Study: Religious children more likely to believe fantasy than non-religious children

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):

Corriveau study2

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.

Holy shit look at that P-value!

Holy shit look at that ***P-value!

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.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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53 Responses to Study: Religious children more likely to believe fantasy than non-religious children

  1. Fantasy is what children do.

    If children don’t get fantasy out of their systems they become adult atheists who believe the biggest fantasy of all, that everything happened all by itself.

    That paves the way for atheist to believe in all sorts of fantasies like global warming, ObamaCare, alternative energy (solar and wind), over-population, you name it.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      Nice slippery slope fallacy there! Also straw man. But I’ve told you this numerous times. Atheists do not believe everything happened all by itself. Stop breaking the 9th commandment. I can put up with all of your other comments, even name calling and red herrings. But I get especially annoyed when you falsely say atheists believe everything happened all by itself. This is your last warning.

    • Rain says:

      I, for a moment, thought you were speaking without sarcasm. I am sorry to almost take you for an idiot.

      • Rain,

        Atheists respond to facts and evidence with verbal abuse which includes but is not limited to, name calling.

        For a change why can’t even one of you people get a brain and make an actual argument?

        That answer is, you can’t, because you’re an atheist.

    • Rain says:

      If things can’t happen by themselves, who or what made your god? He couldn’t just happen by himself, right?

      Here’s one likely answer: The fears of people are the raw materials and the controllers of the masses are the forgers of your and all other gods.

      • Rain,

        Since God is eternal, he had no beginning or end.

        And that means he is uncreated.

        Atheists commit the error or creating God in their own image.

  2. Kye says:

    Reblogged this on Hey, I'm kye!.

  3. Pingback: Study: Religious children more likely to believe fantasy than non-religious children | Christians Anonymous

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  5. Pingback: HNT 45: 1984, Porn Bag, Stupid Law, Blackberries, Complicated Ideas, Planet of the Apes, Cat Men, Jail Pizza, Religious Kids believe in Fairies | Hillbilly Nerd Talk

  6. Rain says:

    Hey SOM,

    Really, I was speaking without sarcasm. I’m new to this site, and when your post referred to belief in alternative energy and Obamacare as “fantasies,” I naturally assumed you were making fun of right wing thinkers. I don’t get how either of those is not real. Did you misuse the term fantasy? Do you believe in all religions? Just the Abrahamic ones? To me, such beliefs, by someone over the age of nine, are form of mental illness or retardation. I am not name calling. I am just sharing a viewpoint.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      Hey Rain, get used to SOM. He (or she?) is our resident Christian troll. SOM just tries to get a rise out of you. I wouldn’t get too wrapped up in conversations with SOM. I’ve tried before, but he (or she?) keeps coming back. If I say my car is blue, SOM will say it proves Obamacare is bad because blue is the color of the democratic party, and because I have a blue car I must support Obama (really, I don’t, but I don’t talk my political views on here), and if atheists support Obama then it proves Obama is crazy. Seriously, SOM will make statements like that. Just chuckle, take a screen cap of it, and share it with your friends.

      • Rayan,

        Since you haven’t offered one coherent argument all you can do is what atheists always do: name call, bully, verbally abuse anyone who disagrees with them.

        Do you realize that if you folks held political power, you would declare me an enemy of the state and throw me in a gulag?

        That’s the atheist way.

      • Rayan Zehn says:

        I’d actually offer you a work release program. Nights and weekends in the county jail. But you’d get 6am to 6pm off Mon-Fri as long as your boss signed a form confirming your attendance at work. The gulag forced labor thing might be a little harsh.

      • Zehn,

        It’s only that you’re an atheist that you can joke about such horrid morbid things.

        Real Americans are repulsed at what you mistakenly call humor.

        Ruining people’s lives, dreaming that you have power to control their lives is a wet dream to atheists, but to regular people it’s psychosis.

      • Rain says:

        Thanks, of course religion has no place in logic, just as logic has no place in religion. It is usually a bad reaction when the two mix.

