New Study Questions Religious Kids’ Grasp on Reality, but Should It?

childwonderThe 1999 Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, left many fans of the original trilogy scratching their heads. But as annoying as Jar-Jar Binks was, perhaps the most unsettling part of the movie was how it stripped away the mystery of “The Force.” In the first Star Wars movie (1977), Obi-Wan Kenobi explains:

…the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together…. A Jedi can feel the force flowing through him.

In The Phantom Menace, another Jedi Master reveals – through a blood test – that the force is actually caused by microscopic organisms called Midi-Chlorians which reside in living cells. There’s really no mystery about who is strong in the force. The same test that measures cholesterol can tell if a person has the chemistry to raise an X-Wing Fighter out of a swamp. In other words, the real menace of the first Star Wars prequel is that it kills the mystery and awe that existed long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Enter a new study published in the July issue of Cognitive Science. According to a Huffington Post article, the study claims “young children who are exposed to religion have a hard time differentiating between fact and fiction.” It went on to describe how researchers had come to their conclusion:

Researchers presented 5- and 6-year-old children from both public and parochial schools with three different types of stories — religious, fantastical and realistic –- in an effort to gauge how well they could identify narratives with impossible elements as fictional.

The study found that, of the 66 participants, children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school were significantly less able than secular children to identify supernatural elements, such as talking animals, as fictional.

Forgive me for being skeptical, but 66 participants? It sounds like these researchers went to two classrooms in an afternoon and decided to publish a paper on it. To claim all children who grow up with religious teaching may confuse fact and fiction based on 66 five and six year olds seems a stretch.

But let’s say the study is accurate. This would only concern us if we buy into two unwarranted and unproven assumptions.

First, that materialistic naturalism is true. Or to put it another way, there is nothing real beyond what we can measure with our senses and science. Commenting on this study, Yale professor of psychology Paul Bloom said, “The problem with certain religious beliefs isn’t that they are incredible (science is also incredible) and isn’t that they ruin children’s ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. It’s that they are false.” So there you have it. The problem isn’t that young children might believe a fantastic story but that they might believe the wrong fantastic story; a religious one instead of a naturalistic, scientific one. But if one doesn’t arrogantly presume religious claims to be false, there is no reason to be concerned.

Second, that one of the goals of our progress is to strip the world of a five year old of its awe and mystery. Going back to Star Wars, the introduction of Midi-Chlorians ruined the concept of “The Force” for many fans because it took the fantastic, untamable energy that bound the galaxy together and made it ordinary and measurable. Is that what we want to do to our children? Suck the wonder out of the world ‘cause science says it ain’t so? And if it’s not what we want to do, then why does this study even matter? Is the measure of a healthy five year old that he knows miracles don’t happen or that he laughs, runs, and plays while imagining adventures with dragons?

Eventually our children will grow up and have to face the harsh realities of the world. But it is fantastic awe and wonder that that makes the world better. C.S. Lewis once answered the objection that children should not be told fairy tales in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” by saying:.

Fairy stories do awaken desires in children, but most often it’s not a desire for the fairy world itself. Most children don’t really want there to be dragons in modern England. Instead, the desire is for “they know not what.” This desire for “something beyond” does not empty the real world, but actually gives it new depths. “He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”**

If religious stories and fairy tales do connect with the desires of children for “something beyond” why is that bad? As they grow older they will be able to determine for themselves the truth of these stories. In the meantime, let them live in the wonder and mystery. As Albert Einstein said,

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

If all true art and science comes from the experience of the mysterious then we should spend less time studying children’s ability to define reality and more time letting them stand in awe and wonder. They may be on to something in the world that dreary, hardened, adult researchers have silenced long ago.

