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Feb 26 2014

Immaterial concepts that they are unable to understand.

This is an interesting claim that seems to me to be quite wrong, but maybe that’s because I have exactly the kind of mind-blindness it’s talking about…Except I think I have good reason to think I don’t, which is why the claim seems to me to be quite wrong. I could go around like this all day.

The claim is a comment on a post of Chris Stedman’s giving five reasons it’s a bad idea for atheists to call religion a form of mental illness.

Yes, there is a link between autism and atheism. It’s been found that many autistic people are atheists. This explains why many atheists (who might be suffering from autism) are quiet in real life (due to the obvious social difficulties and interactions of being autistic) but very vocal on the internet letting their frustration out on immaterial concepts that they are unable to understand.

Autistic people do not view emotions and other immaterial concepts such as the prime-mover (which is fully established in philosophy and logic) the same way as regular people which explains why many become atheists as they unable to perceive God as a immaterial being and instead see him as a”sky-daddy” which is a juvenile view of the prime-mover that the great philosopher Aristotle argued for in Ancient Greece whose argument continues to this day.

That could be true. It makes internal sense. But of course it begs the question; it assumes that there really is such a thing as “God who is an immaterial being” and that it’s only a brain defect that prevents people from perceiving it.

Also, viewing emotions differently from the way non-autistic people do isn’t the same as not perceiving them at all. Some emotions have visible manifestations. You can’t say the same about “God” – it’s not as if a really intense version of “God” is visible to everyone.

The background idea though is familiar, and interesting. We have only the equipment we have. We have zero reason to think the equipment we have is able to perceive everything there is; in fact we have abundant reason to be aware that it doesn’t. It could be the case that there really is a thing we would call “God” if we could perceive it, that we just can’t perceive because we don’t have the organs to do the job.

It could be. It doesn’t follow though that the stories humans have been telling about their imagined gods for millennia have anything to do with that possible “God.”

28 comments

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  1. 1
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    It’s basically this: so he’s given a logical reason why many people who happened to fall on the autism spectrum are atheists (but I know so many who are proud believers, as well), and I could actually buy it.

    It doesn’t not follow that atheists are autistic, however.

  2. 2
    AMM

    An alternative explanation is that people on the autistic spectrum (ASD) are less vulnerable than neurotypicals to groupthink (specifically, the tendency to believe and internalize the ideas and ways of thinking of the people around them), and don’t believe stuff unless they see convincing arguments for believing them.

    It doesn’t mean that they won’t believe nonsense. It only means that they’re less likely to be persuaded by “everybody believes” type arguments.

    I have one son who is diagnosed with Asperger, and I think the rest of us on both sides have a touch of it. I still worry that my son will do something stupid, but I don’t expect it to be because of peer pressure. (He’ll find his _own_ ways to do stupid things.)

  3. 3
    Cuttlefish

    So… how come it is that so many atheists were once strongly religious? I myself was a born-again Christian, and I still very much experience strong emotions, still am pretty much the same human being I was, but gained an understanding that did not rely on reifying my ignorance into the actions of god.

    If there is a relation between autism and atheism, it certainly not a necessary one. Perhaps it describes a number of atheists; what of that? The abnormal psychology literature has no shortage of connections between religious beliefs and a number of abnormal symptoms (e.g., delusions, hallucinations); this is also, quite clearly, not a necessary relationship whatsoever.

    Gee, it’s almost as if people are people, and some of them are atheists and some believers, and some vary on any number of diagnostic dimensions. Distributions being what they are, the vast, vast majority of both atheists and believers are in the part of the spectra we call neurotypical.

  4. 4
    Blondin

    So the big question is: Do people who are/become atheist because of an autism spectrum disorder deserve to burn for eternity?

  5. 5
    stevebowen

    This is just a corollary to Plantinga’s sensus divinitus and as you say is full of presupposition. You can argue that lot’s of things we do (sort of ) understand are beyond our natural senses, atomic theory for example, but what we theorise is predictive and falsifiable and effects that we should be able to discern are observed. Nothing of gods can mimic this. Even if we cannot sense them directly we should observe the effect of their interventions. We don’t. So either gods don’t intervene or they don’t exist therefore atheism is justified either way.

