Scenic Communities Have Lower Rates of Religious Affiliation

People who live in counties with beautiful weather and scenery are less likely to be affiliated with organized religion, according to a new study by Baylor University.

“Beautiful weather, mountains, and waterfronts can serve as conduits to the sacred, just like traditional religious congregations,” said lead author Todd W. Ferguson, a doctoral candidate in sociology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

Just as natural amenities may be an economic draw for tourists, new residents and development, they also may be a spiritual retreat for a portion of the population — and potentially compete with traditional local religious organizations.

But Ferguson stresses that the findings are not necessarily a measure of whether enjoying the great outdoors tempts people away from church on a lovely weekend. And “we’re not claiming that residents in areas richer with natural amenities are more likely to create a ‘Church of nature,'” he said.

For some, nature may enhance what they find in their religious group — and many traditional religious groups are likely to encourage people to use the environment for spiritual expression.

Then there are the religious “nones” — those who do not identify with any particular religion but are not necessarily atheists or agnostics — who may feel they connect with the divine in forests, lakes, and mountains.

“When a person hikes in a forest to connect with the sacred, that individual may not feel a need to affiliate with a religious group because spiritual demands are being met,” Ferguson said.

Some “nones” even may adhere to a nature-based spirituality.

In addition, nature does not have time constraints, while many congregations or other organizations meet only specific hours of the week, researchers said.

For the study, the researchers looked at data from the Religious Congregations and Membership Study, United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Census Bureau. They analyzed cross-sectional differences in religious adherence rates among 3,107 U.S. counties, using the county-level rates per 1,000 people.

Adherence was defined as all members of religious organizations, including full members, their children and the estimated number of other participants who are not considered members — for example, the baptized, those not confirmed, those not eligible for communion, and those regularly attending services.

They also analyzed data from the USDA about environmental qualities people prefer, including warm winter, winter sun, temperate summer, low summer humidity, topographical variation, and water area, said co-author Jeffrey A. Tamburello, a doctoral candidate in sociology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

The researchers noted that more scholars are beginning to explore how activities that use natural amenities — such as surfing, backpacking, or SCUBA diving — may be viewed as religious experiences.

“Scholars also need to explore whether the relationship between natural amenities and religion adherence rates is just an American phenomenon, or whether it also exists in areas such as Western Europe, which have lower rates of religious adherence,” Ferguson said.

The study, entitled “The Natural Environment as a Spiritual Resource: A Theory of Regional Variation in Religious Adherence” is published in the journal Sociology of Religion.

Source: Baylor University