Critics say religious children can't tell fact from fiction; researchers disagree

Compiled by Kelsey Dallas, Deseret News National Edition

Published: Wed, Aug. 13, 2014, 5:05 a.m. MDT

 A new study on the relationship children have to fact and fiction was taken in unfair directions by the press, the researchers say.

A new study on the relationship children have to fact and fiction was taken in unfair directions by the press, the researchers say.


In late July, a story about the influence of faith on a child's ability to tell fact from fiction generated a lot of attention by religion writers. Drawing from a new study in Cognitive Science, many articles emphasized the potential danger of allowing religious training to influence a kid's grip on reality.

But researchers have responded to this stream of media coverage, clarifying claims their study actually made.

"Some media reports about our research have said … that religious children cannot tell fact from fiction. We doubt such a conclusion is warranted," Kathleen Corriveau wrote for Huffington Post.

The study, conducted by Corriveau, Paul Harris and Eva Chen, wasn't meant to draw a sharp distinction between religious and nonreligious children, she explained. Instead, it explored the variety of influences on a child's relationship to fantasy and facts.

"In our view, upbringing probably has an impact on where children draw the line between fact and fiction. But it does not affect children's basic ability to recognize the difference between make-believe characters and real people," Corriveau explained. "For example, virtually all of the children that we talked to, regardless of their upbringing, thought of Snow White as a fictional character and George Washington as a real person."

The clarification came after headlines like "Religious children have trouble deciding whether fairy tale heroes are real" and "Children exposed to religion have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction" appeared upon the study's release.

The former, from The New York Daily News, set the tone for an article that highlighted how the religious and secular children related to realistic and fantastical stories.

"When asked to distinguish between 'real' and 'pretend' protagonists, children who studied in parochial schools or regularly attended church with their families had trouble telling fact from fiction," the Daily News reported.

A scathing commentary was penned by atheist blogger Hemant Mehta. Writing on Patheos, he claimed that the study is "more evidence for those who believe religious indoctrination is a form of mental child abuse."

Without referring to any particularly problematic articles, Corriveau used her post to explain that the study wasn't meant to be a value judgment on belief in miracles. She explained how "in some instances, the ability to suspend disbelief might be an asset to learning."

"When learning counterintuitive phenomena — such as the entirety of modern physics — the ability to imagine the improbable events might aid in acquiring knowledge," Corriveau wrote.

The study, "Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds," is available online with a subscription.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

1. Philosopher
Goose Creek, SC,
Aug. 13, 2014

You can find almost any study to support any point of view. Point in case: "Benefits of running daily" vs. "Why you shouldn't run daily." Those who want to promote atheism will find any study to support their views, and those who support religion ought to discount the aforementioned studies.

2. Liberal Ted
Salt Lake City, UT,
Aug. 13, 2014

These are 5-6 year old kids. Give them a break. I could phrase those paragraphs to prove that atheist kids don't have an imagination or an ability to be creative. We have grown adults who are clueless as to who is president right now, but, voted for him.

3. bass679
Novi, MI,
Aug. 13, 2014

Honestly this makes a lot of sense to me. I remember when I was a kid having the hardest time remembering whether Samson or Hercules was a real person. I don't know how much it helped abstract thinking later in life (majored in physics) but I don't think it hurt at all. However it made me much more cautious to call someone else's beliefs "silly". Because I know I believe many things they would likely call silly with a very similar conviction.

4. Karen R.
Houston, TX,
Aug. 13, 2014

The conclusion in the abstract is, "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."

But as the quote from Corriveau suggests, the power is not in religious ideas themselves, but how they are presented to the child - who is, after all, programmed to believe its caregivers and authority figures in early childhood.

So I think the study suggests that, when children are taught that magic is real and they are surrounded by adults who consistently reinforce this belief, this can strongly impact their ability to differentiate between reality and fiction. Not an earth-shaking revelation by any means - just confirmation of what we already knew. Children would likely also continue to believe in Santa Claus if this myth was reinforced after they began to question it.

5. There You Go Again
Saint George, UT,
Aug. 13, 2014

Can't tell fact from fiction?

The same can be said for adults whose reality is shaped/based/formed/framed by a steady diet of FOX News, The Drudge Report as well as other Republican Network News affiliates.

C'est la vie.