Atheists lack empathy and understanding

This is actually a study from the middle of last year that I never got round to covering (there was a run of studies from the same team, and this one ended up at the bottom of the pile!). But I’m glad I did.

The study leads were Ara Norenzayan and Will Gervais at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, and they collaborated on this one with Kali Trzesniewski at the University of California, USA.

They were intrigued by an earlier study which found that autistic people were more likely to be atheists. They wanted to know if this was true and, if it was true, they wanted to know why.

So they ran four separate studies. The first matched a small group of autistic individuals with a group of neurotypicals, and found that the autistic individuals were less religious.

The second looked at a group of Canadian students, and found that those who reported more symptoms of autism were also less religious. Study Three broadened this out to a group of 725 American Adults recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, while Study Four looked at a different sample of 425 Adults (they were part of a paid survey panel).

Again and again, they found that symptoms of autism correlated with lack of belief in God.

But their analyses went further. They also asked them about their empathy (using questions like “I often find it difficult to judge if someone is rude or polite” and “I am good at predicting how someone will feel.”).

They found that empathy also correlated with belief. Not only that but, using a statistical technique called “bootstrapping”,  they found that the most plausible explanation for the correlation was that autism was related to a lack of empathy, which in turn was related to lack of belief.

In other words, lack of empathy was the ‘in between’ factor that mediated the relationship between autism and lack of belief. Continue reading


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