Affiliation with organized religion is at a 50-year low among young people, according to a study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion. The study focused on the generation known as The Millennials — those under 30, born after 1980.
But the data "doesn't necessarily mean that young people are more secular," says Greg Smith, one of the researchers who conducted the study.
According to the study, one in four people (25 percent) between 18 and 30 say they are "unaffiliated."
By comparison, one in five (20 percent) Generation Xers — people born between 1965 and 1980 — identified themselves as unaffiliated at the same age.
And the number of unaffiliated Millennials is nearly twice that of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) at the same age. Among Baby Boomers in the late 1970s, 13 percent said they had no religious affiliation.
But there's a twist to the study. When measuring other religious benchmarks, young people begin to look very much like their elders. On the question of whether they believe in a heaven or hell, three-quarters (75 percent) of the Millennials answered "Yes" — the same as for people over 30.
Asked if they believe in life after death, the same 75 percent say yes, just like the Gen Xers. And 80 percent of Millennials say they believe in miracles, the same as for those over 30.
"What this shows," says Smith, "is that the U.S. is still pretty unique, still very, very religious."
"Nine out of 10 people say they believe in God ... but there's an openness as to the way Americans approach religion," he said.
Smith said eight in 10 Americans still describe themselves as Christian — "but there’s an openness.... They’ll borrow meditation practices from Buddhism, for instance, or belief in the Hindu understanding of reincarnation.
"But more and more people from all age groups and faith backgrounds (two thirds) say that many religions can lead to eternal life."
The researchers say what they don't know is what these numbers bode for the future. Will young people join a faith, lose a faith, or switch faiths? "We just don't know," Smith said.
But what the numbers have shown is that the percentage of the unaffiliated tends to stay consistent as each generation gets older. The number of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who said they were unaffiliated when they were under 31 remains the same today.
Researchers could expect the same for the Millennials. The only thing they can have faith in is that nothing is certain.