Things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. –Psalm 78:3-4

Brian

**paraphrased by Jon Rigney in the article “Three Objections to Fairy Tales and C.S. Lewis’ Response” posted at Desiring God (http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/three-objections-to-fairy-tales-and-c-s-lewiss-response)

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Climate Change: Everybody Needs an Apocalpyse

climate-changeBrian Williams sounded the alarm about a new U.N. climate report on NBC’s Nightly News this week, stating that “Unless the world changes course quickly and dramatically, the fundamental systems that support human civilization are at risk.” He was flanked on each side by images of forest fires, floods, and mudslides. The story moved to NBC’s chief environmental correspondent, Anne Thompson, who was standing in New Jersey where super-storm Sandy had blown through. She warned that coastal communities could soon disappear, beginning a montage of scary images with warnings of deadlier storm surges, hotter fires, and shrinking glaciers. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton Geosciences and International Affairs explained that everyone who lives in cities, along coasts, or who eats wheat or corn is in trouble. To make matters worse, the ocean is becoming more acidic, killing coral reefs and the shellfish industry. There will be more droughts, hotter summers, and no one will escape the consequences.

It gave me a bit of a flashback. Not to my last trip to the recycling bin, but to Sunday school when I first learned about the end of the world. There I learned God’s judgment would fall on all who did not change course quickly and dramatically. Wars and natural disasters would sweep through the world, everyone would receive the mark of the beast, and no one would escape the consequences.

Everybody needs an apocalypse. Humanity seems to be hardwired for judgment. We know our conduct has been less than admirable and should earn some epic consequences. As Revelation 11:18 says:

The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.

Look at the popularity of recent dystopian series and movies like Divergent, The Hunger Games, Oblivion, Elysium, the Walking Dead, etc. We seem to know our actions will create a less than satisfying future.

But what happens when you have a secular worldview? When religion with its supernatural prophecies is pushed out or to the periphery? You still need an apocalypse. And that is why our culture needs climate change. As President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address, “The debate is settled, climate change is a fact.”

Yet as Charles Krauthammer points out in his column “The Myth of Settled Science,” the facts of climate change are not so simple. There has been no change in global temperature in 15 years according to Britain’s national weather service. The climate change models predicted a wet California, not a dry one like we have today. Superstorm Sandy, the poster child for climate-driven storms, is largely unimpressive compared to past hurricanes to hit New York; three caused damage to the state in 1954 alone. 2013 saw the fewest Atlantic hurricanes in 30 years. Arctic ice was supposed to disappear by 2013 but experienced a 60% increase that same year.

I’m not affirming or denying man-made climate change. As Christians, we are called to take care of the planet regardless of the temperature. The point is that despite complex and often contradictory evidence, proponents of climate change will accept no debate; like a religious believer who refuses to entertain the prospect that Jesus isn’t returning or their loved ones aren’t reincarnating.

Climate change is a story that gives meaning to the lives of secular people. The story goes something like this – we were created by blind nature, have sinned by polluting that nature, and if we fail to repent we will bring about the end of the world in a judgment of super storms, droughts, fires, heat, and floods leading to starvation, wars, and death. This story gives meaning to otherwise purposeless lives. One can save the planet and the future by turning off lights, conserving water, recycling, driving a Prius, eating organic, reducing carbon footprints, composting trash, and voting for environmentally-minded politicians. Just as each minor action in a religious believer’s life has meaning because of God’s judgment, so each minor action to fight climate change has meaning because of nature’s judgment.

If we didn’t have climate change we’d probably have to invent it. That’s why, after the failure of past climate change models, scientists simply create new ones with slightly adjusted horrors. It’s eerily similar to the failure of various Christian dates and scenarios of the apocalypse from the 16th century Anabaptists to Harold Camping’s 2011 prediction of Jesus’ return. Judgment is hardwired into us all as Paul writes in Romans 2:15

[Gentiles] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.

The law written on our hearts accuses us but the slow fade of religious influence in the West has left us without recourse. We need judgment and we need a way to appease it. The NBC Nightly News report was not about degrees Celsius, inches of ice, or levels of acidity as much as it was about a story – a story of humanity’s environmental sin against a judgmental planet that will result in terrible consequences if we do not repent and live differently. In a secular age, this is might be the best religion our culture can preach.

-Brian

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Golden Corral Religion: When Belief Becomes a Buffet

“Am I really having this conversation?” This thought went through my mind as I listened to the middle-aged woman in front of me explain that, while she was a committed Christian who attended a local Presbyterian church, she believed strongly in reincarnation. When I asked her how that could be squared with passages such as Hebrews 9:27, “…it is appointed for a man to die once,” she informed me the “reincarnation parts” had been taken out of the Bible. I guess her Bible reads, “it is appointed for a man to die once unless he has karmic debt to work off, in which case Christ will send him back as a bovine.” That must be somewhere in 2nd Opinions, chapter 3.