      • Rain,

        Reason was melded to Christianity back in Middle Ages.

        Where have atheists been? You people need to get with the times.

  7. Rain says:


    You are sort of cheating. If god can happen all by himself, why can’t other things happen without god creating them? If god can have always existed, he happened all by himself. Why can’t matter and energy have always existed? You can’t make up rules to give your viewpoint an advantage over others.Could Zeus have created this universe? Superman? You are proof of this article being harmful. It is easy to see how those in power use religion as mind yoke. It is a dangerous and destructive item that should be kept out of reach of children, just kidding, sort of.

    • Rain,

      The way things are isn’t cheating.

      Aristotle called created things “contingent” beings.

      Contingent means depending on another source as a means of creation.

      So a sculpture is contingent on the artist who created it.

      God is not contingent because he is eternal and therefore not created.

      The universe and everything in it is contingent because we know through science that the universe and everything in it had a beginning and were therefore, created.

      The creator of the universe is God.

      • Rain says:

        First, science puts the creation of this universe at the time of the Big Bang. That does not mean that the materials of the universe did not exist before the event. Like your god, they may have always existed. Because the universe is real and not imaginary, people can study it.On the other hand, your god was created in the plagiarized mythology of a backward people. Much as you state “sculpture is contingent on the artist who created it,” your god (and its scripture) is contingent on the bad writer who created him by borrowing from other myths. Much like the pre-big bang universe the raw materials existed but he was brought into existence when some Person wrote this story down.. Quoting a dead and often foolish philosopher shows the weakness of your premise. Did he worship your god? Why not?

      • Rain,

        At the moment of the Big Bang the materials of the universe did not exist.

        Everything that the universe became, was contained in what is called a singularity.

        A singularity has zero space, zero time, infinite gravity.

        But before the singularity what was there?

        So even the singularity from which our entire universe sprang was contingent, that is created.

      • Rain says:

        You seemed to miss my point. God, did not exist before he was created in the imagination of some wandering Jew. Other, cooler gods, existed in other minds both before and after the Jewish god was plagiarized out of other religions, Unlike religion, science doesn’t pretend to know everything.However, a new theory is that this universe was forged from the raw materials of a black hole (to make a dirty joke, we all come from a black hole). Here is a link to an article about this idea.

      • Rain,

        If what you say is true, that God is a figment of the Jewish imagination, then that means everything happened all by itself.

        And that means you haven’t understood a single word of my side of our conversation.

        What is the sound of one hand clapping?


      • Rain says:

        It was in seventh grade that I learned about false dichotomies. You have just given a perfect example of one, There are many other explanations for our origins, including hundreds of similar creations myths to yours. Even science acknowledges different ideas without pretending to know the one right answer. Some people prefer any answer, no matter how silly, over admitting we don’t know the answer.

        In other words, “I don’t know, and neither do you.”

      • Rain,

        There is so scientific evidence for any other explanation for the origin of our existence then creation by the one true God.

        Fiction, alternate universes and other flights of fancy cannot rationally be used to argue against scientific evidence and hard, cold facts.

        Otherwise, facts would have no meaning and reality would only be an illusion.

      • Rain says:

        So modern science is fiction to you, but ancient mythologies are facts. Scientific evidence for the existence of god? Really? Wow! I thought all the kook and whore scientists were busy denying climate change. Are black holes real to you? Does the sun orbit around us as the bible indicates? Would you beat a disobedient son to death? Was the entire earth really under water after the flood? Did Cain mate with his mom after he killed his brother? Where do you stop in acceptance of the truth of the Jews’ myths?

      • Rain,

        I think you misunderstood my last comment.

        I will break its meaning down into one sentence:

        Science has proven the existence of God.

      • Rayan Zehn says:

        “Science has proven the existence of God.”

        First, science doesn’t prove anything. Proof is a mathematical term.

        Second, science can’t say anything about the supernatural.

        And third, even if it could, concluding that god exists would be the most important scientific discovery of all time. If you think you can show that, by all means do it.

