Monday 25 October 2010

Religious autism - a developmental disorder common among intellectuals



Religious autism is a developmental disorder - present from birth or before, which emerges clearly about the time that language develops.

Rather as ordinary autism includes a defect in 'theory of mind' - that is to say an inability mentally to model the dispositions, motivations and intentions of other people; so religious autism involves a deficiency in the ability to feel religious impulses, and consequently an inability to model the religiousness of other people.

Sufferers are superficially normal, and can even fulfill complex roles in modern society; however on closer examination they exhibit subtle behavioural problems - although that these are indeed problems may explicitly be denied.

The clearest problem is an aversion to reproduction - low fertility rates are a reliable sign of severe underlying pathology. Other less clear-cut signs of disorder include an affiliation for liberal, libertarian and left-wing politics; and 'negativism' - the tendency (for no good reason) to think and do the opposite of common sense.

Critics have suggested that the overall picture is one of low-grade, chronic psychosis due to a lack of reality-testing, deficiency of insight and indifference to personal survival.

The best current hypotheses concerning a putative aetiology is along the lines of the ancient Greek proverb that "those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad."


General autism is sometimes conceptualized as mind-blindness, the inability to recognize the distinctiveness and reality of other minds. And this inability is caused by the inability to feel certain types of emotion. The autistic world seems to be populated by mind-less robots.

Similarly, religious autism may be conceptualized as a blindness to religious dispositions, motivations and intentions caused by the inability oneself to feel these emotions - consequently the world of the religious autistic seems to be populated by materialist animals, responding purely to basic biological motivations such as libido, hunger and status-seeking.

The sufferer from religious autism therefore simply cannot comprehend religion. Due to a presumed defect in brain structure or functioning, this aspect of universal humanity is missing from their mental map of reality.

Religious autism results in a serious distortion of understanding of social reality for sufferers - since the massive role played by religion in human affairs is invisible; and the effects of religion in individuals and society must for them be explained by other causal mechanisms (biological, psychological, economic, political, pathological etc).



However, just as some general autism sufferers exhibit compensatory gifts - such as amazing feats of memory, or artistic ability, or the performance of  'impossible' mathematical calculations - so the sufferers from religious autism often show high abilities in other areas of life.

Examples from history include many great philosophers and scientists - such as the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. Famous modern sufferers include the biologist and writer Richard Dawkins, in whom extreme abilities in comprehending and explaining science exist alongside a total inability to feel  religious emotion. Philosopher Daniel Dennett is capable of brilliance in polemical prose and knock-about dialectics - but has suffered a life-long inability to take religion seriously at a gut level.

Indeed, some have claimed that the whole intellectual elite in North America and Western Europe may be suffering from a high prevalence of endemic religious autism, exacerbated (in recent years) by inbreeding.

The paradoxical effect of such a high prevalence of the disorder is that - in intellectual circles - the defect is often taken as normal, and propagated as rational.


Experts on religious autism suggest that the current situation resembles that of an aristocracy afflicted with colour-blindness who (based on their own abnormal perceptions) deny any real difference between green and blue; and teach this as fact in schools, government propaganda and the media.

Indeed, being surrounded by colour blind people operating on that basis, they eventually come to insist on colour blindness as an essential pre-requisite for membership of the ruling class - those not afflicted with this blind spot are regarded as either dumb or crazy.

By building a society which functioned on the basis that colour-blindness is true, and that blue and green are indeed the same colour; a colour-blind elite are eventually able to claim (without contradiction from social reality) that colour-blindness is normal, and that those who claim to see a colour difference between blue and green are deluded.

And this claim seems at least superficially correct, since making blue-green discrimination has no immediate benefits in a 'real world' that has been carefully constructed to exclude such distinctions.


Unfortunately, the sufferer from religious autism can never be fully normalized; it is a lifelong affliction - probably due to something missing from the brain.

However, there is hope because a sufferer can come to recognize their affliction, and can learn to live with the disorder.

Experts say that the first, and essential, step for the religious autistic is to stop being proud of their defect and instead to acknowledge that they are are sick and deluded; only after such a candid admission can the necessary psychological and social adjustments be made. 

Just as a person with autism can never model the minds of others - but can learn about their deficiency, and compensate by learning psychological mechanisms or 'workarounds' - in other words over-riding subjectivity with reason; so the religious autistic can over-ride their own delusional subjectivity by the application of reason.

But the news is not all goo. Some of the more hard-line religious say that this practice of using rational workarounds to 'simulate' religiousness is not acceptable - is indeed hypocritical and deceptive.

And this view is shared by some of the most deeply deluded religious autistics; who say that subjectivity is the primary reality, and it is therefore dishonest for someone who cannot feel spontaneous and powerful religiousness to attempt to 'pass' as a normal, religious person.


However, some of the most highly qualified religious experts say just the opposite; that making a sincere effort to be religious despite suffering a religious blind spot is sufficient - is indeed the whole point.

They argue that normal people should be tolerant and forgiving of religious autism, and need to recognize that it is very difficult for intellectuals in particular to over-ride their subjective convictions purely on logical and rational grounds.

After all, the experts point-out, many of the ruling elite have been trained since childhood to regard their whims and impulses as the primary reality. The existence of a real world beyond their own gut-feelings of what is important to them is an alien concept.  

But there does seem to be unanimity on one matter: that a stop-must-be-put to the all-too-common practice of religious autistics denying their illness, claiming that their pathological state is superior to normal, and working to change society to fit-around their disability!


