Developmental Pyschology

Can religious children distinguish fantasy from reality? (YES…)

Christian Kid


A recent study by Corriveau et al. published in Cognitive Science purporting to examine the differences in abilities to distinguish fantasy from reality between children from religious and non-religious backgrounds received a surprising amount of media attention. It was, for example, featured recently on the BBC, the article covering the study on the Huffington Post  has been shared over 23,000 times and the I fucking love science summary has over 81,000 shares. The narrative presented in the paper and the popular press summarises the research as revealing that children exposed to religion are deficient in their ability to distinguish between fantastical and realistic narratives (in comparison with children from secular, non-religious backgrounds). The findings are also argued to undermine the claims of researchers, like Justin Barrett and Jesse Bering, that we are “Born Believers” or possess a “Belief Instinct“, since the secular children do not display the same deficiency in reasoning. Unfortunately, these narratives are themselves largely a fantasy as the research fails to provide strong evidence for either of these claims. I detail the reasons why below.


God in the Lab Review Part 3: Born Believers

Baby JesusThe third talk in the God in the Lab event was by Dr. Justin Barrett, another researcher from the Oxford Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology, who was discussing the evidence for the theory that children are ‘born believers’, in that they possess a strong natural receptivity to religious beliefs.

Dr. Barrett, as befitting someone whose research involves developmental psychology with children, is an incredibly expressive speaker (with a strong American accent) and is particularly good at relaying how important intonation is when dealing with children (or at least I got that impression from his reconstructed dialogues). His talk started off with him identifying a number of recent researchers who have published books and articles detailing strong evidence that religion is a natural belief that the human mind is naturally receptive to, especially in childhood.