions. The questionnaires used in
the described two studies included several items on
religious sensitivity and views, which are harder to fake
from a purely behavioristic or learned position, as some
       
questions. Perhaps more interviews with autistic adults
with religious beliefs and practices, able to reconstruct
their own experience from infancy on, may help more
when knowing how they managed to overcome the
       
broader question: the role of external versus internal
has been valuated more as a form of internal conviction
and feeling, and less as something external, conventional,
formal or just learned by as an environmental adaptation.
However, this trend does not mean that the ‘ideal form’
of internal religion, corresponding to a strong intimate
experience and feeling – within a Reformed and
Enlightened tradition – is the only or the most genuine
religious form, or that it could be claimed, in a kind
of normative move, as being the best or the ‘authentic’
religious way. The idea of a pluralism of religious forms
and developments emerges as very convenient in this
     
methodological limitations that is fair to recognize.
the recruitment method for individuals that look into
the Aspie Quiz could raise some suspicions, since most
voluntary people are trying to test or ascertain their
own autistic symptoms. Then possibly some of the
symptoms could be mixed with other psychological
problems, rendering the results fuzzier. However Aspie
Quiz has reached great popularity and has become an
accurate method to assess autistic traits after the many
iterations and standardization.
The Aspie Quiz survey indicated that mature
       
compared to their NT counterparts. Some nuances can be
perceived, especially regarding the issue of negativity,
which shows a higher sensitivity on the side of autistic
subjects; and a little more of a materialistic view of
human nature. Furthermore, the data analysis reveals
     
A factor analysis with Varimax rotation from the
       
• God knows us, helps and protects
• God guides our conscience
• God neglects; is absent
• Religious practice
• Sense of providence despite the odds.
shows that the perception of a God, who positively exerts
its protective action, is quite high among members of
       
older segment or becomes negatively correlated with
age (the students 15 years old perceive less of a sense
      
recorded in this and other factors between boys and
The most surprising result of this survey corresponds
to the comparison between three cases of pupils with AS
in two surveyed participating schools. In all the above-
in their perception of an EToM, or even above average
regarding the NT control group. This outcome contrasts
        
reading the minds of other people, renders them less
sensitive from a religious point of view. An explanation
for this could be that having received and internalized
a strong religious background they have learned and
memorized ideas like “God loves us, cares for us and
protects us”, especially for individuals who may be
in a more precarious condition due to their relational
impairments. In fact, the three cases involve children
raised in religious or Christian families, and in two cases
in Christian schools. Only one item with the expression:
“There is an inner voice that tells me what is right and
what is wrong” appears clearly in contrast with the
 
of AS school boys regarding such ‘inner voices’
The questionnaire should still be validated in a more
          
to populations of adolescents and young people of
hypotheses in the minds of the researchers are met. It
appears that EToM works more vividly until a certain
age, in around 12-13 years, in which individuals rather
especially in a positive way, to the incorporeal and
transcendent agency. In fact, the negative experiences
in this questionnaire are often not attributed to a
supernatural agency. It is pertinent to conclude that the
ability or tendency to attribute agency to supernatural
beings decreases as individuals grow and develop
other faculties that recognize the causality of a more
imminent or rational agency.
The thesis of religion in autistic subjects as mainly
derived from social learning could mean that they
would hardly generate religious ideas or experiences
         
a patrimony of NTs or very creative minds. However,
once in place, when religion becomes a trait of a human
community, people with supposed impairments in their
ToM, would just ‘adapt’ to the rest of the social group.
Religious cognition among subjects with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2017) 14, 4 295
emotional and sheer cognitive aspects of their
lives. That distinction applies to religious
development too, and it would be important to
provided that there might be a unique path,
which is rather less probable, knowing the many
varieties and expressions that condition assumes.
• From the point of view of a cognitive-cultural
relationship, the case study of AS subjects
provides interesting insights, but at the same
time, it appears as quite intriguing. It is clear
from the evidence accumulated to date that
those persons manage to adapt on average to
their own environment, but it is hard to assess
the way in which the cognitive structure and
cultural context interact to achieve that outcome.
The impression is that these are – not only in
this case – very entrenched dimensions and
that it becomes very hard to disentangle them
      
cognitive traits. The most that can be expected
is that NTs and autistics work out the integration
of mind and culture, not only regarding religion,
•       
structure of religious cognition by autistic
people would be a study of their ‘religious
grammars’ and the meaning they project into
       
