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

A boy prays in a church.Image source, Thinkstock

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.

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.

"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."

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)