Children Exposed To Religion Have Difficulty Distinguishing Fact From Fiction, Study Finds

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By Shadee Ashtari

 

Young children who are exposed to religion have a hard time differentiating between fact and fiction, according to a new study published in the July issue of Cognitive Science.

Researchers presented 5- and 6-year-old children from both public and parochial schools with three different types of stories — religious, fantastical and realistic –- in an effort to gauge how well they could identify narratives with impossible elements as fictional.

The study found that, of the 66 participants, children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school were significantly less able than secular children to identify supernatural elements, such as talking animals, as fictional.

By relating seemingly impossible religious events achieved through divine intervention (e.g., Jesus transforming water into wine) to fictional narratives, religious children would more heavily rely on religion to justify their false categorizations.

 

See the original study here.

 

55 COMMENTS

  1. Hmm. Shame the link to the original study only takes us to an abstract of it (unless we cough up). Looking at the abstract though, I’d like to know what a “parochial school” is, which religions the kids were exposed to and whether the authors saw “secular children” possibly misunderstanding the religious stories as a problem. It does look, however, from the abstract, that kids with a religious background do have more problem at the age of 5 or 6 in identifying fact from fiction in the way the authors describe.

    • It’s a scientific journal so likely to become open access within 12 months. Academic publishing still requires readers to help pay for publication unless the author is prepared to pay for it to become open access, which is entirely down to how much funding they get. Ensure you campaign for more government funding in science to help everyone have access to good source material

    • Alan Jul 25, 2014 at 7:33 am

      I’d like to know what a “parochial school” is, which religions the kids were exposed to

      Google is your friend.
      A Parochial School (Parochial – as of the “parish”), is an English school affiliated to, and governed by, a religious body. Usually The Church of England or the Roman Catholics.
      http://www.kingston.gov.uk/info/200196/infant_junior_and_primary_schools_ages_4_to_11/208/infant_junior_and_primary_schools_in_the_borough/5

    • “which religions the kids were exposed to”….perhaps you missed the title.
      Why does it matter which particular religion ?
      If the study shows the ramifications of indoctrinating a child to believe a fairy tale is real, then what does it matter which fairy tale is used as the basis for the indoctrination ?
      Do you have a bias of one fairy tale over another ?
      Also from a scientific perspective, any finding is open to be challenged, and amended if verifiable evidence is brought forward. On the other hand, the books that the fairy tales are based on are rather guarded against any kind of review or amendment. They are presumed to be right, and will always be right, no matter what happens.

    • in the US, which has “church schools” of all sorts, “parochial” (derived from “parish”) usually is taken to mean Catholic. For most of our history, in spite of the “separation clause” in the First Amendment, schools have been clearly Protestant Christian in tone. Until a court challenge in the mid-twentieth century, public school days began with some sort of devotional observance. When large numbers of Catholic immigrants began to arrive in the 1840s and after, they opposed this as conflicting with their doctrines. They requested separate schools, but lacked the influence to accomplish this. The Church stepped in and created the private parochial system for Catholic children. Because they were staffed by religious, costs were low, which made them available to families of modest means. When the Brown v. Board decision desegregated public education, numerous ” Christian” private schools suddenly were organized, and in many regions support for tax-supported public school systems collapsed.

      I have used “public” and “private” in the American sense of these words describing schools as government or non-government affiliated.

  2. I am delighted that science confirms what has been observed in our educational systems for a long time. Here in Spain for centuries the Catholic Church had the monopoly of teaching using a teaching methodology based on medieval scholastics, instead of Cartesian logic, with the result that the Catholic belief was treated on a par with the natural sciences; Catholic dogma at the same level as the law of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics, with the result that the country’s achievements concerning the great scientific or technological discoveries were quite modest. Today, thanks to the absolute majority that the Spanish conservatives enjoy in Parliament, they are gradually putting the Catholic religion back in the educational agenda at the same level as the Natural Sciences. I suppose this has a lot to do with the difficulty of distinguishing fact from fiction on the part of the Spanish conservative ministers, as most of them have been exposed to religion during all their lives. I believe that the study published by Cognitive Science is very accurate and real

    • (Catholic Spain’s) achievements concerning the great scientific or technological discoveries were quite modest.

      And (largely) Protestant UK and USA have been somewhat better. So what has that got to do with the OP, please?

      • Alan Jul 25, 2014 at 10:55 am

        (Catholic Spain’s) achievements concerning the
        great scientific or technological discoveries
        were quite modest.

