Field of Science

Religion is halfway between a fact and an opinion - according to kids and adults

Is it possible for two people to disagree, and for both to be right?

Well it depends, of course, on what they're disagreeing about. If it's a matter of fact ('Dinosaurs are extinct'), then the answer is 'no'. On the other hand, if the discussion is about what flavour of ice cream is best then, well we are probably going to have to agree to differ.

But is religion a fact or an opinion? And do kids draw the same distinction as adults? To find out, Larisa Heiphetz (a psychologist at Harvard University in the USA) and colleagues quizzed 100 children about a faraway planet, Tamsena.

The children of planet Tamsena have a lot of conflicting opinions about things like the spirit world ("All of the invisible spirits on Tamsena live under the ground" vs. "All of the invisible spirits on Tamsena live in the tops of the trees"), matters of fact ("The first king of Tamsena was called Benjamin Smith" vs. "The first king of Tamsena was called Daniel Jones"), and matters of opinion ("Mankala is the most fun game to play" vs. "Ubuthi is the most fun game to play").

The kids were asked whether or not the two Tamsenites could both be right about these matters, or if only one of them could be right. They asked 37 adults (average age 27 years) the same questions.

The results suggested that, although seemed to be a trend with increasing age, the same pattern of results was seen in all age groups.

While most people believed that only one person can be right about factual questions, most also believed that both could be right about matters of preference.

And questions involving mystical beings were half way between the two.

Interestingly, there seemed to be a trend towards ambivalence with increasing age - although this wasn't really confirmed statistically. It looks like older people are more likely to accept that there are many issues about which multiple opinions may be correct (or, at least, about which it's not possible to tell).

So that's a fantasy planet? What about questions about the real world?

Well they did a similar study but instead involving real questions of fact and preference, and about religion. They got pretty much the same results, although a little less clear cut (that's probably because having some knowledge of the answers to the questions helped the children to judge whether they were matters of fact or opinion).

Heiphetz and colleagues conclude that:
Children as young as 5 years seem to represent other minds as capable of containing conflicting beliefs. Additionally, around the age of 7 years, children become more likely to say that two people whose preferences conflict can both be right. This developmental shift may reflect children’s increasing experience with contradictory preferences as they begin elementary school and learn to navigate the conflicting preferences of their peers.
So it seems that children do have to learn (or develop the ability) to understand that differences of opinion can be legitimate.

But at every age, both children and adults seem to agree that religion occupies some kind of half-way house between fact and opinion!
Heiphetz, L., Spelke, E., Harris, P., & Banaji, M. (2013). The development of reasoning about beliefs: Fact, preference, and ideology Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49 (3), 559-565 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.09.005

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. In the title: "an fact"?

  2. I'm not convinced that the issue of faultless disagreement can easily be reduced to the difference between facts and opinions. But even so, it seems like there are possibly facts about about non-existent things. If I claim that unicorns have one horn and somebody disagrees with me, it seems pretty clear that only one of us is right, even if there are no unicorns. The spirit location question in the article seems to have similar qualities. Likewise, perhaps it is possible for a person who has a concept of God that is not incoherent to be right in a way that someone else is not, regardless of the existence of God.

    Btw, a little birdie told me that dinosaurs are not really extinct, they just learned how to fly.

  3. Yes, I think from a perspective of pure logic the entities (supernatural or otherwise) either have properties or they do not. So questions of religion are questions of fact - it;s just that there's no real way of deciding who's right or wrong. Which is why it's interesting that both children and adults have a tendency that people who disagree over religion can both be right - perhaps a way of easing the potential conflict?

  4. I always thought a majority of people approach religion more like a flavor of ice cream than doing math.

  5. Is it that there are actual people walking around in the world (at any age) who think religion occupies a half-way house? Or is it that some people (at any age) think religion is a matter of opinion, and others think it is a matter of fact, and therefor when we average over 37 or 50 people we get a number in the middle?

    My guess would be that it lines up well with at least some denominations. I'd guess that if you polled only unitarian universalists, everyone would treat religion as a matter of opinion, and if you polled only evangelicals everyone would treat religion as a matter of fact. I think that's a large part of why such groups often have so much trouble talking to and understanding each other.

  6. Unfortunately they don't give the distribution of results. It would be interesting to see whether people fell into distinct camps with regard to spiritual entities and religion. I suspect that they did not, because the questions were graded. Some of them were such that most people would accept them as opinion, whereas others would be more controversial. So it probably comes out as gradient of opinion, rather than two camps.

  7. Can one apply the principle of bivalence/law of excluded middle to aesthetic declarative statements? Propositions are declarative statements that are either true or false. They cannot logically be both. Therefore, logically, isn't there an objective aesthetic truth?

    Certainly people have different aesthetic perceptions, but that does not imply that there isn't aesthetic truths.

    1. (My apologies for getting hung up on what flavor of ice cream is best, as I know that is a side issue.)

    2. There is no real problem with logic here.
      Let's look at the following situation:

      Person A: "That is a beautiful painting!"
      Person B: "No, it is absolutely hideous!"

      That really seems like a contradiction but it actually is not.
      A is speaking about his/her personal opinion. B does the same. There are truths as both speak about true facts about their subjective perceptions. It is just that the referent for both is different. Because we are often not really accurate when using language you can end up with what seems like a logical contradiction as implied by the disagreement in the example. But it is just people mixing up objective and subjective. Formal logic does not have this problem when properly applied because it does not allow equivocation.

    3. Yes, there are subjective truths and objective truths, and where to draw the line is itself subjective - but that's the point of the study!

  8. Mike, in formal logic propositions are either true or false - but only if the axioms are fulfilled. That doesn't really get you anywhere in this case because you would have to start with an axiom along the lines that "Beauty is objective". Al that does is define the problem away.

    Personally, I think it's clear that beauty is inherently subjective. People have given up trying to define art as something that's beautiful, because that just lead to fruitless wrangles about whether any given artwork is 'really art'.


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