Religious Students Have a Very Hard Time With One Simple Task


The news: Those who are skeptical of religion are going to love this: Two recent studies have found that some kids who attend parochial schools or church have a harder time distinguishing whether obviously fictional characters are real.

In other words, religious kids may have more difficulties telling fact from fiction than secular children. 

The study: Published in Cognitive Science, the studies analyzed a pool of 5- and 6-year-old participants. They were divided into groups depending on whether they attended a religious or public school and their church attendance.

In study one, the research team had the children read three different types of stories — biblical ones, fantastical ones (think Harry Potter) and realistic ones. The group of kids was then asked which of the protagonists in each story was real and which one was fictional.

All the kids were able to identify the protagonist as a potentially real person in the realistic stories. Unsurprisingly, religious children also identified biblical figures as real. But when it came to the supernatural tales, the religious children did something concerning: They were much more likely to say the characters were real. They also appeared to draw from their religious backgrounds while doing so, essentially indicating that their belief in things like miracles or godly interventions was influencing how they viewed other situations.

In a follow-up study that compared extremes (religious students who attended church and public school students who didn't), the non-religious kids outperformed the religious ones in every category. In the following table, on a scale of 0-1, 0 means pretend and 1 means real:

"In both studies, [children exposed to religion] were less likely to judge the characters in the fantastical stories as pretend, and in line with this equivocation, they made more appeals to reality and fewer appeals to impossibility than did secular children," wrote the authors. They also suggested that "religious teaching, especially exposure to miracle stories, leads children to a more generic receptivity toward the impossible ..."

What it means: The researchers admit that other factors could have affected the results, but believe it's unlikely. They claim their evidence shows that kids exposed to religion were worse at distinguishing between fiction and reality in the experimental conditions provided.

The study is a direct, empirical challenge to the viewpoint that belief in the supernatural or religion is somehow hardwired into the human mindset. Instead, it provides evidence that fantastical, mythological or religious belief stems from learning processes that begin at a young age. Less charitably, hardcore atheists like Richard Dawkins would probably call it proof of indoctrination.

While it might be tempting for atheists to connect the study with failing U.S. schools, there's simply nothing to back that up. A more reasonable connection is the 86% of Americans who believe in a god, the 77% who think angels are real or maybe even the 45% who believe in ghosts.