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Modes of Religiosity and the Autism-Schizotypy Continuum: A Pre-Print
I'm putting it here since I don't plan on publishing it any time soon.
*Note: This is just a paper I had saved on my computer that I am copy-pasting here. It got desk rejected at Religion, Brain, and Behavior but I never tried to get it published anywhere else. I think it’s an interesting and plausible idea, but I’m biased.
Modes of religiosity theory posits that religious traditions tend to coalesce around one of two different attractor positions or modes. The doctrinal mode, which may have only come about after the advent of literacy, uses high-frequency, low-arousal rituals to unite people around a shared belief in theological orthodoxies. The imagistic mode, which generally characterizes hunter-gatherer groups, uses low-frequency, high-arousal rituals to unite people through their shared experience of high-intensity rituals. The diametric model of autism and psychosis posits that autism and psychosis are cognitive and genetic opposites. The diametric model suggests that there is a continuum of individual differences in non-clinical populations characterized by autistic-like traits on one end and positive schizotypy on the other. In this paper I show that there is substantial overlap between modes of religiosity theory and the diametric model. People high in autistic-like traits appear to be especially suited for doctrinal religions while people high in positive schizotypy are especially suited for imagistic religions. Differences along the autism-schizotypy continuum in the strength of different kinds of memory systems, the propensity for hyperlexia/dyslexia, preference for routine or novelty, impulsivity, and the structure of semantic networks are presented in support of this hypothesis.
Keywords: Modes of religiosity, diametric model, autism, psychosis, autistic-like traits, positive schizotypy
The Priest and the Shaman: Modes of Religiosity and the Autism-Schizotypy Continuum
The diametric model of autism and psychosis posits that autism-spectrum disorders and psychosis-spectrum disorders are cognitive and genetic opposites (Crespi & Badcock, 2008). The diametric model suggests that there is a continuum of individual differences in non-clinical populations that can predispose to autism or psychosis spectrum disorders in the extreme, but which is not necessarily associated with dysfunction (Abu-Akel et al., 2020; Andersen, in press; Crespi et al., 2019; Del Giudice et al., 2010, 2014). Principal components analysis performed on data containing measures of both autism and schizotypy reveals that this continuum is best characterized by “autistic-like traits” on one end and “positive schizotypy” on the other (Del Giudice et al., 2014; Dinsdale et al., 2013). In this paper I will refer to this axis of individual differences as the autism-schizotypy continuum. For convenience, I will sometimes refer to people on either side of the continuum as being an ‘autistic type’ or a ‘schizotype’, but it should be understood that the differences are continuous rather than categorical and there are no clear-cut types.
Whitehouse (2000, 2004, 2008) has put forward a theory of religiosity which posits that religious traditions tend to coalesce around two attractor positions called the doctrinal mode and the imagistic mode. In this paper I will present evidence for substantial overlap between the modes of religiosity (MOR) and the autism-schizotypy continuum. I will argue that the autistic type has a variety of traits which would predispose them towards preferring the doctrinal mode over the imagistic mode, and which would likely make them more successful (from an evolutionary perspective) within groups that primarily engaged in the doctrinal mode. The schizotype, on the other hand, has traits which would predispose them to prefer the imagistic mode and which would make them more successful in groups that engaged in the imagistic mode.
I will begin by summarizing the diametric model of autism and psychosis and MOR theory. I will then present a more detailed analysis of the overlap between these models. I will show that there is substantial overlap between autistic-like traits and the cognitive phenotypes associated with the doctrinal mode as well as between positive schizotypy and the imagistic mode. I will conclude by exploring some potential implications of this hypothesis and ways in which it could be tested.
