Every few years, a new series of books will take off in popularity. Be it Harry Potter or Twilight, these novels tend to lean to the fantastical side. And each time this happens, you’ll find members of the Religious Right up in arms over the grave threat such fiction presents to their children’s souls. Cries of promoting Satanism are common.
While secretly yearning for an owl to deliver an invitation to Hogwarts does not a devil worshiper make, it turns out such parents may have a leg to stand on in terms of their children’s souls being “damned” — at least, by their dogmatic interpretation.
A recent study published in the International Journal for Psychology of Religion found that those who engaged in imaginative play during childhood were more likely to grow up to be non-believers.
No, seriously. The study categorized participants into five groups: those who had been religious their whole lives, those who had been non-religious their whole lives, those who switched religions, those who became religious, and those who became non-religious. All participants were asked about their childhood play habits, with questions about imaginary friends, role playing, and how immersed they were in these activities. By the time all responses had been collected, a trend emerged.
The study found the two lifelong groups — lifelong religious and lifelong nonreligious — were very similar in not engaging in pretend play as children. The groups of people who underwent significant shifts in religious identity, however, were all immersed in pretend play as children, with apostates leading the pack.
What’s with the split? Lead researcher on the study and professor of psychology Chris Burris posits that pretend play and religion require the same suspension of reality for the temporary experience of an alternate world to exist. If one can imagine different realities in play, it becomes easier for them to question the reality painted by a given belief structure, as well:
Pretend play is a way of answering the question, ‘What would it be like if…?’ It’s about trying on different possible answers to the question. People who used to (play pretend) seem to develop that skill set early on such that for whatever reason, they ask the question in their real life in a big way later on.
In other words, those who were raised in a way that encouraged them to think outside the box often did, in turn coming to very different conclusions about faith than their families.
The study has its limitations, however. The sample size was just over 400 participants, hardly a massive number. The questions weren’t exactly in depth. Of greater interest may be a comparison of reasons for leaving a given faith relative to play habits, or a breakdown of the religions that saw the greatest level of attrition.
Nonetheless, the information is interesting. Keep encouraging that imagination, folks!
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