Related: Religious fundamentalism could soon be treated as mental illness.
Researchers at the University of Helsinki (Finland) compared believers in God or the paranormal to people with autism after finding they tend to struggle to understand the realities of the world around us.
Believers were more likely to think that inanimate objects such as iron, petrol, clothes and paper can think and feel, and agree with statements such as "Stones sense the cold."
Marjaana Lindeman and Annika Svedholm-Häkkinen, who completed the study, said: “The more the participants believed in religious or other paranormal phenomena, the lower their intuitive physics skills, mechanical and mental rotation abilities, school grades in mathematics and physics, and knowledge about physical and biological phenomena were… and the more they regarded inanimate targets as mental phenomena.”
Researchers said their findings suggest people’s lack of understanding about the physical world means they apply their own, human characteristics to the whole universe, “resulting in belief in demons, gods, and other supernatural phenomena”.
This confusion between mental and physical qualities “has [also] been recognised mainly among ancient people and small children”, they added.
Ms Lindeman and Ms Svedholm-Häkkinen asked 258 people in Finland to report how much they agreed that “there exists an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God” and whether they believed in paranormal phenomena such as telepathy and visions of the future. They then matched their answers with a range of other factors, including exam results, survey answers and performances on different tests.
They also found that religious people are more likely to base their actions on instinct rather than analytical thinking.
Previous studies have suggested religious people tend to have a lower IQ and are more likely to believe literally in what scientists called “bullshit statements” including phrases like “Earth wants water” and “Force knows its direction.”