From the parting of oceans to transubstantiation, when it comes to storytelling the Bible is a riveting page-turner. But while adults can choose what tales to accept as myth, parable or literal truth, it appears that kids exposed to religious teachings often take them at face value—and it’s making it harder for them to distinguish fact from fiction across the board.
Professors from Boston University conducted two studies comparing the reasoning abilities of churchgoing children and secular kids and found that those who had been exposed to religious stories were more likely to believe that fantastical characters in fictional books are real people.
In the first study, published in the journal Cognitive Science, researchers gathered 66 5- and 6-year-olds and read them a series of stories characterized as realistic, religious and fantastical. They were then tasked with determining which of the characters were real and which were make-believe. When asked about stories featuring realistic figures, religious children answered correctly at a nearly the same rate as the secular group (in fact, they scored 85 percent, and the nonreligious got 83). But the responses were dramatically different when it came to the other two categories. With religious stories, the children who attended church or parochial school believed the protagonist to be real 79 percent of the time, while only 6 percent of the nonreligious children concurred. The same pattern held true for stories featuring characters with magical powers: The religious children were more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt at 41 percent, compared with just 13 percent of the secular subjects. The results of the second study reinforced the findings of the first.
Study author Kathleen Corriveau explains that the phenomenon occurs because religious stories often include miracles that require faith, rather than logic, to accept as real. This suspension of disbelief may then be applied when children encounter fantastical events outside of the context of religion. Though she stresses that this needn’t be seen as strictly negative.
“In no way should the findings of this study point to any sort of deficit in one group or the other,” she says. “Indeed, in some instances, the ability to suspend disbelief could be viewed as a benefit. For example, when exposed to counterintuitive phenomena—such as modern physics—a suspension of disbelief might assist in learning.”