The Diametric Model of Autism and Psychosis
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) consist of social impairments, communicative deficits, restricted and repetitive behaviors, and sensory abnormalities (Del Giudice, 2018). Psychosis spectrum disorders (e.g., schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and schizoaffective disorder) generally involve a loss of contact with consensus reality (Del Giudice, 2018). The diametric model of autism and psychosis (Crespi & Badcock, 2008) posits that ASD and psychosis represent opposite ends of a single continuum which is genetically mediated by differential expression of paternally and maternally expressed genes, respectively. Crespi and Badcock (2008) amassed a large body of data to support this hypothesis, including evidence for opposite tendencies in gene expression, growth patterns, susceptibility to certain kinds of diseases, and cognition. More recent research has focused on autistic and schizotypal traits as they manifest in non-clinical populations (Abu-Akel et al., 2020; Crespi et al., 2019; Del Giudice et al., 2010, 2014; Dinsdale et al., 2013). According to these models, severe autism and schizophrenia represent extreme and dysfunctional manifestations on either side of the continuum, but the continuum itself is not associated with dysfunction since there are also high-functioning people on either side of the continuum (Crespi, 2016; Del Giudice, 2018; Del Giudice et al., 2014; Mohr & Claridge, 2015).
The construct of schizotypy is often used to measure people’s predisposition to psychosis or to measure low-level psychosis-like traits in non-clinical populations (Holt, 2015; Mohr & Claridge, 2015; Raine, 1991). Schizotypy is generally thought to have three factors: negative schizotypy (consisting primarily of social dysfunction), disorganized schizotypy (odd/eccentric behavior) and positive schizotypy (unusual experiences, ideas of references, and magical thinking). Of these three factors, it is only positive schizotypy which has diametric relationships to autistic traits (Del Giudice et al., 2014; Dinsdale et al., 2013). Negative schizotypy often has diametric associations with positive schizotypy, and this may be due to its being confounded with autistic traits (Del Giudice et al., 2014). Positive schizotypy is not necessarily dysfunctional, as it has been associated with artistic talent (Holt, 2015, 2019), divergent thinking ability (Abu-Akel et al., 2020), and a greater ability to solve insight problems (Cosgrave et al., 2018; Karimi et al., 2007).
Autistic-like traits include being highly detail-oriented, having an affinity/talent for mastering rules-based systems (Baron-Cohen et al., 2009), having a reduced imagination (Crespi et al., 2016), being literal-minded (McKenna et al., 2015), and having a preference for predictability and routine (Russell & Brosnan, 2018). The correlates and characteristics associated with positive schizotypy and autistic-like traits will be further discussed throughout the paper in explicating how these constructs are associated with the two MOR.
Assessing the Evidence
There is some confusion over what counts as evidence for or against the diametric model. In particular, it has been argued that positive (or null) correlations between psychometrically measured autistic-like traits and schizotypy contradict the predictions of the diametric model (Russell-Smith et al., 2011). However, the psychometric evidence is ambivalent in that it does not necessarily provide evidence for or against the diametric model. In multiple large samples, a factor structure has been demonstrated which is consistent with the predictions of the diametric model but which does not necessarily provide direct evidence for it (Del Giudice et al., 2014; Dinsdale et al., 2013). In these studies, principal components analysis is used to extract two unrotated components from data with measures of both autistic-like traits (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001) and schizotypy (Raine, 1991). The first component is a social difficulty factor that is common to both measures. The second component represents a bipolar continuum with non-social autistic-like traits on one end and positive schizotypy on the other (Del Giudice et al., 2014; Dinsdale et al., 2013). This second component therefore represents the autism-schizotypy continuum. The reason why this is ambivalent in terms of representing evidence for the diametric model is because it’s entirely possible to extract a different factor structure by using rotated components. As Del Giudice and colleagues (2014) explain:
… questionnaire data are equally consistent with two mathematically equivalent psychometric structures: (a) a bipolar autism-schizotypy factor coupled with an orthogonal unipolar factor of social difficulty; and (b) two orthogonal unipolar factors of autistic-like traits (plus negative schizotypy) and positive schizotypy (plus disorganization). (p. 7)
Thus, questionnaire data alone cannot be used to assess the veracity of the diametric model. The best evidence for the diametric model consists of the fact that there are diametric associations with autism and psychosis spectrum traits and disorders at many different levels of analysis, including infant growth patterns, patterns of gene expression, mentalizing, systemizing, imagination, hyperlexia/dyslexia, convergent/divergent thinking ability, and attention styles, (Abu-Akel et al., 2015, 2017, 2018, 2020; Andersen, in press; Crespi et al., 2010, 2016; Crespi & Badcock, 2008). The diametric model is the most coherent and parsimonious explanation for this pattern of findings.
