A study conducted by researchers led by Kathleen H. Corriveau of Boston University examined how religious exposure affects a child’s ability to distinguish between fact and fiction. They found that religious exposure at an early age has a surprising effect: it makes children less able to differentiate between reality and fantasy.
The researchers presented three different types of stories – religious, fantastical and realistic – to a group of 5 and 6-year olds. Religious children were divided into three groups: children exposed to the Christian religion either as churchgoers who attended public school, non-churchgoers who attended parochial school, or churchgoers who attended parochial school. The fourth group of children included non-churchgoing children who attended public school and had no exposure to religion in either church or school.
The goal of the research was to find out if religious exposure would affect the child’s ability to identify if the lead character in each of the stories was real or make-believe.
The study found that children who attended church services and/or were enrolled in a parochial school had a much harder time differentiating between fact and fiction when compared to children of non-religious background. The study, published in the journal Cognitive Science, states:
“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.”
The most surprising aspect of the research was how children’s upbringing affected how they judge the main character in fantastical stories. These stories included events, brought about by magic (in Study 1) or without reference to magic (in Study 2), that would ordinarily be impossible. Secular children were much more likely to identify the characters in these stories as make-believe, while children with religious exposure were more likely to identify them as real.
The researchers found that all children, regardless of their religious background, identified the main character of the realistic stories as real. When presented with religious stories, that included “ordinarily impossible events brought about by divine intervention,” children who attended church or were enrolled in a parochial school, or both, identified the lead character as real, which isn’t unexpected. On the other hand, children with no religious exposure judged the protagonist of the religious stories to be fictional.
The study’s authors suggest:
“…even if children have no natural inclination to believe in divine or superhuman agency, religious instruction can readily lead them to do so.”
“…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.”
The results of this study could lead one to think that religion, intentionally or not, takes advantage of the natural gullibility of children and molds them into believing in the power of divine characters presented in religious teachings and literature such as the Bible. About 28 percent of Americans who participated in the 2013-2014 Gallup survey believe that the Bible is the actual word of God and should be interpreted literally, while another 47 percent think that the Bible is inspired by the word of God. It is pretty clear that we are not born believers, but are shaped into believers depending on our exposure to religious teachings.
It is difficult to prove if growing up in a religious setting turns children into better people, and some studies have even shown that religious children are meaner and more punitive than secular children. The study by Corriveau et al. identifies an addition effect of religious teachings and how they create tremendous support for antiquated and fantastical stories by feeding them to children from an early age, giving the powers that be the ability to use religion for the justification of impractical or even malevolent acts.
The full study, published in the journal Cognitive Science, can be viewed here.