it would be insightful to assess whether they
      
elaborate information susceptible to becoming
‘religious’ in its output. The evidence until now
is very weak for a ‘universal religious grammar’
(Oviedo and Canteras 2013). In the case that
      
clues, they could help shed more light on this
thorny issue. In the second case, the meaning
ASD people project onto their own religious
beliefs and actions could be revealing when
compared with other forms of meaning-building
of religious concepts, if religion is assumed as a
“meaning system” (Emons & Paloutzian 2003,
Silberman 2005)
List of abbreviations and acronyms used
throughout the text
AS: Asperger Syndrome
ASD: Autism Spectrum Disorder
DSM: Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
EToM: Existential Theory of Mind
HFA: High-functioning autism
ND: Neurodiverse
NT: Neurotypical
PDD: Pervasive Development Disorder
SPQ-A: Schizotypal Personality Questionnaire
ToM: Theory of Mind
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and
statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). American
Psychiatric Publishing, Washington, DC.
Armstrong T (2010). Neurodiversity: Discovering the
extraordinary gifts of autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other
brain dierences. Da Capo Lifelong Books, Cambridge, MA.
and to some extent with ToM, correlate moderately and
positively with a scale describing spiritual perceptions,
contrary to the expectation that such problems could
entail a diminished spiritual aptitude. ND people
indicated having more spiritual beliefs and more often
preferred private religious beliefs while NT people
preferred to follow existing religious scripts.
Thus, this study reveals a more nuanced religious
structure in the minds of subjects on the autism
      
some theoretical programs. The general impression is
to the standard religious socialization characteristic of
particular religious structure or code; and at the end what
counts most is the social or cultural environment, which
becomes the decisive factor leading to more or less
religious attitudes and ideas. Therefore, developmental
and social-cultural variables become more important
than just innate cognitive features when predicting
some empirical evidence in the neurologic research of
Bastiaansen and his associates (2011), which reaches
the following conclusions: “Inferior frontal gyrus
activity during the observation of facial expressions
increased with age in subjects with autism, but not in
control subjects. The age-related increase in activity
was associated with changes in gaze behavior and
improvements in social functioning” (…) The results
of this cross-sectional study suggest that mirror neuron
system activity augments with age in autism and that
this is accompanied by changes in gaze behavior and
improved social functioning” (Bastiaansen et al. 2011,
p. 832).
All in all, there is still a long way to go until
scholars can resolve several issues arising from the
      
experience shows that reducing the variables too much
    
case about studying autistic people should be less one
of testing pre-existing theories, but rather one that could
help to explore the richness and varieties of religious
experience and cognition, as William James claimed.
       
rather enrich our insights into this important dimension
of the human condition.
Future research
Several issues remain unanswered. For example, the
following would need future consideration:
• From a neurological and cognitive point of view,
and enhanced abilities on the autism spectrum
and their own mental structure. Indeed, a big
problem arises when dealing with subjects
      
      
cognitive impairments beneath problems of
ToM. These aspects might add weight to their
    
religious experience would depend on other
cognitive faculties as well, which often remain
• From a cognitive developmental point of view,
it seems that autistic subjects and NTs thread
     
