People with mild forms of autism are more likely to be atheists, according to a new study, and more likely to shun organised religion in general.
The University of Boston study looked at posts on autism forums and focused on people with high-functioning autism such as Asperger’s, and speculates that autistic spectrum behaviours such as ‘a preference for logical beliefs’ and a distrust of metaphor could be responsible.
Catherine Caldwell-Harris and Patrick MacNamara studied discussions by 192 different posters on an autism website. They also looked at a survey of 61 people with high-functioning autism, and graphed against results from the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) test.
The results appeared to show that those with high AQ scores were ‘more likely’ to be atheists: in the group of high-functioning autistic individuals, 26 per cent were atheists, compared to 16 per cent of ‘neurotypical’ individuals. [..Daily Mail UK]
It stands to reason that those fascinated by detail and rigid logic might be less likely to see the big picture – a puzzling trait of autistic brains. If atheism has a genetic influence then the inclination to religious sentiment should also be.
Within all groups some members are able to change opinion depending on experience, and others unwilling to do so, because of their need for certainty. For the latter, a threat to their beliefs is a threat to their self esteem. For example, when discussing cancer with medically trained specialists whose whole life hinges on the belief that tumours must be treated without any regard to the tissue milieu which spawned them, I noticed the point at which they completely switch off comes when asking them how can tumours possibly “return”, if extracted with clear margins and the area bathed in toxic poisons, unless created by bodily conditions which the specialists have completely failed to take into account?
But regarding militant atheism, the vitriol in many online discussions seem to be a sign of a frightening inner conflict which kept under control only by constant reassurance from outside. I was banned from the Richard Dawkins website, for example, not because I had been abusive or derogatory, but simply because my beliefs did not tally with theirs.
Attempts to dislodge belief systems are doomed not just because materialist logic fails to take into account spirituality’s effect on the brain and genetics, but because clinging to a belief is an ingrained trait of many minds, religious or skeptic.
Like all scriptures, the Books of Dawkins contain numerous contradictions: in The God Delusion itself he moves within 15 pages from condemning a pope who had baptised children taken away from Jewish parents to commending Nick Humphrey’s suggestion that the children of creationists be taken away because teaching your children religion is comparable to child abuse.
So believers can always find a scripture where he agrees with them, which naturally cancels out the one where he doesn’t.
As Rupert Sheldrake points out in The Science Delusion, submissions of nearly three thousand people showed overwhelming evidence of precognition, premonition or telepathy in one form or another. But hard-core materialist scientists dismiss the entire body of evidence with a simple device: the waving of a hand. Specific objections to the carefully arranged laboratory experiments, carried out in several countries with large groups of volunteers, which strongly supported all these phenomena, are never given. They are dismissed only because they threaten to rock a shaky self-esteem. This is the mindset of the fundamentalist.
In one case, a professor debating Sheldrake refused to even watch the slide presentation, simply looking away and tapping his fingers for its entire duration. This behaviour was generally noted as evidence in favour of Sheldrake’s case.
In a debate organised for Enemies of Reason, Richard Dawkins, rather than reading the lengthy research data he had been sent, took the precaution of simply throwing it away unopened – declaring Sheldrake the enemy of reason! This dogmatic conviction bodes ill for any long-term movement in today’s fast changing mental landscape.
A difficulty with atheism is its uneasy alliance with materialism, forcing it to explain away its own mind – along with the reasoning and conclusions emanating from it – as an unintended, randomly formed and therefore baseless phenomenon, a freakish product from a dead and indifferent Universe in which mind has no underlying ordered cause. This weird stance and bleak outlook understandably fails to attract support from those assured of their own mind’s stability or the importance of maintaining one’s spiritual welfare.
Even though the Universe becomes more wondrous by the day, the modern atheist is unable to invite belief in his superior ideas, whether arising from experiment or supposition, because he has already declared all intangible beliefs irrelevant. It is gradually dawning even on the more militant that their success requires people to overlook their habit of dismissing all fervently held beliefs except their own. When I described Rupert Sheldrake as a scientist – based on his lifelong career as a scientist – a writer from Atheist Experience dismissed his years of laboratory results as “mainly anecdotal” and sternly advised me that “Sheldrake is not a scientist. Just claiming he is one does not make it so.” But apparently claiming he isn’t, does. So adrift was this particular writer that he was unable to understand the point of my blog, perhaps because the point is simply self expression.