  6. 6
    sawells

    The commenter doesn’t seem to have grasped that there are plenty of atheists who fully grasp _and reject_ all the theological claims about immaterial prime movers and what have you; and that we’re using the phrase “sky daddy” to mock the god of _actual religious belief_, i.e. the entity that all these people seem to be praying to, asking favours from, apologising and confessing to… the idea is that, if a believer then bristles and comes over all huffy, you can challenge them to explain in what sense this God of theirs is _not_ a “sky daddy”. If you’re going to pray to Our Father who art in heaven, well… (especially the bit about calling God “Abba” which is, yes, Hebrew for Daddy…)

    Sky Daddy is _the god of the bible_, as is evident if you actually read one.

    Similar point: theologians can wax lyrical about god being omnipresent and omniscient and what have you, but once you decorticate the refined language you are left with: He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake… i.e. it’s just Santa Claus in a better suit.

  7. 7
    MyaR

    So, I had a long post about how I think there’s also some reductionism about autism and it’s causes/effects, but then realized that this was, perhaps, the better point: As far as I can find, there is no really good demographic data on the atheist population in general, or online specifically, so deciding that the “bad” atheists are autistic and cognitively impaired (which is the main thrust of the comment) is just dumb.

  8. 8
    Shatterface

    Autistic people do not view emotions and other immaterial concepts such as the prime-mover (which is fully established in philosophy and logic) the same way as regular people which explains why many become atheists as they unable to perceive God as a immaterial being and instead see him as a”sky-daddy” which is a juvenile view of the prime-mover that the great philosopher Aristotle argued for in Ancient Greece whose argument continues to this day.

    Except that (a) emotions aren’t immaterial – they are embodied. They are physiological responses to events and situations which matter to the survival of our genes. Emotions effect our bodies, increasing or decreasing arousal, affecting everything from the focus of our attention, blood supply to our limbs (or, er, other organs), respiration, sweat production, the release of hormones, etc. These physiological changes are not the ‘effect’ of emotion, they are the emotion, or rather ‘emotion’ is the name we give to the experience of these changes. Emotions are not inexplicable, ghostly phenomena experienced by some immaterial ‘soul’.

    The ‘prime mover’, on the other hand, is definitely ‘immaterial’: It doesn’t exist and you can’t be less material than that!

    We (I have Aspergers) might have difficulty reading and expressing emotion but we feel them every bit as much as anyone else: if you’ve witnessed any of us in full meltdown you’ll be under no illusion: we are very, very capable of emotional responses, and these emotions are very much physiological.

    The comment is trying to blur the distinction between two very different things: emotional literacy and abstract thought. Given that many Aspies are drawn science, philosophy and mathematics the idea we are incapable of abstract thought is risible. Christ, pop-culture is full of Sheldon Cooper/IT Crowd/Temporance Brennan/Sherlock types precisely because everyone remembers the socially awkward geek at school who excelled at science.

    There are autistics who think in concrete terms – Temple Grandin, for instance, who has written extensively about her condition, but then there are mathematical savants like Daniel Tammet types who seem to swim through a mathematically abstract world like Neo at the end of The Matrix

    And to complicate matters further: both Grandin and Tammet believe in god – yet when you read their thoughts on the subject their ‘God’ really is an abstract, impersonal force that seems to have stepped out of a Philip K Dick novel rather than the Bible.

  9. 9
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Is there any actual evidence for a correlation between autism- a wide and imprecise term in itself- and atheism? Nicky Reilly was an autistic convert to islam who tried to kill diners in a restaurant in Exeter with a suicide bomb- a pretty powerful counter-example.

  10. 10
    Shatterface

    Is there any actual evidence for a correlation between autism- a wide and imprecise term in itself- and atheism? Nicky Reilly was an autistic convert to islam who tried to kill diners in a restaurant in Exeter with a suicide bomb- a pretty powerful counter-example.

    It’s a correlation: it doesn’t mean all autistics are atheists any more than being neurotypical means you are religious. The fact there are examples who converted to Islam doesn’t imply religion is common among autistics any more than the fact this one was a terrorist means autistics are violent.

  11. 11
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    But is there a correlation between autism and atheism at all?
    I’m dubious about the term “autism” except as a description of a particular kind of behaviour. I don’t think that the claim that there is a particular type of “autistic personality” always underlying the behaviour is at all reliable.

