Study: Religious kids believe the Bible and other ‘fiction’

Is this Clutching at Straws Month? Because I don’t know how to dress or what to buy for it. I do know how to celebrate, though. Just publish a study that counters traditional beliefs. And don’t ask questions that might uncover flaws.

The latest example emerged this week in the July issue of Cognitive Science. Three researchers alleged that young children who are “exposed to religion” — gotta love that wording — have trouble telling fact from fiction.

This claim is in an appallingly brief, 291-word article in the Huffington Post — which, true to form, swallows and regurgitates the stuff without chewing. We’ll get to that in a bit.

First, here’s how it went down:

Researchers presented 5- and 6-year-old children from both public and parochial schools with three different types of stories — religious, fantastical and realistic — in an effort to gauge how well they could identify narratives with impossible elements as fictional.

The study found that, of the 66 participants, children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school were significantly less able than secular children to identify supernatural elements, such as talking animals, as fictional.

By relating seemingly impossible religious events achieved through divine intervention (e.g., Jesus transforming water into wine) to fictional narratives, religious children would more heavily rely on religion to justify their false categorizations.

“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,” the study concluded.

Now let’s dismantle this, starting with the sampling. I don’t often resort to italics, but c’mon — sixty-six subjects? I saw several times that many kids yesterday at one Vacation Bible School. A sampling of 66 children is pretty small for an attempt to generalize to all children.

I’d also like to know how many schools, and what kinds, the researchers drew from. Yes, they included both public and parochial schools. How many? Where? And what kinds of parochial schools? Just Catholic? Any Jewish or Baptist or Episcopal or Muslim schools?

These questions might be answered in the study itself, which was unfortunately behind a paywall. But HuffPost didn’t answer the questions, and probably didn’t ask them.

The study link did have an abstract, which doesn’t answer the questions either. The abstract does reveal a key fact: that the study dealt not with real or imagined events but with characters.

“Children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school, or both, judged the protagonist in religious stories to be a real person, whereas secular children with no such exposure to religion judged the protagonist in religious stories to be fictional,” the abstract says. The study got similar results with “fantastical stories that included ordinarily impossible events whether brought about by magic or without reference to magic.”

Then the abstract takes its flying leap to the conclusion: “The results suggest that exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s differentiation between reality and fiction, not just for religious stories but also for fantastical stories.”

Hold on there, scientists. For the stories or for the protagonists of the stories? You test for one, then draw a conclusion about the other? Exactly how is belief in a person related to belief in events?

After all, most of us believe that Muhammad existed, but not that he heard from Gabriel in a cave. We pretty much agree that Joseph Smith lived, but not necessarily that he dug up golden plates on direction from the Angel Moroni. And we don’t have to deny that Kim Jong Il existed to doubt that he hit 11 holes in one during a single golf game.

What do other scholars think of the conclusions in the Cognitive Science study? How about religious leaders or educators? HuffPost doesn’t say. Probably didn’t ask.

A longer story in The Raw Story offers a fuller look. It says the three researchers — Kathleen Corriveau, Eva Chen and Paul Harris — expected that religious children would judge whether characters were real or imaginative based on “fantastical elements within the narrative, such as ‘invisible sails’ or ‘a sword that protects you from danger every time.’ ”

And yet, “this prediction is likely to be wrong,” because “with appropriate testimony from adults” in religious households, children “will conceive of the protagonist in such narratives as a real person — even if the narrative includes impossible events.”

So, kids tend to believe religious stories — and the characters in them — if their parents seem to believe in them? What a shock. But the story goes further:

“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.

Actually, no, it would be more like failing to tell between the biblical Samuel and the nonbiblical Harry Potter. Did The Raw Story ask about that? Or the questions above? Nope.

This whole matter follows another study earlier this month, purporting to show that children of same-sex couples are actually happier and better-adjusted than those from traditional families. As my GR colleague Bobby Ross Jr. said, that study was based on a mere 315 same-sex parents across Australia — parents who volunteered for it after being told what it was about. At least the New York Post included one skeptical viewpoint.

Both studies still amount to clutching at straws, largely with media approval. Anything, it seems, to chip away at traditional beliefs.

Remember that old newsroom slogan “If it bleeds, it leads”? Well, the new version may be “If it kicks religion, it’s a good decision.”

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