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Critics say religious children can't tell fact from fiction; researchers disagree

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 13 2014 5:05 a.m. MDT

A new study on the relationship children have to fact and fiction was taken in unfair directions by the press, the researchers say.

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In late July, a story about the influence of faith on a child's ability to tell fact from fiction generated a lot of attention by religion writers. Drawing from a new study in Cognitive Science, many articles emphasized the potential danger of allowing religious training to influence a kid's grip on reality.

But researchers have responded to this stream of media coverage, clarifying claims their study actually made.

"Some media reports about our research have said … that religious children cannot tell fact from fiction. We doubt such a conclusion is warranted," Kathleen Corriveau wrote for Huffington Post.

The study, conducted by Corriveau, Paul Harris and Eva Chen, wasn't meant to draw a sharp distinction between religious and nonreligious children, she explained. Instead, it explored the variety of influences on a child's relationship to fantasy and facts.

"In our view, upbringing probably has an impact on where children draw the line between fact and fiction. But it does not affect children's basic ability to recognize the difference between make-believe characters and real people," Corriveau explained. "For example, virtually all of the children that we talked to, regardless of their upbringing, thought of Snow White as a fictional character and George Washington as a real person."

The clarification came after headlines like "Religious children have trouble deciding whether fairy tale heroes are real" and "Children exposed to religion have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction" appeared upon the study's release.

The former, from The New York Daily News, set the tone for an article that highlighted how the religious and secular children related to realistic and fantastical stories.

"When asked to distinguish between 'real' and 'pretend' protagonists, children who studied in parochial schools or regularly attended church with their families had trouble telling fact from fiction," the Daily News reported.

A scathing commentary was penned by atheist blogger Hemant Mehta. Writing on Patheos, he claimed that the study is "more evidence for those who believe religious indoctrination is a form of mental child abuse."

Without referring to any particularly problematic articles, Corriveau used her post to explain that the study wasn't meant to be a value judgment on belief in miracles. She explained how "in some instances, the ability to suspend disbelief might be an asset to learning."

"When learning counterintuitive phenomena — such as the entirety of modern physics — the ability to imagine the improbable events might aid in acquiring knowledge," Corriveau wrote.

The study, "Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds," is available online with a subscription.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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