  12. 12
    daedalus2u

    I have written about how autism does give some protection against groupthink.

    http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/2008/10/theory-of-mind-vs-theory-of-reality.html

    As I understand it, to understand someone you need to be able to emulate their thinking so you can understand them in their own terms. People who are neurologically typical, usually do the emulation of other NTs “native” that is they “run the emulation” directly in their neuroanatomy. If you do that, you run the risk of groupthink.

    It isn’t that people with autism are unable to understand the concepts of immaterial things, it is that we can think about such things and not have them “take over” our thinking.

    There is an inverse correlation between autism and psychosis.

  13. 13
    Shatterface

    There is a double standard of course: if there’s a correlation between autism and atheism, religious people think this is because atheists are ‘mentally ill’ while if there’s a correlation between hyper-religiosity and temporal lobe epilepsy and schizophrenia that doesn’t reflect back on the religious at all.

    Indeed, such people might be seen as ‘blessed’.

  14. 14
    Shatterface

    But is there a correlation between autism and atheism at all?
    I’m dubious about the term “autism” except as a description of a particular kind of behaviour. I don’t think that the claim that there is a particular type of “autistic personality” always underlying the behaviour is at all reliable.

    It’s not ‘reliable’ because autism isn’t a ‘personality disorder’: paranoid, schizoid, dissocial, emotionally unstable, histrionic, anankastic, anxious and dependent are personality disorders; autism is a developmental disorder.

    It’s a difference in processing, not personality, and it is life-long, not something which emerges in later life. And there are often sensory motor issues involved.

  15. 15
    Kevin Alexander

    So it’s just another variation on the if you don’t believe it’s because there’s something wrong with you trope.
    .

    Except that (a) emotions aren’t immaterial – they are embodied. They are physiological responses to events and situations which matter to the survival of our genes.

    Because emotions evolved a gazillion years ago and were always until lately triggered by something in the environment the illusion that they are always made that way is almost irresistible.

  16. 16
    Shatterface

    So the big question is: Do people who are/become atheist because of an autism spectrum disorder deserve to burn for eternity?

    Yeah, god deliberately created conditions which make believing in him harder for some people, then gave others conditions which make believing in him almost inevitable.

    He’s kind of a dick that way.

  17. 17
    Shatterface

    Because emotions evolved a gazillion years ago and were always until lately triggered by something in the environment the illusion that they are always made that way is almost irresistible.

    I think the idea that emotions are something ‘purer’ than, say, digestion, and somehow independent of the body is a romantic delusion.

  18. 18
    RJW

    “But of course it begs the question; it assumes that there really is such a thing as “God who is an immaterial being” and that it’s only a brain defect that prevents people from perceiving it.”

    In other words—”you too”

    Yes, indeed, believers who don’t beg the question seem to be in the minority, and of course, they deny that the burden of proof is on them. As to the assertion that ‘many autistic people are atheists’, if true, atheists could claim that autism provides some insights not available to the majority.

    “It could be. It doesn’t follow though that the stories humans have been telling about their imagined gods for millennia have anything to do with that possible “God.”

    More likely, religious belief is the product of those psychological characteristics that provided an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors on the savannah, there’s recent research on this subject, it appears that atheists are the exception. So, in principle, religious belief in itself, is not evidence of mental illness, just an evolutionary survivor like body hair or the coccyx.

    BTW, despite a religious education, I can’t remember, as an adult, ever being a believer.

    If anyone’s interested, there’s the book –”why we believe in god(s)” by J A Thomson & Claire Aukofer.

  19. 19
    cubist

    sez stevebowen:

    This is just a corollary to Plantinga’s sensus divinitus and as you say is full of presupposition.

    “Corollary”, nothing—it is Plantinga’s sensus divinitus, with the serial numbers filed off and a fresh coat of paint.
    And yeah, the presupposition is strong with this one. As best I can tell, all presuppositional apologetics can be boiled down to I’ll be happy to debate the validity of my premises, just as soon as you concede that my premises are valid. Fuck that noise, says I.

  20. 20
    brianpansky

    immaterial concepts that they are unable to understand.

    or reasoning concepts that believers are unable to understand.

