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Sunday, August 19, 2007

if you were blind, you would have no sin, part 2: a strategic retreat

I have split this post due to its length. Click here for the beginning.

Later, in the comments, Carter said this:

I've always thought atheism was mostly psychological rather than epistemological. This potential correlation only strengthens that opinion, which is why I think it is worth exploring.

Carter has it backwards. First, he is almost certainly wrong about atheism being "psychological rather than epistemological," as even a simple conversation with an atheist should reveal. But if he were right, it would weaken the correlation, not strengthen it. I have trouble with verbal communication because my brain gathers and processes information differently. The difference between the autistic brain and the neurotypical one is epistemological, not psychological. Autism is not a neurosis that can be treated with drugs or therapy.

One thing that was clear from Carter's post is that he had no understanding of autism. Not a clue. Apparently he was more interested in running with the implications of Vox Day's quote, than in doing the necessary research to write an informed post. That's unfortunate, as his bio indicates that he is a staff member of a national Christian ministry. When a prominent Christian is dishonest, it reflects poorly on all Christians.

So I emailed Joe Carter, letting him know my concerns about both the post's tone toward autistic people, and its misinformation about autism, and asking him to prayerfully consider writing a followup post to offer a public apology to people with autism.

Carter wrote a followup post, but it wasn't an apology. He called it a "clarification," although it looked more like a strategic retreat. He offered a technical redefinition of the word "correlation," using so many x's, y's, and z's that he forgot which letter represented what.

To simplify the matter, let's assign the key terms variables: x (atheism), y (autistic tendencies), z (Asperger's syndrome). Obviously, there is a strong correlation between y and z. People with AS, by definition, tend to have autistic tendencies. We could say, for the sake of argument, that for y and z, r = 1. My post implied, however, that there might be a correlation between x (atheism) and z (AS). Again, that was not my intention. The question I wanted to address was whether there was a correlation between x and y. Also, while the variables y and z are correlated, they are not interchangeable.

Got that? So atheism is related to autism but not to AS. I'm not entirely sure, but I think this may have been a clumsy attempt to suggest that atheism should be seen as a new form of autism. I could be wrong about that.

The crux of Carter's new argument, though, is:

Just as some autistic people could be "mind-blind" (as BruceA describes it), I believe it is possible for some atheists to be "God-blind."

Now to my mind, the relationship described there is a "parallel." A "correlation" is when the two phenomena are observed together, in the same individual -- as Carter suggested in his first post.

However, Carter's redefinition of "correlation" appears to be merely a face-saving maneuver, as he backpedals furiously from everything else in his original claim:

My opinion is that if this hypothesis is true (which I consider possible, though not necessarily probable) then people who are wired to be mind-blind (some autistics) and others who are wired to be "God-blind" (some atheists) may share certain tendencies that are commonly associated with or labeled as being on the "autistic spectrum." This does not mean--and I want to strongly emphasize this point--that atheists are autistic or that people with autism are more inclined to be atheists. The only thing the two groups (atheists and autistics) may possibly have in common is certain behavioral characteristics.

What are these behavioral characteristics? Carter never says, beyond suggesting that they are autistic in nature.

But here's the great irony of the matter. The reason Carter brings up the subject at all is to pose these questions:

If this is true and there is a correlation between autism and atheism, what would be the implications? Would it change the apologetic approach that Christians take in dealing with such unbelievers? Should it affect how we respond, knowing that the anti-social behavior is connected with their atheism?

And yet, even a cursory look at the comments on Carter's blog indicate that many of the atheists were turned off, not only by the allegations Carter made, but by the tone of the post, and by the leaps of logic Carter took in trying to tie atheism to autism.

And although Carter expects atheists to be offended by his post, he can't imagine why they should be:

No doubt many atheists will be offended by the suggestion that a psychological dysfunction may be correlated with their belief system. Why I don’t know, since if their belief is true, it is likely that they have no free will (being the product of purely naturalistic forces) and so can't really help it.

If Carter really thinks atheists will respond positively to that, he suffers from a greater mind-blindness than I do. If, on the other hand, he is sincere about reaching out to nonbelievers, then he does need to change his apologetic approach. One good place to start would be to stop looking for ways to blame and belittle atheists for thinking differently.

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if you were blind, you would have no sin, part 1: on autism, atheism, and mind-blindness

At his Evangelical Outpost blog, Joe Carter this week asked the question, "Are atheists autistic?" (hat tip: Henry Neufeld)

In the ensuing discussion, more than one commenter noted how demeaning the post was toward people with autism. Rather than giving an intelligent description of the characteristics associated with autism, Carter offered stereotypes and distortions.