        And (largely) Protestant UK and USA have been somewhat better. So what has that got to do with the OP, please?

        Probably this scientific leadership factor:-

        If you look at the “personal god” category, and lump 1 and 2 together as “nonbelief” and 6 and 7 together as “belief,” then 5.3% of the UK’s distinguished scientists believe in a personal god and 86.6% disbelieve, as compared to 7% and 72% of US distinguished scientists, respectively. Doing the same for immortality (the only other item surveyed in the US and the UK), we find that 85% of UK scientists don’t buy it, compared to 76.7% of US scientists. 8.2% of the UK scientists, however, believe that some part of them lives on after death; the comparable figure for US scientists is 7.9%.
        http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/atheism-among-anglophone-scientists-ii-the-uk/

      • Hi Alan,

        Odalrich’s point seems pretty relevant and clear to me i.e. he/she states “in Spain for centuries the Catholic Church had the monopoly of teaching using a teaching methodology based on medieval scholastics”. So I would assume, combining that point with the one you mention… that Odalrich is stating that their is a correlation between the Catholic’s church’s domination of education in Spain and Spain’s relatively poor performance related to discoveries in science and technology.

        Whether this is a valid point is another discussion. I imagine that providing direct evidence of such a correlation would be very difficult (for a start, agreeing on objective measures of “average” educational approach and achievements in science and technology, would be difficult). However, given the topic of the OP, and the fact that this is a discussion forum rather than a scientific journal, it seems a reasonable point to raise.

        • Theo H Jul 26, 2014 at 1:50 am

          Odalrich’s point seems pretty relevant and clear to me i.e. he/she states “in Spain for centuries the Catholic Church had the monopoly of teaching using a teaching methodology based on medieval scholastics”. So I would assume, combining that point with the one you mention… that Odalrich is stating that their is a correlation between the Catholic’s church’s domination of education in Spain and Spain’s relatively poor performance related to discoveries in science and technology.

          The close relationship of the RCC with WW2 fascist dictators is well documented. It was an arrangement of mutual promotion of ideologies.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Roman_Catholicism_in_Spain#Franco_regime

          In the early years of the Franco regime, church and state had a close and mutually beneficial association. The loyalty of the Roman Catholic Church to the Francoist state lent legitimacy to the dictatorship, which in turn restored and enhanced the church’s traditional privileges.[22]

          Franco’s political system was virtually the antithesis of the final government of the republican era—the Popular Front government. In contrast to the anticlericalism of the Popular Front, the Francoist regime established policies that were highly favorable to the Catholic Church, which was restored to its previous status as the official religion of Spain. In addition to receiving government subsidies, the church regained its dominant position in the education system, and laws conformed to Catholic dogma.[22]

          During the Franco years, Roman Catholicism was the only religion to have legal status; other worship services could not be advertised, and only the Roman Catholic Church could own property or publish books. The government not only paid priests’ salaries and subsidized the church, but it also assisted in the reconstruction of church buildings damaged by the war. Laws were passed abolishing divorce and banning the sale of contraceptives. Catholic religious instruction was mandatory, even in public schools.[22]

          In return, Franco secured the right to name Roman Catholic bishops in Spain, as well as veto power over appointments of clergy down to the parish priest level.

          While scientists, historians, and atheists, use critical thinking and research information, knee-jerk denial is often the first choice of the apologist!

        • Theo H Jul 26, 2014 at 1:50 am

          Odalrich’s point seems pretty relevant and clear to me i.e. he/she states “in Spain for centuries the Catholic Church had the monopoly of teaching

          There was also this follow on CONCORDAT in 1953.
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Roman_Catholicism_in_Spain#Concordat_of_1953

          Concordat of 1953 – Main article: Concordat of 1953

          In 1953 this close cooperation between the Catholic Church and the Franco regime was formalized in a new Concordat with the Vatican that granted the church specific privileges:

          mandatory canonical marriages for all Catholics;
          exemption from government taxation;
          subsidies for new building construction;
          censorship of materials the church deemed offensive;
          the right to establish universities;
          the right to operate radio stations, and to publish newspapers and magazines;
          protection from police intrusion into church properties; and
          exemption of clergy from military service.

