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The faith of a child

July 20, 2014

From the education departments of Boston University and Harvard comes a fun study suggesting that to five and six year-old children, the imagined worlds of Wolverine and Jesus are not all that different. Children raised in religious households were more inclined to think other imaginary and impossible stories also were real. (Cite.)

Maybe. Such studies are fraught with all sorts of difficulties. Ignoring the methodological issues (small numbers, singular set-up, and the test groups divided by parental choice), there are significant interpretive problems. Here’s the claimed upshot:

This conclusion contradicts previous studies in which children were said to be “born believers,” i.e. that they possessed “a natural credulity toward extraordinary beings with superhuman powers. Indeed, secular children responded to religious stories in much the same way as they responded to fantastical stories — they judged the protagonist to be pretend.”

Since the study looks at only one age group, it can’t refute that claim. Maybe children do start out born believers, unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, and secular children just learn more quickly to make that distinction. It’s not even certain that the reality-fantasy distinction is what the study is teasing out, rather than, say, a respect for authority. Maybe religious children that age are more likely to believe what adults tell them. Or maybe there is a cluster of gullibility genes, and those who inherit them are born to believe. It’s easy to spin all sorts of explanations for this.

Still, it’s interesting and suggestive. And fun. But just one data point, still.

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