THE BLOG
08/11/2014 12:12 am ET | Updated Oct 10, 2014

How Religion Affects Children's Judgment of What Is Real and What Is Pretend

How does exposure to religion influence young children's learning? We asked this question in a study published this month in the journal Cognitive Science. In the paper, my colleagues Eva Chen, Paul Harris and I report the results of two studies we conducted at Boston University's Social Learning Laboratory that explored how exposure to religion -- via attending church, school, or both -- would influence children's reality judgments of novel characters.

We were interested in this question as part of a larger body of research examining how children need to look beyond their first-hand experience in order to learn about the world. In an earlier study, we found that by the age of 5 or 6 children seem to separate stories into two types -- factual (or true) stories and make-believe (or fictional) stories. When we gave children a story they had not heard before, we found that they listened for magical events -- the type of impossible event common in fairy tales. If the story included, for example, seeds that made you invisible or a sword that protected you in any battle, children decided that the central character was not a real person.

On the other hand, if the story included only plausible events, children were much more likely to say that the main character was a real person. When asked why they had decided the main character was real or pretend, children justified their answer by appealing to the story events -- the impossible events in pretend stories, as well as the realistic events in true stories.

But this type of strategy only goes so far. Indeed, it suggests that children would struggle to appropriately categorize characters from fictional stories that did not include impossible events (Tom Sawyer, for example). Similarly, children might struggle to categorize figures in religious narratives, which often include miracles.

In our first study, we found that children's judgments about characters in biblical narratives were strongly affected by their upbringing. Children who had had some form of religious education - via church, parochial school or both -- generally judged the central character to be a real person. Children who did not have religious education -- who did not go to church and went to a secular school -- largely judged the central character to be fictional.

In a follow-up study, we obtained a similar pattern for what we might call quasi-biblical stories -- stories that included miraculous events but not ones that children would read about in the Bible. For example, we told children a story about the parting of the mountains. Religious children were more likely than non-religious children to think that the main character was real.

Some media reports about our research have said, on the basis of these results, that religious children cannot tell fact from fiction. We doubt such a conclusion is warranted. Our interpretation is different. Religious children are encouraged to think that miracles are possible -- and so for them, a story that includes a miracle is not obviously fictional. Non-religious children, by contrast, receive less encouragement to think that miracles are possible -- and so for them a story that includes a miracle is likely to be made up.

In our view, upbringing probably has an impact on where children draw the line between fact and fiction. But it does not affect children's basic ability to recognize the difference between make-believe characters and real people. For example, virtually all of the children that we talked to, regardless of their upbringing, thought of Snow White as a fictional character and George Washington as a real person.

What we do think these findings suggest is that a child's home life -- including religious exposure, as well as exposure to scientific phenomenon -- influences how they might perceive school-based subjects where we might not think religion would play a role. In some instances, the ability to suspend disbelief might be an asset to learning. For example, when learning counterintuitive phenomena -- such as the entirety of modern physics -- the ability to imagine improbable events might aid in acquiring knowledge.

This research was conducted in the United States where children who receive a religious education will typically learn about Christianity. An exciting question for future research is whether a similar pattern will emerge among children raised in a different religious tradition. For example, will children growing up in a Buddhist or Hindu community draw the same conclusions as children growing up in a Christian community? More generally, it will be important to identify what it is about a novel story that prompts children to connect it to their religious education. For example, does that connection depend on the particular type of miraculous event in the story, or on how the protagonist is said to bring about the miracle?

Finally, it is important to emphasize that our research shows that all children do recognize that there are some stories that are made-up. For example, they understand that fairy tales involve a fictional protagonist who does something magical -- something that does not happen in ordinary reality. In other words, children, no matter what type of education they receive, appear to have an intuitive grasp of the difference between magic and miracles.