Study: Religious children are less able to distinguish fantasy from reality

 
A boy prays in a church.

If you expose your child to Moses, Muhammad or Matthew the Apostle, are they at a disadvantage?

According to new research from Boston University, young children with a religious background are less able to distinguish between fantasy and reality compared with their secular counterparts.

In two studies, 66 kindergarten-age children were presented with three types of stories - realistic, religious and fantastical. The researchers then queried the children on whether they thought the main character in the story was real or fictional.

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Religious children would more heavily rely on religion to justify their false categorisations”

End Quote Shadee Ashtari The Huffington Post

While nearly all children found the figures in the realistic narratives to be real, secular and religious children were split on religious stories. Children with a religious upbringing tended to view the protagonists in religious stories as real, whereas children from non-religious households saw them as fictional.

Although this might be unsurprising, secular and religious children also differed in their interpretation of fantasy narratives where there was a supernatural or magical storyline.

"Secular children were more likely than religious children to judge the protagonist in such fantastical stories to be fictional," wrote the researchers.

"The results suggest that exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children's differentiation between reality and fiction, not just for religious stories but also for fantastical stories."

Some commentators believe these findings show that religious children use their specific background to explain the magical elements of fantasy stories.

Three Joseph stories

Religious: "This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away. However, God sent Joseph many dreams warning about terrible storms, and Joseph used those dreams to tell the king how to protect his kingdom from the storms. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends."

Fantastical: "This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away where there were terrible storms. Joseph used his magical powers to see into the future, and told the king how to protect his kingdom from the storms. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends."

Realistic: "This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away where there were terrible storms. The king realised that Joseph was very good at looking at clouds and predicting when there would be rain. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends."

"By relating seemingly impossible religious events achieved through divine intervention (eg, Jesus transforming water into wine) to fictional narratives, religious children would more heavily rely on religion to justify their false categorisations," writes Shadee Ashtari for the Huffington Post.

This blurring of reality and fantasy, even for children, is not always a good thing, says notable atheist blogger Hemant Mehta.

"Religion blurs the lines between fact and fiction. You only hope kids exposed to it figure it out soon enough," he writes for Patheos.

In a provocative fashion, Mehta says that the study could be viewed as "evidence for those who believe religious indoctrination is a form of mental child abuse."

But not all commentators saw this study as critical of a religious rearing.

"This study proves a benefit of religion, not a detriment, because research shows how imaginative and fictional thinking, fantasy play, aid in the cognitive development of children," writes Eliyahu Federman in USA Today. "Raising children with fantastical religious tales is not bad after all."

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Secular kids are taught to lose their sense of wonder and imagination at an earlier age”

End Quote Jenny Erikson The Stir

Although Federman believes that religion can sometimes lead to harmful thinking particularly within the world of science, it can hardly be viewed as a hindrance for developmental growth.

"Those claiming that belief in religious stories harms children should be interpreting research and science correctly," he says.

"Not only is there benefit in allowing children to think imaginatively without forcing them into the mindset of perceived reality, but according to at least one study, raising children with religion also increases self-esteem, lowers anxiety, risk of suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, and dangerous sexual behaviour."

But other commentators found that the implications of the research should not be taken so seriously.

"Are we really going to say that kids who are taught to believe the Bible is true are somehow developmentally delayed because they're more likely, at age 5 or 6, to believe fantastical things?" writes Jenny Erikson for the Stir.

"Flip side to this equation could be that secular kids are taught to lose their sense of wonder and imagination at an earlier age than their Bible-believing friends."

Prosblogion's Helen De Cruz says that while there may be some truth to the results, what the study really shows is that the religious children know their Bible stories.

"The Bible characters are presented to them as historical, so of course they would be more likely to judge them as historical than children who didn't hear about these characters," she writes.

She says the subject deserves further study before drawing conclusions. For instance, would children exposed to scientific study at a young age be more inclined to believe pseudoscientific claims? Would Christian children be more likely to believe miracle narratives from other religions?

Only at that point could such inquiries be more than just fuel for a media-hyped religion debate, she contends.

(By Annie Waldman)

 

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 49.

    46 & 48 rob “…this sloppy, irresponsible research.” Although I agree, in principle, with your concerns regarding the objectivity and credibility of the research, before you ‘trash’ the studies – declaring them to be completely unscientific and predisposed to reach pre-intended outcomes – you might inquire further into the studies and share your unbiased, impartial conclusions with all of us.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 48.

    So the study says the BBC shouldn't have published it.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 47.

    @46.rob
    "I am disappointed that the BBC has dramatically publicized this sloppy, irresponsible research."

    "[Helen De Cruz] says the subject deserves further study before drawing conclusions. Only at that point could such inquiries be more than just fuel for a media-hyped religion debate, she contends."

    So based on this, is it the research, the media or your interpretation which is sloppy?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 46.

    I am disappointed that the BBC has dramatically publicized this sloppy, irresponsible research. Were the kids of similar socioeconomic status? Were their parents similarly educated? These are basic questions that must be addressed. It seems the study seemed predisposed towards a certain conclusion. Such ideologically driven research may be ok for social science, but has no place in real science.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 45.

    It is odd, if rejection of the irrational be enlightening, that a rejection of faith does not allow a people to fathom the power of a central bank, nor incorporate such a thing into "their" political economy.

    A rejection of the irrational prevents one testing the irrational with experiments designed to umask it as false.

    Imagination, entertaining the strange, is the cornerstone of all science.

 

Comments 5 of 49

 

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