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... We have already adopted empirical approaches to religious perception among ASD subjects (Ekblad & Oviedo 2017). In our first survey, we used a platform on the web -the popular Aspie Quiz -to assess differences between autistic and neurotypical adult respondents regarding an added instrument on spiritual perception. ...
... Some empirical or experimental studies have provided evidence in this regard(Caldwell-Harris et al. 2011;Norenzayan, Gervais & Trzesniewski 2012;Lindeman & Lipsanen 2016). However, other studies have not found significant correlations between these variables (Visuri 2012;Jack, Friedman et al. 2016; Vonk & Pitzen 2016;Ekblad & Oviedo 2017;Maij et al. 2017). In some cases, people with BAP condition have reported more significant religious traits(Schaap-Jonker et al. 2013). ...
Full-text available
People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – Asperger’s and high-functioning – frequently display specific cognitive characteristics that sometimes render them proficient in particular areas but deficient or impaired in others like theory of mind. Their specific cognitive system suggests that their approach to religious experience will be special and distinct compared to neurotypical people. It is a matter of disagreement as to what extent the cognitive condition of subjects with ASD means that they experience a diminished religious capacity, either because they usually develop a more analytical way of thinking or because of the limitations on their intuitive faculties and theory of mind. The field has been researched for several years with inconclusive results. Some studies clearly point to the greater sensitivity of ASD persons towards supernatural phenomena, but it is far from clear that such a perception is in keeping with standard religious beliefs. Two new surveys attempt to address these issues. In the first, on spiritual perception, we compare a survey from a broad sample of 128 Lluis Oviedo, Josefa Torralba, Leif Ekblad pre-adolescent and adolescent neurotypicals with a limited ASD sample of children of the same age and in the same settings. In the second, we used the Aspie Quiz platform to employ a similar instrument to compare attitudes toward supernatural phenomena. Both allow us to better explore or add certain nuances to ongoing research. Our data point in two directions: ASD youngsters are sensitive towards supernatural phenomena, and such perceptions can be moderated by religious faith and practice.
... However, the results of newer empirical testing did not support the hypothesis (Horvat & Horvat, 2021), just to name a few: there is a positive relationship between moral concern and belief in God, while the impact of mentalizing was considerably weaker (Lindeman & Lipsanen, 2016;Jack et al., 2016); no significant difference in mentalizing between autistic and non-autistic samples in performance based measurements; also no evidence of differences in religious beliefs, prayers, attendance at religious services, anthropomorphism and felt closeness to God (Reddish et al., 2016); given that supernatural beings do not have physical bodies, interaction with them is "unrestricted by multisensory input such as body language, facial expressions and intonation" and therefore optimal (Visuri, 2019, pp. 93-95;Visuri, 2020); autistic persons have a greater sensitivity toward the broad spectrum of spiritual and supernatural experiences than neurotypicals and the social or cultural environment could be the decisive factor leading to more or less religious attitudes (Ekblad & Oviedo, 2017). ...
Link to the article: Abstract: People with different needs and abilities continue to be marginalized by society, including by church communities. One of these groups is people on the autism spectrum. Disability theology seeks to point to the dignity of every human being as an imago Dei, and as a gift of God. In search of perspectives that will contribute to a clearer understanding of this truth and the overcoming of prejudice and marginalization, this paper analyzes the phenomenon of creativity. This is a phenomenon that is important in many disciplines, and thus underlies the theology of creation, philosophical and everyday thinking. Furthermore, empirical studies examine the relationship between autism and creativity. Their results emphasize the exceptional talent and creativity of as many as a third of the members of this group. Building on these insights, the article promotes creativity as a field of relationship between God the Creator and all people, with each individual called by God to creatively shape themselves and the world in which they live. By focusing the theological view on the marginalized group of people on the autism spectrum and emphasizing the necessity of the whole body of Christ, we are not stressing the importance of the product and usefulness of the individual’s creativity but the belief that all humans are equally called to co-create God’s plan, regardless of the possibilities and obstacles the individual faces. Keywords: Autism, disability theology, creativity, talent, relationship.
... In any case, that pattern would not be the only possible one. For instance, people on the autism spectrum disorder, who suffer from impairment in their empathetic capacity, are not less religious than neurotypical subjects: They just develop a different religious style or experience (Ekblad and Oviedo 2017). ...
Full-text available
Recent studies in the field of cognitive science of religion have proposed a connection between religious beliefs, theory of mind, and prosocial behaviour. Theory of mind appears to be related to empathy and compassion, and both to a special sensitivity towards unjust suffering, which could trigger a religious crisis, as has often happened and is revealed in the “theodicy question”. To test such relationships, adolescents were surveyed by an exploratory questionnaire. The collected data point to a more complex, less linear interaction, which depends more on cultural factors and reflexive elaboration than cognitive structures. In general, compassion and outrage before unjust suffering appear to be quite related; compassion is related to religious practice and even more to spiritual perception.
