Faith vs. Reason in the Minds of Children

A study published in the July issue of Cognitive Science determined that children who are not exposed to religious stories are better able to tell that characters in “fantastical stories” are fictional — whereas children raised in a religious environment “…approach unfamiliar, fantastical stories flexibly.”

In “Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds,” Kathleen Corriveau, Eva Chen, and Paul Harris demonstrate 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.”

Interesting. It reminds me of parents who won’t lie to their kids in order to participate in the Santa Claus myth. It doesn’t necessarily stop them from enjoying the rituals of holiday time, including gifts, stockings by the fireplace and singing Christmas carols with Santa Claus themes.

Most people assume that there’s nothing harmful about lying to a child about Santa. The unspoken premise is that the child is too young to understand, so what’s the problem? Yet at some point the child does become old enough to understand. That’s part of the purpose of childhood, isn’t it? To grow, mature and learn how to think? To learn how to separate fact from fantasy?

To accept the fact that a child is too young to fully grasp something true is one thing. For example, the child cries that there’s a monster under the bed, and the loving but rational parent patiently points out that there is no such monster: “You see? Let’s look under the bed and find out,” and then goes on to explain why monsters are a fallacy.

It’s an odd kind of double standard, because when it comes to Santa Claus, it’s considered harmless – actually, virtuous and necessary – to actually lie to a child, calling a myth or a fantasy a truth. With just about anything else, any thinking parent would never do this.

And then there’s religion. The study notes that the skepticism normally reserved for things such as monsters under the bed is not reserved for the various beliefs espoused by religions. However, the parents actually believe in these religions; so it’s consistent to expect their children to believe in them as well.

But the method of arriving at the belief that there is such a thing as Heaven, or Hell, and that angels fly around up in the sky, or somewhere near the sky or perhaps further into outer space, even though they never show up on NASA photographs or satellite images … what is that method? Or the method by which one assumes that when a person dies, his body immediately begins to decay but his “soul,” i.e., his consciousness – somehow severs itself from the body and goes somewhere else, somewhere infinitely pleasant … what is that method? It’s called faith. The word faith means to subscribe to something in the absence of facts, logic or reason. Faith is to indulge in pure fantasy, while treating that fantasy as equivalent to objective truth. (And I don’t think that any advocate of religious faith would argue with me here, not in substance. Faith, by definition, upholds the supremacy of belief over reason, at least on certain subjects.)

According to this research, children – while still too young to make all the conceptual distinctions required to separate fact from fantasy – can accurately perceive it when their parents actually believe in one of the fantasies, while rejecting all the others. How do we know this? Because children usually don’t start to question the existence of the supernatural at the age they would easily start to question the existence of Santa Claus. In fact, many children grow up unthinkingly accepting the tenets of religious faith just as their parents did. While Santa Claus, on the other hand, has long since bit the dust.

Once children become young adults, all bets are off. Between the Internet and all the other media to which young people are exposed, a young person becomes aware of a wide variety of points-of-view, including those that relate to the supernatural. The young adult is free to become an agnostic, an atheist, or develop a belief in a different type of supernaturalism.

It’s a terrible inconsistency with dangerous psychological implications for a child. “Don’t believe in that monster under the bed. Why? Because there’s no evidence he’s there.” Then, out of the same mouth comes, “Believe in the supernatural, at least if it’s according to our particular faith. And it’s bad to ask for evidence!” Why or how are these different? No answer is given, other than, “Just have faith.”

“But,” one might ask, “why this faith and not that faith?” Why God, or Allah, but not Santa Claus or the purported monster under the bed?”

“Because those faiths are mistaken, wrong and irrational; and ours is good, sensible, the truth.”

“Then what makes one faith good and the other bad? What’s the standard of proof?” No answer. Just, “Believe.”

In the 1960s, Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden used the term psychoepistemology to describe a person’s habitual, internalized way of knowing. Faith or reason are each examples of ways of knowing. In philosophy, faith and evidence-based reason are polar opposites. Yet in the lives of children almost everywhere, reason is sometimes encouraged (or is a self-evident necessity), while “faith” is upheld for inexplicable reasons never given. Most people have a psychoepistemology of an unstable and contradictory mixture of faith and reason. In other words, most approach life and existence with rationality and common sense in some areas, and blanked-out faith in others.

It’s little wonder that psychological problems and disorder are so rampant. Reason is our tool of survival; our means of experiencing sanity and clarity in everyday life. Reason is not infallible, and it’s entirely possible to make errors using reason, facts and logic. But reason, facts and logic are the very things involved in ultimately making the corrections. It’s all we have—and it’s everything. Psychologically, one can experience a continuing sense of self-esteem and serenity by knowing that one regularly uses the tool of reason; that reason is one’s continuous ally throughout life, and that one need never undercut reason via the unjustified and unexplained use of arbitrary faith – in whatever context. Reason tells us that certainty is possible, and that our minds are capable of attaining it. Nothing (by the standard of confidence, certainty and self-esteem) is better for self-esteem and mental health than the presence of such a psychoepistemology in one’s mind.

However, the norm in society is to undercut a child’s growing capacity for reason with an equal (or often stronger) adherence to faith. Perhaps you can draw on your own personal experiences to see first-hand what this does to the mind of a child. It doesn’t make sense, and if were to be done deliberately it would certainly be considered cruel. Regardless of the motivation on the part of adults, upholding reason while clearly subverting it in favor of faith on Sunday – and then expecting things out of children like self-confidence, intelligence, self-responsibility and material success – seems bizarre.

If highly advanced beings came to earth from another solar system and observed what these otherwise progressing humans did to their young, they’d be entirely right to ask, “What in the hell are these otherwise rational creatures doing?” It’s no wonder that young adults develop the emotional problems and resulting behavioral issues most of them do. It’s no mystery why most of them seek to blindly rebel against … what? They really don’t know. I see it in my office every day.

Source: “Researchers: Children exposed to religion have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction,” 7/18/14

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