Monday, July 28, 2014

Does Religion Dull One’s Ability to Distinguish Between Fact and Fantasy?

A visitor to my website recently brought my attention to a noteworthy article about a study published in the July issue of Cognitive Science. The article, with its provocative title, can be found here:
According to the article, the researchers in the study
demonstrate that children typically have a “sensitivity to the implausible or magical elements in a narrative,” and can determine whether the characters in the narrative are real or fictional by references to fantastical elements within the narrative, such as “invisible sails” or “a sword that protects you from danger every time.”
However, their research does not bear this out so well among children who have been exposed (presumably in a positively reinforcing manner) to religious teaching. The article states:
“Children with exposure to religion — via church attendance, parochial schooling, or both — judged [characters in religious stories] to be real,” the authors wrote. “By contrast, children with no such exposure judged them to be pretend,” just as they had the characters in fairy tales. But children with exposure to religion judged many characters in fantastical, but not explicitly religious stories, to also be real — the equivalent of being incapable of differentiating between Mark Twain’s character Tom Sawyer and an account of George Washington’s life.
The abstract of the study itself, which can be found here, reads as follows:
In two studies, 5- and 6-year-old children were questioned about the status of the protagonist embedded in three different types of stories. In realistic stories that only included ordinary events, all children, irrespective of family background and schooling, claimed that the protagonist was a real person. In religious stories that included ordinarily impossible events brought about by divine intervention, claims about the status of the protagonist varied sharply with exposure to religion. Children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school, or both, judged the protagonist in religious stories to be a real person, whereas secular children with no such exposure to religion judged the protagonist in religious stories to be fictional. Children's upbringing was also related to their judgment about the protagonist in fantastical stories that included ordinarily impossible events whether brought about by magic (Study 1) or without reference to magic (Study 2). Secular children were more likely than religious children to judge the protagonist in such fantastical stories to be fictional. 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.
I have not examined the details of the study any further than what the lead article and the study’s abstract say about it, so I cannot comment on the methods employed in the study beyond what is given in these two sources.

However, on the face of it, this seems to be nothing less than scientific confirmation of the kind of outcome one would expect from people under the influence of religion if what I have argued is correct. For several years I have been pointing out how religion subsists on blurring the fundamental distinction between reality and imagination. The reader who brought this article to my attention commented that my infamous question – “How can I reliably distinguish between what the believer calls ‘God’ and what he may merely be imagining?” – continues to go unanswered.

Many apologists for the philosophical primitivism of religion have kicked and squirmed in response to this question. But as my blog’s visitor rightly points out, none have been able to answer this question in a manner that salvages religion from my critique.

by Dawson Bethrick