Atheists Who Misunderstand Religion

Like sex, food, language and other common activities, those do have participated in these activities often deceptively feel they naturally have well founded opinions about them. Religion is no different. Yet understanding religion is tough. Folk intuitions are largely wrong. Heck, even scholarly ones are just BSing private intuitions. I know, I dabble enough in religion to know how dumb I am.

But it is important to understand religion. Religion can be a deceptive vehicle for all sorts of atrocities and suppressive manipulation. But religion can also serve all sorts of good. It is a mixed bag. But in order to effectively combat those negative issues, it is important to understand just what ‘religion’ is.

A significant subset of atheists (especially many bloggers) mistakenly feel religion is just about ideas or just silly superstitions. Here are some of my sloppy speculations as to why they may falsely overgeneralize about religion:

1. Lack of Experience

They themselves have never had extra-ordinary emotional-cognitive experiences. It was for such a reason that I did my series of posts on “My Supernatural Experiences” to help those atheists see that other atheists have weird experiences they may never have imagined as anything but “irrational”.

2. Thought-Feeling Misunderstanding

Perhaps they don’t really understand the nature of mind-thought. Maybe they don’t understand that thoughts and emotions are inextricable. Thus my post here on the Tibetan Buddhist notion of thoughts.  Cris Campbell just wrote something similar today, he has a fantastic blog.

3. Lack of Empathy

Perhaps they just have a defect in their theory-of-mind module and not only can’t imagine others having odd experiences (as in #1), but can barely really imagine others having feelings other than their own. Tom Rees just did an interesting, albeit cheaply journalist post Atheists and Empathy.

4. A Parochial Theory of Religion

 Many atheists only think about religion in terms of their limited religious exposure. An even greater number of atheists are limited to a “Western” notion of religion. Chris Campbell writes about how the notion of Religion was invented for Japanese cultures here.

5. A Parochial View of Psychology

And the vast majority of us are limited by our modern world notion of psychology and categories that matter.  I can’t remember where I read this, but I will keep looking.  I wanted to get this post up today.  See Bruce Carlton’s article: What Is the Meaning of Life? Animism, Generalised Anthropomorphism and Social Intelligence (2002) on Cris Campbell’s site for an example of this sort of questioning.

I, myself, have learned about various ways I continue to do many of the above. I am grateful to other bloggers & writers who help me to examine my assumptions.

Question to readers:  Any corrections, additions, or suggestions?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

51 responses to “Atheists Who Misunderstand Religion

  1. also I think one of reasons is because religion varies so greatly between cultures, economies, societies, and regions.

  2. Well, M. Rodriguez, that is what feeds #4 and #5 for sure.

  3. “A significant subset of atheists (especially many bloggers) mistakenly feel religion is just about ideas or just silly superstitions. ”

    That hasn’t really been my experience. Naturally, they focus on the ideas and claims about reality because those are what they consider wrong or, at least, unfounded.

    Who, specifically, are you talking about as being part of this subset?

  4. Excellent post with a great many interesting pointers, so thank you.

    Another element for your list: the psychology of atheism seems to be based on a protracted adolescent rebellion against the parental culture (and I say this as someone who used to be a pretty standard atheist, but am now too old to pretend to be an adolescent rebel any more). This item is a little different from your other reasons, which seem to presume a sincere desire to understand that is blocked by incomprehension. But in fact the atheist may not really want to understand what is going on in the mind of a religous person.

  5. @mtraven – perhaps, but this lack of desire to understand an opponent’s position seems to run across all debates in our society, whether religion vs. atheism, religion vs. religion, politics, social problems, cultural differences and so on.

    It always fascinates me how a person can move out of what (s)he perceives to be an erroneous belief system, only to adopt another belief system with the same dogmatic attitude that characterized their former views. You would think the wisdom gained from discarding black/white thinking would carry over into a wider view, but it often does not. A natural atheist (versus a formerly religious person) with any of the above listed points makes more sense to me than, say, a de-converted Christian with some of the character traits listed above. Freedom from one’s chains, when used to ridicule those still in chains, is wasted freedom.

  6. “Freedom from one’s chains, when used to ridicule those still in chains, is wasted freedom.”

    Ridicule is one of the many valid tools for criticizing bad ideas (Voltaire, to name a favorite of mine, used it quite effective—as does any good comedian with something of substance to say).