... This data invites us to review a central tenet in cognitive science of religion that claims for the incidence of the theory of mind or empathy in the perception of the supernatural. If we assume that girls are on average more empatheticas it has been empirically testedthen we can infer that such faculty does not play a role in the perception and evaluation of supernatural experiences, a result in line with several other studies (Ekblad & Oviedo 2017). • Age becomes a better predictor of perception and interest for the supernatural, in the opposite direction: when adolescents grow older, belief and interest on these phenomena seem to fade away, at least in some features. ...
Some uneasy and dissatisfaction with current research on perceptions of supernatural in certain stages of children and youth development has motivated a search for an alternative approach that could be built on new empirical data and a method that could help to better assess how pre- and adolescents relate to extraordinary and supernatural phenomena. An exploratory survey has been designed on an ad hoc instrument, fitted for that age span and the research goals. The outcomes point to the persistence of these perceptions and interests in that age, their close relatedness with indicators of religiosity, and their slowly vanishing when growing up. More research is needed to better ascertain the role this factor still plays in religious and spiritual development despite the very secular context in which often those beliefs are held.
... Mc-Cauley and George Graham (in press) argue (1) that such mixed findings are not at all unusual in the cognitive sciences, (2) that they guarantee that improved theoretical accounts will inevitably be more complicated, but (3) although this research leaves Norenzayan and his colleagues' stronger thesis in question, it is not at all clear that any of these negative findings bear on my original proposal about impaired understanding and inferential capacities of people with ASD concerning the gods' states of mind. That proposal is, however, not antithetical to the suggestion that the religiosity of people with ASD may simply be different (e.g., Ekblad and Oviedo 2017). ...
Cognitive science of religion (CSR) has increased influence in religious studies, the resistance of religious protectionists notwithstanding. CSR's most provocative work stresses the role of implicit cognition in explaining religious thought and conduct. Exhibiting explanatory pluralism, CSR seeks integrative accounts across the social, psychological, and brain sciences. CSR reflects prominent trends in the cognitive sciences generally. First, CSR is giving greater attention to the new tools and findings of cognitive neuroscience. Second, CSR researchers have done carefully designed, nonlaboratory studies of experience, incorporating precise physiological measures, obtaining astonishing findings about the experiences of ritual participants and observers. Third, CSR theorists have advanced evolutionary hypotheses about religions from eight perspectives (cross‐indexing three levels of selection with three mechanisms of selection). Cultural group selectionists headline credibility enhancing displays and Big Gods in the religious consolidation of large‐scale societies. Other CSR researchers marshal counterevidence and advance alternative hypotheses. CSR findings are incompatible with the New Atheists’ projects on two fronts.
... Indeed, the first described factor is very weak; it would state that atheism is the trade of those with limited theory of mind. Despite their alleged data, other set of empirical and experimental research clearly shows that people in the autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) are by no means less religious than average in their own social environments [12]. In any case, that argument would explain no more than 5% of the variance for current atheism, a rather weak factor. ...
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Religion has been intensely studied in the last years inside an evolutionary frame, trying to discern to what extent it contributes to fitness or becomes an adaptive entity in its own. A similar heuristic can be tried regarding the opposite tendency: unbelief and atheism, since these cultural phenomena could help to better adapt to some social settings or become an adaptive socio-cultural niche on its own. The present paper examines some scenarios in which that question makes sense: the tradition of sociology of religion, with its different strands, including recent studies on ‘non-religious’; the cognitive; and the philosophical-theological reflection. The proposed venues show to what extent the evolutionary model might reveal neglected aspects in the study of unbelief, and at the same time its limits or the open questions that such application raise.
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Objective: To define and explore the electromagnetic field theory of telepathy and its relation to the broader autism spectrum, to explore connections between various anomalous experiences and the broader autism spectrum, and to evaluate the validity of links between anomalous experiences, personality, and abuse in light of possible links to the broader autism spectrum. Method: Online studies used a questionnaire adapted to measure the broader autism phenotype as the base tool. First, a sensing presence item was added to check telepathy. Next, four personality measures relating to absorption, fantasy proneness, schizotypy, and thin boundaries were added in pairs to check the connections between items. Last, a new anomalous experience and psi questionnaire was created and checked. Results: Sensing a presence, most anomalous experiences, and most psi traits had considerable correlations to the broader autism phenotype. Sensing electromagnetic fields was the primary item contributing to sensing a presence. Conclusion: The study provides evidence that telepathy is the primary psi trait. The belief in telepathy and the ability to use telepathy are considerably more common in people with autistic traits. Anomalous experiences are also considerably more common in people with autistic traits, and many of the traits are correlated to each other. Broader autism traits generally are correlated to each other. Because of this, people must be cautious before assuming that a correlation to an autistic trait, an anomalous experience, or a psi trait is indicative of a causative link.