It is one thing to suffer a defect, it is quite another matter deliberately to inflict this defect on others. 

Religious sages are quite clear on this. On the one hand religious autistics are deserving of sympathy and help - but on the other hand society must not lose sight of the fact that although religious autistics 'cannot help it', they are nonetheless wrong; and the influence of their wrongness needs to be opposed.

Any society which based-itself on the comforting autistic delusion that religion did not matter because it felt unreal, and which structured society such that religious distinctions were rendered ineffectual, would be a society doomed to self-destruction.

Kindness to religious autistics, and the understandable wish to make them feel more comfortable, must not be allowed to over-ride the absolute necessity for basing personal and social conduct upon truth.



In the meantime, awareness of the problem of religious autism is increasing.

Indeed, a few sufferers are beginning to 'come-out' in hope that the condition will begin to attract more attention and lead to more effective action.

But most religious autistics remain too self-conscious, or too worried by the social sanctions from an intellectual elite who stigmatize those who admit their deficiency. 

"After all" says one sufferer, who prefers not to be named but goes by the pseudonym of 'bgc'; "I have nothing to be ashamed of simply because I was born lacking an essential part of my brain. Naturally, I strongly regret having propagated my defect in early life, that was wrong; but as from now, all I can do is sincerely to do my best to be religious. Luckily, that seems to be enough."



xlbrl said...

The true autistic cannot hate a concept, he can only find it incomprehensible. That our atheist hates religion is the first proof he has religious feelings. The second proof is how ingeniously he has transferred them.

Anonymous said...

What would you make of someone (purely hypothetical, of course) who has always been subject to intense religious emotions and "spiritual" or mystical experiences, but who doubts that such experiences are reliable sources of information about anything supernatural -- someone, in other words, who has tasted salt but who doubts the theory that that taste indicates the presence of sodium chloride?

Of course, spiritual experiences being ineffable and all, you can never really be sure whether what you've experienced is at all the same as what truly religious people experience. Perhaps I -- I mean, this hypothetical person I am discussing -- am more like a teenager who mistakenly believes that he has experienced True Love and doesn't see what all the fuss is about.

Bruce Charlton said...

I am saying that the religious autistic (of which I was/ am one) only hates religion as a secondary consequence of its interference in his life; and to the degree that it interferes (including fears about the possibility of future interference).

The non-religious are hedonically-motivated. Therefore the main hostility to religion is related to perceived interference with this-worldly happiness, especially lifestyle freedom, especially restriction of sexual freedom.

Quietist religions such as Zen Buddhism, or mysticism generally, don't evoke much hostility and may indeed be regarded with sympathy by atheists.

Professional atheists are working in fields where religion threatens to erode their professional status.

Bruce Charlton said...

@wmjas - This hypothetical person would *not* be an instance of religious autism, as I mean it here.

The true religious autistic, in the most extreme form, would not have such experiences, and would doubt whether other people had such experiences (except pathologically - although they might feign such experiences to manipulate others).

The RA simply feels the idea of God/s to be unneccessary, superfluous, pointless - or at most a philosophical hypothesis.

But, although a religious autistic like Russell or Dawkins might in theory recognize God as an hypothesis - in practice (since the idea makes no sense to them) they cannot be bothered to engage with the philosophical arguments - so sure are they (in their gut) that these arguments must be wrong.

See this famous debate of Russell and Copleston (a Jesuit)

- the philosophical argument gets nowhere because Russell simply can't understand it, or (probably) his understanding is blocked by his autism.

Russell cannot, that is, understand something which has been understood by millions of people throughout history, and was the core of Roman Catholic philosophy for hundreds of years.

Yet Russell was one of the most intelligent men ever to have lived.

Clearly, then, this lack of understanding is pathological - he had something wrong with his brain, something missing.

a Finn said...

There was a little bit of English humour, so responsibility for the article is transferred to the reader!

Religious autistics exist, but religious (sometimes fanatic) atheists are at least more visible and noisy. It's pseudoreligiousness manifests itself in action; forms; "rituals"; the need to exorcise religious feelings from the self and as an extension from others, because these are so bothering; etc. We could first ask how many voids, emptinesses and lacks of something generate equal amount of passions, movements and missionary work? There aren't any comparable pseudoreligious movements proclaiming to the world that they are NOT playing ice-hockey, NOT eating garlic meatballs and NOT participating any art courses. This tremendous negative energy is roughly in proportion to the strong inner religious feelings, including fears and inner calls of God that need to be exorcised, distracted, explained away, extinguished by social support, validated in contentious debates, etc. The exaggerated claim that Christianity would be a threat doesn't hold water. Official state churches compete with other liberal organizations with their liberalism for the title of the most liberal organization. The genuine Christian groups are fairly small, almost invisible in their missionary work (if there is any) and very near invisible in general public life.

Atheist fanatic Dawkins believed in God before his conversion to atheism. When Bertrand Russell was asked in interview what would he say if after death he notices he is standing in the Final Judgment of God. Russell, clearly unsettled by the thought, answered: "You didn't give us enough evidence!" Russell seemed to be incapable of distinguishing religion from scientific analysis of objects.

Charlton: "... but as from now, all I can do is sincerely to do my best to be religious. Luckily, that seems to be enough."

- God doesn't ask for more.

ab said...

Thanks for the link to the debate between Russell and Copleston - interesting historical context.