      • Rayan,

        Scientific proof is not mathematics.

        Scientific proof is based on observations that are consistent with a reasonable hypothesis which may be stated in the language of mathematics.

        A famous example of this is Einstein’s E = MC^2.

        It took decades for science to catch up.

      • Rain says:

        You ignore hard questions. I asked several in my last response and you came back with the ridiculous statement that science has proven the existence of god. Then when Rayen asks you for the scientific evidence (proof to you), you jump to semantic argument.

      • Rain,

        All of your questions are based on false premises.

        That is what my responding comments were all about.

        If you are using logical fallacies as the bases for your questions, then those questions are absurdities.

        That is why I didn’t bother answering them.

        If I answer your absurd questions by proving that they are absurd you will employ yet another atheist favor fallacy: moving the goal post.

        Instead of understanding how your thinking has been proving to be irrational you blithely continue offering one absurdity after another.

        If science has proven the existence of God, which it has, then atheism is dead.

      • Rayan Zehn says:

        Sigh. SOM, apparently you feel that you have solved the biggest mystery humans have ever known. Can you cite the academic study that “proves” the existence of god? If no such study has been published, and if you still have direct knowledge how god has been unveiled via the scientific method, please — i implore you — publish your results. Otherwise stop violating the 9th commandment.

      • Rayan,

        Academic studies are the refuge of people with no minds of their own.

        That science has proven the existence of God is something I just learned in an introductory biology course at the local community college.

        Go out, get educated. Learn to think for yourself. You will discover God.

      • Rain says:

        Since what you “learned” in that course is of no use to you since you can’t explain it to us, maybe you can get your money back for that ‘course.”

      • Rain,

        I have explained it.

        My last post explained it. And I’ve been explaining it to you now.

        But I don’t speak atheist which is irrational.

        I am a person educated in the Western Heritage and thus use reason to explain things.

      • Rayan Zehn says:

        “Academic studies are the refuge of people with no minds of their own…Go out, get educated.”

        I am educated. I would venture to guess that I’m more educated than you, although I can’t be certain because I don’t know how much post-grad work you’ve done. (I would assume none since you’re taking the 101 level). Furthermore, academic studies are completed by people with “minds of their own.” They are carried out by intellectual elites and must survive a harsh peer-review process. Most studies do not and get tossed in the waste bin. Those that survive do so because of their reliability. Please don’t bash the scientific method (even the final phase of it), especially if you’re going to do so to “prove” that science proves science wrong.

      • Rayan,

        I attended three grad schools and have a bachelors degree in electrical engineering.

        I’m currently studying biotechnology which includes slicing and dicing DNA out of one organism and putting it into another and using antibodies to test for cancer.

        Yes, it’s the basics. But God is sitting on the lab bench.

      • Rayan Zehn says:

        Good luck with your studies, but I don’t think you’ll make it very far if you give up every time you get stuck and say “God did it.”

      • Rayan,

        Modern scientists and engineers have never said “God did it.”

        That just an atheist urban legend.

      • Rain says:

        So you know what I will do, “you will employ…” You are presumptuous or maybe you are a prophet. By your “logic” atheism no longer exists. Try to follow your argument:.1. You state: If science proves the existence of god, atheism is dead. 2.You also state: Science has proved that god exists 3. Therefore I can conclude: atheism not longer exists. I will stare at this screen until it fades to non existences.

      • Rain,

        I’m not presumptuous.

        But you are an atheist, and as such you think like 99.9% of all other atheists.

        You people are mass produced like Model T automobiles.

        You think the same, use the exact same set of logical fallacies, believe in every hoax plaguing modern man and couldn’t piece together a coherent, rational thought if your life depended on it.

      • Rain says:

        My logical arguments are name calling people who expose my weaknesses. Oh sorry, that was your line.

      • Rain,

        You have not descended from the atheist irrational to the childish petulance.

        Cobble together some sort of argument if you please.