  21. 21
    Athywren

    @ Blondin, 4

    So the big question is: Do people who are/become atheist because of an autism spectrum disorder deserve to burn for eternity?

    Well, considering that, biblically speaking, people who were physically non-standard in any way and for any reason were to be kept out of the temple, thus cutting them off from contact with god, it seems reasonable that the same applies to people who aren’t neurotypical… so probably yes, yes they do. Besides, autism is totally a lifestyle choice, which is important somehow.

  22. 22
    rpjohnston

    “immaterial being” is an oxymoron, just like “supernatural”. Natural things are, by definition, things that exist. And he elides to “immaterial being” from “immaterial concepts”…slick.

    That commenter sounds like he’s just wooing about fuzzy nonsense and pretending it means something.

    As a previous commenter here mentioned – “Sky Daddy” is what people largely claim to believe in (and I’ll add, anything else doesn’t interact with the universe and is therefore irrelevant). I can postulate infinite extraneous entities or “immaterial beings” that do nothing, but it would obviously be pointless and not worth spending time thinking about.

  23. 23
    mark4nier

    No one prays to the prime mover, even if the concept made sense–why would something perfect move at all, since it is perfect right where it is? Creation is born of need, but the perfect needs nothing. Perfection is stagnant and fixed. Ask any heroin addict when they’re on the nod.

    As someone who is on the autistic spectrum, and was a believer for forty years, I can tell you that religious faith is about magic. It is the invocation of supernatural beings for material benefit. And the afterlife, as conceived be nearly all believers, is very material. While I would agree with Stedman that faith is not indicative of mental illness, but a product of cognitive flaws that we all share, they are still cognitive flaws.

    The fastest growing sect in Christianity is the prosperity gospel, presided over by the ultimate sky-daddy, who gives you money if you support the church. Boston.com hosted a debate between Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong, but when it was over, a baptist minister wrote in to ask why they had a debate about the existence of God between two atheists. Dawkins had been saying the same thing all through the debate.

    I suspect that Dawkins actually has a better grasp of what the average believer holds true than those who defend sophisticated theology, because in presenting evolution to the public, he has met them, while the academic theologian would never bother to do so. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, this kind of theology has as much to do with the practice of faith as the study of ornithology has to do with the flight of birds.

  24. 24
    Brian E

    the great philosopher Aristotle argued for in Ancient Greece whose argument continues to this day.

    Yeah, all 47 or 55 of them.

    While the number of spheres in the model itself was subject to change, (47 or 55), Aristotle’s account of aether, and of potentiality and actuality, required an individual unmoved mover for each sphere.[8]

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unmoved_mover

    And it’s BS that the arguments for prime mover(s) haven’t been challenged, and just continue. I’d say they are only convincing to those who already believe in a prime mover (singular). The majority of philosophers just think they’re good grist for learning arguments, but don’t succeed.

  25. 25
    anne mariehovgaard

    This is an unnecessary “explanation”. The correlation isn’t that strong, and we already know that people with ASD’s are less social, less group-oriented; that increasing in-group cohesion is one of religions’ most important functions, and social factors are an important part of why people are religious.

  26. 26
    Shatterface

    If it were just about social cohesion though, more of us would be drawn to religion because it offers a way into society for those otherwise marginalised, and a set of clear rules – like a chess club or fandom.

    We’re not generally asocial (like schizoids) – we just don’t have a knack for socialising.

  27. 27
    Shatterface

    This rather refutes the idea that religious people believe in a sophisticated, ineffable god:

    http://m.scan.oxfordjournals.org/content/4/2/199.full

    It’s the same cognitive processes involved in prayer as in socialising – demonstrating that the ‘idea’ of god is entirely anthropomorphic.

  28. 28
    medivh

    Shatterface: the social responsiveness scale questionnaire disagrees with your contention that autistics are not generally asocial. Social motivation, or desire to interact in social settings is one of the five categories. While it’s true that many autistics score as “less severe” in that section than others, it’s not a high enough percentage that you’d call it a general principle.

    I mean, as anecdata, I find myself wanting less and less social interaction as I find more and more NTs are not only willing to be hurtful to me, but willing to be unnecessarily hurtful.

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