Are Religious Stories Bad For Kids?

Mark Joseph Stern warns religious parents, “All that talk of snake-inspired subterfugeplanet-cleansing floods, and apocalyptic horsemen might hamper kids’ ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality – or even to think critically”:

That’s the implication of two recent studies published in Cognitive Science in which researchers attempted to gauge perceptions of reality in religious and secular children. (The religious children were all from Christian families, from a variety of denominations.)

In one study, the researchers read realistic stories and fantasy tales to the kids. Some of the fantasy tales featured familiar biblical events – like the parting of the Red Sea – but with non-biblical characters. (In the retelling of the Red Sea story, Moses was called John.) Others featured non-biblical but clearly magical events – the parting of a mountain, for instance—as well as non-biblical characters. … Every child believed that the protagonist of the realistic stories was a real person. But when asked about the stories featuring biblically inspired or non-biblical but magical events, the children disagreed. Children raised with religion thought the protagonists of the miraculous stories were real people, and they seemed to interpret the narratives – both biblical and magical – as true accounts.

Luke Malone throws cold water on Stern’s interpretation of the studies:

[Study author Kathleen Corriveau] 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.”

Eliyahu Federman adds, “This study proves a benefit of religion, not a detriment, because research shows how imaginative and fictional thinking, fantasy play, aid in the cognitive development of children. Raising children with fantastical religious tales is not bad after all.” Meanwhile, Brandon Ambrosino looks at the findings in light of Justin L. Barrett’s book Born Believers, which argues that “kids are born with a tendency toward thinking that there is some sort of supernatural agent behind this order”:

Or, as he put it to me over the phone, “children have a number of natural dispositions to religious beliefs of various sorts.” And while he believes that these dispositions can “certainly be overridden by certain kinds of cultural and educational environments,” he thinks the research shows that a child’s cognitive “playing field is tilted toward religious beliefs.”

A new study out this month, however, pushes against Barrett’s conclusion. Published in the July issue of Cognitive Science, the article presents findings that seem to show that children’s beliefs in the supernatural are the result of their education. Further, argue the researchers, “exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s differentiation between reality and fiction.” In other words, said Kathleen Corriveau, one of the study’s co-authors, the study found that childhood exposure to religious ideas may influence children’s “conception of what could actually happen.” She also told me her research suggests that Barrett’s Born Believers thesis is wrong — that children don’t possess an “innate bias” toward religious belief.