  8. I’m not sure where you are getting your info, but good topic.

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  9. ohioorations says:

    The article is fascinating. The interpretation is even more fascinating. Your abbreviated, biased take on an incredibly biased study is disappointing. Frankly, your summary as well as their conclusions are akin to the sexuality/sexual health research advanced by (mostly) biased male researchers about the nature of female sexuality. Many of the axioms about female sexuality from 20th century science are being exposed as outright bias and fantasy buried deep in the minds of men. Such is science. Everyone is biased. We simply have to acknowledge this fact and subject our investigations to as rigorous a peer-review process as possible. Even the peer review process can be contaminated by bias. Again, we are imperfect people attempting to deliver the best science possible.
    To wit, the article presupposes that religious education is a liability as evidenced in the language of the title.
    Anyone with experience around 5-6 year olds would never use the word “judgement”, “fact”, and “fiction” seriously. Who expects “judgement” about facts from a 5-6 year old? Sorry, not me.
    This study simply supports the premise that children believe the world described to them by those around them. Your amazing leap to conclude that “religious instruction hinders intellectual development” is a disappointing, lazy drivel that most responsible atheists try to stay away from. Again, please try harder. The article was a reasonable article. I dont think one read of Tom Sawyer that causes one to conclude he was a real person should cause anyone to question whether the 5 year old has bad judgement or her parents are incompetent. Again, your conclusions are lazy, tired, and indulgent. Do better.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      I’m not sure how your response fits in with the study. Have you read it? I only ask because you seem to believe it was written by men. Although one man was given tertiary credit, the research was primarily done by two women, who share co-authorship.

      As for telling me to try harder, I do. Everyday. It’s my job. My “conclusions” weren’t conclusions. I’m very careful to keep the divide between correlation and causation (although, you gotta admit that P-value was extra sexy!!), hence the phrase “I would expect…” “Would” is a very important word. As for the rest of the post, I merely paraphrased the study. But they too were careful to use divorcing vocabulary.

      It might be fitting to say here: Criticize me for my research, not other people’s research.

      But to be fair to myself, I stand by this idea. Teaching children that fairytales are true is not intellectually honest. When children, or anyone, gets it in their heads that the supernatural can explain something, we’ve lost some of the future intellectual capabilities. Natural science should be our primary (and only) method for explanation.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      Oops. I forgot to add: The words “judgment,” “fact,” and “fiction” were used to formulate a testable hypothesis (which they tested beautifully). These words do not describe the children, but rather the methodology of the research. The subjects and the methods are two distinct and separate things.

      • Rain says:


        I think that judgement is shown by not knowing if Tom Sawyer was a real a person is the issue. Tom,under the laws of natural science, could have been real. He did sort of rise from the dead, like Jesus, but he faked his death. If he could fly or animals talked in te novel, a kid thinking it was real would be a problem. If a kid were 14 and believed that Superman, Hercules, or Santa was real, he would need help. By encouraging children to believe the impossible, like Jesus, we are creating adults that believe in the manifestly impossible like trickle-down economics or that Reagan was a good president or that the media is liberal.

        Religion has been a tool of the state to control the masses. Constantine knew this when he made modern Christianity. It is form of mental illness for an adult to believe that someone can rise from the dead or that their is a god lusting for human sacrifice.

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  11. adf5 says:

    What could the researchers bias be?

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      I’m not certain. The article doesn’t explicitly mention whether or not this was a double blind study, which would help mitigate experimenter bias. I took a look at the Corriveau, et al, article, from which this experiment was designed and didn’t get anything worth mentioning here. I would imagine, however, that the researcher bias would tend toward the side of fact. In other words, we might be able to say that if cognitive bias was introduced to the children, it probably led them to more accurately identify whether or not the figures are factual. Adults in sciences don’t tend to have a bias toward fantasy.

      Other than that I can’t answer your question because the authors didn’t include in their methods how they mitigated this phenomenon.

  12. Pingback: The Merits of Secular Education, Part III | Amusing Nonsense

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