The soul, in religion and philosophy, is “the immaterial aspect or essence of a human being, that which confers individuality and humanity,” according to Encyclopedia Brittanica. In religion, our souls survive after death; they’re the only part of us that’s immortal. Populations from around the world have believed in the existence of a soul for centuries, from Plato and Aristotle to Buddhists and Christians. These ideologies have been passed down through generations. In the U.S., 73 percent of adults identify themselves as Christian, and although this number is dropping, a new study finds that those who say they’re unaffiliated may be more into religion than they think.

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans identifying themselves as unaffiliated from religion climbed from 15 percent in 2007 to just under 20 percent in 2012. But even 14 percent of those who identified themselves as atheist (believing God doesn’t exist) said they believed in God or a universal spirit. There’s a disconnect, and it’s likely that these people grew up with religion and then stopped practicing — though they may have left church for good, their beliefs stuck.

That’s exactly what Rutgers University doctoral student Stephanie Anglin found in her study, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology. Though her participants may not currently follow a religion, they still believe in the concepts of a soul and the afterlife. “My starting point was, assuming that people have these automatic — that is, implicit or ingrained — beliefs about the soul and afterlife, how can we measure those implicit beliefs,” she said in a press release.

For the study, Anglin asked 348 Rutgers psychology students to recall their beliefs about the soul and afterlife at the age of 10, as well as their current beliefs (their average age was 18). These answers were considered explicit beliefs. To measure their implicit beliefs, which they might not have consciously reported, she used the Implicit Association Test, which paired concept words like “soul” and “real” or “fake.” Participants were then given a series of words underneath (such as “false” or “existing”), and told to push a key to indicate whether it fit with the paired words.

Anglin found that the students’ current beliefs were a long shot from what they thought when they were 10 years old. However, many of them had implicit beliefs that aligned closely with their 10-year-old selves, suggesting that their belief system carried over, even if religious practice didn’t.

The study shows just how powerful religion is when it’s instilled at an early age, even as more people grow up questioning the validity of religion as it pertains to worshipping a God. A study from earlier this year found that children who were exposed to religion were more likely to view characters from religious stories as real, even if the events that occurred in the story were supernatural or magical — in later life, this belief may emerge as openness to paranormal activity. Going back to that Pew study, 26 percent of self-proclaimed atheists said they still thought of themselves as spiritual people, while 41 percent said they often thought about the meaning and purpose of life.

Religion as it was may be falling in popularity, but the way it helps people find tranquility may still be prevalent. In an interview with NPR last year, 29-year-old Miriam Nissly, who was raised Jewish, considers herself Jewish with an “agnostic bent,” and still attends synagogue, said: “I realize maybe there’s a disconnect there — why are you doing it if you don’t necessarily have a belief in God? But I think there’s a cultural aspect, there’s a spiritual aspect, I suppose. I find the practice of sitting and being quiet and being alone with your thoughts to be helpful, but I don’t think I need to answer that question [about God] in order to participate in traditions I was brought up with.”

Though the students in Anglin’s study may no longer participate in these traditions, the idea of having a soul or that there’s an afterlife must certainly bring some form of reassurance.

Source: Anglin S. On the nature of implicit soul beliefs: When the past weighs more than the present. British Journal of Social Psychology. 2014.