[this is cross-posted from the Cognition & Culture blog] In the public sphere, religious beliefs are often considered to be a matter of private sentiment or preference, not as matters of fact. While this may be helpful for the maintenance of a pluralistic society, religious individuals often regard their beliefs as true in an objective sense. Attempts to incorporate fictionalism into religious practice, such as the Anglican Sea of Faith, have met only with limited success. There is thus a tension between the large diversity of religious beliefs, which prompt a more subjectivist understanding, and the appraisal by individual religious believers, who seem to have a more fact-like understanding. How do we intuitively conceptualize religious beliefs?
In sum, concerning matters of religion, the participants were not entirely subjectivist or entirely objectivist, but intuitively regarded such beliefs to fall somewhere in between subjective preference and objective knowledge of facts. These results conform well with Paul Harris' earlier research on how children regard religious testimony. Even young children (age 5) seem to think that religious testimony is different from factual testimony. They are, for instance, more confident that germs exist than that angels exist (even religious children), despite the fact that both are invisible, and that both are learned about through testimony. Harris (in a lecture of his I attended at Oxford last spring) speculates that this may be due to children's receiving subtle cues from adults that there is something distinct and not entirely fact-like about religious beliefs. For instance, adults can be heard saying "I really believe God exists" but not "I really believe germs exist". Or they may be sensitive to the greater amount of disagreement about religious beliefs, compared to factual beliefs in their community.
Also, perhaps religious beliefs do not figure in explanatory contexts in the same way as factual beliefs do (a child may regularly hear "wash your hands to get the germs off" in a matter-of-fact manner, whereas religious explanations "well, it was God's will" are perhaps only common in the most religious households). Perhaps disagreement itself can be a guide for perceived objectivity. In this respect, it would be interesting to replicate Heiphetz et al.'s study with people from rather isolated, religious communities, like the Amish. My prediction is that people from such communities would regard religious beliefs as more fact-like than preference-like. Als
I think that this understanding of religious beliefs as not entirely fact-like is a recent development in western culture, of say, the past 200-300 years. We do not read (as far as I know) in past theological or philosophical writings that people preface their statements with "I, as a Roman Catholic, would of course say X", or "As a Calvinist, I think that Y". Children may thus be sensitive to our culture-specific understanding of religious beliefs, already from an early age onwards.