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Cognitive science of religion (CSR) has inspired a number of debunking arguments against god‐belief. They aim to show that the belief‐forming processes that underlie belief in god(s) are unreliable. The debate surrounding these arguments gives the impression that CSR offers new scientific evidence that threatens the rationality of religious belief. This impression, however, is partly misleading. A close look at a few widely discussed debunking arguments shows, first, that CSR theories as such are far from providing sufficient empirical evidence that the belief‐forming processes behind god‐belief are unreliable. Thus, appealing solely to CSR theories makes a debunking argument weak. Second, there are strong arguments that also invoke CSR, but these gain their strength primarily from more familiar claims about evolutionary epistemology and religious diversity. What CSR actually does in these arguments is providing an explanation of why people might believe in gods even if gods did not exist. But explaining is not debunking.
Are there any methodological issues unique to the psychology of religion? The claim has been made that the psychology of religion was decisively hampered by its inability to conduct true experiments. Looking at the past half-century, it is shown that there are no limits on experimentation in the field, and that both interesting theories and original experiments have been mainstreaming it within psychology. The rise of CSR has been a major stimulus, together with other fruitful approaches. Challenging CSR notions can only lead to more progress. The need for treating both biological and historical generalizations with caution may force psychologists to focus on cross-cultural experimentation, which promises significant insights.
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Prior work has established that analytic thinking is associated with disbelief in God, whereas religious and spiritual beliefs have been positively linked to social and emotional cognition. However, social and emotional cognition can be subdivided into a number of distinct dimensions, and some work suggests that analytic thinking is in tension with some aspects of social-emotional cognition. This leaves open two questions. First, is belief linked to social and emotional cognition in general, or a specific dimension in particular? Second, does the negative relationship between belief and analytic thinking still hold after relationships with social and emotional cognition are taken into account? We report eight hypothesis-driven studies which examine these questions. These studies are guided by a theoretical model which focuses on the distinct social and emotional processing deficits associated with autism spectrum disorders (mentalizing) and psychopathy (moral concern). To our knowledge no other study has investigated both of these dimensions of social and emotion cognition alongside analytic thinking. We find that religious belief is robustly positively associated with moral concern (4 measures), and that at least part of the negative association between belief and analytic thinking (2 measures) can be explained by a negative correlation between moral concern and analytic thinking. Using nine different measures of mentalizing, we found no evidence of a relationship between mentalizing and religious or spiritual belief. These findings challenge the theoretical view that religious and spiritual beliefs are linked to the perception of agency, and suggest that gender differences in religious belief can be explained by differences in moral concern. These findings are consistent with the opposing domains hypothesis, according to which brain areas associated with moral concern and analytic thinking are in tension.
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Background: Theory-of-mind (ToM), the ability to infer people's thoughts and feelings, is a pivotal skill in effective social interactions. Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have been found to have altered ToM skills, which significantly impacts the quality of their social interactions. Neuroimaging studies have reported altered activation of the ToM cortical network, especially in adults with autism, yet little is known about the brain responses underlying ToM in younger individuals with ASD. This functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study investigated the neural mechanisms underlying ToM in high-functioning children and adolescents with ASD and matched typically developing (TD) peers. Methods: fMRI data were acquired from 13 participants with ASD and 13 TD control participants while they watched animations involving two "interacting" geometrical shapes. Results: Participants with ASD showed significantly reduced activation, relative to TD controls, in regions considered part of the ToM network, the mirror network, and the cerebellum. Functional connectivity analyses revealed underconnectivity between frontal and posterior regions during task performance in the ASD participants. Conclusions: Overall, the findings of this study reveal disruptions in the brain circuitry underlying ToM in ASD at multiple levels, including decreased activation and decreased functional connectivity.
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Four young adults diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome were interviewed to learn more about what impact this neurological disorder might have on the reasoning on religion and spirituality, particularly regarding their theory of mind and interaction with metaphysical agents. The result contradicts several predictions about Asperger's syndrome and religion, and when analyzing to what extent the theory of mind was used when reasoning on intentionality, it seems as if the informants separate between different kinds of metaphysical agents. The question remains whether their reasoning on religion and spirituality is more influenced by having a specific cognitive style or by their cultural context.