Aware of this discrepancy, organisers try to distract attention towards social causes, such as “A ten point vision for secular America” and the “Come Out” campaign. Sean Faircloth insists that compassion be part of their brand, making it more palateable to ordinary people who loathe bickering, but the insults still fly. The tendency of the intellect to argue over details until they can claim to have won does not spare RDF itself. R Cornwell, executive director of their American branch, declared the late Christopher Hitchens to be on her side, in that he was not totally against abortion. But immediately a pointless argument began by an RDF member who declared Hitchens completely against abortion, and demanding evidence to the contrary.
Cornwell’s strident tone might reassure radical members, but will alienate peace-makers valuing reason and repelled by angry crowd chants. The most likely result was a split, which seems to have happened already with the cheerfully upbeat A+ movement, something anyone would be happy to be part of, nurturing vibrant, intelligent minds. The least important aspect would seem to be belief in God and the most important, an open heart and the pleasure of applying the mind to find solutions.
Honey, I Shrunk the World: a Goodbye to Reason
Something the strong atheist must do is simplify the world so it can be assesed by the intellect, and the worryingly unfathomable minds of others, making a static, flat target rather than a confusing and multifaceted one. But in doing so, his own limited comprehension is displayed instead. Rolling his eyes in mock exasperation and sarcastically declaring God a homophobic, misogynistic, capricious, impatient, intolerant, violent and jealous bully, James Randi sounds more like an irate 700 BC Assyrian than a Renaissance man who has seen the stunning mechanics of the reversible ATP synthase motor, the marvellous human brain, the almost incomprehensible logical structures within the DNA with a backdrop of particle physics, Martian rovers and colossal star clouds.
On the same TYK panel was Michael Shermer, who fit snugly into a Skeptic Tank of his own making when measuring the life of Jesus against Lloyd Weber’s lyrics, declines to describe God but instead parodies the faithful, saying they all believe he interferes – or to simplify further, “stirs the pot” – in everyday situations. This tiny worldview reassures Shermer that no believers could compete with his logical analysis since they all – to a man – are lunatics.
It is hard to understand how someone whose interpretive mechanism is so skewed that it interprets the benign “Our Father” as the aggressive “My Father and Nobody Else’s” can successfully plumb the minds of seven billion individuals. But his assumption isn’t true: not everyone thinks this way. Any system created well enough can run on its own. Some of mine have run for 25 years, built with probably only 10% of the software language. If you create it adequately, it should even improve itself. Someone can look all they want in the highly ordered databases but the designer will not be there, nor will he resemble a hard drive or a code segment. It would also be silly to insist that before the hard drive started spinning, there must have been another hard drive to create it, for what other kinds of devices could possibly exist?
Simplification in some cases sinks beyond crude. Reason Being tweeted a picture of an unfortunate child with a cleft palate with a caption parodying a religious comment: “God doesn’t make mistakes, people do..” In a law bound universe, cleft palates must have a discoverable cause as much as scurvy and polio. We do not superstitiously attribute illness to a sloppy deity unless we are quite happy to let them remain someone else’s problem.
The reliance on quotes from well-known atheists to support one’s own feelings contradicts the basis of free thought and is more suited to scientific papers littered with references. It shows the methodology of “proof” is imported from the laboratory into the arena of feelings. But feelings are not open to debate: they either exist or they do not, and cannot be argued away. There is nothing wrong with living from one’s feelings and intuitions, but PhillyChief from Atheist Experience dismisses intuition as giving in to emotional bias and ignoring facts. Indeed, which is why all progress in the sciences can be traced back to an original moment of inspiration – from which we can logically conclude that accepted facts must be either in need of revision, or never explain the whole story.
In straining to climb a totem pole of argument points, it is strange to see a free thinker enmeshing others in a scrum to approve of what he feels inside, trapping them in his internal debate like a tar baby.
