Researchers at the University of Boston recently conducted groundbreaking research into the effects of religious indoctrination on children. It's a very controversial topic, to be sure, with diverse opinions on all sides. Most religious parents insist that it's their right to raise their children in whatever religion they want. Some secularists insist that religious indoctrination is often akin to child abuse because children lack the cognitive skills to make informed decisions. For most of human history, this argument has been mired in anecdote and opinion, but recently, science has been providing a great deal of clarity.
The study was based on a well-established phase of childhood development in which children learn to tell reality from fiction by using a heuristic of plausibility. In simple terms, that means they judge implausible or impossible stories as fiction, and plausible or possible stories as fact. It's not a perfect system, but it's about as much as a 5 year old can do. They might make a mistake with Tom Sawyer, but they know that Curious George is make-believe.
As straightforward as this sounds, it's not without controversy. Around 84% of children today, and far more historically, have been raised religious, so there hasn't been a lot of comparison with "evil" atheist children. This has led more than one researcher to claim that children have an inherent "God Instinct." That is, they naturally sense that the universe was created, and that there is an all-powerful being who defies normal rules about fact and fiction.
The Boston researchers wanted to add some clarity to this debate, so they tested 4 groups of young children (5-6 years old). Three of the groups had exposure to religion, either in school, church, or both. One group neither went to church nor religious school. The test was simple. The children were shown pictures and were told short stories about characters that were either plausible, magical, or religious. (The religious stories were fabricated, but based on Biblical narratives.) For example, the realistic protagonist used science to predict a storm; the fantastical one used magic, and the religious received revelation from God. After each story, they were asked to put each picture in a box marked "Real" or "Pretend."
The results were startling. As predicted, nearly all children were quite good at recognizing plausible characters as real. Also as predicted, most religious children thought religious characters were real. But here's where things get really interesting. Secular children knew that fantastical characters were pretend, but religious children might as well have flipped a coin. Their results were indistinguishable from chance. Or, to put it bluntly, even if we suspend judgment on the reality of religious characters, it's clear that religious indoctrination renders children incapable of telling fiction from fact. And here's the kicker that most of us secularists already suspected: Children who went to both religious school and church were the most likely to get it wrong.
Perhaps more important than the mistakes made by religious children were the reasons for the mistakes. After each selection, they were asked why they chose the box they did, and the answers were coded into five major categories: reality, impossibility, religion, clues from the pictures, and "unintelligible" (which would be an answer like "I don't know" or "they just are.") Religious children typically offered religious reasons for why religious characters were real. This is not surprising, and without further examination, supports the idea of a "God Instinct." But here's where things get really interesting. The religious children also used religious justifications for thinking fantastical stories were true. Without explicit religious language, they were confused enough that they simply didn't know, but the point is the religious justification thought process was there.
Here's where it gets really really interesting. There were 24 instances where secular children used religious justifications for their choices, and in all 24 cases, the answer was a version of "that can't happen because religion is pretend." There was no inherent God knowledge in these children, nor was there a tendency to believe that God-magic is real but human-magic is not.
The researchers were not content with this result. They wanted to dig into the difficulty religious children had with fantasy stories, so they did another study, this time with just real and fantasy. They divided the fantasy up into several categories, some more generically religious sounding and some more magic sounding. The upshot of the whole thing? Religious children couldn't tell the difference in any context. Real? Magic? Who knows? There is also one particularly nasty finding: Religious children were less likely to screw up if the word "magic" was used (probably because their religious parents have told them God is real but magic is not). But when "magic" was not used in the story, and an impossible narrative was told, religious children just couldn't figure out that it was pretend.
The implications of this study are profound. This time in childhood development is when we form our core cognitive processes. It is when we first separate reality from non-reality, and it imprints the methods we will use for this separation firmly into our minds. It's one thing to add the caveat that perhaps religion is real, and maybe children should grow up believing that some impossible things can happen, but this study shows that when we teach children religion, that's not what happens. They have problems with all fantastical stories, religion included.
To a secularist, there appears to be a clear cycle of bad cognition. Children raised in religion grow into adults who still believe the stories, who raise their children in religion, ad infinitum. Why do so many children seem to have a "God Instinct?" Perhaps it's because all the adults still have a fundamental inability to tell fact from fiction. They think God gives them lottery numbers. They believe in "alternative" cures for cancer. UFO's? Well, probably not real because Ken Ham says aliens are going to hell, but who knows? This isn't just about religion, either. In today's United States, it's about politics, too. Republican politics and pulpit sermons have become almost indistinguishable, and deeply religious people are far more likely to support policy fictions. How people learn to judge reality is one of the most important questions we can ask.
Certainly religious indoctrination between the ages of 5 and 6 is not the end all and be all cause of nuttery in the world. There are secularists who believe really weird things, too. (It would be interesting to examine previously religious secularists against lifelong... but that's another study...) Even so, this study offers a harsh criticism of the practice of religious teaching. Here in the 21st Century, there's a Creation Museum that depicts humans and dinosaurs coexisting. Adults believe in that. They believe in Noah's Ark. The Egyptian Plagues. And dare I say, dead people becoming invisible and going to live in the sky forever. If our adult society was really good at telling fact from fiction, we'd probably be more likely to dismiss this research and say that it's just a phase. From where I sit, it's a phase that far too few people ever grow out of.
Source: Corriveau, Chen, and Harris (2014). Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds. Cognitive Science. ISSN: 0364-0213 print/1551-6709 online DOI: 10.1111/cogs.12138