Young children in two studies were tested to see how they perceived main characters in both realistic stories with no fantastical elements, and in stories that included extra-natural or supernatural elements.
"In two studies, 5- and 6-year-old children were questioned about the status of the protagonist embedded in three different types of stories," an abstract published by Cognitive Science, a journal of the professional Cognitive Science Society. "In realistic stories that only included ordinary events, all children, irrespective of family background and schooling, claimed that the protagonist was a real person. In religious stories that included ordinarily impossible events brought about by divine intervention, claims about the status of the protagonist varied sharply with exposure to religion."
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. Children's upbringing was also related to their judgment about the protagonist in fantastical stories that included ordinarily impossible events whether brought about by magic (Study 1) or without reference to magic (Study 2). Secular children were more likely than religious children to judge the protagonist in such fantastical stories to be fictional.
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 study, “Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds,” was led by Kathleen Corriveau, a Boston University Assistant Professor with degrees from Harvard, Cambridge, and Brown. She has published almost two dozen papers or studies on children and how they learn to trust facts, including "Abraham Lincoln and Harry Potter: children's differentiation between historical and fantasy characters."
Scott Kaufman at The Raw Story reports researchers demonstrated "that children typically have a 'sensitivity to the implausible or magical elements in a narrative,' and can determine whether the characters in the narrative are real or fictional by references to fantastical elements within the narrative, such as 'invisible sails' or 'a sword that protects you from danger every time.'”
However, children raised in households in which religious narratives are frequently encountered do not treat those narratives with the same skepticism. The authors believed that these children would “think of them as akin to fairy tales,” judging “the events described in them as implausible or magical and conclude that the protagonists in such narratives are only pretend.”
And yet, “this prediction is likely to be wrong,” because “with appropriate testimony from adults” in religious households, children “will conceive of the protagonist in such narratives as a real person — even if the narrative includes impossible events.”
“Children with exposure to religion — via church attendance, parochial schooling, or both — judged [characters in religious stories] to be real,” the authors wrote. “By contrast, children with no such exposure judged them to be pretend,” just as they had the characters in fairy tales. But children with exposure to religion judged many characters in fantastical, but not explicitly religious stories, to also be real — the equivalent of being incapable of differentiating between Mark Twain’s character Tom Sawyer and an account of George Washington’s life.
Bottom line: Researchers concluded that "religious teaching, especially exposure to miracle stories, leads children to a more generic receptivity toward the impossible, that is, a more wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal relations."