Modes of Religiosity
Whitehouse (2000, 2004, 2008) has theorized that there are two fundamental modes of religiosity. The doctrinal mode is characterized by high-frequency low-arousal rituals, logically integrated theological orthodoxies, expansionary potential, dynamic leadership, as well as a reliance on semantic and procedural memory. The imagistic mode is characterized by low-frequency high-arousal rituals, personal interpretation of religious meanings (rather than orthodoxy), non-scalability, intense social cohesion, and a reliance on episodic memory. These MOR are attractor positions, meaning that religions tend to coalesce around one mode or the other, even though all religions will display some features of both modes. Religions coalesce around these modes because the combination of features that characterize them tend to ‘mesh’ well together. For example, low-arousal low-frequency rituals would tend to be forgotten easily while high-arousal high-frequency rituals are costly and unnecessary (Whitehouse, 2004).
The Doctrinal Mode
Rituals in the doctrinal mode tend to be high-frequency and low-arousal (e.g., five daily prayers while facing Mecca in Islam). Routinized rituals are often accompanied by the repetition of theological orthodoxies and so they can serve to facilitate the social remembrance and transmission of the often-times complex theologies of doctrinal religions (Atkinson & Whitehouse, 2011; Whitehouse, 2004). Routinized ritual has a downside, however, which Whitehouse (2004) has called the tedium effect. To put it simply, performing the same rituals week in and week out can result in boredom and restlessness, which can consequentially reduce religious commitment. As a solution to this problem, the tedium inherent to doctrinal religions is punctuated by occasional ‘revivals’, in which some imagistic (i.e., high-arousal) elements can temporarily be used to reinvigorate the religion and alleviate the tedium effect. Other religious revivals can result if the religion begins to move towards more ‘cognitively optimal’ belief systems, away from the orthodoxy and towards more ‘natural’ forms of religious belief (i.e., the imagistic mode; Whitehouse, 2004). In this case, the religious revival will take on a more doctrinal form with the imposition for the community to shed its imagistic or ‘cognitively optimal’ practices and beliefs, returning to the true doctrinal form of the religion (Whitehouse, 2004).
The doctrinal mode unites people under a shared set of theological orthodoxies and routinized rituals. As we will see in the next section, this is quite different from the imagistic mode, in which people are united through the shared experience of traumatic rituals. Charismatic leaders in the doctrinal mode can easily spread orthodoxies and routinized rituals to other communities, which gives doctrinal religions extensive capacity for expansion. Because of this expansionary potential and the necessary role of religious leadership, doctrinal religions can result in large, anonymous, hierarchically organized communities with a stable, centralized priesthood (Whitehouse, 2004).
Memorizing complex theological orthodoxies and routinized rituals relies on semantic and procedural memory, respectively (Whitehouse, 2004, 2008). Semantic memory consists of explicit knowledge about the world, including concepts, facts, and beliefs (Yee et al 2018). Procedural memory is “knowing how” rather than “knowing that” and consists of skills and habits that are based on rules or procedures (Cohen & Squire 1980, Zichlin, 2011).
The Imagistic Mode
Rituals in the imagistic mode tend to be low-frequency and high-arousal (e.g., traumatic initiation rites performed once per lifetime on the cusp of adulthood). High-arousal rituals facilitate strong bonds between those who experience them together (Whitehouse, 2000, 2004). One of the upsides to these kinds of rituals is that the bonds they build are stronger than the low-arousal rituals used in the doctrinal mode. A major downside, however, is that they are not scalable. People are only bonded to the extent that they experienced the ritual in the same place and at the same time, meaning that charismatic leaders can’t simply spread the religion to other groups through verbal transmission (Whitehouse, 2004). Thus, groups utilizing the imagistic mode tend to be small and tightly bonded with relatively egalitarian social structures (Atkinson & Whitehouse, 2011; Whitehouse, 2004). The high-arousal rituals in the imagistic mode lead to what Whitehouse (2004) calls spontaneous exegetical reflection. To put it simply, people who go through high-arousal rituals tend to be highly motivated to uncover the meaning of the ritual. Usually there is no orthodox interpretation of the rituals, so people tend to come up with their own idiosyncratic interpretations through the process of spontaneous exegetical reflection. Because their religious beliefs are the products of their own thought processes (rather than being imposed on them by an orthodoxy), spontaneous exegetical reflection is thought to engender greater personal commitment to the religion (and the group) than the low-arousal doctrinal rituals. Because these high-arousal rituals are not accompanied by any official doctrines or interpretations, their remembrance relies on episodic memory. Episodic memory is autobiographical in the sense that it corresponds to memories of personally experienced events (Gardiner 2001).