  7. @dbellis – I’m not talking about the use of satire as a vehicle to make a point. Rather, I’m talking about pouring derision and scorn on that we don’t agree with, as a cover for failing to examine (and continually re-examine) our own beliefs.

  8. @ dbillis :
    Really, you haven’t run into folks saying stuff like “Religion poisons everything.” I won’t be listing blogs where I have heard this stuff. But there are lots of great atheists sites where they do focus on unsupportable claims about reality.

    I absolutely agree that ridicule (of stupid propositions) is a powerful tool that can be very useful.

    @ mtraven :
    The phrase “the psychology of atheism” seems bizarre to me. And the generic claim by theists that those that don’t believe in God are rebellious is nauseating. So I am not sure where you are coming from. The next thing I expect you to bring up is that Atheists just have bad relationships with their father. Argghh

    @ Don Hartness :
    I am not pushing for “understanding an opponent’s position” in this post — though that may be useful. Instead, I am discussing understanding how religion serves them, whether their theologies and cosmologies are nonsense or not.

    I agree that people often keep much of their intellectual flavor when they change belief systems.

    Depending on what we are talking about, scorned and derision is sometime appropriate. But we probably agree on many things which should not be. But I will not categorically label any method or emotion as necessarily bad.

  9. “Really, you haven’t run into folks saying stuff like “Religion poisons everything.” ”

    Sure. I’m familiar with the subtitle of Hitchens’ book GOD IS NOT GREAT: HOW RELIGION POISONS EVERYTHING. Generally speaking, I think the basic sentiment that religion is a force in human life with a pervasive and overall malign effect is at least reasonably defensible. And I doubt Hitchens himself meant that religion has no good aspects or never does any good.

  10. I enjoyed much of Hitchen’s work. I’ve heard other these sort of sayings without the least bit of caveats. It is these generalizations about “religion” — that I am addressing here.

  11. I’m still curious as to what authors or bloggers you think misunderstand religion in the ways you list above. I find it not particularly useful to talk about atheists who misunderstand religion without addressing any particular person or their writings.

  12. CRL

    I have a nitpicky correction to your number three, but I think it is a significant nit which very much requires picking.

    I think the word that you are looking for is sympathy, not empathy. Sympathy is the understanding and recognition of another’s point of view; empathy is being able to truly put oneself into their mind and actually feel what they feel. In this case, empathy might actually mean having to come to believe in god for a moment in order to understand another’s belief. As someone with, as you put it, a bit of a defect in her theory-of-mind module, I sometimes doubt the existence of true empathy. Luckily, sympathy without empathy is enough to understand and accept why a person believes what they believe. For me, the knowledge that life experiences and personality play a greater role than logical ability in determining religious belief allows me to respect people regardless of their beliefs. (Though certain actions based on these beliefs may cost them my respect.)

  13. CRL

    Now, for a more general comment:

    In basing your ideas about atheists who misunderstand religion, you are very much biasing your sample by looking primarily at bloggers, commentators, and other outspoken atheists. (Yes, yes, I know statistical rigor was not exactly your goal.) Because of this, you are looking primarily at two groups of people: those with a deep intellectual (not the perfect word, but I am struggling to find one which does not imply the same level of emotional distance) interest in religion, and those who have a deep emotional interest in religion. Those in the first group probably understand religion very well, and are thus not your subjects here. Many of those in the second group either had a bit of a bad breakup with religion, had deeply religious roots and are rebelling against them, were in some way mistreated by religion (e.g. homophobia), or any combination of those three. These are, in general, people who are angry at religion and do not want to understand it. I’m having trouble thinking of a reason why someone who does not, to some degree, fall into one of these groups would blog about religion. I mean, I’m a “shallow” member of the first group, and certainly am not interested in religion enough to blog about it, though I was when I was a “deeper” member.

    All this to say that you left out a very significant reason why an atheist may misunderstand religious people: they simply do not think about religion enough to understand why people believe it. I think these people matter very much, as I suspect they make up a majority of atheists, and, when confronted about religion, some may come off as being as rabidly anti-religious as more active online atheists, but only because they have not thought enough about religion to have a good understanding of it. Many of my friends are like this.

  14. Maybe “the psychology of atheism” was too terse; what I meant was something like “what I perceive to be an element of the motivation behind some atheists”. Better?

