God Makes It Real: Children’s Ability to Make Factual Judgements

religious instruction makes god real

child sitting on railway tracksOne of the biggest complaints non-religious parents have about religious instruction is that the school is allowing religious groups access to children who are still developing their cognitive abilities in a school that is supposed to be secular. These children are still learning what is real and what is not. Doesn’t teaching religious faith to children at this age seem manipulative given their natural inclination to believe everything they are told as fact?

The article below was written by David Whitehead, who holds a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of Waikato. He has studied at several universities in the USA, Australia, Norway and Sweden. He is retired and lives in Hamilton.

“Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.”

Today we might find this quote quaintly sexist, but religious institutions know there is truth in them, there, words. Research repeatedly shows that religious institutions interrupt a fundamental developmental milestone, that is, the ability of children to distinguish reality from non-reality.

Children growing up in secular environments during their preschool years normally develop this ability. Three-year-old children in these settings can distinguish between physical objects and events and dreams. They can tell you the difference between pretend and real actions and objects. Five-year-olds in these settings can distinguish fantasy storybook pictures from realistic pictures. Granted, that in certain home settings children may believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus well into the early primary school years. Our grown-up daughter still believes in Santa Claus, but for rather avaricious reasons.

Schools with special religious character, and state schools with a religious education component, teach children to hold certain beliefs and religious values. In these schools, teachers and others attempt to indoctrinate children in ‘truths’ such as the existence of god, that Christianity is the source of morality and so on. By the age of seven, research suggests repeatedly, these indoctrinated children show less ability to discriminate between fact and fiction, reality, and fantasy.

The power of adults over children’s beliefs should not be under-estimated. Theistic adults can cajole young children to believe in miracles, because they themselves believe. A recent study by Kotaman (2016) helps us understand this power. Kotaman asked 108 Turkish early childhood teachers to respond to the following questions about the story of “Moses’s stick”:

  1. Can Moses run water from a dry fountain just by hitting his stick to the ground?
  2. Why, or why not?
  3. Would you read this story to your children in your classroom?
  4. How would you respond to your children in your classroom if they ask you, “Could Moses flow water from a dry fountain just by hitting his stick to the ground?”

Findings revealed that 82.4% of the early childhood teachers responded to the first question affirmatively, 83% provided religious reasoning for their response, 72% would not read this story to their children and 56% provided religious explanation for question four.

Based on these and other findings, it is plausible to expect that children who grow up in religious households and attend theistic schools may not treat a religious story as a fairy tale. Instead, they might conceive of characters as real people, even if the narrative includes impossible events. In short, when theistic adults testify that a miracle has occurred, children from three-to-nine-year-old are likely to accept that testimony. The power of theistic persuasion is evident in other research. Findings from research into children’s beliefs about religious stories in the Judeo-Christian tradition indicate that 80% of children up to the age of 12 possess full-literal or near-literal beliefs in Bible stories.

Other research supports the suggestion that compared to children from nonreligious families, 4-, 5-, and 6-year old children from Christian families are likely to regard miracle events as plausible.

In a study that examined the judgements of 4-, 5-, and 6-year olds, Vaden and Woolley (2011) used matched religious and nonreligious stories to test this suggestion. In both story types, miracles occurred, for example, the parting of the seas. Children were more likely to claim that the characters and the miracle events were real in the context of the religious stories than in the context of nonreligious stories; a pattern more evident among 6-year olds than younger children, and a pattern more evident among children with a Christian upbringing. The research also suggested that in the absence of a religious education, children will regard miracles as implausible.

In summary, there is persuasive evidence that older pre-schoolers and pre-schoolers with more religious exposure think of Bible stories as accounts of actual events that include real people.
To further test these conclusions, Corriveau et al. (2014) designed an experiment that involved three groups of children exposed to religious teaching, and a fourth group who did not attend church with their families.

All four groups listened to three different types of stories:

(a) realistic stories that contained no magical elements;
(b) religious stories that included miracles brought about by divine intervention; and
(c) fantastical stories that included magical elements, but no divine intervention.

Results indicated that children exposed to religion judged, and justified, religious and fantastical characters as real. By contrast, children with no religious exposure judged them to be pretend. Further, children with exposure to religion offered a religious justification. It would seem, that god’s involvement in these stories signals to children that they must adjust the boundaries of their real/not-real distinction. Evidently, god makes it real.

Some children in Corriveau et al. (2014) study only received religious education at school. They did not attend church with their family. Findings showed that these children’s judgments were like those from children who received some religious education at school and attended church with their families. This finding reveals the power of persuasion exercised by people who provide religious education in schools.

In contrast, children in non-secular schools respond differently to stories of water transformed into wine, a few loaves or fishes multiplied to feed a multitude, and seas parted, all with the aid of god. When they read, or listen to religious narratives they regard them as implausible, because the stories involve ordinarily impossible outcomes. They judge the main characters as fictional. Their judgements diverge sharply from those made by children who have received a religious education. They tend to justify their decisions by reference to the impossibility of the story events.


Society has a duty of care to protect children and persons under sixteen from all forms of material and spiritual manipulation by religion and religious institutions. More specifically, this is because theistic exposure delays, or permanently stifles, children’s ability to critically discern fact and fantasy.

Suggested Reading

Corriveaua, K.H., Chenb, E.E, Harris, P.L. (2014). Judgements about fact and fiction by children from religious and nonreligious backgrounds. Cognitive Science, 1–30.

Corriveau, K. H., Kim, A. L., Schwalen, C., & Harris, P. L. (2009). Abraham Lincoln and Harry Potter: Children’s differentiation between historical and fantasy characters. Cognition, 112, 213–225.

Kotaman, H. (2018). Comparison of impact of religious and secular education on young children’s factuality judgements. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, 23:4, 358-379.

Kotaman, H. (2016). Impact of religion on Turkish early childhood teachers’ factuality judgments and their classroom practice International Journal of Progressive Education, 12, 1.

Sharon, T. & Woolley, D. J. (2004). Do monsters dream? Young children’s understanding of the fantasy/reality distinction. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 22, 293-310.

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