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How Children Learn About God and Science

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A new review of scientific studies supports the idea that children do not take all the teachings of parents and teachers at face value.

Most parents would hope and expect as much—nobody wants an automaton.

But the study revealed an interesting sidebar that is tougher to explain. Among things they can't see, from germs to God, children seem to be more confident in the information they get about invisible scientific objects than about things in the spiritual realm.

"We don't have a firm view on why it is they're a bit more confident on the scientific information," said Paul Harris, a professor of education at Harvard University. "But one possible plausible reason is that when we talk about things like germs or body organs, we talk in a very matter-of-fact fashion. We don't say, "I believe in germs," we simply take it for granted that they exist."

On the other hand, adults tend to assert the existence of God more strenuously, possibly raising doubts in children's minds as to the existence of an unseen deity, Harris said.

The questions

In the studies, children were typically asked whether various entities exist. After giving a yes or no answer,  they were asked whether they were very sure or not so sure.

"With respect to germs children typically said that they do exist and they were very sure of their existence," Harris told LiveScience. "That pattern was less frequent for God and other special beings."

Harris and Melissa Koenig of the University of Chicago report their findings in the May/June issue of the journal Child Development.

The researchers speculate that cultural and socioeconomic differences might play a role the way information like this is presented to children. They call for more work to delve into the possibilities and how answers could affect theories of cognitive development.

What it means

"It's intriguing to think that parents might talk differently to their children about science and spirituality, and I'd imagine there is a great deal of cultural variation in those discussions," said Maureen Callanan, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "I look forward to seeing what future research reveals."

Callanan, who was not involved in the study, commented on it in another article in the journal, adding: "The issues discussed by Harris and Koenig are crucial if we are to take seriously the importance of culture in cognitive development."

Another commentary, written by Brian Bergstrom and two other psychologists at the Washington University in St. Louis, reads: "Harris and Koenig draw our attention to an aspect of cognitive development that is too often neglected: the need for children to rely extensively on culturally transmitted information while simultaneously erecting safeguards against misleading or deceptive input."

Harris said this much can be gleaned from the research so far:

"Children are quite dependent on adults for information," he said. "Whether with respect to science or religion, children are rarely in a position to evaluate the claims for themselves."

Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.