Are Kids Pretending Their Way Into Atheism?

Are Kids Pretending Their Way Into Atheism? August 3, 2015

princessApostasy has been fascinating child development researchers for decades.

What makes some people leave the religions into which they were born, and other people stay? And are there ways to predict whether a child will lose her faith later in life?

There are, of course, many factors affecting a person’s religiosity — including gender (atheists tend to be men), socio-economic status (poverty boosts belief), politics (that’s why they call it “the Religious Right”), and level of education (higher education correlates with lower faith).

But the bottom line is that most people lose their religion — or switch to other religions — for the same reason that people find religion: Their intellectual or emotional needs are not being met. Ask anyone who has changed her faith at any point during her life, and she is likely to tell you that she wasn’t feeling satisfied, mentally or emotionally, with her worldview.

Makes sense, right?

So is the divide, then, between people whose needs are being met and those whose needs are not? Is a person’s propensity for belief really that situational?

Well, no.

Lots of people go through periods where they are dissatisfied; life is so very dissatisfying! But not everyone responds in the same way to dissatisfaction.  So the next question is: Why might some people stay firmly rooted in their worldview, despite these nagging feelings, while others seek out new answers?

One could easily surmise that it’s a personality thing. Our willingness to shift spiritual gears depends on our personalities — introverted vs. extroverted, analytical vs. emotional, passive vs. assertive. And, indeed, studies have shown that personality does play into religious leanings. Lifelong religious people have been found to be “less open to experience, but more agreeable and conscientious,” relative to both the lifelong nonreligious and those whose views have changed over their lifetimes.

But how much does personality really play into a person’s propensity for religious switchery? (Yes, I made up that word.) And, given that pretend play is a strong indicator of a child’s openness to experience, is there a way to tell if, say, a 3-year-old child is more likely to switch religious preferences later in life simply by monitoring her play?

These are the questions (minus the word “switchery”) that interested Christopher T. Burris and Keri Raif, authors of a recent Canadian study published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion called Make Believe Unmakes Belief?: Childhood Play Style and Adult Personality as Predictors of Religious Identity Change.

Coming on the heels of a study almost exactly one year ago, showing that religious children are less likely to distinguish fantasy from reality, this study was created to find out whether people’s propensity to change spiritual beliefs was related to a childhood predilection for asking “What if?” questions.

Just as a child might have a special interest in dressing up in costumes and playing make-believe as a way to explore the questions, “What if I were a prince or princess? What would that be like?” — some adults are better suited to looking outside their own worldview and asking, “What if I didn’t believe in God? What would that be like?”

For the study, Burris compared five groups of people: lifelong religious, lifelong nonreligious, apostates (those who left faith), converts (those who gained faith) and switchers (those who hopped from one faith to another).

Each participant was asked about the type of play they engaged in as children and how much they enjoyed it. (All children, of course, engage in pretend play. But some are more naturally drawn to it and report much higher levels of enjoyment than others.) The “pretend play” included play-acting, engaging with imaginary friends, using props as substitutes for real objects and engaging in outdoor play, among other things.

Here’s what they discovered:

First, Burris told me, the study found that people inclined toward pretend play as kids were, indeed, more likely to have changed their beliefs at least once in their lives. (Apostates reported the highest interest in pretend play.) Second and more surprising, he said, the study found “that the lifelong nonreligious were most similar to the lifelong religious in terms of their comparative disinterest in pretend play, and that switchers were more like apostates in terms of higher interest.”

Here’s Burris again:

What’s especially striking about our results is that the two ‘lifelong’ groups (religious and nonreligious) were actually quite similar to each other in terms of their comparatively lower childhood interest in pretend play. Stated differently, people who reported being drawn toward pretend play (solo/joint, with props/without) as kids were more likely to undergo a significant shift in their worldview since then compared to those who were comparatively less interested in pretend play.

Interesting, right?

Now, again, no one is suggesting that pretend play causes ideological shifts. It’s simply an indicator of a person’s willingness to ask “What if” questions. And, just in case parents get any funny ideas about trying to manipulate their kids’ long-term beliefs (or non-belief!) by altering the kids’ style of play, Burris cautions that a child’s enjoyment of pretend play is not something that parents can influence.

For instance, Burris said, “it would be absolutely wrong-headed for faith-oriented caregivers to discourage or suppress pretend play in their kids in hopes that this would ensure that their kids would ‘keep the faith’ later on. Indeed, the very limited relevant research [into this] suggested that kids are subversive: They’ll pretend covertly if need be.”

And even if they could, pretend play is definitely not something to discourage.

Not only have studies linked pretend play to creativity, independence, self-confidence and social competence, it’s also thought to be responsible for decreased aggression and better problem-solving.

All good stuff. Just not necessarily, you know, God stuff.

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