Wednesday, August 6, 2014


How are children raised in religious homes different from those raised in secular homes?

A friend of mine once told me he warned his son about declaring himself to be an atheist on the internet. My friend was raised in a Christian home but gave it up along the way. Now he is an atheist
but kept it quiet. Being an atheist has career and personal costs in the U.S. But atheists and agnostics have become better known in recent years. Still, my friend kept his silence whilst his son braved whatever discrimination might come his way. Atheistic and theistic worldviews can be quite different and in conflict.

A substantial percentage of U.S. children are exposed to the Christianity at home, in church, and in schools. They learn Bible stories. And they read fictional stories –both secular and religious. The Bible contains many stories that delight children when illustrated in pictures and movies. But the stories contain fantastic events not seen in daily life.

Kathleen Corriveau, Eva Chen and Paul Harris recently published two studies in Cognitive Science which looked at how U.S. children (age 5-6) from religious and nonreligious backgrounds rendered judgments about fact and fiction in stories. Here’s some background.

Can children tell the difference between fact and fiction?

Previous research suggests that children use information in stories to discover if the lead character is real or make-believe. Young children recognize magical and implausible components in a story. They know real people don’t have superpowers, animals do not talk, and magic wands don’t change things. But how might children raised in religious homes respond to Bible stories containing miracles?

Miracle stories may be defined as those that violate known scientific laws. So if children can tell the difference between real stories with natural events and those with supernatural events we would expect young children to consider the miraculous Bible stories to be fictional.

But research suggests that children believe adults when adults tell them an ordinarily impossible event really had occurred. Research by Woolley and Cox (2007) and Vaden and Woolley (2011) offer support for the idea that children are more likely to view religious stories as real even when they contain events that would not ordinarily occur. Barrett (2012) opines that children have a “natural credulity” favoring belief in beings with special powers.

Two Studies
In the first study, religious and nonreligious stories were presented to children who had a religious background and to children who did not have a religious background. All of the children considered the protagonists in the realistic stories to be real. But when the children were asked to decide if the protagonists in religious stories were real or pretend, there was a significant difference. The religious children judged the protagonists to be real but those from secular backgrounds considered the protagonists to be pretend.

In the second study, religious children and secular children were asked to make judgments about the protagonists- were they real or pretend? Here’s what the scientists reported:
In Study 2, we asked how secular and religious children would respond to fantastical
stories in which the impossible event (a) was or was not taken from the Bible and (b) did
or did not include a reference to magic. Across all four story types, secular children were
more likely than religious children to categorize the protagonist as pretend.

There researchers had also studied the justifications children gave for their judgments about real or pretend characters. As expected, the secular children made little reference to God’s power or another religious-based justification for what happened.

The authors were careful to establish that the children could identify familiar characters as real (e.g., George Washington) or pretend (e.g., Snow White).
There are no perfect studies. The authors disclosed limitations and considered different explanations for their findings. In psychological science, as in other scientific investigations, replication is important. Additional studies by different scientists with different samples and variations in materials can make a difference.

It appears possible that some 5 and 6 year old children had developed a worldview that is either accepting of biblical narratives as true even when stories contain elements that do not normally occur. In contrast, some secular children have a secular worldview—a perspective that is skeptical of religious stories. And when it comes to justifying decisions, the religious and secular children offered different explanations—one religious the other secular.

In my previous post I referred to a Harris Poll and some of the supernatural beliefs of American adults. In addition to the Christian beliefs I commented on last week, the pollsters also found:
42% believe in ghosts

36% believe in UFOs
29% believe in astrology
26% believe in witches
24% believe they were once another person (reincarnation)

Although the above percentages are low compared to the entire sample, they still represent substantial numbers of people in the U.S. population. All of us who live in the U.S. likely know someone holding these unscientific beliefs even if we do not hold those beliefs ourselves. And these adults likely pass along their beliefs to their children who are developing a worldview.

Most scientists search for natural causes of events. Vaccinations, medications, and surgeries target causes of disease. And significant progress has been made in recent decades. Psychological scientists focus on identifying therapies that relieve the troubling symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD and other debilitating mental conditions. Scientific approaches do not invoke supernatural causes.

It is not surprising to find a gap between scientific and religious worldviews when it comes to causation. That same Harris Poll I mentioned reported that 36% of Americans believe in creationism despite some 150 years of evidence for evolution. Some Christians adopt theistic evolution in which God has a role in the evolutionary process. Obviously, many Christians do not accept evolutionary explanations. Perhaps it hits too close to home? How does one integrate a story of God making two humans and a story of a long evolutionary process?

The progress in medicine has been demonstrable enough that even among Christians who believe in healing miracles, few will ignore a physician’s recommendation. In my lifetime, prayers have changed to integrate faith in divine healing and medicine. Although many continue to pray that God will heal them or their loved ones, People often pray exclusively or simultaneously for God to guide physicians.

The progress in psychology has been slower. Christian mental health clinicians have been on the defensive for years. It’s hard to know how many people reject psychological explanations rather than religious explanations for mental illnesses. Many clinicians have spent many hours in writing and speaking about how Christian beliefs and psychological science can be integrated.

Change is slow. Over the centuries, religious leaders have gradually accepted more scientific explanations about natural events. And some events that happen in bodies like diseases. Even so, disputes rage over climate, mental processes, and relationships.

Scientists tell different stories about the world than do religious persons. Scientists disagree about which version of a scientific story is true but they agree on methodology and the importance of replication. According to Pew Research, about 33% of scientists believe in God (2009). And 41% reported they do not believe in God or a higher power-- only 4% of Americans shared that view.

Religious people disagree about different interpretations of stories in sacred texts like the Bible. And they disagree about the right way to interpret those texts. Some readily embrace metaphors and find inspiration in stories that offer a moral message. Others relish in the miracles of talking animals, plagues, walls of water, and many more.

Children view the world differently too.  Teachers and parents help children learn the difference between natural causes and supernatural causes. And adults likely help children learn what is real and what is pretend.

Do you think it makes a difference how you read and interpret stories for children?

And what about adults?

Does the interpretation of religious stories make a worldview of a difference in daily life?

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