When I wrote the article “Should Parents Tell Their Kids ‘The Truth’ About Santa?” three and a half years ago, I argued that most children whose parents allow them to believe are giving them a potentially important opportunity to learn. That is, to understand the process of believing something they inevitably stop believing in (or should I say, most people stop believing in). However, I stumbled upon some research that both reminded me of this story and made me wonder about it.
Research from the University of Boston wanted to know if people could distinguish fact and fiction regardless of religiosity. They told them three types of stories to 66 kindergarteners (aged 5 & 6) – realistic, religious, and fantastical (i.e. impossible) stories. The researchers asked the children if they thought the story’s main character was real or fictional.
Almost all of the kids could tell that the characters were real when the stories were realistic. However, when it came to religious or fantastical stories, kids from secular households were able to tell that the protagonist was fake, while those from religious households thought the protagonist was real. In short, the researchers note:
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.
The scope of this research was not to investigate what effects this has on people over their lifetimes, but this is why many have argued against imposing religious beliefs on their own children. In fact, prominent evolutionary biologist and famed militant atheist Richard Dawkins – among others – argues that doing so is a form of child abuse, as it disadvantages children. Of course, contrary to what many would expect, he does not argue for the banishing of religious teachings – rather, he believes religious schools should teach about all religions, not just their own.
When it comes to religiosity over the lifespan, one recent story that provides some insight caught my attention. As described by Polygon (with my brackets):
An elderly woman in China knelt before a statue of a League of Legends [a popular online computer game] character and prayed, touching off a viral reaction of equal parts amusement and sympathy.
Someone inside an internet café snapped a picture of the woman kneeling and burning incense before a larger-than-life statue of Garen, a character who has been in League of Legends for about six years. The statue appears to be some kind of promotional piece for the café, where League of Legends is commonly played.
Garen is pictured below, as he appears both in the computer game and in 3D (sculpture) form:
Here is the aforementioned shot of the woman who took the time to kneel before the mighty Garen of League of Legends.
Of course, we do not know if she was religiously motivated to kneel and/or pray in front of the statue, and I was especially surprised to see this after learning earlier this year how little religion played a role in Chinese people’s lives. However, it does beg the question: Is this a snapshot of what those religiously-inclined children will look like in the future? It would be great if researchers could investigate how these beliefs may evolve over the time in a longitudinal way, to see if this question could be answered.