Autistic-like Traits and the Doctrinal Mode
Autism and Atheism
Before describing the overlap between autistic-like traits and the doctrinal mode, it’s worth mentioning that autism and autistic-like traits have been associated with atheism, purportedly due to the reduced mentalizing associated with autism (Catherine et al., 2012; Norenzayan et al., 2012). However, multiple (typically larger) studies have found no links between autism and lack of belief in God, bringing this association into doubt (Crespi et al., 2019; Ekblad & Oviedo, 2017; Reddish et al., 2016).
Regardless of the potential correlation between autistic-like traits and atheism, the fact remains that widespread religious disbelief is a relatively new phenomenon. Throughout most of recorded human history, the pertinent question would not be whether somebody believed in God (or the gods), but in how they expressed that belief, or in what kind of religious experience they were drawn to, since almost everybody professed a belief in supernatural entities of some kind. Therefore, even if autism is associated with atheism in the modern world, it’s still worth asking what kinds of religious experience people high in autistic-like traits would have been drawn towards throughout human history.
Memory in the Doctrinal Mode
Whitehouse (2004) suggests that the high-frequency, low arousal rituals which characterize the doctrinal mode rely primarily on procedural memory (for the high-frequency rituals) and semantic memory (for remembering the often-times complex theological orthodoxies). These are mutually reinforcing, such that the high-frequency rituals facilitated by procedural memory serve as an aid in the memorization of complex doctrines. While autism has been associated with deficits in autobiographical episodic memory (Crane & Goddard, 2008; Desaunay et al., 2020; Lind, 2010; Lind & Bowler, 2010), there is either intact or superior semantic and procedural memory associated with autism and autistic-like traits (Boucher & Anns, 2018; Crane & Goddard, 2008; Desaunay et al., 2020; Lind, 2010; Toichi, 2008).
The pattern of memory strengths and deficits associated with autism and autistic-like traits suggests that those on the spectrum would have been more suited for the doctrinal than the imagistic mode. The episodic memory deficits would likely have made spontaneous exegetical reflection more difficult for people high in autistic-like traits while rote memorization abilities would make them excellent at remembering the routine rituals and complex orthodoxies associated with the doctrinal mode.
Although the doctrinal mode is not necessarily associated with written doctrines, in practice it is almost always the case that doctrinal religions benefit from the ability to write down their complex theological orthodoxies (Boyer, 2002; Whitehouse, 2000, 2004). Literacy has been argued to be a necessary precursor to the emergence of doctrinal religions (Boyer, 2002; Whitehouse, 2004). Autism is associated with precocious reading ability, also known as hyperlexia (Newman et al., 2007). Hyperlexia is the label given to children who learn to read early in life (sometimes even before the age of two) without any explicit teaching or guidance. Approximately 80% of children with hyperlexia have a co-occurring autism diagnosis (Ostrolenk et al., 2017).
Boyer (2002) suggests that the advent of literacy afforded the formation of “religious guilds that set great store by literate sources, written transmission, and the kind of systematic argument made easier by writing…” (p. 11). Given the importance of uniformity of belief to this kind of guild, the more revelatory aspects of the imagistic mode would have been actively discouraged (Boyer, 2002). Given the association between autism and hyperlexia, it’s likely that those involved in the initial formation of these kinds of religious guilds (who would necessarily have been among the first in the group to acquire literacy) would have been closer to the autistic side of the autism-schizotypy continuum. This means that the first members of the priesthood (as opposed to shamans, to be discussed further below) were likely among those in a group who had the highest levels of autistic-like traits.