          No wonder education in science was held back for decades! (People in the USA and UK should have their memories jogged about right-wing politics and theocracies)

          • Thanks Alan4… nice summary of some relevant info.. my knowledge of Spain’s history is limited and I hadn’t had a chance to Google. It doesn’t surprise me that the Franco regime would jump in bed with the religious machine; mutual benefit from their mutual aims of suppression – each in their own way.

      • The result of the educational reform that the Spanish conservatives pretend to make leads to the ridiculous situation of seeing someone with a degree in Theology (Roman Catholic Theology only) becoming Head of the Department of Social Sciences. At least we’re a bit lucky, he/she won’t be qualified to become Head of the Natural Science Department.

    • Catholic dogma at the same level as the law of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics, with the result that the country’s achievements concerning the great scientific or technological discoveries were quite modest.

      Well, I think that this statement is not quite accurate.

      According to this, catholic religion is the direct responsible of our lack of great scientific or technological discoveries.

      I think there are many reasons that explain that. Some of them not related at all with religion, like our polititian’s corruption that makes them care nothing of our development, just their own pockets, for example. ;)

      I agree that we need (at Spain) to separate Catholic Church from State Bussiness, to stop teaching catholic religion at public schools (I, as a soon-to-be apostate, will celebrate this if I live enough to see it! ;) )

      I think childhood indoctrination attacks Freedom of Beliefs of these kids. They are helpless before this since they have not enough data nor experience to critically question these topics to their parents, teachers, etc. Lost of them try it, but a few succeed.

      I dream of a world were kids were allowed to be free of religion until they get the legal age to vote. It’s their decision whatever they want to believe or not. Getting rid of childhood indoctrination take years to some people.

    • Hi Timothy,

      I’m not sure I agree with you. On the surface some might think it is reasonable to assume the playing of violent video games would lead an increase in violent behaviour of the players. However, this seems not to be the case, and studies of some behaviours seem to show the opposite.

      With hindsight, the conclusion of this study seems reasonable, but hindsight is 20/20. So I would defend the running of such studies… and to be honest, the number in the study is quite small… however, the findings would suggest that it would be worth a follow up study, with a larger group, to confirm the findings.

      Regards

    • Sagan,

      I wonder how many believers would read this and make the decision not to expose thier children to religion until they’re old enough to reason for themselves?

      Hah ! Methinks that would be too much like letting the dog see the rabbit, or in your case the mouse !

      To be fair, kids are also brought up in all kinds of other fantasies as well as religion. In the case of my kids, they pretty much knew the tooth fairy was a scam, but then maybe the parents weren’t pretending very hard to convince them ! It was a bloody game !

      In my experience kids are very naive, but also very shrewd !

      I used to love my mum reading me the Greek myths, with deaths and monsters on every page, but somehow I knew it was just a story. A place where the mind can wander harmlessly, – hopefully !

  3. @OP – Young children who are exposed to religion have a hard time differentiating between fact and fiction, according to a new study published in the July issue of Cognitive Science.

    It is hardly surprising that young children exposed to adult role models with the thinking processes of “faith” , (- Priests, Sunday-School teachers, Religious teachers preferentially selected for jobs, and religious classmates, from families who are believers in supernatural magic), – should be confused about what is fiction and what is an account of reality. Many are still confused much later in life.

  4. Well, this is certainly a suggestive correlation, but I remain slightly agnostic as to what actual causation is involved. For instance, do religious influences in childhood subsequently make a child gullible, or does gullibility mark a child out for religious upbringing? On balance, I find the latter unlikely, but I think it might still be a possible hypothesis that, when faced with a skeptical child, a parent might either underplay a religious education, thereby not giving the child much to chew on, or overplay it, thereby turning off the child, whereas a gullible child is just given what they need to believe.

    It might even be that a sample size of 66 children is insufficient, and the correlation is much too complicated to capture the intricacies of the true relationships between these factors. Not to mention cross-cultural studies might show different results.

    On the other hand, it’s no mystery why religion and fantasy stories provoke the same response in the children. It’s a bit like wondering why braeburns and apples are treated the same way.

      • Theo H Jul 26, 2014 at 1:59 am

        I agree, but I have a hard time going past Alan4Discussions comment that it seems likely that exposure to “faith thinking” would lead to issues with critical thinking in other areas (paraphrase).

        Perhaps the role model for “faith-thinking” of an “infallible” pope would help clarify the easier understanding, that faith-thinking, is a denial or reason and science – which is indoctrinated into the children by adults who have accepted this view!

