ANALYSIS: Religious beliefs form by age 6

NASHVILLE (BP) -- As early as kindergarten, people have decided whether they believe God intervenes in the world or whether the universe is a closed system of natural causes, a new study by researchers at Boston University, Harvard and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology suggests.

Published in the July issue of Cognitive Science, the study by Kathleen Corriveau, Eva Chen and Paul Harris asked 5- and 6-year-olds to identify whether the protagonists in various stories rendered in several sentences were real people or fictional ones and then provide a reason for their classifications.

Some of the stories were adapted from the Bible and included miraculous events brought about through divine intervention -- though several of the accounts got biblical details wrong. Other stories, labelled "fantastical," were modifications of the same Bible stories with all references to divine intervention removed and the supernatural events presented as magic. A third group of stories, labelled "realistic," modified the Bible stories further to exclude supernatural events and replace them with events that were "plausible due to human intervention."

For example, the study included an adaptation of the biblical David and Goliath story, a fantastical version in which David kills Goliath with a magic stone and a realistic version in which David notices there is no armor protecting the giant's head and attacks the vulnerable region.

Not surprisingly, children who attended church, parochial school or both identified the biblical protagonists as real more often than children who attended neither church nor parochial school. More unexpectedly, children receiving religious education at church or school also identified the fantastical protagonists as real more often than their secular counterparts. All the children tended to characterize realistic protagonists as real.

In a second facet of the experiment, researches tried to determine why children with Christian training were more likely to identify religious and fantastical stories as real. This time they presented a series of supernatural stories, changing all the characters' names so that they were not recognizable as people in the Bible and including stories of some supernatural events not in Scripture. Again religious children were more likely than secular children to classify characters from supernatural accounts as real -- regardless of whether the supernatural events were described as magic or recounted without reference to magic or divinity. The secular children, researchers said, "systematically treated the characters as 'pretend.'"

The study's authors concluded that the divergent responses were not due to the religious children's familiarity with Bible stories or their propensity to believe in magic. Rather, "religious children have a broader conception of what events can actually happen" because they are taught that divine interaction can "override ordinary causal regularities." In other words, by age 6 children have already established a belief about whether God does or does not intervene in the world, and they interpret what they observe based on that belief.

Media reports of the study have tended to portray children with Christian training as ignorant or developmentally challenged. For example, the Huffington Post reported that "young children who are exposed to religion have a hard time differentiating between fact and fiction." But a careful examination of the study suggests the opposite of what some media reports imply. In the rush to slam Christianity, it's been overlooked that religious children correctly identified the true stories far more often than did secular children. After all, the "realistic" and "fantastical" stories were mere concoctions of the researchers' imaginations, unlike the biblically based stories, which were largely true though some changed the details of Bible stories and one was an apocryphal story about Jesus that contained elements similar to what is reported in the Gospels.

Of course, the religious children got some answers wrong too. They misidentified as true some fantastical stories. And they performed "at chance" when asked about stories that resembled biblical accounts, but with different names and events (like John parting a mountain rather Moses parting a sea). Still, the secular children misidentified the religious stories as false at a higher rate than the religious children misidentified the fantastical stories as true. In the end, the Christian worldview proved more effective at recognizing truth than the secular worldview.

Ironically, a secular study underscores the importance of Christian training for children. That training must begin at home and continue at church. As the Baptist Faith and Message says, "Christianity is the faith of enlightenment and intelligence," and "an adequate system of Christian education is necessary to a complete spiritual program for Christ's people" -- even in kindergarten.


David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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