Most teenagers "believe they have a soul"

5 October 2016

More than half of secondary school pupils believe that people have souls, a survey has revealed.

Almost as many, 45 per cent, say they believe in God while 52 per cent agree with the statement “I believe that life has an ultimate purpose” according to research by Professor Berry Billingsley, from the Faculty of Education.

Yet the same proportion of pupils who say they believe in God (45 per cent) also agree with the statement “the scientific view is that God does not exist”. And many pupils seem to be seeing their faith as a rejection of science, even though in fact there may be no conflict.

The central findings of the research, Troubled souls: Secondary students’ reasoning about science and what it means to be human, was presented by Professor Billingsley at the British Educational Research Association’s (BERA) conference last month.

Professor Billingsley runs the Learning about Science and Religion (LASAR) project, based at Canterbury Christ Church and Reading universities, and her research is particularly focused on how children reason about the relationship between science and their religious beliefs.

For this research Professor Billingsley surveyed 670 pupils aged 14 to 17 across eight English secondary schools, asking them 43 questions about science and religion.

The survey also found that 54 per cent of pupils agreed with the statement “I believe humans have souls”. A further 24 per cent neither agreed or disagreed, the remaining disagreed.

The proportion of pupils believing in a “soul” may seem high, given that it is larger than the number professing to believe in God. But Professor Billingsley said it may reflect the fact that many people believe there is more to their identity than what they may be being presented with in science lessons.

Professor Billingsley, a former science teacher, said: “Teenagers do not feel that science, as they experience it via the media and in lessons they attend, is enough to explain to them what it means to be a person. Many therefore embrace this notion of something beyond it: a soul.”

The figures for the proportion of pupils believing in God,45 per cent, with a further 26 per cent in the agnostic/don’t know camp, are lower than the numbers of adults identifying themselves as following a religion in the most recent census (67 per cent identified as religious), but higher than the 25 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds saying they believed in God in a recent poll.

The survey showed that some pupils held beliefs that they perceived to be a rejection of a scientific position as they understood it from the media and science lessons.

One in three of those who personally believed in some form of soul also agreed with the statement “the scientific view is that the soul is not real”.

The survey also suggests that the 45 per cent of pupils who agreed with the statement “the scientific view is that God does not exist,” is a matter of concern, as “the consensus in scholarship is that the question of whether or not God exists is beyond science to resolve,” it states.

The research argues that many pupils are frequently coming to believe that science is limitless and can always offer them “certainty”, and so it cannot be compatible with religion. Pupils holding a religious faith might therefore reject science as not compatible with their worldview.

Yet there may be limitations to the extent of scientific understanding.

Professor Billingsley suggests: “Not every question people ask is easy to investigate. Some questions are more amenable to science than others and there may be limitations to the extent of scientific understanding.

“When you construct a question in science, you are designing a study that draws on observations carried out in the natural world. As such the question of whether or not there is a supernatural god is beyond science to resolve.”

“Pupils have few opportunities while in school to engage in structured discussions about the relationships between science and religion, or indeed about the relationship between science and philosophy.”

Instead, science and religious studies are treated as separate subjects, she adds: “Students move from subject to subject and at this age (upper secondary) their attention is frequently on mastering topics to pass examinations.

“Learning ideas within small topics arguably obscures the distinctions between the type of questions that students are exploring from one topic to the next.

“Students would benefit from some lessons with teachers in two or more subjects in a multidisciplinary space such as a library, so that they can look at a bigger picture of how their subjects compare and interact.”

Notes for editors

  • The survey allowed analysis of the religious backgrounds of the pupils. In the survey, 34.4 per cent described themselves as Christian; 4 per cent as Muslim; 1.3 per cent as Hindu; 0.7 per cent as Jewish; 0.5 per cent as Sikh; 19 per cent as agnostic; and 22 per cent as atheist and 18 per cent specified “other” or did not give a religious position.
  • The previous survey, by the polling company YouGov, which found that only 25 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they believed in God.
  • The annual conference of the British Educational Research Association is being held at the University of Leeds from Tuesday, September 13th to Thursday, September 15th. More than 500 research papers will be presented during the course of the conference.

About BERA

The British Educational Research Association (BERA) is a member-led charity which exists to encourage educational research and its application for the improvement of practice and public benefit.

It strives to ensure the best quality evidence from educational research informs policy makers, practitioners and the general public and contributes to economic prosperity, cultural understanding, social cohesion and personal flourishing.

Canterbury Christ Church University

Canterbury Christ Church University is a modern university with a particular strength in higher education for the public services.

With 17,000 students across Kent and Medway, its courses span a wide range of academic and professional subject areas.

  • 95% of our UK undergraduates were in employment or further studies six months after completing their studies*.
  • We are one of the South East’s largest providers of education, training and skills leading to public service careers.

*2013/14 Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey



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Last edited: 14/12/2018 23:03:00