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_and_evolution#Pope_Pius_IX

        “9. Hence all faithful Christians are forbidden to defend as the legitimate conclusions of science those opinions which are known to be contrary to the doctrine of faith, particularly if they have been condemned by the Church; and furthermore they are absolutely bound to hold them to be errors which wear the deceptive appearance of truth.” (Vatican Council I)

        . .

        “10. Not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other, for on the one hand right reason established the foundations of the faith and, illuminated by its light, develops the science of divine things; on the other hand, faith delivers reason from errors and protects it and furnishes it with knowledge of many kinds.” (Vatican Council I)

        Dogma and doctrine trumps scientific evidence AND reasoning – (allegedly)!!!

  5. The study seems to indicate that children are being primed to accept explanations inconsistent with reality which is exactly the opposite to the way they should be taught. The natural world is wonderful enough without such flights of fancy. When highly entertaining stories of fiction are told, it should be made obvious that these stories are make-believe, ( I’m thinking of stories such as Aesop’s Fables, myths and legends from earlier times and the many modern day publications).

    This is the best reason for introducing children to Dawkins “Magic of Reality” as soon as appropriate. I love this book and have the interactive version on my iPad waiting for my 18month old grandson to be at an age when he’d appreciate it.

    • Hence unsurprising that there is quite a fight between secularists and “those of faith” over getting rid of archaic SRI (Special Religious Education) classes here in the Australian state of Victoria – too long a story to go into here… feel free to Google related articles.

      • too long a story

        RD.net has posted articles (here) regarding the subject.

        Specifically, from the point of view of a father who “opted out” his daughter from class, only to find her just sitting in a hallway. Shamed, like an outcast, cruel!!

        At least now parents have to “opt in” their child. I feel sorry for these kids, too.

        • bonnie Jul 26, 2014 at 7:36 am

          Specifically, from the point of view of a father who “opted out” his daughter from class, only to find her just sitting in a hallway. Shamed, like an outcast, cruel!!

          That should not happen and reflects poorly on her teacher(s), but it is not necessarily the case.

          I recall an occasion when I was covering UK religious education classes for a few weeks, for an absent teacher. A group of children were opted out. There was no additional staff available for supervision, so I lined up a row of computers where I could see them (through a window), in the corridor, and set this group away with mathematical and interactive computer activities, while I took the RE lesson with the rest.

          Some religious parents – while having no complaints about my teaching of moral issues based on discussing fables, or looking at biblical accounts, – complained that their children wanted to opt out of RE and join the group enjoying doing computer learning programmes!

        • Hi Bonnie,

          I hadn’t realised that had been posted on RD. Thanks. The latest (for those not involved) is that the “opt out” option on the new form, which are part of a new Ministerial Directive, has had the awesome affect of many schools being able to drop SRI (including, as far as I am currently aware… to be confirmed.. the one my kids go to). The main group involved in achieving these changes was FIRIS… though I like to think I played a small part in at least getting SRI dropped at my kids school by initiating/fomenting/sustaining discussion about the possibility.

  6. Children Exposed To Religion Have Difficulty Distinguishing Fact From Fiction

    Like a lot of people here, I have not read the original article, but there seems to me a missing point. So i would like to pose a question to everyone, At what age were they told that there are such things a fictional stories? In my case I cannot recall anyone ever telling me. I did read a lot of comics, but I also recall believing that Dr-Who-and-the-Daleks were real (I was about 7) and later on that Santa Claus was fake (age 11-ish).

    So at what age did you realise that not all stories were true?

      • Adults still believe in religious fairy tail ,so the maximum age is never reached. I know a priest who even though he was a certified teacher before becoming a priest refuses to believe in evolution because he is told to believe what the Bible says

        • tiger76 Jul 26, 2014 at 4:31 pm

          Adults still believe in religious fairy tail ,so the maximum age is never reached. I know a priest who even though he was a certified teacher before becoming a priest refuses to believe in evolution because he is told to believe what the Bible says.

          The stages of cognitive development are there, but as you say, some people never reach the Formal Operational Stage, – especially if they have had it drummed into them in childhood that “faith trumps reason and evidence” and is a “superior” way of thinking!

          The formal operational stage begins at approximately age twelve and lasts into adulthood. During this time, people develop the ability to think about abstract concepts. Skills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning, and systematic planning also emerge during this stage.

          ..

          “The formal operational thinker has the ability to consider many different solutions to a problem before acting. This greatly increases efficiency, because the individual can avoid potentially unsuccessful attempts at solving a problem. The formal operational person considers past experiences, present demands, and future consequences in attempting to maximize the success of his or her adaptation to the world.”

