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Keeping it real

Jacob Moreton

A religious upbringing could diminish the ability of young children to separate fantasy from reality, a new study has revealed.

The research, published in the Cognitive Journal, claims that 5-6 yearolds who were categorized as 'religious' were less able to tell fact from fiction, having been read stories containing 'fantastical elements'.

The children, from Massachusetts, were told three different types of story: realistic, religious and fantastical, and asked to decide whether the protagonist was fictional or non-fictional.

The results for the realistic story were common to each group, with all the students declaring the protagonist as non-fiction. But the religious students declared the religious protagonists to be real, in disagreement with the non-religious children. Crucially, non-religious children were also less inclined to see protagonists from a fantasy story as real than children with a religious background.

The response to the results has split in predictable ways. The atheist author Hemant Mehta argued that this blurring of reality and fantasy is not a good thing: 'Religion blurs the lines between fact and fiction. You only hope kids exposed to it figure it out soon enough.' He went further, wondering whether teaching that Biblical parables are real is 'a form of mental child abuse'.

Helen De Cruz at the University of Oxford claimed that the religious children simply knew their Bible stories: 'The Bible characters are presented to them as historical, so of course they would be more likely to judge them as historical than children who didn't hear about these characters.'

Other academics argue that a level of ambiguity may benefit children. Paul Harris, Harvard professor of Education, says that: 'Whenever you think about the Civil War or the Roman Empire or possibly God, you're using your imagination... The imagination is absolutely vital for contemplating reality, not just those things we take to be mere fantasy.'

We think GK Chesterton's words perhaps fit best: 'Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.'