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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