          This is in sharp contrast to the limited indoctrinated mind, which can only see its own spoon-fed simplistic viewpoint, and the “wrong” contradiction of it!
          Some are stuck even further back in earlier stages.

          It is sometimes interesting to match thinking presented in commenting, to the stages of cognitive ability.

  7. Which is why I told my daughter that santa, tooth fairy, easter bunny and the lot are not real. Our evidence talk seems to have been shared with other kids in the class, as well. If I ever get an angry parent or teacher, I’ll just tell them—”It is not my job to maintain the lies you tell your children. I teach my kids to not lie.”

  8. In the last year or so I haven’t been able to post a link to Victoria Horner’s work comparing chimp and human children’s ability to solve problems after instruction on solving the problem. Sadly the videos were made private a while ago.

    Here though is an article describing her astonishing discovery and amplified with a further experiment.

    Unlike chimp kids, human kids will behave as directed by an adult rather than trust the evidence of their own eyes.

    This key fact is probably the reason we have reliable memetic copying of simple cultural attributes upon which more volatile and sophisticated memes can be attached later, even after the period of pre-pubescent “suggestibility”. It may be the key reason culture became the naked ape’s big thing.

    The linked studies show kids are pretty good at reading cues and deciding about the fantastical nature of what they are told. But the current study shows, exactly as Dr Horner’s study showed, that kids will disbelieve the evidence of their own experience if they are trained to it by an adult.

    This is cultural hard wiring.

    • Unlike chimp kids, human kids will behave as directed by an adult rather than trust the evidence of their own eyes.

      I can remember reading something on this that argued that evolution is responsible. Because human children are dependent for so very long, and the protection of adults is vital to their survival, a child is programmed to BELIEVE instantly what the adult says, because it could be a matter of life and death. A child more evolutionary disposed to follow adult instructions, (Adult experience) is more likely to survive to adulthood and pass on their genes.

      “Stop. There’s a snake in your path.!!”

      “Don’t eat that plant.!”

      “Get down off that cliff.”

      “Don’t touch the fire.” etc etc.

      A by product in modern society is children are sponges that will soak up anything a parent tells them, even if it is fantastic and untrue, like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and god.

      p.s. Phil’s linked article is worth a read.

  9. I sense a lack of double-blind rigor. There should have been a category about fantastical sounding, but true stories. People going to the moon, or surgeons replacing a person’s heart, for example. Is it simply that the children couldn’t tell ‘ordinarily impossible events from reality’ or ‘impossible events from reality’?

    Because those are two very different statements.

  10. I wonder if there has ever been a study or interest in one regarding children’s exposure to other fairytales, like romantic stories of princes and princesses and living happily ever after. I believe that due to endless hours of being read (and told) these stories resulted in my having the same type of unrealistic expectations with respect to relationships as I had about faith. I’m particularly annoyed by the term “soul mate.”

    I apologize if this is an inappropriate question or if it has been brought up endlessly in the past. I’m new to this website and somewhat new to the study of secularism.

  11. I see some faith-thinking bigots were so preoccupied with threatening gays, that they failed to notice if a quorum of bigots was present when passing discriminatory laws!
    It sounds pretty typical of knee-jerk “faith-thinking” they probably learned in childhood!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-28605400

    Uganda’s Constitutional Court has annulled tough anti-gay legislation signed into law in February.

    It ruled that the bill was passed by MPs in December without the requisite quorum and was therefore illegal.

    Homosexual acts were already illegal, but the new law allowed for life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality” and banned the “promotion of homosexuality”.

    Several donors have cut aid to Uganda since the law was adopted.

    Uganda is a deeply conservative society where many people oppose gay rights and the sentence for homosexual acts has always been life imprisonment.

    Earlier drafts of the anti-homosexuality act made it a crime not to report gay people – which would have made it impossible to live as openly gay – but this clause was removed.

    However the legislation that was passed in parliament was “null and void”, the presiding judge at the Constitutional Court said, as not enough lawmakers had been present to vote on the bill.

    The law, which was signed by President Yoweri Museveni in February, toughened up existing laws.

    Lesbians were covered for the first time and those found living in a same-sex marriage could have been sentenced to life imprisonment.

    One might have thought, that a competent president, would have checked on a quorate parliament, BEFORE signing a bill!

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