Preference for Routine and Aversion to Arousal
Autism and autistic-like traits are associated with a preference for routine and sameness (Baron-Cohen et al., 2001; Del Giudice, 2018; Russell & Brosnan, 2018). In the extreme, this can manifest as restricted and repetitive behaviors in which the person performs the same movements or routines over and over, perhaps in an attempt to provide some sense of order and predictability to a chaotic world (Russell & Brosnan, 2018; Van de Cruys et al., 2014). It has been previously argued that the preference for routine and repetition associated with autism would have made people with high autistic-like traits more likely to take part in certain monastic and ascetic lifestyles in which rigid adherence to routines is expected (Annus, 2018). More generally, the high-frequency, low-arousal rituals associated with the doctrinal mode may have been particularly appealing to people high in autistic-like traits, as they provide a socially acceptable outlet for manifesting a desire to enact rigid and repetitive routines.
The Search for Meaning
Whitehouse (2004) suggests that, in the doctrinal mode:
… highly repetitive rituals become so habituated that the knowledge of how to carry them out may (at least some of the time) be activated at an implicit level. This would almost certainly serve to reduce the rate and volume of conscious reflection on the meanings of such rituals, at least across the religious membership as a whole. (p. 113)
In other words, the low-arousal rituals of the doctrinal mode (in contrast to the high-arousal rituals found in the imagistic mode) do not tend to suggest some sort of deeper meaning (beyond that provided by the orthodoxy) which needs to be explored and uncovered.
Crespi and colleagues (2019) found that autistic-like traits in a non-clinical population were associated with lower levels of spirituality while positive schizotypy was associated with higher levels of spirituality. This relationship was primarily driven by opposite associations with being on a “search for meaning”. That is, while people high in positive schizotypy see themselves as being on a continual search for meaning in life, people high in autistic-like traits were less likely to feel this way. It seems likely, therefore, that the autistic type would have been more likely to prefer the low-arousal rituals of the doctrinal mode due to the fact that these types of rituals do not require or facilitate this search for meaning, in contrast to the high-arousal imagistic rituals which are thought to necessarily lead to spontaneous exegetical reflection, which is in large part a search for the deeper meaning of the rituals.
Semantic Networks and the Interpretation of Ritual
As suggested above, the high-arousal rituals of the imagistic mode call for interpretation by the individual who experiences them. Whitehouse (2004) states:
The ethnographic record shows that low-frequency, high-arousal rituals tend to generate rich exegetical knowledge based on loose and fluid thematic associations, where concrete properties of ritual choreography and paraphernalia are felt to stand for more abstract processes such as plant growth, spiritual transformation, mammalian gestation, and so on. (pp. 114-115)
The interpretation of imagistic rituals will therefore be easier for a mind that has a tendency towards ‘loose and fluid associations’. Autism and autistic-like traits are, however, associated with having semantic networks (i.e., networks of meanings) which are rigid and primarily consist of tight or obvious connections (Faust & Kenett, 2014; Kenett et al., 2016). These more rigid semantic networks would make it difficult to engage in the spontaneous exegetical reflection that is necessary for imagistic rituals to be effective. The low-arousal doctrinal rituals, on the other hand, do not require individual interpretation since they are associated with doctrinal orthodoxies in which a pre-established meaning is given for the ritual. Having rigid semantic networks would therefore not be a hindrance in the enactment and understanding of doctrinal rituals and orthodoxies.
The God Image
Schaap-Jonker and colleagues (2013) examined the correlation between autistic-like traits and perceptions of God among religious believers with an autism-spectrum disorder (ASD). In their words, “Autistic traits are related to perceptions of God as strict, dogmatic, and punishing” (Schaap-Jonker et al., 2013, p. 156). Moralizing Big Gods who dole out punishments to disobedient subjects are primarily associated with the doctrinal mode (Watson-Jones & Legare, 2016). Thus, highly rigid, punishing Gods may be a more natural conception of the God image for autistic types than the morally loose gods that tend to be more associated with imagistic religions. It should be noted, however, that all participants in this study had an ASD diagnosis and therefore represent a restricted range. Future studies should compare the God image of people with ASD to people without ASD, and to examine the God image as a function of autistic-like traits in non-clinical populations.