If, then, you wanted to understand the role of religion in Iraq or Afghanistan, simply assessing the claims in the Koran does not get you very far – indeed, in some ways, it’s almost a category error.
Islam, like all religions, functions on many different levels. It offers, for instance, meaning to people subjected to death and suffering often inflicted by the advanced countries of the West.
It provides charity where no social services exist; it gives voice to nationalist resistance in nations where the secular Left was widely discredited by its Stalinism. And it does many other things besides.
(Jeff Sparrow, editor of Overland Magazine, quoted from Counterpunch.org)
Even an atheist group attempting to uplift the mind points to mind as a sovereign element, and the awkward fact remains that those responsible for the appalling conditions of the modern world – inequality, slavery, lack of clean water, poverty, invasions, dictatorships, warfare, destruction of the planet, and pure greed – are staunch materialists. To generate traction against them will necessarily require an injection of spiritual values.
Oxytocin and Autism:
Eric Hollander of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York is studying what happens when you give oxytocin to autistic adults. He has found that it improves their ability to recognise emotions in people’s tone of voice, something autistic people struggle with. A single intravenous infusion produced improvements that lasted two weeks (Biological Psychiatry, vol 61, p 498).
Hollander has also found that oxytocin increases his volunteers’ ability to recognise faces and interpret emotional expressions. Prior studies have already shown that when autistic people see faces, they activate brain areas normally used to recognise inanimate objects. Hollander says when given oxytocin intravenously, autistic people are more able to recruit the normal face-recognition area, the fusiform gyrus. Oxytocin also reduced their repetitive behaviours.
Hollander is not the first researcher to connect autism to oxytocin. A 1998 study detected lower levels of oxytocin in the blood plasma of severely socially-averse autistic children (Biological Psychiatry, vol 43, p 270), and more recently variants in the oxytocin receptor gene have been linked to the risk of developing autism (Biological Psychiatry, vol 58, p 74). [New Scientist]
If human consciousness relies only on random arrangements of molecules, then the conclusions of each individual, or in a wider context, perhaps the conclusions of each species, must be arbitrary. But if minds are expected to concur on the basis of reason it means some kind of law or structure must underlie them, contradicting the claim that mind is a random creation.
If consciousness were a material substance it would need to comply with material laws, which must be consistent. In any case, to cast doubt on the mind’s structural solidity is to throw its sciences into disrepute. The world is reflected in the mirror of our mind; the effort must be to clean and sharpen the mirror. How does one do this? The answer, of course, is found in practices which generate neurotransmitters, which indicates religion might be the world’s first attempt at self-development.
The severely autistic brain resists making new connections, strengthening existing ones instead. This explains the “geek syndrome” of focusing on a small island of knowledge to the detriment of all other aspects of life. Unable to generalise situations, after being shown how to carefully cross the road, a child might assume this rule applies only to that particular street and that particular corner and time of day. Intriguingly they are unable to cope with sudden noises: a fire alarm remains a shock to the system long after the normal mind has shrugged it off as an ongoing nuisance. For the autistic mind, the shock never “wears off”.
An autistic savant might be able to recall every detail of a landscape and create a superbly detailed drawing of what they have only seen once, but they can find it impossible to correctly gauge the emotions of another human being, because what is required is to immediately synthesise thousands of tiny clues into an abstract “big picture” which reveals a person’s emotional state: something which is not present in any one detail, but only as something more than the sum of the parts.
Instead, using their great ability for detail, they must consciously learn how to assemble the cues in order to grasp what an ordinary mind does instantaeously. This explains how they might become adrift in a fast moving sea of other people’s unpredictable emotions.
A high functioning autist can become a public figure, as in the case of Sir John Beddington. His ability with detail is useful for research, but his grasp of the big picture is non-existent: when asked to describe the scale of the Fukushima nuclear disaster – at a time when thousands of people were fleeing for their lives, and three reactors were close to exploding – he simply shrugged that there was no real problem for us. Despite watching the place unravel by the minute and the panic spreading far and wide like a radioactive plume, Beddington was completely unable to assemble the common view: how are those people going to cope, and what can be done for them?
