A recent study published in Cognitive Science this month reveals an interesting divide between children raised in secular homes and children raised in religious homes. The article, titled “Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds,” finds a correlation between religious upbringing and acceptance of impossible claims. Here is an excerpt from the abstract:
Children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school, or both, judged the protagonist in religious stories to be a real person, whereas secular children with no such exposure to religion judged the protagonist in religious stories to be fictional. Children’s upbringing was also related to their judgment about the protagonist in fantastical stories that included ordinarily impossible events whether brought about by magic … or without reference to magic … Secular children were more likely than religious children to judge the protagonist in such fantastical stories to be fictional. 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.
I’ve quoted the abstract because it perfectly sums up the findings in the study. As always, feel free to send me hate mail to request a copy of the full article (for legal reasons I can’t share the pdf file here).
While both religious children and non-religious children did a good job in the study of correctly identifying fictional characters, such as Snow White, religious children had a more difficult time than non-religious children correctly identifying stories with talking animals or supernatural beings (e.g. “giants, fairies”) as fictional.
Here’s the breakdown of the children (image borrowed without permission from the study and remains copyright of publisher and authors):
In this image, we can see that both religious and non-religious children fared roughly equally well in correctly identifying realistic stories. But secular children attending public schools were much, much more likely to identify stories with religious tones as being not real. And they were at least 50% more likely than religious children to identify fantasy stories as being not real. Religious children were less able to distinguish reality from fantasy.
And to underline the statistical significance of this study, here are the findings. Note that the “No Magic” categories include supernatural events, such as the parting of the sea or the parting of a mountain. The “Magic” or “No Magic” merely distinguishes between stories where the children were told it was a magical event and stories where the children were not told it was a magical event.
To me, this study underscores the intellectual danger associated with teaching our children biblical stories. We need to arm our children with the right tools to help them reach their potential intellectually. Religious teachings do not help them reach this potential. In fact, based on the findings of this study, I would expect that religious instruction actually hinders children from reaching their intellectual potential. In this case we can say that teaching your children religious stories is not responsible parenting.