Every child believed that the protagonist of the realistic stories was a real person. But when asked about the stories featuring biblically inspired or non-biblical but magical events, the children disagreed. Children raised with religion thought the protagonists of the miraculous stories were real people, and they seemed to interpret the narratives—both biblical and magical—as true accounts.
Secular children, on the other hand, were quick to perceive that these stories were fictitious, construing them as fairy tales rather than real-life narratives. They had a far keener sense of reality than religious children, who failed to understand that magic does not exist and believed that stories describing magical details such as “invisible sails” could be real. Secular kids generally understood that any story featuring magic could not take place in the world they inhabit.
To the researchers behind the study, this division in perceptions of reality was striking. “Religious teaching,” they wrote, “especially exposure to miracle stories, leads children to a more generic receptivity toward the impossible, that is, a more wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal relations.”
If you’re surprised by these findings, you probably haven’t attended a church service lately. Religions tend to be founded on miracle stories—exactly the thing religious kids had trouble distinguishing from reality. When you’ve been told that a woman was created from a man’s rib, or that a man reawakened three days postmortem little worse for wear, your grasp on reality is bound to take a hit. Religious children are told these stories from an early age, often as though they are unquestionably true. (Some are told that questioning them might lead to eternal damnation.) If you’re expected to believe two of every animal could fit on an ark made of gopher wood, wouldn’t you have trouble understanding that magical sails don’t exist?
It’s still unclear, of course, exactly how seriously religion hinders kids’ perceptions of reality; the children in the latest study were 3 to 6 years old, so the effect could fade as kids garner more complex critical thinking skills. And some researchers aren’t so sure the study’s results can be extrapolated. Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, called it “a cool study by a sharp research team,” but note that most kids, religious or secular, are pretty good at distinguishing fantasy from reality.
“For the most part, children only look incompetent when dealing with the stories of clever psychologists,” Bloom told me. He also noted that children are frequently exposed to seemingly incredible things that also happen to be true, such as evolution and plate tectonics, which can force them to re-evaluate their perceptions of reality.
“The problem with certain religious beliefs,” according to Bloom, “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.”
That’s the problem that undergirds pretty much every study about religion and happiness: Even if religion can make you happy, that happiness often requires us to buy into fantasies. It’s no coincidence that the most statistically significant mental health difference between religious and secular children arises between the age of 12 and 15, when nondevout kids go through the existential crises of adolescence while religious kids can dig deeper into their trench of piousness. This mental health bump disappears in adulthood, when religious people—perhaps because they’re operating in the real world—aren’t measurably happier or nicer than their secular brethren (unless they live in a country that favors believers and ostracizes atheists).
The question of children and religion, then, is really just a small part of the broader dilemma of faith versus skepticism. In the United States, the vast majority of us choose the former and push our kids to do the same. That might make them docile, obliging, and credulous. But it doesn’t make them better people.