Troubled souls with a higher purpose: new study shows how pupils view themselves

Pupils accept that science does not recognise the existence of God or the mortal soul...but they believe all the same

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To be a secondary-school pupil is to face a seemingly endless cycle of coursework, revision and exams. But 52 per cent of teenagers believe nonetheless that life has an ultimate purpose, new research shows.

And, while 45 per cent recognise that the scientific view is that God does not exist, the same proportion say that they believe in God, according to Berry Billingsley, professor of science education at Canterbury Christ Church University.

In fact, Professor Billingsley will tell the annual British Educational Research Association conference today that there are a number of ways in which pupils’ beliefs contradict the information they are given in science lessons.

Question of the mortal soul

Professor Billingsley surveyed 670 pupils between the ages of 14 and 17, drawn from eight English secondaries. She asked each of them 43 questions about science and religion and revealed her findings in her paper Troubled souls: secondary students’ reasoning about science and what it means to be human.

She found that 54 per cent of pupils believed that humans have souls. Twenty-three per cent believed that humans are intrinsically soulless. And 24 per cent were uncertain on the question of the mortal soul.

One in three of those pupils who said that they believe in some form of soul also agreed with the statement “the scientific view is that the soul is not real”.

Professor Billingsley says that the high proportion of soulful pupils indicates that many think that there is more to their identity than can be explained during science lessons.

Science and religion

“Teenagers do not feel that science is enough to explain to them what it means to be a person,” she said. Many therefore embrace this notion of something beyond it: a soul.”

More than one in four pupils told Professor Billingsley that science teaches that humans are not special, compared with other animals. However, 45 per cent also ticked the box in her survey marked “I believe that humans are special, compared with other animals”.  

Professor Billingsley suggested that pupils’ agnosticism also reflects the fact that they 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.”

She added that they would benefit from multidisciplinary lessons, shared between teachers of two or more subjects, to look at how the disciplines compare and intersect.

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