The Engineers of Jihad
Finally, it is worth mentioning the thesis of the book The Engineers of Jihad, in which evidence is presented that people in engineering or technical professions (who tend to be high in autistic-like traits; Baron-Cohen, 2012; Baron-Cohen et al., 1997) are especially over-represented the more radical versions of Islam (Gambetta & Hertog, 2009, 2016). Radical Islamists tend to be extremely literal in their interpretation of the Quran and extremely strict in their enforcement of the rituals and rules associated with Islam. Thus, radical Islam represents the most doctrinal form of an already highly doctrinal religion. That engineers and other technical specialists are especially drawn to this form of the religion may indicate that people high in autistic-like traits are more attracted, on average, to the most extreme forms of doctrinal religions.
Positive Schizotypy and the Imagistic Mode
Memory in the Imagistic Mode
In contrast to the doctrinal mode’s high-frequency, low-arousal rituals, rituals in the imagistic mode tend to be high-arousal and low-frequency (Whitehouse, 2004, 2008). These high-arousal rituals are meant to facilitate spontaneous exegetical reflection, which means that each individual reflects on and interprets the experience as an individual, rather than having some orthodox interpretation imposed on them in the form of a doctrine. spontaneous exegetical reflection relies on episodic autobiographical memory, as the person must recall the experience along with its emotional valence in order to interpret it.
In contrast to the episodic memory deficits found in people with high autistic-like traits, there is evidence suggesting that people with high positive schizotypy experience episodic recall more vividly (though this does not necessarily mean they have more accurate recall; Winfield & Kamboj, 2010) and are also more likely to experience involuntary recall of episodic memories (Chen et al., 2020; Jones & Steel, 2012). Thus, the episodic memory system appears to act with greater intensity in people with high positive schizotypy. Their more vivid, more involuntary experience of episodic recall would likely work to facilitate the spontaneous exegetical reflection that is necessary for the interpretation of high-arousal imagistic rituals, thus increasing the effectiveness of these types of rituals.
In contrast to autism, positive schizotypy is correlated with dyslexia, a form of reading disability (Richardson, 1994; Richardson & Gruzelier, 1994). As discussed earlier, the doctrinal mode (which tends to replace the imagistic mode as cultures become more complex) would have been facilitated by the advent of literacy. People who were slow to adopt literacy would be more likely to lose social status in the transition from the imagistic to the doctrinal mode, given that priests and other religious leaders in the doctrinal mode would have usually been literate (Boyer, 2002). Furthermore, if someone is unable to read the texts associated with their doctrinal religion, they may find more imagistic alternatives to be an attractive option.
Sensation-Seeking and Impulsivity
Del Giudice and colleagues (2014) used principal components analysis to extract a bipolar autism-schizotypy continuum from data with measures of autistic-like and schizotypal traits. Higher levels of the autism-schizotypy variable (indicating higher levels of positive schizotypy) correlated with measures of sensation-seeking and impulsivity (Del Giudice et al., 2014). Positive schizotypy has been associated with impulsivity elsewhere as well (Dinn et al., 2002; Rim, 1994). High levels of sensation-seeking and impulsivity would plausibly lead people high in positive schizotypy to experience the “tedium effect” associated with doctrinal religions more often and more intensely. In other words, their drive to experience new and exciting sensations (in contrast to the desire for routine and sameness associated with autism) means that they would get bored more easily with high-frequency, low-arousal rituals. The sensation-seeking associated with positive schizotypy would plausibly lead them to seek out high-arousal situations of the sort that are provided by the imagistic mode.
The Search for Meaning
As outlined above, Crespi and colleagues (2019) found that autistic-like traits and positive schizotypy have diametric associations with a scale measuring the “search for meaning”. Since the high-arousal rituals in the imagistic mode both facilitate and require a search for the meaning of the ritual in order to interpret them (Whitehouse, 2004), these kinds of rituals would likely have been more effective and more appealing to people high in positive schizotypy.
Loose Semantic Networks and Spontaneous Exegetical Reflection
As described in a previous section, spontaneous exegetical reflection in response to high-arousal rituals is thought to require making “loose and fluid” associations (Whitehouse, 2004, p. 114). People high in positive schizotypy (and people with schizophrenia) have a semantic network that affords making these more loose conceptual connections (de Leede-Smith et al., 2020; Faust & Kenett, 2014; Gianotti et al., 2001; Grimshaw et al., 2010). The propensity to make loose associations would therefore facilitate spontaneous exegetical reflection, increasing the effectiveness of high-arousal, imagistic rituals for people with high levels of positive schizotypy.