    I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with rebellion, btw. It is only employing a tactic of deliberate ignorance that bugs me.

  15. @ dbellis :
    Sorry, then you must remain curious. I won’t seek those out for you. If you have not found these, then this post is meaningless to you.
    But if you care to discuss any of my points that could lead to a misunderstanding of religion, I would be glad to discuss.

    @ CRL :
    You may be right but I am not sure of the physiology to back your claim that there are emotions that are clearly empathetic vs. sympathetic. Maybe sympathy is a weaker form of empathy.

    But, either way, empathy may be a better word for some of those. Did you look at Tom Rees’ article where he uses the word empathy? Apparently, the things tested were actually fairly established surrogates for empathy. But I may be wrong.

    I work with a surgeon who has very low empathy skills, but he can intellectually muster up some outward appearances of sympathy at times — but it takes only a little digging to see it is constructed to serve a purpose. I told him about this and in the last 3 years we have worked on ways for him to appear to be more understanding — people at work are amazed at his changes and he is happier with himself. But he is no more empathetic than before, it seems. Funny thing, mirror neurons.

    Instead of “having to come to believe in god for a moment in order to understand another’s belief”, you could simply share the feelings they have of awe, safety, belonging or other such things — for in the end, I think that is what is happening, and they label it “God”.

    Concerning bias toward blogging atheist — I don’t have that bias — that is why I mention it and why I wrote “Atheists Who” in the title and later said, “A significant subset of atheists”. I qualified carefully. But I knew it would be inevitable that some people would emotionally respond the post and hear “ALL atheists” or “Most atheists” or worse yet, “Me”.

    You said one group I was looking at were “those with a deep intellectual interest in religion … [who] probably understand religion very well.”
    Actually that addresses a few of my points. Smart people who have experienced religions of diverse types and studied with theories on the issue are rare. Most smart people interested in religion are familiar with One or two religions in depth and maybe superficially a few more. The variety of hugely different religious cultures out there are tough to get to know in a deep way. Not to mention the anthropology, psychology, biology and such needed to critically examine theories of religion. All to say, I am sure all our views of religion are by definition pathetically parochial. And most folks have no clue how parochial theirs is. So the are my subjects here.

    I don’t think the second group is limited to the rebellious and abused former believers. I was neither, for instance. Like many atheists, I just saw through it and left for positive reasons — a more inclusive worldview.

    But your point is important. Lots of folks don’t care and thus do not understand religious folks. They usually don’t care because they have not shared anywhere close to the experiences of religious folks — of having a religious indoctrination or a need me by one offered to them.

    Thanx for the additional category.

  16. @ mtraven :
    Qualifying that is important. I don’t see “deliberate ignorance” though, you’d have to be specific.

  17. “Sorry, then you must remain curious. I won’t seek those out for you.”

    You cannot name, off the top of your head, any of the bloggers you’re referring to when you say “a significant subset of atheists (especially many bloggers) mistakenly feel religion is just about ideas or just silly superstitions”?

    Almost no atheist bloggers are accurately described by your statement so I’m not particularly surprised you can’t seem to think of any offhand. I wouldn’t be able to either. All atheist bloggers I’m aware of (and, I suspect, the same is actually true of those you know of) realize, for example, that religion serves many emotional and social functions for adherents.

  18. CRL

    Hmm. While I have always have had a bit of trouble understanding the distinction between sympathy and empathy, I think it is still important.

    While low empathy can, as this study indicates, cause a lack of understanding of other’s religious experiences and decrease one’s ability to relate to a personal god, it can be replaced with learned sympathy, as your example of that surgeon indicates. So having a few defective mirror neurons are really no excuse to be dismissive of someone else’s religion.

    I would put you in the first category of active nonbelievers—those with an intellectual interest in religion. Thus I was not trying to say that you were abused by religion or are rebelling against it. I guess that came off wrong. Your blog is one of few I read, so I was unaware of those who are knowledgable about one religion but dismissive of others.

  19. @ dbellis:
    Well then, I guess I will just leave you concluding I can’t name any because they don’t exist. Fine by me.

    @ CRL:
    You are one of my highly valued commentors. Glad you visit often.

