Religion: Helping Make Kids Less Rational

Looks realistic to me...

Looks realistic to me…

A recent study shows that children exposed to religion make it harder for them to distinguish between fantasy and reality:

A study published in the July issue of Cognitive Science determined that children who are not exposed to religious stories are better able to tell that characters in “fantastical stories” are fictional — whereas children raised in a religious environment even “approach unfamiliar, fantastical stories flexibly.”

Let’s face it; children rely on their parents and adult authority figures to learn. When we teach them that virgin births, talking snakes, flying horses, walking on water and other mythological stories are literally true, we set them up to believe other fantastical tales that don’t mesh with reality.

The researchers took 66 children between the ages of five and six and asked them questions about stories — some of which were drawn from fairy tales, others from the Old Testament — in order to determine whether the children believed the characters in them were real or fictional.

“Children with exposure to religion — via church attendance, parochial schooling, or both — judged [characters in religious stories] to be real,” the authors wrote. “By contrast, children with no such exposure judged them to be pretend,” just as they had the characters in fairy tales. But children with exposure to religion judged many characters in fantastical, but not explicitly religious stories, to also be real — the equivalent of being incapable of differentiating between Mark Twain’s character Tom Sawyer and an account of George Washington’s life.

The researchers couldn’t use just one more kid in their study? They had to go with the unfortunate number 66?

Anyways, I suppose you could make the same argument about other magical figures we as a society often tell our kids are real, such as the Easter Bunny or Santa Clause. You could probably make an argument that these stories also help make our children less skeptical and rational. Once you start accepting some magical nonsense, I think it becomes easier to accept other non-reality based stories as plausible.

The study would seem to indicate this as well:

This conclusion contradicts previous studies in which children were said to be “born believers,”i.e. that they possessed “a natural credulity toward extraordinary beings with superhuman powers. Indeed, secular children responded to religious stories in much the same way as they responded to fantastical stories — they judged the protagonist to be pretend.”

The researchers also determined that “religious teaching, especially exposure to miracle stories, leads children to a more generic receptivity toward the impossible, that is, a more wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal relations.”

One more reason to consider letting your children make up their own minds when they’re at an age that they can make a rational choice, instead of indoctrinating them with your version(s) of God.

However, I’d like to see a similar study conducted that uses more than 66 children. I’d also like to see a long range study done to map the long-term effects (if any) religion has on an individual. While this study seems to point towards religion making it harder for children to distinguish between fantasy and reality,  does that hold true into adulthood or just for their childhood years?

What are your thoughts on this study?

 

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20 Comments

  1. I believe in God and so do my kids, but we dont believe that everything in the bible is meant to be taken literally . I also have like no imagination and never even believed in santa, neither do my kids they humour me when i talk about santa or the easter bunny, but they dont actually believe it. But i do know what you are saying i have seen some people who really try to force that its all literal and it really messes with the kids.

  2. I’m familiar with the study, and I am quite interested in its results. It seems like it’s an obvious conclusion that religion would have this effect on children, but I think it’s important that studies like this exist to provide empirical data. Hopefully it might get some parents to rethink their faith, or at least it’ll get them to recognize an unintended effect it will have.

    That being said, I’d like to see studies on some of the other aspects of religion, like excusing behavior one doesn’t agree with because a deity said it’s okay, or whether religion has a correlation with believing claims without evidence.

    • I agree. I’d like to see more studies done about religion and behavior.

      I think this study is just the tip of the iceberg, but we don’t see more studies because we’re (we’re as in society) afraid to offend the majority, who happen to be religious. I think beliefs correlate into action and yet religion often gets a pass.

  3. I think they should have done the study with 666 kids between the ages of 5 and 6! I have used the term “indoctrination” before in discussions with religious people and what they are teaching their children and they bristle at that word, saying it’s not indoctrination. I’ve also referred to it as “brain washing.” That gets an even stronger reaction. I wonder why.