Shamanism and the Psychosis Continuum
Shamanism is considered to be the first form of religious leadership (Rossano, 2010). The shaman generally takes on the role of performing certain rituals, communicating with the spirit world, and facilitating altered states of consciousness for both the shaman and other members of the group (Rossano, 2010; Singh, 2018; Winkelman, 2010). Although Whitehouse (2000, 2004, 2008) does not explicitly mention shamanism in his discussion of the MOR, it’s clear that shamanism would be primarily associated with the imagistic mode (Boyer, 2002). Shamanic rituals tend to be high-arousal in comparison to doctrinal rituals and shamanism tends to disappear in places where doctrinal religions become dominant (Boyer, 2002; Rossano, 2010; Winkelman, 2010). Boyer (2002) suggests that shamanism disappears in these situations because it poses a threat to doctrinal religions and is therefore actively suppressed by the priesthood.
Given the connection between the imagistic mode and shamanism, it’s important to note that there is a long history of authors associating shamanism with psychosis and the psychosis-continuum (Hwang et al., 2007; Polimeni, 2012; Silverman, 1967; Walsh, 2007). For example, many people in traditional societies who go on to become shamans experience an “initiatory crisis” which often looks strikingly like a psychotic episode (Eliade, 1958; Polimeni, 2012; Silverman, 1967). More recently, Ross and Mckay (2018) have suggested that non-clinical individuals who experience low levels of the positive symptoms of psychosis (i.e., people high in positive schizotypy) would have been more likely to take on the role of the shaman. If there is a connection between positive schizotypy and shamanism, it suggests that people high in positive schizotypy may have been more likely to become religious leaders in societies using the imagistic mode, which would have afforded greater social status and perhaps greater levels of reproductive success (Polimeni, 2012).
Autism and the 10,000 Year Explosion
I have argued above that people high in autistic-like traits and positive schizotypy would have been differentially suited for the doctrinal and imagistic MOR, respectively. In this section I want to draw out some of the implications of this hypothesis. It has recently been argued that (contrary to popular belief) human evolution has accelerated since the advent of agriculture, meaning that there has been rapid genetic change in human populations over the past 10-12,000 years (Cochran & Harpending, 2009; Hawks et al., 2007). Del Giudice and colleagues (2010) have argued that autistic-like traits closely resemble the “bourgeois personality” which Cochran and Harpending (2009) suggest would have been selected for in agricultural societies. The bourgeois personality consists of traits such as the propensity to delay gratification, a relatively high level of selfishness (at least compared to free-sharing hunter-gatherers), and a set of cognitive abilities that would be useful in trade, such as mathematical skills (Cochran & Harpending, 2009). Thus, Del Giudice and colleagues (2010) suggest that agriculture has increased selection for autistic-like traits, meaning that (given the diametric model) there has also been recent selection against high levels of positive schizotypy. In accordance with this hypothesis, there is now direct evidence for recent positive selection for genetic variants related to autism, but not for any of the other psychiatric conditions tested, including schizophrenia (Polimanti & Gelernter, 2017). The hypothesis put forward in this paper gives more reason to believe that the advent of agriculture would have begun a regime of selection for autistic-like traits over positive schizotypy. The transition from imagistic to doctrinal religions, which has happened independently in multiple places as societies become more complex (Whitehouse et al., 2021), would have:
1) been facilitated primarily by people high in autistic-like traits (since they would likely have been the first to become literate),
2) been resisted primarily by people high in positive schizotypy, since they would be more likely to have constituted the religious leadership (i.e., shamans) in the imagistic mode (Boyer, 2002; Polimeni, 2012; Ross & McKay, 2018),
3) have benefitted people high in autistic-like traits, since they would be better at learning the rituals and complex orthodoxies due to their propensity for hyperlexia and rote memorization skills, and
4) would have been detrimental to people high in positive schizotypy, due to their relatively greater propensity for dyslexia, their disdain for routine and monotony, and their loss of status due to the loss of religious leadership positions (i.e., shamanism).
