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.
NORMALIZING THE ABNORMAL
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.
HOPE FOR SUFFERERS
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.
LIMITS OF TOLERANCE
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!
SYMPATHY BUT NOT COLLUSION
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."