There is a substantial body of research on the origins of religion which suggests that supernatural thinking arises, at least in part, from what is often called a “hyper-active agency detection device.” Evolutionary psychologists, such as Scott Atran (In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion) and Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained), assert that this mental “module” evolved during the Plio-Pleistocene for very good reasons.
There would have been strong selection pressure for such a module or device, given that hominids were being hunted by all manner of predators. Those hominids who more quickly and efficiently detected predators would have been much more likely to survive and reproduce. Because there would not have been many costs associated with over-detection or hair-trigger detection (i.e., perceiving agents that were not actually there), it would have been fairly easy for this aspect of mind to generate false-positives. Being spooked by the sound in the bushes and later discovering it was nothing — a false alarm — is far better than not being spooked and eaten.
Atran and Boyer assert that when these false positives are combined with “theory of mind” (being able to think about what others are thinking, which appears to a be a unique human attribute), a common result is belief in spirits and gods. So far so good: this seems like a necessary but not sufficient explanation for supernatural beliefs.
With these things in mind, the tragedy of autism might offer substantial insight into these ideas. In 2001, a group of neuroscientists in England found that autism impairs both agency detection and theory of mind:
A series of Theory of Mind (TOM) tests were administered to all the participants in the autism group; two first order and two second order mental state tasks. First order tasks require the representation of another’s mental state. Second order tasks require the ability to represent another’s thoughts regarding a third person’s mental state. [T]he ability to mentalise, as tested by this set of tasks, was impaired for the the majority of the autism group.
These researchers also administered tests showing that autism impairs the ability to attribute agency to animate objects (such as cats and horses) and understand that certain kinds of objects (such as motorcycles) are capable of movement.
If the neural processes which support agency detection and theory of mind are critical to the formation of supernatural beliefs (i.e., that there are invisible spirits or gods at work in the world), it would be reasonable to hypothesize that autistics have great difficulty understanding “religion.”
Although I have not yet found any studies which test this hypothesis, websites that provide support for parents with autistic children discuss the problems they face when it comes to religion. If one reads between the lines, it appears that autistic children fail to understand “religion” and parents are frustrated by the fact that their children do not comprehend the idea of God. Here is a particularly telling excerpt from one of those sites:
When my son David was approaching his bar mitzvah, my husband began to question whether it was appropriate for him. Gary said that David didn’t even know what God is.
The implications here are fairly profound. At some point in hominid evolution, brains combined hyper-active agency detection with second and third order theory of mind. Was this the beginning of supernatural thinking? Is autism in some way the inverse of religion?