Such a person gathers facts well, but in a position of responsibility is a lethal danger. The fact that his stunted emotional state went unnoticed for so long was a tribute to the habitual nature of scientific careers to remain isolated from real world problems. His career was doomed when, briefing MPs, he asssured them the worst would be over in 24 hours. The next day a reactor exploded and the Japanese Prime Minister admitted they had no idea what to do. A vast area around the stricken plant is still uninhabitable, and radioactive materials are still pouring into the sea 18 months later.
The autistic personality is very useful in science but throws up some very puzzling approaches to common sense. For example, without any intention to parody himself, the respected James Watson points out in DNA that he is finally satisfied of our relative nearness to chimpanzees, and distance from horses:
The more closely related two species are in evolutionary terms, the more similar are the sequences of their corresponding proteins.
For example, comparing one of the protein chains of hemoglobin molecules Pauling and Zuckerkandl noted that over its total length [of that single chain] of 141 amino acids, there is only one difference bwteen the human version and the chimpanzee, but the difference between humans and horses is 18 amino acids.
The molecular sequence data reflect the fact that horses have been evolutionarily separated from humans longer than chimpanzees.
Or how about the extensive study reported by Mark A. Hlatky, MD, from Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto and his colleagues:
Physicians with more experience implanting cardioverter defibrillators have fewer complications and deaths associated with their procedures, a large registry study found.
A micro-managing mind cannot fathom the interest in the why and wherefore of life, which is why Richard Dawkins – though an eloquent and sincere speaker – shows some deep-rooted autistic tendency by claiming “how” is a fascinating concept but “why is just a silly question.” Of course preceding every mechanical how, there must be a causative why. Nor would one write a book, without a why to initiate the process; a study of “how” which excludes “why” is a purely autistic approach.
What he also, understandably, forgets is that “why” is the only real question of importance to a human being. Next to it, “how” can seem an absurd and irrelevant question. Coming home and finding a house in ruins, you do not instinctively ask “how” instead of “why” – unless you have managed to divorce yourself from your own humanity. Oblivious to this, scientists have repeatedly been castigated for wasting time and money trying to find the “how” of trivia, as in a notable study which concluded that “lack of sleep is bad for you”.
University of Illinois at Chicago researchers are part of an international consortium working with Autism Speaks, the world’s largest autism science and advocacy organization, which today reports new autism genetic discoveries.
The results, from the second phase of the collaborative Autism Genome Project, are published in the June 10 2010 issue of the journal Nature.
The new report shows that individuals with autism tend to carry more sub-microscopic insertions and deletions called copy-number variants (CNV) in their genome than nonautistic people do. Some of these CNV appeared to be inherited, while others are considered new because they are found only in affected offspring and not in the parents. Taken together, more of the CNVs disrupt genes previously reported to be implicated in intellectual disability without autism or in autism than expected by chance.
The findings are based on analysis of high-density genotyping data collected from 1,000 individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and 1,300 without ASD. [Neuroscience News]
Attributing complex behaviour to molecular or chemical systems deprives the experience itself of meaning, which dismays a normal mind, but is perfect grist for the scient-autist’s mill. Studies of religious experience show certain elements of the brain to be involved, but this does not negate the actual value of such experiences to the personality, or diminish the meaning these experiences convey: research also shows, for example, that laughter is triggered by the sudden change of activity from one area of the brain to another as the perceived meaning is changed by the punchline. But this understanding is not funny in itself, nor does it lead to humour. It is not even useful in the development of humour, since a much quicker test than an MRI scan is to see whether it makes anyone laugh.
The alarming aspect of autism is its remorseless increase, especially among very accomplished and high functioning parents in the Silicon Valley, as an article called The Geek Syndrome, in Wired magazine, recently pointed out. Richard Dawkins’ assertion that atheism increases in tandem with better education could also mean that autism is linked to the same trends. Either way, an unnatural pressure on the brain has to be involved: a very recent study shows that brain cell DNA alters constantly during a person’s lifetime, implicating, as a possible factor, the pressures to which the brain is subjected in memorising and regurgitating cartloads of meaningless facts.