  20. I think there are two additional atheist rationals at work, which I have encountered often in my vocation as a hospital chaplain. The first is the “wounded atheist.” These are people who had (generally speaking) been raised in a strict, dogmatic household, and at some point in their maturity, at best felt oppressed, silenced, or constrained in their ability to express themselves and explore the world, and at worst were abused (physically and/or emotionally) by church leaders or ultra-pious family members. Their atheism is not founded on a rational rejection of religion but an emotional reaction to it. The second type of atheist is what I call the “populist atheist” (Hitchens fit this mold) and for them, critiquing religion is merely a means to make money or gain notoriety. They have discovered that by vociferously opposing a prominent cultural institution, they can make money selling books and giving lectures, or on a smaller scale, create an identity among their peers as a rogue or an antihero. In either case, their arguments are full of logical inconsistencies, but bolstered by hyperbole and volume. All heat, no light. I have genuine sympathy for the first type of atheist. It is a dark fact of religion that it can sometimes leave emotional and physical scars. The second type are a bunch of sophists, looking to stroke their egos or pad their wallets, and I find them to be pesky and tiresome — self-congratulatory nerds straight out of a SciFi convention.

  21. @ dbellis:
    Try It is a site that allows you to search all manner of atheist blogs. Or the atheist channel at

  22. @ Bill,
    I think dbellis is saying he can’t find any blogs on the atheistblogroll or patheos that overgeneralize about religion. I am sure he is aware of those portals.

    I agree with the “Wounded atheist” category. My wife was one — well, first wounded, then she quickly saw that there is not intervening, loving god in the world — (that doesn’t take brilliant intellectual work to see).

    I disagree with the category of the “populist atheist” as a meaningful category for my purposes — this is not to say people can or do make money by their positions no matter what religion, politic or controversy is involved. I though Hitchen served an excellent voice for Atheism — he woke up a lot of people. But I won’t get into defending or discussing Hitchen arguments here or your blanket claims.

    When you say, “All heat, no light.”, it makes me want to ignore your paragraphs, to tell you the truth. Such rhetoric is actually very ironic.

  23. Well, you may find my language ironic and categorization of the populist atheist a “blanket claim,” but these are the words my atheist classmates used to describe Hitchens and the “Brights” at Harvard Divinity School. (Not trying to sound elitist, but in a rigorous academic environment, they found their polemics “amateurish.”)

  24. Well certainly money, theatrics, power and such can make any thing undesirable. But again, I ain’t here to discuss Hitchens or any specific atheists. Instead, I want to discuss how these 5 traits could cause an Atheist to misunderstand religion.

    But these could just as easily be used to explore why Theists misunderstand religions/worldview other than their own. So what would be surprisingly refreshing would be to hear you use these principles to discuss any blindnesses you have had or still have toward people of other faiths or those without religion.

  25. And I am a little unclear why demagoguery is not a meaningful category for the false generalization of religion? It absolutely is a motivating factor for making ill-informed claims. The very titles of many anti-theists books are proof of their populist appeals.

  26. Oh, I agree, your categories can apply to any religious believers. I work in a multi-faith environment, so I got a crash course in stripping away my assumptions and prejudices. I think #5 was probably my biggest flaw when it came to understanding other belief systems (as far the non-religious are concerned, I am the only person of faith in my immediate family, and was one myself for much of my adult life, so I think I have fairly good grasp on that.)

  27. rautakyy

    I have had religions studies at university, and I was in religion class through my schooldays (they teach Lutheran Christianity in schools here in Finland), even though I was born into an atheist family. My dad said I should learn to understand the religious folks. Dispite my efforts to do so, I am not really sure if I do. Even though I have allways found the religions both dead and living ones very curious and worth a study. Sometimes it seems to me that I understand the reasons for faith of some other people, than they themselves do. But I might also have a misunderstanding. Misunderstanding has that difficult property, that when you have one, it is hard to know, that you do. I for one would prefer not to have misunderstandings about anything, even if it meant that some of my fundamental understanding of the world was proven wrong. And I have had such a revelation, though that one had nothing to do with religion.

    This case of misunderstandings is a bit like the infallibility of the pope. You see as the representative of Jesus on earth the pope is said to be infallible, but sometimes he makes bad decisions, based on false information given to him by mere men. However, we are all infallible in that sense. We are infallible about things, that we have good and thorough information about, but we also make bad judgement about things, simply because we have poor information about the truth of the matter at hand.

