Field of Science

Children with a religious upbringing have difficulty telling fantasy from reality

There’s a long-standing debate over whether we humans are naturally predisposed to believe in the supernatural, or whether it’s learned. Well, here’s a study that shows the importance of young children’s environment in determining credulity.

The basic set-up was simple. Kathleen Corriveau (Boston University) and colleagues recruited 33 kindergarten kids in the USA (that’s 5-6 year olds). Half went to state-run schools, which are mostly religion free, while the other half went to schools run along Christian lines. The state-school kids all came from non-churchgoing families, whereas the kids from religious schools all came from churchgoing families.

Then they read them a series of stories, loosely based on magical stories from the bible, but carefully disguised. They varied these stories so that sometimes they referred to magic, sometimes not.

Just to be sure of it, sometimes they changed the story a bit so that it was unfamiliar, and not recognisably biblical. For example, here’s the variants they told of the ‘Moses parting the red Sea’ Bible story:

Familiar+Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the sea John waved his magic stick. The sea separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Familiar+No Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the sea John waved his stick. The sea separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Unfamiliar+Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the mountain John waved his magic stick. The mountain separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Unfamiliar+No Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the mountain John waved his stick. The mountain separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

The point was to try to see what cues lead these children to decide if the story was fantasy or reality. Importantly, at no point did any of the stories mention God or divine intervention.

As you can see in the graphic, the secular kids were much less likely to say the stories were real. They could pick up on the cues in the story, and figure out that it must be fantasy.

And they could do that at aged 5-6!

It’s critical to realise that both groups of kids – religious and secular – knew the difference between fact and fantasy. Both groups could recognise real versus fictional characters.

And although this was a small group, it mirrors what they saw in an earlier study, in which religious kids (whether churchgoing or non-churchgoers attending a religious school) said religious stories were real and also were more likely to say that non-religious, fantasy stories were real.

The authors conclude that the reason the religious kids were more likely to believe that these stories were real is that they “have a broader conception of what can actually happen”.

Now, what this study doesn’t tell us whether a religious upbringing makes kids more credulous, or a secular upbringing makes them more sceptical.

But it does show that critical thinking is crucially influenced by environment, and from a very early age.


ResearchBlogging.org
Corriveau, K., Chen, E., & Harris, P. (2014). Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds Cognitive Science DOI: 10.1111/cogs.12138
Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

What are the religious disgusted by?

Religious people often seem to have strong taboos. Think of any religion, and there is usually some proscribed activities or objects, and an emphasis on purity. Maybe religion is connected to a heightened sense of disgust?

Uri Berger and David Anaki, at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, were looking to see how one questionnaire often used to measure disgust, the Revised Disgust Scale (DS-R) functioned across a diverse group of Israeli citizens. Most studies in the past have used students (and mostly women), but the 1427 participants in their study had an average age of 33, and only half were women.

The DS-R has 27 questions and, like others, Berger and Anaki found that they fell into three groups of closely related questions.
  • Core disgust: related to disease and eating
  • Animal reminder: related to sex, death, and hygiene
  • Contamination: related to, well, contamination
Overall they found that religion doesn’t really explain why some people are more easily disgusted than others. It only explained 1.4% of the variation – gender was ten times more important (women were more easily disgusted than men).

What was interesting is the relationship between religion and different types of disgust. Religious people were actually less disgusted by contamination than the non-religious, and only a bit more disgusted by ‘core disgust’.

But this was more than made up for by the disgust felt by the religious over reminders of our animal nature.

So it could be that religion changes the things that disgust us. Certainly it seems to affect the broad domains of disgust, but there’s probably more to it than that. As Berger and Anaki comment:
[It] may be that demographic elements do not modulate levels of disgust per se as much as they impact the context in which disgust is activated. For example, the dietary differences in Jewish and Hindi religions caused the variation in subjective disgust evoked in devotee’s response to a potential consumption of ‘‘forbidden animals’’; Jews who consume beef are repelled from pork consumption, while the vice versa applies for non-vegetarian Hindus. However, the level of religious devoutness may only slightly modulate the intensity of that subjective disgust.

ResearchBlogging.org
Berger, U., &Anaki, D. (2014). Demographic influences on disgust: Evidence from a heterogeneous sample Personality and Individual Differences, 64, 67-71 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.02.016

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

What does the latest research say on religion decreasing the risk of suicide?

And so to this thorny topic again! This time with a batch of new studies - but what light do they shed on this complicated topic?

First up is a straightforward analysis of data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) in the USA (Evan Kleiman and Richard Liu at George Mason University, USA - all the refs are at the foot of this post). This survey asked people about their religious service attendance, and then followed them for up to 20 years, to see what became of them.

As you can see in the graphic, frequent attenders were significantly less likely to commit suicide. (You have to be a bit careful with that graph. It looks like most people committed suicide, until you look at the scale on the left hand side and realise that it's only 0.08% even of the non-religious!)

Why might this be? Well, research by Shigehiro Oishi and Ed Diener across multiple nations found that places where people have a greater sense of meaning in life also have lower suicide rates. And they also found that religious people have a greater sense of meaning in life.

But wait. What does it mean to say that you feel that your life has "an important purpose or meaning"? I don't know many atheists who would feel that such a statement even makes sense. So perhaps that's really just a surrogate for a certain kind of religious belief - which doesn't take us very far.

One thing that characterises Western religion is the deep-seated prejudice against suicide. Is this the protective factor?

In Malaysia, a survey of 141 students by Foo et al found that, although religious commitment was not associated with suicidal behaviours, it was linked to rejection of suicide as an action. So more support for this idea (see Suicide, Age and Poison for another perspective).

One last study, this time from the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk. Vasiliy Usenko and colleagues found that after Orthodox Christian mass events (we're talking here about one-off events, not your regular Christmas, East etc), suicidal behaviour and suicidal attempts dropped among women (men carried on at the same rate as before).

But something very different happened after 'New Religious Movement' events (the charismatic new Christian movements that are springing up in poor countries everywhere). After these, the risk of suicides, attempts, and behaviour actually increased for both men and women.

Now, this is not to dispute that alleviation of sadness and depression, that is sometimes linked to religious involvement, could contribute to reducing the risk of suicide. But clearly it also depends on what your religion says, and whether or not you are part of the mainstream.

Which may well explain why the link between suicide and religion is rather patchy worldwide.


ResearchBlogging.org
Kleiman, E., & Liu, R. (2013). Prospective prediction of suicide in a nationally representative sample: religious service attendance as a protective factor The British Journal of Psychiatry, 204 (4), 262-266 DOI: 10.1192/bjp.bp.113.128900

Oishi, S., & Diener, E. (2013). Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations Psychological Science, 25 (2), 422-430 DOI: 10.1177/0956797613507286 

Foo, X., Mohd. Alwi, M., Ismail, S., Ibrahim, N., & Jamil Osman, Z. (2012). Religious Commitment, Attitudes Toward Suicide, and Suicidal Behaviors Among College Students of Different Ethnic and Religious Groups in Malaysia Journal of Religion and Health, 53 (3), 731-746 DOI: 10.1007/s10943-012-9667-9

Usenko, V., Svirin, S., Shchekaturov, Y., & Ponarin, E. (2014). Impact of some types of mass gatherings on current suicide risk in an urban population: statistical and negative binominal regression analysis of time series BMC Public Health, 14 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2458-14-308

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