Autism in Britain was invisible 100 years ago. There are two well-known accounts of children in 19th century France who certainly appear autistic, and a superb description by Mark Twain of a blind youth on a US train who could not talk but who rocked wildly in his seat, imitating the noises of the express:.“Clattering, hissing, whistling, blowing off gauge-cocks, ringing his bell, thundering over bridges with a row and a racket like everything going to pieces, whooping through tunnels, running over cows… for three dreadful hours he kept it up.”.His report sounds very much like autism – but in the whole of British Victorian literature there is nothing to match it.[guardian.co.uk].
Anyone seeking peace on a train journey will have noticed the relentless noise-making of the general passenger these days. Instead of taking the opportunity to reflect or enjoy a peaceful respite from the chaotic interruptions in city life, they create their own incessant stream of chaos: loud ring tones, loud conversations, din from headphones , video games, playstations and other annoyances. They are oblivious to the effect this has on other passengers because the inner world of “why” is vacant, dark, and littered with cobwebs and empty coke tins: the easily-mastered, instant gratification of technology acts like a child’s rattle, to distract from the neglected and decaying state of their own interior.
A notorious trait of the genius brain is its distaste at performing feats of memorisation, thus causing it to perform poorly in school, while excelling when left to its own devices. The extreme lack of genius in modern society was pointed out by Scientific American MIND this year, in an article called “Where Have All The Geniuses Gone?”
The higher IQ which has often been cited as a predictor of atheismclearly is not related to the natural intelligence displayed by genius. Therefore while IQ might be rising, creativity – closely allied to feelings of religiosity – is not, and genius seems to have died out altogether. The trend which does not seem to have been spotted is that higher socio-economic classes seem to display less mirror neuron activity (according to a Berkeley study).
Once a person considers themselves intelligent, and earns more money, they are likely to also lose the natural gifts of empathy and along with it, feelings of religiosity. After all, the one thing you need to maintain when accumulating wealth is selfishness. It would not be possible for one who considers others to be as important as their own self to become rich.
It’s well known that, although high national wealth predicts less religion, the connection is not as tight as you might expect. Back in 2004, Norris and Ingelhart showed that wealth distribution is key. Nations with highly unequal wealth distribution are more religious.
In fact, I have a paper due for publication which shows that income inequality is a powerful predictor of religiosity even after controlling for a number of other factors, like GDP, urbanisation, and religious pluralism.
Since Kanazawa has found a link between IQ and income inequality, this immediately begs the question of cause and effect. Is it that high IQ leads to low income inequality and low religion?
Or is it that democratic, homogeneous nations are more likely to invest in other people. As a result, they are more able to develop intellectually and also are more secure (leading to less religion)?
IQ is not a substitute for genius. When I was in grade 5 a teacher took an interest in me, and gave me a battery of IQ tests. She recommended I be accelerated to grade 8, which my father thought would be a disaster socially, so they settled instead for grade 7. But I was very sensitive to noise and chaos and could never relax enough to concentrate in school, a place which I found oppressive. Instead I would sit there daydreaming, and take the books home to study in peace, settling for generally mediocre marks. There were others who were naturally bright and they grasped every new concept quickly, but I had to work very hard to get any new idea into my brain. Progress was painfully slow.
The exception was in English, which seemed very easy and Physics, where I even scored 99% on a final exam in Grade 13, having made a small calculation error. But there again, as I had been worried about the complexity of the course, I had simply gone to the library and found all the exams for previous five years, and given myself repeated 90 minute trials until I understood the nature of all questions likely to be asked and how long each kind of question would take. I also saw that an exam varied greatly from the previous year but very little from the exam two years prior and almost not at all from the one three years prior.
Therefore the laziness of whoever wrote exams made my task easier; gambling on the same pattern holding true I spent the most time on a three year old exam until I could complete it in about half the time. I would not call this intelligence in physics as it was more a kind of craftiness, but all that remains on record is the exam mark itself. Exams and IQ are therefore very misleading.
Geeks generally do exceptionally well on IQ tests for this same reason – they can work the system very well, but as they create very little outside of the technical arena the question still remains: where have all the geniuses gone?
Replaced, perhaps, by autists?