The ability to infer the thoughts and feelings of other people is called "mentalizing" and it appears to play an important role in religious belief, according to researcher Ara Norenzayan.
Interestingly it was this mentalizing, or ability to imagine what others are thinking, that was more likely to lead to a belief in God and those without it showed less inclination to be religious:
"When adults form inferences about God's mind, they show the same mentalizing biases that are typically found when reasoning about other peoples' minds," the study authors wrote. Religious believers have an idea of God as an intentional being who responds to human beliefs and desires.
The researchers found that people who rate highest on the autistic spectrum — those with an inability to respond accurately to the mental states of other people — are least likely to believe in God.
Men typically are not as good as women at reasoning about other people's states of mind and are more likely than women to score high on the autism spectrum, which may help explain why men are less likely to believe in God than women.
Maybe I'm just late to the party about this distinction between mentalizing (apparently the psychological version of philosophy's theory of mind). Interestingly mentalization based treatment has been used with success for borderline personality disorder, although after reading the wikipedia article, I'm still not clear how and why.
How is mentalizing related to empathy?
"The empathy quotient measures the degree to which an individual thinks about and is concerned with the mental states of other people, their beliefs, wishes and emotions," Norenzayan wrote.
So it's still not clear to me. I guess it's that there is a difference between mentalizing (imagining the internal world of others) and empathizing, this vicarious feeling of emotions that others are feeling. Sociopaths clearly do the former, but do not do the latter. But I don't know. Every time I explore the concept of empathy, I feel like I'm talking about something like Santa Claus. I always half wonder if empathy is real, or maybe the product of fantasy or self-deception?