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Press Release – Most teenagers “believe they have a soul”

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”.

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

These are the central findings of a paper being presented to BERA tomorrow (Thursday) by Professor Berry Billingsley, of Canterbury Christ Church University.

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

The survey found that 54 per cent of pupils agreed with the statement “I believe humans have souls”, with a further 24 per cent neither agreeing or disagreeing. Only the remaining 23 per cent 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.

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.

The survey found 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.

For example, 45 per cent ticked the box marked “I believe that humans are special compared to other animals” – with only 33 per cent disagreeing – even though more than one in four of those agreeing with that statement also said “science says that humans are not special compared with other animals”.

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 paper 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 paper argues that many pupils are frequently coming to believe that science is limitless and can always offer them “certainty”, and thus that 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 that “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”.

She adds: “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.”

The fact that this was often not appreciated by pupils reflects the fact that 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,” says the paper.

Instead, science and religious studies are treated as separate subjects. “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,” says the paper.”

Professor Billingsley adds that “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.”

“Troubled souls: Secondary students’ reasoning about science and what it means to be human” is being presented to BERA by Professor Berry Billingsley of Canterbury Christ Church University on Thursday, September 15th.


Notes for editors:

1 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.

2 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, is viewable here:

3 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.

Further information from:

Warwick Mansell

BERA annual conference press officer

07813 204245