All of this is to suggest that the advent of doctrinal religions would have contributed to selection for autistic-like traits and against positive schizotypy. In addition to the doctrinal mode increasing selection for autistic-like traits, it should be noted that selection for autistic-like traits would also serve to further entrench and support the doctrinal mode. That is, if people high in autistic-like traits are likely to support the doctrinal over the imagistic mode, then groups consisting of people with relatively higher levels of autistic-like traits would become even more doctrinal in their religious orientation and also more likely to suppress imagistic practices. Thus, there may have been a process of gene-culture co-evolution (Laland et al., 2010; Richerson et al., 2010) such that autistic-like traits promoted the advent of doctrinal religions, which then promoted selection for autistic-like traits, which then served to further entrench the doctrinal religion, and so on. A positive feedback loop like this can serve to change the traits of populations far more quickly than cultural or genetic change alone (O’Brien & Laland, 2012), perhaps contributing to the “10,000 year explosion” of accelerated human evolution (Cochran & Harpending, 2009).
Given that autism and autistic-like traits are associated with the kind of detail-oriented, technical mindset that often gives rise to competent engineers and hard scientists (Baron-Cohen, 2020; Baron-Cohen et al., 2009), a population that had relatively higher levels of autistic-like traits would be more likely to experience an industrial and/or scientific revolution. Although the scientific revolution is often seen as a rebellion against the rigid doctrines of the catholic church (Wootton, 2015), it may be that the advent of doctrinal religions, along with the relative increase in autistic-like traits which they afforded, was a necessary step on the road to modern science and technology. This would not be the only factor contributing to the advent of the industrial and scientific revolutions. Cultural factors such as the peculiar (nuclear) family structure in Europe which was caused by the marriage policies of the catholic church likely played a large role as well (Henrich, 2020). Still, the idea that doctrinal religions afforded a relative increase in autistic-like traits which then afforded the advent of the industrial and scientific revolutions is a potential implication of the hypothesis put forward in this paper which has yet to be explored in detail.
There are some testable predictions which can be derived from this hypothesis. For example, in the modern Western world there has recently been an explosion of interest in some imagistic modes of religious practice, which has been called the “shamanic renaissance” (Kowalewski, 2019; Orsolini et al., 2017). One prediction would be that people high in positive schizotypy will tend to be more drawn to these kinds of modern imagistic revivals. Given the propensity for people with high positive schizotypy to identify as being spiritual but not religious, they would likely be drawn to these non-doctrinal forms of spirituality (Crespi et al., 2019). A less obvious prediction would be that people high in autistic-like traits would be particularly averse to these more imagistic practices, perhaps even experiencing some amount of contempt for them. Thus, one prediction would be that where we see the return of imagistic practices in the modern world (e.g., the increased use of psychedelics for spiritual purposes), people who are relatively high in autistic-like traits will be more likely to see them as silly, dangerous, or contemptible.
It has previously been demonstrated that engineers and other technical professions are overrepresented among radical Islamists, which is the most doctrinal form of an already doctrinal religion (Gambetta & Hertog, 2016). However, it has not been demonstrated that people who voluntarily involve themselves in extremely doctrinal forms of religion have higher average levels of psychometrically measured autistic-like traits. The hypothesis put forward in this paper suggests that this should be the case. It also suggests that people who voluntarily take part in extremely doctrinal forms of religion (though not necessarily religious people in general) will tend to be lower in positive schizotypy.
In this paper I have presented evidence for overlap between the diametric model of autism and psychosis and the MOR. People high in autistic-like traits appear to be especially suited for the doctrinal mode while people high in positive schizotypy appear to be especially suited for the imagistic mode. That there is a theorized continuum of individual difference which lines up so cleanly with the MOR should serve to increase the plausibility of both the diametric model and MOR theory. If the same pattern can be found at multiple levels of analysis, that pattern is more likely to be real (Campbell & Fiske, 1959). The fact that the autism-schizotypy continuum’s associations with memory systems, preference for routine/novelty, semantic network structures, and hyperlexia/dyslexia line up so well with the cognitive phenotypes associated with the MOR lends plausibility to the idea that that this pattern of individual differences is real and is of importance in understanding human cultural and biological evolution (Crespi, 2016; Del Giudice et al., 2010).
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