I’ve been reading a lot about how children raised in religious households have a harder time discerning fantasy from fiction. That’s the word, at least, from scientists involved in a study published by Cognitive Science magazine this month.
The 66 5- and 6-year-olds in the study were told a series of stories. Some were realistic, like this:
This is Jonah. Jonah took a trip on a boat. One stormy night, Jonah was thrown overboard. A nearby whale opened its mouth to bite him, but Jonah swam away just in time. Jonah then climbed back onto the boat with the help of his fellow sailors.
Some were religious:
This is Jonah. After disobeying God’s orders, Jonah was thrown overboard a ship and then swallowed by a large whale. Jonah prayed to God for three days, and was spit out by the whale safe and sound. As a result, Jonah promises to obey God’s orders in the future.
And some were fantastical:
This is Jonah. Jonah took a trip on a boat. One stormy night, Jonah was thrown overboard a ship and then swallowed by a large whale. But Jonah had magical powers, and he was able to jump out of the whale’s mouth and swim all the way to the shore.
The children all thought that the realistic story was, well, real. But once it came to the other two, kids raised in homes without religion were quick to dismiss both the religious and the fantastical story as fiction. The religious children were far more apt to accept the religious story as fact, and some accepted the fantastical one, too.
According to said scientists, young religious kids have a “broader conception” of what reality can encompass, and also have a more difficult time separating fantasy from reality. Some religious critics have naturally used the study as proof that religion is ludicrous and that religious parents are perhaps stunting their children’s grasp of reality. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern writes, “When you’ve been told that a woman was created from a man’s rib, or that a man reawakened three days postmortem little worse for wear, your grasp on reality is bound to take a hit.”
But there’s a bit of an irony, here. Setting aside the Biblical story of Jonah for a moment, the “realistic” story is, technically, just as made up as the fantastical one. Researchers made it up. It feels more likely that it could happen, but that doesn’t mean it did happen. It’s just as much of a lie, and not nearly as good a story.
So technically, the study doesn’t suggest as much that non-religious kids have a better grasp of reality as much as it seems they’re being taught that reality is boring.
Whether you’re religious or not, reality is not boring. Inexplicable, even miraculous, things happen every day. Astronomers tell us that there’s a planet made entirely of diamond. Meteorologists pretty much admit that there’s a rare form of lightning that can go about as fast as a good-paced mosey. Sometimes fish fall from the sky. Sometimes rivers turn the color of blood. These things would be rejected out of hand by more serious-minded kids, I'm sure--and yet, there they are. This universe of ours is a fantastical place. The fact that we’re here at all is a breathtaking miracle.
I’m not arguing to scrap realism or science for the fantastic or religious. I have a deep appreciation for science, and it makes me sad when Christians reject it for religious or political reasons without any critical thought. I’m with Augustine when he said:
“If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”
But Augustine, one of the deepest thinkers of his day, obviously still believed in miracles. I think one can embrace scientific reason and also believe in the possibility of a God who can do miracles. I think most of us can have a firm grasp on reason while still keeping the door slightly ajar for the completely unexpected.
G.K. Chesterton, the great British author, journalist and lay theologian, had the truth of it in his book Orthodoxy, I think:
“Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him to extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators. The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion …. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
I loved it when my children asked some deep, even cynical questions about the world around them and the faith I was trying to pass on to them. It’s important to have an active, inquisitive mind. But I’d also like our 5- and 6-year-olds be poets. To be dreamers. To look around the world and feel its full of wonder. Of possibility. Of miraculous beauty.
Because it can be if we let it.