Did Study Really Show That Christian Kids Are More Gullible?

2008 VBS - Outrigger Island
2008 VBS - Outrigger Island | (Courtesy of First Baptist Nashville)

Touting a new study, some reporters and bloggers claimed that children raised in religious homes have difficulty telling the difference between fact and fiction. The study, however, does not justify these claims.

The online version of "Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds," authored by researchers Kathleen Corriveau, Boston University; Eva Chen, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; and Paul Harris, Harvard, was published July 3 in Cognitive Science.

Here are a few of the headlines reporting on the study:

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"Is Religion Good for Children? Secular children differ in happiness, mental health, and their grasp of reality."

"Children Exposed To Religion Have Difficulty Distinguishing Fact From Fiction, Study Finds."

"Study: Religious children are less able to distinguish fantasy from reality."

What the study likely showed, however, is that children who are taught that Bible stories are real are more likely to believe that Bible stories are real, and children who are taught that Bible stories are not real are more likely to believe that Bible stories are not real.

The study tested 65 5- and 6-year-old children from Christian and secular homes attending parochial and public schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(Though the study claims to compare children from "religious" and "non-religious" families, only Christians were represented. Six Jewish kids ended up in the study, but they were excluded from the results because they may have been unfamiliar with the New Testament.)

The children were presented with three stories, which the researchers categorized as "religious," "fantastical," or "realistic," and asked to evaluate whether the characters were "pretend" or "real." The children were then asked why they made the choice they made.

The children from Christian and secular homes, parochial and public schools, identified characters from the "realistic" stories as "real" at about the same high rate. The children from Christian homes attending Christian schools performed slightly better on this test than those from non-church-going homes attending public schools. Churchgoers attending public schools performed the worst. But the differences among all the groups were small and not statistically significant.

With the "religious" stories, the children from religious homes and from secular homes attending religious schools were more likely to label the characters "real" and children from secular homes attending public schools were more likely to describe the characters as "pretend."

In actuality, the characters from the "realistic" stories were, in a sense, "pretend," because they were characters made up by the researchers, and the characters from the "religious" stories were "real," because they were taken from the historical books of the Bible. But since the researchers were testing whether the children would identify miraculous events as not real, the labels were chosen as they were.

For the "fantastical" stories, the children from religious homes and schools were also more likely to label the characters "real" while the secular children were more likely to label them "pretend," though the differences were not as large as it was for the "religious" stories.

The news reports claiming that religious kids cannot tell fact from fiction are based on this last result. When a "fantasy" situation is described to religious children, they have difficulty recognizing it is pretend, but children from secular families do not have the same difficulty, they concluded.

Here, though, is the rub: all the stories are based upon biblical stories with well known (to churchgoers) biblical characters, with only slight variations to distinguish "religious," "fantastical" and "realistic."

The characters used were Elisha, Jonah, Joseph, Samson, Peter, David, Jesus, Moses and Noah. (The Jesus story was about healing a sick person named "Libnah." There is no such person in the New Testament and the authors offered no explanation for why they did that.)

Here are the three stories used for Moses:

Religious: This is Moses. Moses was leading his people from their enemies, when they reached the sea. Moses asked God for help, and waved his staff. The sea parted into two, and Moses and his people escaped through the dry land in the middle.

Fantastical: This is Moses. Moses was leading his people from their enemies, when they reached the sea. Moses had a magic staff and he used it. He waved his staff and the sea parted into two, and Moses and his people escaped through the dry land in the middle.

Realistic: This is Moses. Moses was leading his people from their enemies, when they reached the sea. Moses asked a fisherman for help, and borrowed his boat. He waved his staff goodbye. Moses and his people sailed on the boat to the other side of the sea and they escaped.

The only difference between the "religious" and "fantastical" stories is that the reference to God was taken out and Moses' staff was referred to as a "magic staff." Children familiar with the story of Moses from the Bible could have easily assumed that both stories referred to the same Moses. The fact that the Moses from the "realistic" story was actually a character made up by the researchers could have added additional confusion for the kindergartners.

Unlike the sensational headlines reporting on the study, the researchers were not testing whether religious children are capable of distinguishing fact from fiction. Rather, they were investigating whether humans have an innate belief in God. Like the reporting, however, their conclusions could not be drawn from their data.

They concluded that because the children from secular homes were less likely to believe that miraculous stories really happened, and less likely to appeal to religion in their justifications, the study supports the view that there is no innate tendency to believe in God.

"Contrary to what might be expected if children were 'born believers' or possessed a 'belief instinct,'" they wrote, children from secular homes "treated stories of the miraculous as akin to fairy stories. Indeed, some secular children displayed an attitude of active skepticism toward religion. They referred to God to justify their categorization of a story protagonist as pretend."

In other words, the children from religious homes or schools are demonstrating learned behavior in their belief in God, but children from secular homes demonstrate what is innate. This conclusion unjustifiably assumes that religious parents teach their children their belief systems but secular parents do not. An alternative hypothesis that could have led to the same results is that belief in God is innate but children in secular homes are conditioned to believe otherwise.

The study may have shown different results as well if stories of the miraculous from other belief systems were used. Some studies have shown that seculars, or those who are not affiliated with any particular religion, believe in certain types of supernatural occurrences at rates that are about the same or higher than average.

A 2009 Pew Forum study, for instance, showed that seculars believed in reincarnation, yoga as a spiritual practice, spiritual energy in physical objects, and astrology in rates that were the same or higher than for the general population. (White evangelical protestants who attend religious services weekly were the least likely, by far, to believe in those things.)

So, what if the researchers included fantastical stories about reincarnation, yoga, spiritual energy or astrology. Would they show the same results?

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