Children who undergo religious education are more likely to have a broader view of whats possible.
  • Brian O’Mahoney / Sun-Times Media
  • Children who undergo religious education are more likely to have a broader view of what’s possible.

The trouble with scholarly papers is that the scholars who write them don’t know how to write catchy headlines. They need to be shown.

The paper “Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds” just showed up in the July issue of Cognitive Science, official journal of the Cognitive Science Society. Its authors—Kathleen H. Corriveau, Eva E. Chen, and Paul L. Harris—are academics.

Because the paper cost $35 to download while its abstract was free online, my guess is news articles on the paper were mostly based on the abstract. This can be good and bad.

What’s good is that it saves a lot of time (the paper is 30 pages long, the abstract a paragraph). What’s bad is that nuances get lost. Then again, who needs nuances? They just get in the way of the snappy headlines old pros produce. Headlines such as these:

HuffPo: “Children Exposed To Religion Have Difficulty Distinguishing Fact From Fiction, Study Finds”

New York Daily News: “Religious children have trouble deciding whether fairy tale heroes are real: study” “Children exposed to religion have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction: researchers”

Website of Americans Against the Tea Party: “Study Proves Religious Kids Have Difficulty Telling Fact from Fiction”

As these alarm bells ring in our ears, it’s clear we face a horrifying crisis: rabid religionists depriving tots of the power of reason. Any responsible parent who gets his or her hands on this incendiary research will be outraged, don’t you think?

My advice: if you want to be outraged—as so many of us do—stick to the abstract, which keeps it simple. It explains that children five and six years old were told three kinds of stories: “realistic stories,” “religious stories that included ordinarily impossible events brought about by divine intervention,” and “fantastical stories” in which the divine was not invoked.

“Children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school, or both, judged the protagonist in religious stories to be a real person, whereas secular children with no such exposure to religion judged the protagonist in religious stories to be fictional.” Furthermore, “secular children were more likely than religious children to judge the protagonist in . . . fantastical stories to be fictional.”

In short, “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.”

But as we think about the children, questions arise. How important do we think it actually is that Americans know the difference between fact and fiction when (a) they’re senators and congressmen or (b) when they’re five and six years old?

If we have a child just past infancy who fails to accept the impossibility of the impossible, do we as responsible parents (a) mourn his or her blighted intellect, (b) shrug it off as par for the course at that age, or (c) tingle with the hope that this is an early sign of creative genius?

During World War II, army engineers took as their motto, “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.” Do we (a) admire their spunk or (b) weep on reflecting that their addled minds must have prolonged the war by years?

One more question lurks in the background: What happens to a child’s imagination when he or she is allowed nothing to imagine?

But now comes good news. Some mischief maker has posted the entire study online. On reading it, we discover its authors aren’t obtuse. They understand there’s more than one way of thinking about their material. They’re cautious and tentative in their conclusions, and it’s not clear that a secular upbringing has the better of the argument.

Religious children receive “fantastical stories” more credulously than secular children do, “Judgments About Fact and Fiction” tells us. But is it that the religious kids have been softened up by biblical stories; or is it—as the authors seem to believe—”that religious children have a broader conception of what can actually happen?”

Children seem to have a “default stance of doubt toward violations of ordinary causality,” the study tells us, and religious children are not only more willing to accept that an impossible event might be real but apparently also more willing to believe that a highly improbable event might nevertheless occur.

Let me add on my own authority that a firm grasp of the improbable is a best friend of any serious mind.

As Sherlock Holmes put it, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” And Holmes didn’t even get into the question of when it’s smart to play long odds.