If you take your kids to church, they may have trouble distinguishing fact from fantasy. That’s the upshot of a recent study published in the July issue of Cognitive Science.
How did the researchers reach this conclusion? They presented kindergarten students (aged five and six) with different types of stories which they classified variously as “realistic, “religious,” and “fantastical.” They then asked the kids to decide whether the protagonist in each story sounded fictional or real.
All of the children easily identified the “realistic” characters. Churchgoing kids thought the “religious” (Biblical) stories sounded realistic, while secular kids called them fiction. Perhaps most interesting were the reactions to “fantastical” stories. The secular kids roundly rejected these as fiction, while religious kids were less sure. Is magic possible? How about talking animals? Religious kids were divided on those points.
Liberal commentators happily seized on the study as evidence that inducting your child into a religion is mental child abuse. From an early age, religion divorces people from reality. This doesn’t just apply to traditional religious stories, which kids may have heard at home. Religious kids are also more likely to believe in magical powers and fire-sticks! They have, in the researchers’ estimation, “blanket credulity” towards fantastic things. In short, they are less discerning and less aware of reality than their secular peers.
Sounds like a real black eye for religion, eh?
The Commonsense Replies
A number of bloggers and journalists have put out a sensible defense on behalf of religion. Let’s give those a look before taking the offensive.
First of all, it should be noted that the children involved in the study are quite young. Let’s suppose a religious upbringing does somewhat retard the development of “reality-discerning” abilities. Does it matter? It’s kind of cute to meet a kindergartener who still believes in tooth fairies and magic wands. (And God.) Granted, at some point a girl just has to accept that she’s never getting a unicorn for Christmas. Is there any rush, though? She’ll figure it out soon enough.
More importantly, we should bear in mind that imaginative play is actually quite important to children’s moral and social development. Imagination helps kids develop creativity and empathy. Kids want to understand the world, but there are significant limits to what they can experience personally. Imagination helps them to project themselves mentally into a wider variety of scenarios and circumstances, which helps them develop into broad-minded, well-adjusted adults.
Now, to be fair, you can have an imagination without becoming psychotic. It’s possible to play-act fantasies while understanding they are fictional. Still, imaginative play is all about pushing the boundaries of the mind, and it seems reasonable to expect that a very active imagination might, in a young child, blur the lines a bit between fact and fantasy. Again, it’s hard to see this as cause for panic. They’re kids. No one’s electing them to high office or putting them in charge of a company. Who cares if it takes them a couple of extra years to recognize that talking bears aren’t real?
Given a choice whether to prioritize a lively imagination or a precocious sense of reality-perception, I think the answer is pretty easy, at least for kindergarten-aged children. I actually find it depressing to think of all those secular five-year-olds out there who are already too world-wise to pick up a “lucky” penny or wish on a star.
Just the Facts, Kids
I’m sure there’s a dedicated secularist out there who is prepared to make the case for precocious reality-perception. Part of that would probably turn on concerns about “lying” to our children, and I know many conscientious parents (some of them very religious) who share those concerns. I’ve never personally struggled with that, at least with respect to innocent activities like star-wishing. I just see these as fun ways of entering into my children’s imaginative world. As they get older, I’m pretty sure they’ll be able to figure out when I’m playing lighthearted games with them, and when I’m imparting deep and important metaphysical truths. If not, I’ll drop the fantasies and talk to them straight. Once again though, I see imagination as the priority for younger kids. And I’m fairly sure our toddlers don’t benefit from our modern obsession with epistemic fastidiousness.
Not everyone sees it that way. To a certain kind of person, even star-wishing is distasteful, because (as they would have it) right-minded people should prioritize truth. If our children really must have myths and fairy tales, perhaps we can grin and bear it for a limited developmental period. But we must be very clear in explaining that fantastical stories are intended for entertainment and allegorical instruction, and are not literal accounts of true events. Children should be taught to value truth above all else.
It sounds like a noble position. Its proponents certainly think it is. But I believe in truth too, and still have no problem getting my kids excited for the Easter bunny. In fact, I would say that the worst thing about a secular education is its tendency to divorce children from the truth by cultivating myopia and narrow-mindedness, thus lessening their ability to grasp complex realities.
The Secular Kindergarteners Are Narrowminded
To see how, let’s consider a specific story-set from the study, as reported here. We are given three adaptations of a famous Biblical story. A character named “Joseph” travels to a far country which is ruled by an unkind king. Joseph wants to impress the king, so he offers valuable information: terrible storms are coming, but the king can protect himself by taking certain precautions. The strategy works. The king is so impressed with Joseph’s predictive power that the two become fast friends.