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The cognitive science of religion is a new field which explains religious belief as emerging from normal cognitive processes such as inferring others' mental states, agency detection and imposing patterns on noise. This paper investigates the proposal that individual differences in belief will reflect cognitive processing styles, with high functioning autism being an extreme style that will predispose towards nonbelief (atheism and agnosticism). This view was supported by content analysis of discussion forums about religion on an autism website (covering 192 unique posters), and by a survey that included 61 persons with HFA. Persons with autistic spectrum disorder were much more likely than those in our neurotypical comparison group to identify as atheist or agnostic, and, if religious, were more likely to construct their own religious belief system. Nonbelief was also higher in those who were attracted to systemizing activities, as measured by the Systemizing Quotient.
The study of beliefs – both in a large sense and specifically religious – has had exponential development in the past number of years. The current research makes good use of cognitive and neuroscientific methods, allowing for a deeper insight into the structure of beliefs and believing as a complex process. Religious faith has received particular attention, giving rise to many studies. For clear access to its variety and value, a systematic review on the published material is presented in an Appendix, which includes – to date – 75 books and articles applying cognitive, evolutionary, and neurological approaches, and other new methods, in an attempt to better characterize religious experience and beliefs. As a result, a dynamic picture emerges and some development can be followed toward more complex and inclusive theories. A case is made for the utility that this research can offer for the study of broadly understood beliefs; the same can be stated regarding the application of research on general beliefs for a better knowledge on religious ones.
Theorists have argued that religious beliefs emerged as a consequence of the human propensity to attribute mental states. However, little empirical work has explored the relationship between individual variability in theory of mind (ToM) and religious beliefs. We investigated the connection between empathy, emotional intelligence, systemizing, ToM, and religiosity in two college student samples. Empathy was correlated with aspects of religiosity but did not uniquely predict religiosity. Emotional intelligence was positively related to religiosity, whereas ToM was either unrelated or negatively related to religiosity. We argue that the basic ability to reason about self and other, including self-awareness (emotional intelligence) and empathy, rather than accuracy in mentalizing (ToM), predicts religiosity. However, despite these intriguing patterns, our measures of sociocognitive abilities explained little variance in our religiosity measures. Future research should explore other samples including those absent of empathy and ToM, and should explore capacities such as agency detection.
The factors that make people religious or atheistic are currently much debated, and empirical evidence is limited. Further, the possibility that both religious believers and nonbelievers comprise diverse subtypes with different characteristics has seldom been considered. In this study, characteristics of religious believers (N = 984) and nonbelievers (N = 1,000) were analyzed with latent class analyses. These analyses identified five religious subgroups and five nonbeliever subgroups that differed in analytical thinking, empathizing, mechanistic cognition (i.e., systemizing), and autistic and schizotypal traits. The results highlight the strengths and limitations of current theoretical arguments about religious beliefs.
The primary causal explanatory model for interpreting behavior, theory of mind, may have expanded into corridors of human cognition that have little to do with the context in which it evolved, questioning the suitability of domain-specific accounts of mind reading. Namely, philosophical-religious reasoning is a uniquely derived explanatory system anchored in intentionality that does not clearly involve behavior. The presence of an existential theory of mind (EToM) suggests that individuals perceive some nondescript or culturally elaborated (e.g., God) psychological agency as having encoded communicative intentions in the form of life events, similar to a person encoding communicative intentions in deictic gestures. The emergence of EToM is discussed from ontogenetic and phylogenetic perspectives; autism is examined to determine whether alternate core explanatory models (e.g., folk physics) are used by those with deficits in theory of mind to derive existential meaning.
Mentalizing, or theory of mind, has been argued to be critical for supporting religious beliefs and practices involving supernatural agents. As individuals with autism spectrum conditions have been found to have deficits in mentalizing, this raises the question as to how they may conceive of gods and behave in relation to gods. To examine this, we compared high functioning individuals with autism (HFA) to typically developing individuals across seven key aspects of religious cognition and behaviour: (1) strength of belief; (2) anthropomorphism of god concepts; (3) felt closeness towards the god; (4) prayer habits; (5) attraction to prayer; (6) efficacy of prayer; and (7) a sense of agency whilst praying. A battery of mentalizing tasks was administered to measure mentalizing ability, along with the Autism-Spectrum Quotient. As expected, typically developing subjects performed better than HFA subjects in the advanced mentalizing task. However, no statistically significant differences were found with first order and second order false belief tasks. In contrast to our predictions and previous research on the religiosity of HFA, we found very little differences between the groups in their religious cognition and behaviour. Moreover, the relationship between mentalizing ability and most of our measures of religious cognition and behaviour was weak and negative. Our data suggest that HFA's deficits in mentalizing appear to have only minimal impact on the way they interact and think about gods. We end the paper by re-evaluating the role mentalizing may have in religious cognition and behaviour.