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The Ability to Distinguish Ritual Actions in Children[1]

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image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

Research on children's religious understanding has recently focused on outlining how and when children develop a variety of religious concepts, however there is a noticeable lack of research into children's understanding of religious rituals. We present three studies exploring children's developing understanding of religious rituals. In Experiment 1, children ages 5 to 11 were told stories about novel actions that were done for functional reasons or ritual reasons. Older children were more flexible than younger children about the functional actions, and all children remained generally inflexible about the ritual actions, claiming that it would be somewhat bad to change how rituals are done. In Experiment 2, children ages 6 to 11 were asked about the flexibility of a familiar ritual (i.e., baptism) and a familiar functional action (i.e., bath). In this case, children of all ages were far more flexible about the functional actions than the ritual actions. In Experiment 3, children ages 4 to 12 were asked about the efficacy of a baptism if the pastor performing the baptism performed the wrong actions. The older children were more likely than younger children to claim that the baptism could still work even if the pastor made mistakes.


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