For more fun try Bruce Leininger, a professing Christian who authored a book entitled Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot last year. He recounts how several vivid dreams his nine year old son had led him to believe his boy was reincarnated WWII pilot James M. Huston, Jr. Despite raising a pre-pubescent war hero, Leininger reports his Christian faith remains intact and his wife says the situation has ‘enhanced’ her belief system. Neither of them is alone. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported in December 2009 that 22% of Christians believe in reincarnation, 29% believe they have been in touch with the dead, 23% believe there is spiritual energy in trees and other natural objects, and another 23% believe in astrology.

This confirms even Christians are participators in America’s favorite religion which I have nicknamed “Golden Corral Religion”. If you’re not familiar with Golden Corral, it is America’s number one buffet restaurant with 481 locations in 41 different states. It is a food-tastic experience to walk down the buffet and see salad, fruit, mac & cheese, steak, roast beef, tacos, pizza, fried chicken, buttery rolls, green bean casserole, cheesecake, and banana pudding stretching as far as the eye can see. The exciting thing about a buffet is that I can pick and choose what I want and leave what I don’t. I can load my plate with pizza, cheese fries, and a brownie while passing over peas, spinach, and liver. This is the way America views religion: “I can either choose among the beliefs of a variety of religions or I can choose one religion and shape it into something I prefer.” Thus, I walk away from the buffet of religion with an easily digestible plate of my own religion.

This was seen recently when Al Mohler (President of Southern Seminary) wrote an article about Christians and Yoga that was picked up by the Associated Press. In the article, Mohler points out that Yoga – an eastern form of physical and spiritual meditation that connects one with the divine – is contrary to the Christian faith. Mohler received hundreds of emails and comments from angry Christians who insisted Yoga enhanced their ‘spirituality’ without a single biblical or theological argument. One Baptist church member wrote: “I get much more out of yoga and meditation than I ever get out of a sermon in church. “ A Christian who ‘goes to church every service’ wrote:

My favorite image I use in yoga is that of Jesus assuming a perfect yoga position in the garden of Gethsemane as he prays. How do we know that the apostles and early Christian guys did not use yoga to commune with Jesus after he left?

Some have no problem eating from a buffet including faiths opposed to Christ as long as they have a spirituality that works for them.

Christians even turn their own faith into a buffet even if they don’t mix it with others. They choose God’s love but leave off His wrath. They practice what Jesus teaches about moral purity but not justice, or vice-versa. They believe Jesus died for their sins and gives eternal life but everyone doesn’t need him; other faiths will do. They adopt what Paul says about salvation but what he says about gender roles has to go. They celebrate the reality of heaven but deny the reality of hell – even though Jesus talked more about the latter. They teach homosexuality as acceptable but dismiss celibacy outside of marriage as quaint. While their plate comes from Christianity they see the faith as a buffet and will consume only what they deem palatable.

There are two errors that lead Christians into Golden Corral religion. First is a misplaced authority. In buffet religion the authority is the self. If I don’t like a particular teaching then I don’t have to believe it; if something works for me then I can accept it. I am the decider of what is true and what is not. I am my own little god. No authority outside of me like a book, church, or savior is going to tell me what to eat. Second is a lack of consistency; I don’t have to think through or act in accordance with my faith. I haven’t taken the time to learn and understand what I believe so I say and do things that contradict the very faith I profess. It’s like being on a strict low-carb diet and taking fourteen buttery rolls from the buffet. I still believe strongly in my need for a low-carb diet, I just don’t know what it involves or am unwilling to change my life for it.

The problem with Golden Corral religion is that it’s a lie. Since we are not gods, our declarations of what is true and what is false are meaningless. Our spirituality may work for us and we may gather a large following (see Oprah) but we’ve still constructed a fairy tale of our own making. Let us humble ourselves under the authority of God and His word and strive to think and live consistently with the faith once and for all handed down to the saints (Jude 3). The alternative could be raising dead World War II pilots while attending yoga classes more faithfully than church. Yikes.

-Brian

Al Mohler’s article on Yoga

The response to Mohler’s article on Yoga

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