On polygamy-denial and autism

One of my favorite YouTube content creators is nuclear physicist Kyle Hill, and some time ago he posted a great video about his autism:

Years ago I listened to a psychologist’s review of autism markers, the lengthy questionnaire that psychologists use to assess whether someone is on the autism spectrum. I was amazed at how many of the markers applied to me, though many significant markers didn’t. I’ve never personally gone in for an assessment, but if I did, I imagine I would be told that I have a significant number of traits in common with autistics, and if I’m not on the spectrum then I’m very close to it.

In thinking about autism and faith, I recently had a thought process sparked by observing polygamy-deniers (people like Michelle Stone and members of the “Doctrine of Christ” group), and observing people’s responses to them. One of the common reactions is to say that some members of those communities are really intense to a degree that is off-putting. One of these figures in the polygamy-denial movement generates a lot of those kinds of responses, and it recently occurred to me that he reminds me of someone I’ve known for a long time who lives with Asperger’s syndrome (a condition on the Autism spectrum).

I wonder if the polygamy-denial movement carries a unique attraction to autistic people.

Consider this excerpt from the research study, Development of Moral Judgments in Impersonal and Personal Dilemmas in Autistic Spectrum Disorders from Childhood to Late Adolescence:

Further evidence for a heightened emotional reaction to others’ distress among individuals with ASD is coming from neuroimaging studies. During affective empathy tasks, a hyper-functioning of the amygdala occurs in individuals with ASD (Baron-Cohen et al., 2000), which, in turn, prompts individuals with ASD to act in a hyper-reactive way in social and emotional contexts (Intense World Hypothesis; Markram, Rinaldi, & Markram, 2007). This overstimulation would be reflected as less calmness after making a utilitarian response in ASD individuals than in TD controls.

Or this excerpt from the study Divergent roles of autistic and alexithymic traits in utilitarian moral judgments in adults with autism:

Although autistics do not seem to be impaired in evaluating intentional third-party harm-doings, they exhibit enduring deficits on more complex intent-based moral judgment tasks that require integration of information about mental states of the agents with the information about outcomes of these acts. In particular, they judge accidental harms more harshly, arguably due to their inability to form a robust representation of agent’s benign intentions due to ToM deficits that can be weighted up against a strong negative emotional response stemming from the victim suffering. Thus, this work is consistent with the profile of ASD featuring preserved psychophysiological/emotional response to others’ affective states (affective empathy) but reduced cognitive understanding about others’ internal states (ToM). This work also demonstrates how these ToM deficits modulate their moral judgments about third-party moral violations, but only when these processes need to operate in tandem with other processes (e.g., harm assessment) that provide conflicting contextual information that needs to be integrated for a final moral judgment.

Okay, these studies contain a lot of dense psychology jargon, but I added emphasis to help focus on three salient concepts:

  1. Utilitarian moral judgments (morality is a question of what achieves the greatest good for the greatest amount of people, as opposed to narrow questions of individual harm)
  2. Cognitive-empathy deficits (lack of “Theory of Mind”, or insight into the intentions and internal states of other people)

These factors combine to paint a picture of how moral judgments tend to differ among autistic individuals versus neurotypical individuals.

Notice I didn’t say anything about better or worse moral judgments among autistic individuals, because I don’t believe the patterns of autistic moral judgment described in these studies are inherently worse than other patterns of moral judgment. I have written about how empathy is often a horrible basis for moral judgments; not all moral questions are utilitarian (sometimes utilitarian thinking is awfully misguided); and as often as not, making judgments that factor in other people’s internal states is a fool’s errand because we bring all kinds of erroneous and self-serving assumptions to our analysis of their internal states.

All that is to say that in many situations of moral judgment, the autistic profile described in these studies will result in better moral judgments compared to other kinds of judgments that are more empathy-based.

Now, why do I bring this up in the context of discussions around polygamy-denial?

Well, when we consider the moral questions around polygamy in early church history, those are definitely questions of utilitarian morality, whether something that is normally not okay becomes okay if it leads to a greater good. This is the moral calculus of God commanding a sacrifice of Isaac, as I described in my article Trauma in the Family of Abraham. In fact, much of scripture requires the decisions of God to be evaluated with utilitarian moral thinking where empathy for immediate suffering is superseded by unsentimental questions of longer-term fulfillment of God’s purposes. Much of popular atheism is based on an inability to seriously enter into this moral framework.

The studies above distinguish between affective empathy and cognitive empathy; affective empathy is a willingness to relate to someone’s emotional responses to things, and cognitive empathy is a willingness to relate to their thought processes. A great case study of these is found in the outstanding Apple TV+ series Five Days at Memorial, which chronicles the euthanizing of patients stranded at a hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Watching that series, if we have an empathy imbalance in the direction of affective empathy, we will feel for the families of patients who were euthanized, and feel outrage toward the main character of the series, the doctor who decided to euthanize the patients. But if we have cognitive empathy, we will see her thought processes and empathize with the pain of her decision between two awful alternatives. The unthinkable (killing patients in a hospital) becomes understandable, and we feel slow to condemn her.

For an example of cognitive empathy in church history, consider this excerpt from Kathleen Flake’s monumental presentation The Emotional and Priestly Logic of Plural Marriage:

People who share premises will find the ideas and actions that flow from them logical, while people who don’t will find these same ideas and actions illogical, even wrong. This is most obvious when it comes to religious premises. Academic historians of religious behavior do not have a “dog in that fight.” We try to limit ourselves to the task of understanding and explaining, or you could say we limit ourselves to asking out of curiosity, not judgment, what did they think they were doing?

That question – what did they think they were doing? – is Theory of Mind. It is the basis for cognitively-empathic moral judgments.

With a deficit of cognitive empathy, current polygamy-denial movements create a new moral narrative about prophets in the church: Joseph Smith was essentially perfect. All of his moral judgments were fully consistent and all of his behavior was aligned with scripture (which is also seen to be a 100% consistent guide to morality). Later prophets screwed everything up and behaved in immoral ways, implementing polygamy and telling lies about Joseph Smith’s practice of it. And then, later church presidents (none of which are considered by the polygamy-denial movement to be real prophets) like Joseph Fielding Smith and his successors made terrible, unforgivable decisions around church history that have left the church where we are now, believing that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy.

This narrative manifests the moral-judgmental patterns referenced in the above studies on autism. There’s no serious attempt to see a utilitarian basis for polygamy or cognitive empathy for decisions of church presidents. Having a perfect Joseph Smith means that we never need to exercise cognitive empathy toward him. In the words of the second study, there is no need “to form a robust representation of agent’s benign intentions.” The polygamy-denial movement fixates on Brigham Young, Joseph Fielding Smith, Bruce R. McConkie, and more current leadership, and lacking cognitive empathy, it becomes intensely accusatory toward them. Based on what we see – and don’t see – in their moral judgments toward church leaders, I strongly suspect that some prominent members of the polygamy-denial movement are on the autism spectrum, and are pulling out of the church other people who are on the autism spectrum.

For people on the autism spectrum, I think Kyle Hill’s video is a great resource. He is correct that autism is a superpower. And like every superpower, it comes with another side to the coin of giftedness: a challenge. Kyle Hill says that for him, a key has been to be aware of his kryptonite, and this is great life advice in general. But for autistic church members specifically, I would suggest this means that in questions of faith, beware of ways that apostate movements create narratives of church history that speak to your tendencies in moral judgment, to the exclusion of other possibilities.

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