Is Religion Good for Kids?

Exposure to religion makes children more likely to believe in fictional stories. But is that a bad thing?

Young children exposed to religion had a more difficult time distinguishing fact from fiction than their less-religious counterparts, according to a study in the July issue of Cognitive Science. This was true even when it came to distinguishing nonreligious fiction vs. true stories such as that of Snow White vs. George Washington.

In essence, exposure to religion makes children more likely to believe in fictional stories. But is this bad?

Some touted this as proof that religion harms children. Widely read atheist blogger Hemant Mehta described this study as evidence of how religion is “mental child abuse.” In similar incendiary fashion, last year, professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, said that teaching religious texts as fact to children is more harmful than sex abuse.

But this study proves a benefit of religion, not a detriment, because research shows how imaginative and fictional thinking, fantasy play, aid in the cognitive development of children. Raising children with fantastical religious tales is not bad after all.

Whether religious stories are true is irrelevant to this discussion. Imaginative religious stories such as creation, Noah, the Exodus, or Santa Claus, may actually benefit cognitive development, creative thinking and social skills. It even helps kids better understand reality. As reported in Psychology Today, imagination provides children with awareness outside of themselves, allowing them to see and understand other perspectives they don’t directly experience.

Paul Harris, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, explained to the Wall Street Journal in an article on “The Power of Magical Thinking” how imaginative thinking helps children better understand reality:

“Whenever you think about the Civil War or the Roman Empire or possibly God, you’re using your imagination… The imagination is absolutely vital for contemplating reality, not just those things we take to be mere fantasy.”

Believing in fictional characters, such as Santa, is healthy, according to psychologists. Child psychiatrist Matthew Lorber told Live Science that “for kids to believe in the myth of someone trying to make people happy if they’re behaving. … Imagination is a normal part of development, and helps develop creative minds.”

Religion certainly does a disservice when it is used as a pretext to manipulate science, as is the case in the creationism vs. evolution debate, for example, or in the rare case where people are harmed because they relied solely on prayer instead of medicine. But none of that has any bearing on whether it is harmful for young children to regard fictional characters such as Tom Sawyer as real.

Those claiming that belief in religious stories harms children should be interpreting research and science correctly. Not only is there benefit in allowing children to think imaginatively without forcing them into the mindset of perceived reality, but according to at least one study, raising children with religion also increases self-esteem, lowers anxiety, risk of suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, and dangerous sexual behavior.

Image via John Morgan.

  • Joel Sutton

    Good article and valid points. But I’m curious if you meant to include Santa Claus as an “imaginative religious story.”
    “Imaginative religious stories such as creation, Noah, the Exodus, or Santa Claus,…”

    If so, somebody is going to have a heyday with that.

  • Brian Westley

    But this study proves a benefit of religion, not a detriment, because research shows how imaginative and fictional thinking, fantasy play, aid in the cognitive development of children.

    That’s not shown by this study or this article — you haven’t shown that children who are aware of the difference between fantasy and reality are at a disadvantage or indulge in less imaginative and fictional thinking or fantasy play. This seems to be just a knee-jerk reaction to create some ‘advantage’ out of whole cloth.

  • Tom from North Carolina

    I think almost all child development experts would agree with your premise about the importance of the use of imagination. There’s a big difference between imaginary or fictional characters and religious fictional stories. With nonreligious fictional stories like Santa, parents don’t perpetuate the fiction forever. At some point children learn that Santa isn’t real and either is Thor or Hercules. And parents are perfectly willing to discuss this with children and explain to them the difference between historical and fictional characters.

    This is generally not so in religious homes regarding religious stories. There is a tendency to “continue the lie” when it comes to religious stories and characters. Even after Israel has abandoned stories around Moses and the exodus, Christians and Jews of faith will pass it on and never come clean like Christians do regarding Santa. Maybe it’s because faith requires acceptance without evidence or because acknowledging that many of these stories are fiction begins to chip away at one’s faith. But whatever the reason, you can have a vivid imagination while still understanding the difference between fact and fiction.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Thank you Tom — this is exactly right and is also simple common sense.