Are children innately inclined to believe that fantastical stories are true? Or is the widespread tendency of children to believe that fantastical stories are true a result of their being taught by adults to so believe? Kathleen H. Corriveau from the School of Education, Boston University, Eva E. Chen from the Division of Social Science, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Paul L. Harris from the Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, carried out an experiment to answer these questions and the results have been published in Cognitive Science.
They divided 5-6 year old children into four groups based on whether they attended religious or secular school and whether they went to church or not. They worded the same stories three different ways: Realistic, religious miracle, non-religious magical. Some stories featured a well known fictional or historical character (e.g. Goldilocks or Thomas Edison), other stories featured a stranger. They asked the children to evaluate if the story was real or pretend and asked them why they reached their conclusion. They subsequential further varied the fantastical stories four ways according to whether the event was biblical or not and was described with the word "magic" or not.
When introduced to a character via a realistic story (none of the story events violated everyday causal constraints), all four groups of children categorized the character as real. Moreover, when justifying their categorization, they appealed to the reality-bound nature of the story events. All four groups of children were less inclined to categorize the protagonist as real when the story included an explicit reference to magic. This indicates that young children realize that stories involving real people typically include events that could actually happen.
Very few of the no religion children (secular school and no religious worship) categorized the characters embedded in the religious stories as real. Among those that did, none justified that conclusion with a reference to God. Indeed, whenever these no religion children did refer to religion—which they sometimes did in the context of the religious stories—it was to justify a decision that the character was pretend. By contrast, the other three groups of children frequently judged the characters in the religious stories to be real. Moreover, the three groups of religious children often made an appeal to religion to defend their conclusion that the story was true.
The no religion children also categorized the characters embedded in magical stories as pretend, and most of their justifications referred to the impossibility of a central event in the story. Religious children were less likely to judge the characters in the magical stories as pretend (about 50%) and in line with this equivocation, they made more appeals to reality and fewer appeals to impossibility than did secular children.
These results suggest that children are not born believers with a belief instinct. Young children raised without religion have little difficulty recognizing that fantastical stories are fairy tales. Yet all young children, with their limited amount of first hand experience and knowledge, are inclined to value and accept what their parents and other adults tell them. Exposure to religious teaching convinces young children that some agents have special power to override the causal regularities of everyday experience. These children will then readily accept that such extraordinary powers are also wielded by agents presented to them in narratives.
Religion thus undermines the natural ability of children to distinguish fanciful fiction from constrained reality. Unfortunately, it appears that some of this negative impact persists through adulthood and thus a cycle of religious belief and indoctrination repeats itself across generations. This dependency on childhood indoctrination also implies the perpetuation of religion is fragile and can be broken.