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Children are not learning about the resurrection, priest’s research suggests

21 July 2023

‘Does Jesus have a shadow?’ among survey questions for four-year-olds


Children in the town of Verges, in Spain, enacting Passion scenes during Holy Week observances this year

Children in the town of Verges, in Spain, enacting Passion scenes during Holy Week observances this year

CHRISTIANS may be “missing” teaching children about the resurrection, a researcher into their religious development has suggested.

The Revd Joanna Stephens, a researcher in religious cognition and the development of belief at the University of Nottingham, has interviewed more than 100 children for an international study funded by the Templeton Foundation.

“What struck me more from the perspective of the Church of England . . . is I think we’ve missed teaching children about the resurrection,” she said. “Does Jesus have a shadow?” was one of the questions that she had asked. “A lot of the children have struggled with that, and even the Christian children, because they say ‘Well, Jesus is dead; so he used to have a shadow but he doesn’t now.’ And you ask, ‘Does God need to eat? Does Jesus need to eat?’ ‘Well, Jesus used to eat, but he’s dead now.’”

These answers led her to reflect on her own earlier experiences as a parish priest: “Leading up to Easter, we teach them all about what Easter’s about, and the Easter story, and then it’s the school holidays, and then you don’t do another school assembly until you see them two weeks, or maybe a month, after Easter. So I think we maybe miss the resurrection in the teaching, or else our God is so embodied that they struggle to believe in that miracle, really.”

She observed that “research has previously told us that the more personified our God is, the less able children are to believe that they can do the miraculous, because they see them very much as another human, which is a big difference between Muslim children and Christian children, because Allah is very much not embodied; so they actually believe in miracles more than the Christian children.”

Ms Stephens, who has permission to officiate in the diocese of Southwell & Nottingham, where she served as a parish priest for 12 years, studied for a Master’s degree in psychology during the lockdown. To date, she has interviewed 124 children from Christian, Muslim, and “no-religion” backgrounds. The research is a contribution to a three-year study as part of the Developing Belief Network: an “international, cross-cultural, collaborative research network exploring the development and diversity of cognition”.

The study is taking place in 16 countries, with children aged between four and ten, who will take part in a series of interviews over three years. Among the questions being explored is “How are religious and supernatural beliefs passed down to the next generation?” Besides an interview with each child, lasting between one hour and 90 minutes, the study includes a 20-minute interview between parent and child to explore this question, with four areas explored: imitation, testimony, text, and instruction.

Parents were consistently surprised by their children’s answers, Ms Stephens said. “It’s especially interesting to me: the parents that say that they are atheists, or agnostic, and inevitably the children do normally have some faith. I think that is to do with how they are taught at school, and some children are at faith schools even if their parents haven’t got a faith. But children at every school are taught about different religions.”

Debate over whether children were born with “God consciousness” dated back to the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, she observed. “My experience with these children — and I am dealing with children that are four — is that, inevitably, the children do have a faith. So, we are open to the discussion. Are children born with a God consciousness, and then it is taught out of them, or is a God consciousness taught into them? Now, that will be really interesting to see, globally and culturally . . . but, so far, all I can say is the children I have interviewed have a higher rate of faith than their parents do.”

Future waves of the study would explore prayer and the presence of “religious artefacts” in the home, she said. Another finding to date was that “Easter is all about the chocolate, across the board.”

Professor Linda Woodhead, Head of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College, London, has drawn on the British Social Attitudes survey to report that children brought up Christian have a 45-per-cent chance of ending up as “nones”, whereas those brought up “no religion” have a 95-per-cent probability of retaining that identification.

Polling commissioned from ComRes by Theos in 2016 found that only 30 per cent of parents agreed that it was important to “actively pass on beliefs about whether or not there is a God or Higher Power to their children” (News, 4 November 2016). This rose to 69 per cent for Christians who attended church once a month or more

Ms Stephens said that her research had led her to believe that the Church had much to learn from Muslims: “The mosque could not have been more helpful and more interested in this research.” She had visited a school that children went to every afternoon to learn Arabic.

“And there’s a great pride. . . The Muslim faith demands different dress, different language, a lot of time commitment. It demands a lot of people, but, rather than put people off, that seems to make people feel like they are more a part of it, more committed to it.” Parents were prepared to pay for this instruction: an indication of how much they valued it.

While the study was at an early stage, she suggested that the pandemic had played a “massive role” in church attendance: “I’ve had a couple of children where the parent thinks they are Christian, thinks they go to church, but the child doesn’t, and maybe that’s more like they have actually got out of the habit and haven’t noticed that they have got out of the habit.”

Ms Stephens’s aim is to include 300 children. Interviews take place both in person and online, and the study is seeking to recruit children from Christian, Muslim, and “no religion” backgrounds. Despite their age and the length of time required, children “loved” taking part in the interviews, she said. “They can’t get anything wrong. . . We just want to know what they think. . . They just get an adult listening to them for an hour, and I never correct them. That’s really important to get across to parents: that there’s no judgement on their faith or how much their children believe or don’t believe.”

She had been interested by children’s reactions to questions, she said. She had worried about asking “What happens when we die?”, to which the “vast majority” of children had answered “You go to heaven.” They had been more “more upset” by the question: “Do people always feel like everything’s going to be OK, or do people ever feel worried?”

She concluded: “I think children are really able to cope with the big questions and . . . we need to open up the questions, but also the possibility that we don’t always know the answers, and let’s explore them together.”

To find out more, or for your child to take part, please email: Joanna.stephens4@nottingham.ac.uk

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