A religious upbringing strengthens children’s belief in divine miracles, but not magic

By Emily Reynolds

Children are exposed to all kinds of stories, fact and fiction. Books about figures such as Rosa Parks or Jesse Owens teach young people about history, while novels are populated with colourful characters like Harry Potter or Bilbo Baggins. Religious figures often represent a middle ground, both real and fantastical. So how do children differentiate between fantasy and real life figures — and how does religious teaching affect the way they make these kinds of distinctions?

A new study, published in Memory & Cognition, finds that a religious upbringing leads kids to judge religious stories as real. But, interestingly, this doesn’t seem to make non-religious magical stories seem real.

Participants were 85 children in Tehran; half were aged between 5 and 6, and half 9 to 10. The children were presented with twelve stories: three realistic, three magical, three religious and three unusual.

In the realistic stories, only physically possible events occurred (e.g. a character feeds a hungry town by buying bread from a far-away city). In the magical condition, magical powers or fairies resolved the story (e.g. the character conjures bread from thin air). In the religious versions, the story was resolved through divine intervention (e.g. a character makes bread with powers given by God); and in the unusual condition, the story was resolved through implausible events (e.g. a character finds bread in a forest). After reading the stories the children were asked to categorise them, indicating whether they thought either the event or the character in the story was “real” or “pretend”, and then explaining why they had made their decision.

Older children were more likely than younger children to judge stories as real — except when stories were magical, which younger children were more likely to judge as real. Older children were also more likely to judge religious stories specifically as real compared to younger children. That is, they differentiated between religious and magical stories in a way that younger children did not.

Older children referred to causal mechanisms more than younger children when it came to justifying why they had categorised the story as real or pretend. For instance, they might say religious stories were real because God is able to help anyone in any way.  But this reference to causality was particularly common when older children justified their “pretend” judgements for magical stories, denying that things could be caused by magic. This suggests that “religious exposure does not commit children to an unconstrained conception of causality where causal violations are generally possible”, say the authors.

The team suggest that as children get older and are more exposed to religion, they are more likely to accept causally impossible occurrences in religious contexts compared to magical or unusual contexts. This strengthens previous research that suggests that religious education can change children’s reasoning about what is and is not possible in a way that does not happen in other domains.

Future research could look at different cultural settings — the participants in this study were Muslim and living in a country where religious values are part of everyday life, so studies that look at Christianity, Judaism or other religions in different, perhaps secular, countries would also be interesting. Overall, however, the study shows the impact of religious education, how it can affirm the possibility of divine causation, and how this differs from ideas about magic.

Miraculous, magical, or mundane? The development of beliefs about stories with divine, magical, or realistic causation

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

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