The Secular Boom

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Secular Boom

You remember the 90s, right?

It was a patchwork quilt of events and ideas, movements and personalities, if there ever was one. Our headlines changed and moved with the fast-pace nature of a video camera.

In August of 1990 Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. The United States and its allies issued an ultimatum for his withdrawal, setting a deadline of January 15, 1991 for Iraq to pull out.

Iraq didn't.

So our armed forces gathered themselves together and turned an operation called "Desert Storm" loose. 

Then came Wednesday morning, April 19, 1995.

At 9:02 a.m., an explosion ripped through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 men, women and children.

But we didn't have time to reflect on that one too much, because we were too busy watching a white Bronco make its way down the streets of Los Angeles. And we kept right on following it, until Tuesday, October 3, 1995, when, at around 1 p.m., it seemed like everyone in America stopped what they were doing and gathered around a TV or a radio to hear the verdict on O.J. Simpson. 

Then in 1997 stories related to the Space Station Mir and Hurricane Erica were pushed aside for the death of two women who had, in their own unique ways, touched the world. One was a young princess named Diana, the other was an old saint named Teresa.

If that wasn't enough for us to take in a 10-year window, in 1998 we were introduced to a 24-year-old White House intern by the name of Monica Lewinsky, and before you knew it, we had a scandal involving the president of the United States leading to a special prosecutor and impeachment hearings.

Tucked away between those headlines was

...the death sentence on author Salman Rushdie

...the emergence of Rap music

...the videotaped beating of Rodney King

...Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill

...Safe Sex

...mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer

...the Dream Team in basketball

...the bombing of the World Trade Center

...David Koresh and Waco

...the L.A. earthquake


...the suicide of Kurt Cobain

...Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America

...the Unabomber

...Susan Smith

...Ruby Ridge

...the Million Man March

...Bill Gates and Microsoft

...the professional debut of golf phenomenon Tiger Woods

...the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey

...the mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate group

...the homerun chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire

...the retirement of Michael Jordan

...the conflict in Bosnia

...and the shootings at Columbine High School

And that was just the news. 

Our tastes ranged from Pokemon to Melatonin, mini-vans to the Harry Potter books, the internet to Starbucks. Musically we journeyed from Seattle grunge groups like Nirvana and Pearl Jam to, and I know it's hard for us to admit it, the Macarena. Hollywood introduced us to Hannibal Lecter, Jurassic Park, and a young Darth Vader. 

And we spent time thinking about nothing at all on the show that said it was about nothing at all, Seinfeld.

But there was something else that happened during that decade that we are only now learning.

The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that the “nones” – those self-identifying as having no religious affiliation – nearly doubled from a 1990 survey, from 8.1% to 15%, making those who claimed no religion at all the third largest defined constituency in the United States. Only Catholics and Baptists represented larger groups. Further, “nones” were the only religious bloc to rise in percentage in every single state, thus constituting the only true national religious trend. 

But the rise of the “nones” did not get our full attention until The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life weighed in with their most recent study. Titled “Nones on the Rise,” the study found that between 2008 and 2012, the number of “nones” grew to one in five Americans (19.3%). 

But here is something that may not be as widely known:

The earlier ARIS report, titled “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population,” found that the 1990’s was the decade when the “secular boom” occurred. During that era alone, each year 1.3 million more adult Americans joined the ranks of the “nones.”

Harvard professor Robert Putnam agrees, tying it to a rebellion of sorts, particularly among the Millennials: “It begins to jump at around 1990,” he says. “These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics, and so I think the single most important reason for the rise of the unknowns is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.”

Regardless of the reason for the rise – it’s actually quite multi-faceted – we now know that while many of us were worrying about the Y2K computer bug, we should have been more concerned about a much deeper infection of a cultural nature that was taking hold.

Of course, it’s not too late to realize it.

Because if there’s one thing we know, it’s this:

The “nones” aren’t done booming.

James Emery White



“American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population,” Trinity College, read online

“Losing Our Religion: The Growth of the ‘Nones,” Heidi Glenn, National Public Radio, January 13, 2013, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Secular Boom