    I have had several experiences, that I would think a more “spiritual” person would have found to be connections to the supernatural. To my mind they were either my subconscious at work, or simply strong emotional responses, or simply senses of awe. Even though meditation only causes me to fall asleep, I can feel the presence of something “holy” in old cathedrals, deep forests, high mountainsides and while sailing on the open sea, or even when reading something marvellous. It is an exhilarating sensation, but even though I can empathisize how such a strong experience could be explained by the presense of the supernatural by others, I am unable make that connection myself.

    So even though I have to admit, there is a high propability that I misunderstand religion. Especially so, because my view is and has allways been that of an outsider, I would claim that the persentage of atheists who misunderstand religion is very much the same as that of the general population. Since most people regardless, if they are connected to this, or that religion through tradition and cultural heritage, do not spend much time on pondering their religiosity. And obviously there has to be a lot of very sincerely religious people who have misunderstood religion, since all religions can not be true, at least about the parts where they contradict each other.

    Is it the job of every atheist to learn to understand every religion on the face of the earth, before they can make any estimations about them? Most atheists I know, simply question the ideas presented by the Theists about their religions. Is that not, precisely what atheism is supposed to be a disbelief in claims, that have not been verified?

    Is it the job of the theists to teach everyone in the world about the fundamental truths of their particular religion? Whose fault is it if someone misunderstands some particular religion? Or might it be the job of these supernatural entities in the core of religions to convince people of their own truth value to all people?

  28. “Try It is a site that allows you to search all manner of atheist blogs. Or the atheist channel at

    I follow a pretty vast number of atheist blogs. My point is that Sabio’s statement that “a significant subset of atheists (especially many bloggers) mistakenly feel religion is just about ideas or just silly superstitions” is obviously nonsensical. Who isn’t aware that religion performs emotional and social functions for it’s adherents and, therefore, isn’t just about idea or superstitious, mistaken views about the way the world works? That’s simply common knowledge to anyone with even the most peripheral acquiantance with religion.

  29. “I think dbellis is saying he can’t find any blogs on the atheistblogroll or patheos that overgeneralize about religion.”

    No, Sabio, I’ve no doubt that some atheist bloggers overgeneralize. We all occasionally overgeneralize. I’m saying only what I said: that the claim I quoted above about many atheist bloggers thinking that religion is just about ideas or just silly superstitions is false and fairly obviously so.

  30. To those who mentioned Hitchens, I should point out (yet again) that at the time that he wrote a book with the subtitle “religion poisons everything” (a phrase repeated several times in the book), he sent his daughter to a Quaker school. Just as with the fact that the person who wrote the phrase “all men are created equal” owned slaves, this can be interpreted and spun in multiple ways.

    My interpretation is that Hitchens (like Jefferson) was a complex person with complex ideas which are not easily reduced to slogans. He used slogans because debators on the other side often used slogans as a substitute for argument, and fighting said slogans with facts is hard. It takes significantly more effort to debunk a well-constructed slogan than to utter it, and the takedown is invariably less quotable and memorable.

    I saw the tribute to Hitchens shown at the conference in Melbourne, and I remember being a bit sad that history was already remembering him for his quips and one-liners. But, it seems, atheists are also prone to engage in quote mining, selective evidence and over-simplification to paint a picture of a reality other than it is. Such is life.

  31. @ dbellis :
    I have listed some of the reasons atheist may overgeneralize about religion and slip into thinking it is about stupid beliefs or deluded people or that religion poisons everything. Deal with my points and tell me if you understand them or disagree with them.

  32. @ Pseudonym,
    I agree – Hitchen was complex. I thought he had devastating arguments and great rhetoric to combat the evils perpetrated under the disgusting self-righteous sanctity of religion. When I used that expression, I wasn’t even thinking of him, btw.

    I am amazed at so far many of the atheists here are not even addressing the points of this post. They are here to defend any perceived attack on atheism. As you said, pseudonym. “But, it seems, atheists are also prone to engage in … over-simplification to paint a picture of a reality other than it is. Such is life.”

  33. @ rautakyy,
    Wow, rambling a bit — I kind of gave up on reading. Try to summarize your main point(s) in 4 short bullets, will ya?

  34. “Deal with my points and tell me if you understand them or disagree with them.”

    The statement I quoted IS the one I disagree with. Atheists may overgeneralize about religion for a variety of reasons including some or all of the 5 you listed (and, no doubt, others as well) but it’s root is not because they think religion is just about ideas. If there were other points in the post I thought you were wrong about I’d have already addressed them.