Carter began his post by quoting one Vox Day, who said this about the condition known as Asperger Syndrome (AS):

Those with the disorder tend to be intelligent, socially awkward and difficult to converse with. They are also likely to be male.

The key phrase here, for Vox Day, is "difficult to converse with." He goes on to note:

Based on Wired Magazine's observation that atheists tend to be quarrelsome, socially challenged men, to say nothing of the unpleasant personalities of leading public atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Michel Onfray, one could reasonably hypothesize that there is likely to be a strong correlation between Asperger's and atheism.

The comparison struck a nerve in me, because, although I haven't sought a formal diagnosis, I almost certainly have Asperger Syndrome. And while the description of AS is correct to an extent, the comparison is very misleading.

Key to the alleged correlation is the phrase "difficult to converse with." Vox Day reinterprets this to mean "quarrelsome." Now it should be clear to most people that if you are saying that there is a correlation between AS and autism, and you are alleging that atheists are quarrelsome, you are also saying that autistic people are quarrelsome.

But let's consider that phrase, "difficult to converse with." The word difficult could mean quarrelsome, but in the context of Asperger Syndrome, can only refer to the difficulty the person with AS has in carrying on a two-way conversation.

Personally, I am unable to start an informal conversation. At work I can talk about work-related issues, at home I can talk about family issues. But when it comes to talking about my hobbies and interests, I am at a loss for words unless someone asks me a direct question.

Some people with AS are at opposite extreme. They can talk about their hobbies and interests for hours -- literally -- even when the listener has no interest in the subject.

A second difficulty I have in informal conversation is that I think in pictures, and have trouble translating them into words quick enough to uphold my end of a conversation. If you met me in real life, and started a conversation with me, it would probably go something like this:

You: (says something intelligent)
Me: Yeah.
You: (another brilliant remark)
Me: Uh huh.
You: (something very witty)
Me: (smiles and nods)
You: Well, talk to you later.

The only thing I've found that can partially overcome this is to anticipate what the conversation might be about, and prepare my replies ahead of time. When I am able to do this with people over an extended time, I reach a point where I begin to know them well enough to start anticipating conversations on the fly, and can communicate almost in real time, although I still stutter some.

Am I difficult to talk with? Certainly. Does this mean I am quarrelsome? Absolutely not. And therein lies the stake in the heart of Day's comparison. His alleged correlation between atheism and autism is grounded in a play on the word difficult.

Of course, as many people noted, both in the comments to Carter's post and elsewhere, the assertion that atheists are "quarrelsome, socially challenged men," has its own problems, but that is another issue for another time and place.

Despite the inadequecies of Day's alleged correlation, Carter plunges ahead:

There is a theory that individuals with autism or Asperger’s syndrome are unable to theorize about other minds. Some researchers claim that the majority of individuals with autism are "mind-blind", that they (especially as children) are unable to "attribute mental states, such as dreaming, hoping, thinking, believing and wanting in others or in oneself."

Again, this is true as far as it goes. Children with autism develop a theory of mind at a later age than neurotypical children. But virtually all people with AS have a theory of mind before reaching adulthood.

Additionally, many people with AS do have a level of "mind-blindness" -- which has little or nothing to do with a theory of mind. To draw the obvious analogy, a blind person could have an idea of, say, what an elephant might look like (even if is an erroneous idea) but would still not be able to physically see one. The relationship between physical blindness and the ability to imagine objects is the same relationship between mind-blindness and theory of mind.

Mind-blindness refers to the inability to discern what another person is thinking. Most people with autism have trouble reading others' body language and facial expressions. This makes it harder to guess what other people are thinking.

But -- and this is critical to understanding the phenomenon -- everybody experiences mind-blindness to an extent. In some cases this is good. Most of us could never imagine what goes on in the mind of a sociopath, and we wouldn't want to. More generally, to the extent that any person is enough different from us that we don't understand what makes them tick, we experience mind-blindness.

Joe Carter fails to recognize the universal pervasiveness of mind-blindness, and instead attributes it solely to people with autism:

If the belief in other minds is analogous to belief in God, then individuals who have a propensity to "mind-blindness" would likely be "God-blind" as well. With effort, high functioning autistics may be able to overcome their inability to attribute mental states to other physical beings. But while they may be able to learn to accept the rationality of other minds, they may find it more difficult to develop a belief in a Being who is both non-physical.

Carter coins the term "God-blind," and suggests that autistic people may have a propensity to it. It is important to note that Carter specifically states that the people likely to be "God-blind" are "high functioning autistics".

Now I don't know Carter's theology, but to me this sounds an awful lot like the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, in which some people are created as "objects of wrath" beyond Christ's ability to forgive. I could be wrong in drawing this inference, but I would be surprised if I'm the only one who made that connection.

(continued in part 2)

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