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A new study has found that religious children, and children exposed to religion at a young age, have difficulty telling fact from fiction. In other words, children raised in religious households where Bible stories are often read and viewed as the truth have more trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality in other literature than do non-religious children. Religious children view reality more flexibly, the study found.
The study was conducted by Kathleen Corriveau, Eva Chen and Paul Harris of the School of Education at Boston University and published in the July issue of Cognitive Science. The researchers looked at 66 five and six year olds, half of whom had been raised in religious households and attended parochial school and half of whom had little exposure to religious influences. The researchers read short stories, fairy tales, Bible stories and pieces of literature to the children and asked them a series of questions. The team basically wanted to understand when children determined what could possibly have happened in the real world and which elements of fantasy or the supernatural would indicate implausibility.
The expectation is that by five and six years of age children can differentiate between events that are based in reality or in magic and the fantastic, such as invisible sails or talking animals. The main question asked of the subjects was if the protagonist in the story was a real person or make believe. All the children designated the protagonist in stories based in reality as a real person. It was no surprise that the children who attended parochial school also said the protagonists of Bible stories were real whereas the children who attended secular schools said they were not. It was unexpected that the children exposed to religion also said the heroes of fantasies and fairytales were real. They seemed to have more flexible guidelines for reality.
The researchers believe that children who grow up in religious households are told repeatedly by adults they trust that things not based in ordinary causal relationships are true. They learn to trust the authority figure more than their own instinct. Some psychologists say that this could hamper the critical thinking that is essential to education and personal development.
Some people think that children are born believers; they accept everything until they mature enough to distinguish reality from fantasy. A 2007 study by JD Woolley and V. Cox of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas published in Developmental Science indicated that children are born skeptics. The study, titled The Development of Beliefs about Storybook Reality, tested 156 children aged three to five by reading realistic, fantastical and religious stories. The research concluded that all children were more likely to judge characters as not real for all story types. The percentage of three year olds that claimed protagonists were real was slightly higher than four or five year olds. All children judged well whether events could happen between stories based in reality or fantasy. However, five year olds were more likely than three year olds to claim religious stories were true. It seems that between three and five the children learned to trust instruction from adults more than their own powers of observation. This new research suggests that it is parents and religion that undermine a child’s ability to separate fact from fiction.
Children learning to mistrust their own experiences and analysis of the world can have far-reaching effects, say researchers. These children are less likely to see scientific facts as true if adults around them identify them as false. The children may not know what to think unless someone in authority tells them what is right, and this could leave a child open to irrational thought in the future. However, some psychologists have pointed out that having a strong imagination is actually good for children’s development.
Children should exercise their imaginations by pretending magical elements are real, experts say. Most preschoolers in the United States believe in Santa Claus. The difference is that at some point children will question the myth of Santa. They will use their powers of deduction to learn the truth. Once the curtain has been drawn back, children learn to move from believing in Santa to being Santa.
Some children are told that Bible stories are true without question. Some are taught that questioning this will undermine society and may lead them personally straight to hell. As they become adults responsible for participating in democracy and creating public policy, some might find that these thought patterns may prevent them from making rational decisions, such as seeking out a doctor during a health crisis instead of praying to be healed, for example. Studies have also shown that the more someone thinks analytically, his or religious beliefs dwindle accordingly.
Most children will grow out of a strong belief that religious stories are literally true, and their skills of differentiating fact from fiction will develop. However, this study shows that young children are easily swayed into putting more faith in what they are told than what they can see. The new study finds children exposed to religion have difficulty telling fact from fiction. This blurring of reality and fantasy, say researchers, could bode ill for their future critical thinking and decision making in some children as they develop.
By: Rebecca Savastio