    • Even 66 is too close for comfort. I wondered why they didn’t include just one more kid. LOL.

      I think in some cases it is brainwashing. I wish people let their kids make up their own minds. I see nothing wrong with exposing them to different religious views, but people rarely do that. Instead, they choose to indoctrinate them into their specific religion. Religion is very much a regional phenomenon.

  4. Clearly the discussion here is a more interesting study into the irrational….. while making a great deal about nothing. Children who have been taught to believe as their parents that certain miraculous events have occurred are more inclined to believe them. Is this news? Each of you are no doubt unaware that a child begins to develop critical thought by first developing a cognitive reservoir of truths from trusting adults, then compares and contrasts those conclusions over time to their own experiences. This is not some sort of brainwashing but normal human cognitive development. Modern cognitive theory postulates that all humans construct their own learning from the wealth of their own experience. In such a way the existence of God occurs most often even when raised in the absence of a believing parent.

    • “Clearly the discussion here is a more interesting study into the irrational….. while making a great deal about nothing. ”

      So you think it’s okay to teach children nonsense because they’ll figure it out later, despite the data that shows they won’t, but that it clearly makes it harder for them to differentiate between fantasy and reality?

      “Each of you are no doubt unaware that a child begins to develop critical thought by first developing a cognitive reservoir of truths from trusting adults”

      I don’t know about the rest of the people who commented, but I do, which was the entire point of the post.

      “This is not some sort of brainwashing but normal human cognitive development.”

      It’s called indoctrination.

      “Modern cognitive theory postulates that all humans construct their own learning from the wealth of their own experience.”

      Considering the study was conducted by neuroscientists…I think I’ll take their word over yours.

      Just saying.

      ” In such a way the existence of God occurs most often even when raised in the absence of a believing parent.”

      No, the belief might occur. That doesn’t make the existence a foregone conclusion.

      Do you have any evidence for your assertion?

      It’s a rather big one.

      You also don’t take into consideration other factors, such as a society that surrounds individuals that continually reinforce god belief.

  5. “I wish people let their kids make up their own minds.”
    My father was a Wall Street broker, having 3 martini lunches, a coke head, alcoholic, female predator and fittingly, an atheist. He tried ever so persistently to teach these personal attributes and habits to me, his number 1 son. It is irrational thinking to suppose I would learn ANY of them and use them in my life path.

  6. It seems to me that this is a correlation. I’d like to hear why they decided religion caused gullibility and not the other way around. I would think gullible children would be more likely to believe all myths regardless of how religious they are.

    Have you ever heard of the twin study that suggested ‘religiosity’ might be genetic? I’m a bit skeptical of the strength of the study, but there’s likely to be some genetic component to faith.

    • Hi Siobhan!

      That’s exactly what they did. They not only judged religious stories to be true, but also characters from other mythologies:

      “But children with exposure to religion judged many characters in fantastical, but not explicitly religious stories, to also be real”

      I have heard the study about the twins. The problem is whether or not it’s a genetic based religious thing or something else that religion exploits.

      For example, our penchant for seeing patterns, which religion uses to fuel its superstition.

      • Yeah, as with all genetic thingies, it’s likely multiple genetic traits combined with development, but a propensity to believe in delusions is going to increase the chance that a child becomes religious given all the other factors. I know a lot of atheists that seem to have that ability to buy into comforting myths about reincarnation and spirits.

  7. Atheist shamefully jumped all over that study because the cheap headlines said exactly what they wanted to say — “Religion is bad for children”.
    But it is much more complex than that.
    You might want to check out this post (and my comments there):
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2014/07/informal-study-finds-bloggers-cant-tell-fact-from-fiction/
    Christians shamefully jumped all over that study, reflexively criticizing it — because it said something they did not want to here. At “Get Religion” (Patheos), I criticized a Christian’s statistical ignorance when he criticized the article.
    Point — confirmation and disconfirmation bias makes us all into predictable machines.

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