Magical Thinking in Children and Adults

Magical Thinking in Children and Adults

A new study published in the July issue of the journal “Cognitive Science” has found that young people who are exposed to religion have a hard time differentiating between fact and fiction. Researchers presented 5 and 6-year old children from both public and parochial schools with three different types of stories – religious, fantastical, and realistic – in an effort to gauge how well they could indentify narratives with impossible elements as being fictional. The study found that, of the 66 participants, children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school were significantly less able than secular children to identify supernatural elements (such as talking animals) as fictional. Children exposed to religion were less likely to judge the characters in the fantastical stories as pretend, and in line with this equivocation, they made more appeals to reality and fewer appeals to impossibility than did secular children.
That this situation exists among children is problematic; that it seems to continue into adulthood is potentially catastrophic. (Note that the thoughts expressed here regarding “magical thinking” among adults are my own; the study cited above concerned only children). Even a casual observer of the current American political scene will notice that these children, whose religious indoctrination causes them to have difficulty differentiating between fantasy and reality, evidently grow up to be adults who have the same problem. This might not be so bad if these adults were on the fringes of society and were given the mental health supports they need to live in the real world. But instead, we elect them to Congress! It is by no means inconceivable that our next president might be someone who doesn’t believe in climate change or evolution, but who, due to childhood religious indoctrination that never wore off, does believe in talking snakes, water magically turning into wine, and an imminent apocalypse where believers float up to heaven and non-believers are cast into the pits of hell. All because their religious beliefs cause them to have difficulty differentiating between fantasy and reality, just like the kids in the study cited above. The ramifications of having such people as our leaders are terrifying. How can we solve our myriad real-world problems if our leaders can’t tell fact from fiction?
So the next time you’re talking to someone who minimizes the dangers of indoctrinating children in unquestioning religious beliefs, or even worse, casts such indoctrination in a positive light, point them to this study and ask them “What happens to the world when these children grow up?”


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