  35. @dbellis, Discuss anyone of those 5 points if you want.

  36. If you wanted to discuss whether, for example, Sam Harris misunderstands religion for reason 1 or 2 or 3 or some particular combination of several, we might have an interesting discussion but you don’t seem willing to cite examples. Something I find rather puzzling since doing so would illuminate your points far more effectively than speaking of them solely in the abstract.

  37. Very good, dbellis, you finally understand. I am going to solely talk in the abstract. Very good.

  38. Yes, but that’s also why what you’re saying, to be frank, is not particularly useful or illuminating.
    [ @ dbellis: I cleaned up your edits for you.]

  39. @ Bill,
    Thanks for sharing. I think that understanding the way people tie together the various aspects of their lives and how those mix with their words (usually mere rationalizations) is fascinating. The more I examine these, the more similarities I see and the more I ignore their philosophical or religious coverings.

  40. @ Bill,
    Demagoguery is of course communicates misinformation for persuasive purposes only. So, yes, it is misinformation. But it does not mean a person misunderstands an issue, they are simply in persuasion mode.

    But we get it. You don’t like the demagoguery that Hitchen’s used. Is there any times you listened to Hitchen’s and said to yourself, “Yep, that is a good criticism.” Or did you categorically turn him off?

  41. rautakyy

    @Sabio Lantz. Yes, sorry about that. I’ll try to remember to come out shorter in future. I just find your exellent posts so thought provoking.

  42. Oh Sabio… with posts like these you’ll have no group to relate to. Very well done. You articulate some of the things I have been struggling to. Thanks. Interesting responses and conversation in the comments…

  43. @ Luke,
    Yeah, I get pissed off when people start to like me — it makes me feel so misunderstood!

    @ rautakyy,
    NP. I am waiting for your short 5-bullet summary though.

  44. Cathy Sander

    I can only speak for myself, as a fellow nonbeliever. Since I have had a history of going to a fine Catholic high school, coupled with my aunty’s religious fervour, my mum’s ancestor ‘worship’ and my unusual experiences…I now have a somewhat deeper understanding of just how powerful such religious impulses are. My obligation, it seems, is to be able to separate my interpretations from other people’s. My experiences sits uncomfortably with our culture’s relative intolerance of such experiences–especially when they’re presented from outside orthodox church authorities.

    As for the word ‘religion’…I don’t think my mum has such a religion, if we go for the Western idea of it. It’s part of her life, just as our quirks are, I suppose.

  45. @ Cathy Sander,
    good observations, thanx

  46. Cathy Sander

    As a example of separating my interpretations from others, I had a long chat with one of my friends, who was a Christian. She thought of my unusual experiences as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. I replied that I respected her opinion on the matter, but then we can politely disagree over what it means.

    As for point #2 on your list, Antonio Damasio’s neuroscientific research shows quite well how tied up our rationality and our emotions are. In a sense, emotions guide rationality in a complex, uncertain world. In one instance, he had a patient who had great difficulty choosing a time for an appointment. He deliberated for quite some minutes until Damasio suggested a time for him. Rationality is expensive to use as a tool. It requires practice. Even so, for the most part, we just go on the fly, so to speak.

  47. I really don’t give a rat’s butt what other people believe or don’t believe. People’s beliefs only get on my nerves when they try to enforce their beliefs or lack of beliefs on me. Whether this is a devout Christian telling me that I’m going to hell for not believing in their flavor of faith, or an acerbic Atheist telling me that I’m a stupid throwback for having any spiritual beliefs at all, I don’t much like either of them.

  48. “People’s beliefs only get on my nerves when they try to enforce their beliefs or lack of beliefs on me. Whether this is a devout Christian telling me that I’m going to hell for not believing in their flavor of faith, or an acerbic Atheist telling me that I’m a stupid throwback for having any spiritual beliefs at all, I don’t much like either of them.”

    Neither of those are people “enforcing” their beliefs on you. They’re simply sharing their opinion—however obnoxious or simply unwanted you may find it.

