University College London professor emeritus of genetics Steve Jones explains why men, scientists, professors and the British are less likely to believe in God than women, children and Americans.Here in Aberystwyth, the centre of town has a convenient car park. Until a few years ago it was the Seilo chapel, a fine 19th-century structure destroyed by people to whom a connection with the past meant nothing. The building has gone but its tenants had fled long before. But why? Perhaps the new science of faith might help. It hints that a tendency to believe is implanted in the mind long before a child hears its first sermon.
Many children attribute magical properties to physical objects. In one unkind experiment, infants were persuaded that a scientist had invented an apparatus that made an exact duplicate of any article placed inside it. Their favourite stuffed animal was put within, the lights flashed, and with some sleight of hand the child was given the toy back and told that it was a replica. Almost without exception, they rejected it. Somehow, the supposed copy had lost a mysterious quality present within the original. For the tearful subjects, reality involved more than the real.
In another study, nine-year-olds were asked to play a game. They had to choose which of two boxes held a reward. They were told that they were in the presence of an invisible agent, “Princess Alice”, who would make a sign if they touched the wrong one. When they did, the experimenter furtively made a light flicker. Almost all the children changed their choice: they happily accepted the reality of a higher power.
The latest research hints at a strong overlap between belief and adult temperament. Personality can be tested by giving people close-ups of eyes and telling them to identify whether the person is terrified, amused, regretful or flirtatious. They are also asked to respond to statements such as “I find it hard to keep a conversation going” or to spot prime numbers, or patterns in a set of letters.
Men, on average, score worse on the ability to sense emotion (but better on prime numbers, a talent that demands no insight into anyone else’s feelings) than do women; and university professors do worse again, while scientists come at the bottom of the list.
People with autism score even lower. Those severely affected live almost detached from the world around them. They lack empathy, concentrate on themselves and may be obsessed with a particular talent (such as being able to tell what day of the week any date will be), combined with loss of other mental abilities. Children with a milder version of the condition, Asperger’s syndrome, are often clumsy, shy and tongue-tied.
Others do much better, for they have “high-functioning autism”. Such individuals are successful, but have little insight into the emotions of others and often show a deep interest in things mechanical and numerical. The personality type is much more frequent among males than females and, at least in its most severe forms, has a strong genetic component.
On the emotion-sensing tests, those with autism proper do worst, then Asperger’s patients, followed by the high-functioning group, and then — in order — by scientists, professors and men. Women come top.
People with autism are mainly interested in the banal reality of what surrounds them and find it hard to consider the abstract world. They are, as a result, highly resistant to the idea of an invisible deity for whom no tangible evidence exists and whose thoughts cannot be penetrated. Teenagers with the condition are far less likely to express a belief in God than their unaffected classmates. The high-functioning group are also much more willing to class themselves as atheists than are their fellows — and, in decreasing order of scepticism, people with autism, Asperger’s patients, scientists, professors, men and women (in some studies, men are only half as likely to be believers as are their partners).
Perhaps a logical, systematic and self-centred personality is disposed to doubt, while a more responsive mind is more willing to summon up the divine. Believers are in emotional contact with their deity. They feel that He responds to their prayers, knows their thoughts and guides His subjects in their proper paths. They empathise with their angel and accept what they imagine to be his instructions. Those with autism, scientists and men are happier with their own thoughts.
About two thirds of Britons do not regard themselves as religious at all. In the US, the same proportion is sure that God exists — and in a recent poll a majority said that they would be more willing to vote for a Mormon, a Jew or a homosexual as president than an atheist.
When I was a lad, that figure was probably much the same for Wales, but now we are the biggest heathens on these islands. To find out why, you need not a scientist but a sociologist.
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