A somewhat baffling result: atheists are like aspies, but not?

I’m really confused by this psychology study — the problem is that I’m getting it second-hand, and the source is a poster at a meeting. It’s interesting, but I want to know more.

Bethany T. Heywood, a graduate student at Queens University Belfast, asked 27 people with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild type of autism that involves impaired social cognition, about significant events in their lives. Working with experimental psychologist Jesse M. Bering (author of the “Bering in Mind” blog and a frequent contributor to Scientific American MIND), she asked them to speculate about why these important events happened–for instance, why they had gone through an illness or why they met a significant other. As compared with 34 neurotypical people, those with Asperger’s syndrome were significantly less likely to invoke a teleological response–for example, saying the event was meant to unfold in a particular way or explaining that God had a hand in it. They were more likely to invoke a natural cause (such as blaming an illness on a virus they thought they were exposed to) or to give a descriptive response, explaining the event again in a different way.

I’m liking the aspies here — they sound so much more rational than the neurotypical people, who invent magical explanations. But then an additional experiment with a twist comes along:

In a second experiment, Heywood and Bering compared 27 people with Asperger’s with 34 neurotypical people who are atheists. The atheists, as expected, often invoked anti-teleological responses such as “there is no reason why; things just happen.” The people with Asperger’s were significantly less likely to offer such anti-teleological explanations than the atheists, indicating they were not engaged in teleological thinking at all. (The atheists, in contrast, revealed themselves to be reasoning teleologically, but then they rejected those thoughts.)

I’m liking the atheists, too, and I’m not at all unhappy with being compared to people with Asperger’s. What I’m mystified by, though, is how they classified non-teleological vs. anti-teleological statements, and how they came to the conclusion that atheists are reasoning teleologically, since that doesn’t really follow from the description above. When I’m dealing with those neurotypical religiots, I am aware that they will ascribe divine planning to events…so it’s not necessarily that I am thinking teleologically, but that I’m aware that I need to short-circuit a logical leap they routinely make.

Oh, if you’re put off by the comparison of atheism with Asperger’s, don’t be: aspies aren’t that bad, are often difficult to detect, and besides, the article compares religious thinking to schizophrenia.

Anyway, one of the authors of the work has a blog, maybe there will be some clarification there sometime.