  49. CRL

    Oh, looks like I did have my terms mixed up on sympathy/empathy. While I was trying to distinguish between sympathy, defined as understanding and recognition of another’s point of view, and empathy, defined as being able to truly put oneself into their mind and actually feel what they feel, it seems like the correct distinction would be between cognitive empathy and affective empathy, well explained here: I think I may have confused myself with my poorly used terms as well, since I had always viewed empathy as some sort of neurotypical mental state sharing magic I lacked and sympathy as the reason I viewed bad things happening to other people (at least when immediately visible) as just as bad as bad things happening to me.

  50. >@ Spectra: sorry for the delayed response: I agree with much of your sentiment.

    @ dbellis:
    Yes, I agree with your grammar correction, but I think Spectra’s intent was to say “forcefully push”, “angrily persuade me of”, “condemningly convince me of”. In which case I agree with him.

    @ CRL:

    Thank you for correcting yourself. I thought I was using the right word. And now, the cognitive vs affective empathy makes clearer your point.

    This was a fantastic short TED lecture — thanx for the link. But I was left with a question, given the distinction and his final biological explorations. He showed the some of the presently suspecte neurocircuits involved in empathy: (amygdala defects in deliquents, and left-ventro-medial-prefrontal cortex in Mr. Gage). He also showed that high prenatal testosterone was associate with lower empathy.

    But he wasn’t careful, in my opinion, in telling us if the circuitry for cognitive (autistics) vs affective (sociopath) empathy defects were understood. Though it seems he was implying that the amygdala was the affective source of empathy, while the LVMP cortex was the cognitive source of empathy.

    Was that your take?

    Also, I hated the obvious sexist implication that testosterone is the source of all evil, even if it is. I refuse to believe anything that makes me think less of myself. 🙂

    Interestingly, just last night, at a large party, I talked with the Mom of a Aspberger kid (13 yo, on my son’s swim team) — the coach’s son. The kid is odd, but brilliant (already fluent in C++ and Java — which he and I discussed because my son is now interested). But my son can’t really befriend the kid because of his limitations of socializing. My son is very polite, inclusive and respectful of the kid but can’t reach out to him as a friend. With you, it sounds like you have tons of friends, when/how did you develop skills to manage neurotypical relationships to build good friendships? Or is it simply a matter of degree?

    Alright — that was two questions. Thanx CRL

  51. CRL

    I don’t know enough psychology or neurology to have a strong opinion. Brains are quite complex, so I wager neither circuit is well understood.

    As for testosterone: the judging-emotions-from-eyes test is a test of cognitive empathy, not affective empathy. (I think it’s a very good test, in that it is targeted at innate cognitive empathy, not learned cognitive empathy. Since I do not live in a country where burqas are common dress, I never had to learn how to guess emotions off of eyes alone, and thus guessed the example he used wrong.) So your gender is the root of autism, not evil, which I think is pretty well established, by this study and others finding that more paternal imprinting correlates with autism (here). Female autistics are pretty rare, and are generally a little confused about their gender identity.

    As to your son and his potential friend: does he have any interests outside of computer science? Coding makes a rather limited conversation topic, though I guess they can talk about their latest projects. I’ve always found it hard to connect with someone over a single shared interest, as once that topic is exhausted (or, at least, they lose interest in it), nothing remains. I would assume he plays video games. Does your son? It’s often easier to connect with someone over an activity than purely through conversation, and gaming can be very social. I’ve been to a few Minecraft LAN parties with my boyfriend and his middle school friends, enjoyed them quite a bit, and gotten to know people personally despite having spent much of my time with them playing with virtual, floating legos. As an added bonus, there’s no pressure to make eye contact.

    As to how I developed friendships with neurotypicals: my primary social group likes to call itself “The League of Awkward Queer Kids and Their Friends Too.” Perhaps that explains a lot—most are neurotypical, but none are typical. We’re all pretty passionate about academic topics (mostly science, but there are a few history nerds among our ranks) which makes conversation pretty easy for me. We also know no judgement. When I tell other people our parties consist of a lot of karaoke, Wii dance contests, and Cards Against Humanity, they have trouble believing we are willing to embarrass ourselves so completely while sober. All of this means that my social screwups go unpunished. It’s hard to find a group like that in high school (as I have discovered since most of them graduated), and near impossible to find one of people your son’s age. So while your son’s advances are nice, sometimes, one person is not enough. I still find one-on-one conversation a bit difficult to keep up with anyone but a few very close and compatible friends.

    Also, the correct spelling is Asperger’s. Let’s not sound too much like ass-burgers.

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