A recent study by researchers at Boston University shows religious exposure may affect children's ability to distinguish fiction from fact.
Researchers presented three types of stories (religious, realistic, and fantastical) to a group of 5- and 6-year-old children, and tested to determine whether or not religious exposure affected children's ability to identify if characters were real or make-believe.
Not surprisingly, they found a clear distinction in children from a religious background - those children had a much harder time differentiating between fact and fiction. As the study, published in the journal Cognitive Science, notes:
“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.”
The researchers found that all children, regardless of their religious background, identified the main character of the realistic stories as real. When presented with religious stories, that included “ordinarily impossible events brought about by divine intervention,” children who attended church or were enrolled in a parochial school, or both, identified the lead character as real, which isn’t unexpected. On the other hand, children with no religious exposure judged the protagonist of the religious stories to be fictional.
The results may lead us to wonder if religion doesn't reinforce gullibility. About 28 percent of Americans who participated in the 2013-2014 Gallup survey believe that the Bible is the actual word of God and should be interpreted literally, while another 47 percent think that the Bible is inspired by the word of God. It is pretty clear that we are not born believers, but are shaped into believers depending on our exposure to religious teachings.
It is difficult to prove if growing up in a religious setting turns children into better people, and in fact, some studies have even shown that religious children are meaner and more punitive than secular children.
It's definitely something to think about. The full study can be viewed here.