But how does Joseph get this amazing information? Here is where the adaptations differ. In the “realistic” story, he relies on empirical observations and his superior understanding of the natural world. In the “religious” story, the tip comes from God in a dream. The “fantastical” story involves vaguely-described magical powers.
What we really see in this example, then, is an exercise in kindergarten epistemology. What sources of knowledge do the children regard as (at least potentially) reliable? All the kids know it’s possible to learn new things through empirical study. The secular kids are pretty sure that’s the only safe way to go, and that revelation and magic are impossible. Religious kids leave divine revelation firmly on the table, but on “magic” (that is, some other supernatural source besides God), they’re unsure.
Now, obviously, this study raises a lot of questions about what sorts of things can or might in fact be real. The prejudices of the researchers are hilariously obvious in their decision to contrast “religion” to “reality”, but let’s set that aside, and presume for the sake of argument that they are right to regard at least the “fantastical” phenomena as unreal. Does it follow that the children who disbelieve in magic are better at discerning truth from fiction?
Of course not. People can be right for all kinds of wrong reasons. And given that we’re talking about kindergarteners, it’s probably fair to assume that they don’t have a sophisticated grasp of either science or religion. As for magic, they presumably have not traveled the globe to see whether there might be magicians in Arabia or soothsayers in the Far East, or whether David Copperfield might really be able to disappear. How do they know that there’s no magic?
Admittedly, most adults haven’t traveled the globe either, and that’s no excuse for being endlessly credulous. We don’t demand that a person visit every barnyard in the world before asserting pigs cannot fly. Even so, we should be wary about equating disbelief with “critical-mindedness” or “reality-perception.” Undiscerning skepticism is no more rational than undiscerning credulity.
In fact, given their limited experience of the world, might we not see credulity in five-year-olds as a good thing? Might it not exhibit a pleasing modesty about how much people their age can really know with confidence? Over time, of course, that broad credulity should be sharpened and refined by contact with reality. But the child who believes in dragons and griffins is far more likely to explore the evidence than one who dismisses all such tales out of hand.
When a kindergartener scoffs at ghosts and fairies (and God), we can’t really suppose that their views are the product of careful, critical consideration. Rather, they have an inchoate awareness of the kinds of things modern people believe. Secular children have imbibed a spirit of reflexive disbelief long before they have the ability to evaluate the evidence for themselves.
The Mermaid Conundrum
In my undergraduate philosophy course, I sometimes run an experiment somewhat similar to the one described in this study. The whole thing started almost by accident one day when my lecture ran unexpectedly short (a rare occurrence). With 15 minutes to fill, I decided it might be interesting to offer a lead-in to the upcoming unit in religious epistemology, by asking students about mermaids. Did they believe in them? Why or why not?
They don’t, of course. After running this discussion for multiple semesters now, I have yet to encounter a student who will publicly admit to believing in mermaids, ghosts, fairies or angels. Secularists, rejoice! By college, even the churchgoers have realized that such things are beyond the pale.
None of that is remotely surprising. But the interesting part is my students’ explanation of why they don’t believe.
At first the students normally suggest they don’t believe in such things owing to a lack of evidence. I then present them with firsthand accounts of people (often spanning multiple cultures and historical periods) who claim to have seen such creatures. (The original question was prompted by this story about multiple claimed mermaid sightings in the Israeli town of Haifa.) At that point, the students immediately shift to discrediting my sources, suggesting they must be mentally unbalanced or perhaps victims of elaborate hoaxes. I ask them what they would think if I myself (a person whose authority they would normally trust) claimed to have seen a ghost or a mermaid. Their answer is clear and confident: they would think I was crazy.
Non-belief in fantastical creatures is a reflexive impulse for my students. That includes the churchgoing ones. Their unwillingness to believe in ghosts and mermaids transcends any evaluation of available evidence. Normal, sane, respectable people don’t believe in ghosts or mermaids, so my students don’t either. It’s as simple as that.
It’s easy to see why secularists would want to induct the young into their materialist worldview as early as possible. On that score, applauding kindergarteners for toeing the party line makes perfect sense. But there’s no reason the rest of us should acknowledge that secular children have a better grip on reality, simply because they’ve already entrusted themselves to the ministrations of scientific materialists.
Have mermaids ever existed? Vampires? Necromancers? The Loch Ness Monster? I’m guessing not, but this much I know: there’s a lot more to reality than meets the eye. Also, the world is full of village skeptics, who are so afraid of being “taken in” by ghost stories that they are incapable of wonder. So I think I’ll keep taking my kids to church. They may not be fashionably modern, but I’m guessing they’ll end up thanking their lucky stars for that.