A study published in the July issue of the journal Cognitive Science determined that children who are not exposed to religious narratives are better able to tell that characters in “fantastical stories” are fictional — whereas children raised in a religious environment “approach even unfamiliar, fantastical stories flexibly.”
In “Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds,” researchers Kathleen Corriveau, Eva Chen, and Paul Harris demonstrate that most children can identify the “implausible or magical elements in a narrative,” and can determine whether the characters in the narrative are real or fictional using references to specific fantastical elements within the narrative, such as “you can’t have a sword that protects you from danger every time.”
However, children raised in households in which religious narratives are frequently encountered do not treat those narratives with the same skepticism.
To reach their conclusions, the researchers presented 5- and 6-year-old children from both public and parochial schools with three different types of stories — religious, fantastical and realistic –- in an effort to gauge how well they could identify narratives with impossible elements as fictional.
The study found that, of the 66 participants, children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school were significantly less able than secular children to identify supernatural elements, such as talking animals, as fictional.
“Children with exposure to religion — via church attendance, parochial schooling, or both — judged [characters in religious stories] to be real,” the authors wrote. “By contrast, children with no such exposure judged them to be pretend,” just as they had the characters in fairy tales. But children with exposure to religion judged many characters in fantastical, but not explicitly religious stories, to also be real — the equivalent of being incapable of differentiating between Mark Twain’s character Tom Sawyer and an account of George Washington’s life, the researchers explain.
By relating seemingly impossible religious events achieved through divine intervention (e.g., Jesus transforming water into wine) to fictional narratives, religious children would more heavily rely on religion to justify their false categorizations.
“In both studies, [children exposed to religion] were less likely to judge the characters in the fantastical stories as pretend, and in line with this equivocation, they made more appeals to reality and fewer appeals to impossibility than did secular children,” the study concluded.
These findings refute previous research in which children were said to be “born believers” – meaning that they supposedly possessed “a natural credulity toward extraordinary beings with superhuman powers. Indeed, secular children responded to religious stories in much the same way as they responded to fantastical stories — they judged the protagonist to be pretend.”
The researchers note that previous studies indicate that children’s beliefs about fantasy and reality are heavily influenced by what adults say to them. “In numerous studies,” the authors write, “when an adult testified that an ordinarily impossible event had taken place, or would take place, children accepted that testimony and acted upon it.” Furthermore, “research on children’s religious ideas also suggests that they accept adults’ claims about ordinarily impossible outcomes.” Taken together, these findings suggest that adults very much mold their children’s religious beliefs.
The researchers also determined that “religious teaching, especially exposure to miracle stories, leads children to a more generic receptivity toward the impossible, that is, a more wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal relations.”
According to 2013-2014 Gallup data, roughly 83 percent of Americans report a religious affiliation, and an even larger group — 86 percent — believe in God. More than a quarter of Americans, 28 percent, also believe the Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, while half (47 percent) say the Bible is the inspired word of God.
Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that only 54 percent of Americans agree that climate change is largely the result of human activity.