Nature versus religion

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Snowy Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

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Snowy Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Snowy Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Snowy Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Living amidst purple mountains majesty and other wonders of nature is likely to turn you away from religious adherence, claim a couple of Baylor social scientists who’ve got the multivariate factor analysis to back it up. In a forthcoming article in the journal Sociology of Religion, Todd Ferguson and Jeffrey Tamburello construct maps of the U.S. showing that counties which rank high on a “natural amenities” scale tend to have low rates of religious adherence, while those lacking the natural amenities go the other way.

Ferguson and Tamburello (F&T) are making a stronger argument than just that people living amidst said mountains etc. would prefer to go hiking of a Sunday morning than ride a pew. They’re saying that the mountains themselves provide spiritual goods that tend to crowd out out what you can get in your churches, synagogues, and ashrams. Which is why religious adherence is low in the West, high in the South, and middling in the Midwest and Northeast.

Now at this point, I’m hearing a snarky voice suggest that, well, what else would you expect from Baylor? Waco is not exactly a hiker’s paradise, so no wonder there are more Baptists than people in McLennan County, Texas. But that would be unfair.

First of all, according to the USDA amenity value scale F&T employ, McLellan County actually gets a 4 out of 7. Plus adherence numbers indicate that the county now boasts 50 percent more Nones than Southern Baptists  — indeed, that as of 2010 it’s had more Nones than all evangelicals put together. Hell, I wouldn’t even be surprised if there are some card-carrying Nones at Baylor itself.

Now I’ve got no problem with thinking about the competing spiritual claims of organized religion and Nature. Not so long ago I co-edited a book about religion in the Pacific Northwest (subtitled “the None Zone”) that makes the case that the region’s natural environment has made eco-spirituality the dominant worldview.

The problem is that social science analyses like F&T’s act as though the natural landscape is the whole story and it isn’t, not by a long shot. Take Utah. It’s way up there on both the amenity and religious adherence scales. Obviously, that has something to do with the fact that Brigham Young decided that this was the designated Zion of the Latter-day Saints. As compared to high amenity/low religious adherence Colorado and Wyoming and Montana, which were settled for purposes of mining and where organized religion never got much of a foothold.

And that’s far from the only counter-example. (For another, look at western North Carolina and East Tennessee.) The larger point is that over time, different parts of the country have been shaped by distinctive combinations of cultural, economic, and institutional forces, including religious ones, as well as the natural environment. Multivariate factor analysis sees this history, at best, through a glass darkly.

  • RogerH

    It is McClennan county, not McClellan, where Waco is located in Texas.

  • Actually, it’s McLennan. Mea culpa. Change made.

  • LucretiaAsh

    I truly believe that the nature has a lot to do with religion as the feeling you have hiking high in the mountains is close to that standing in the church. You are overwhelmed with emotions and the atmosphere in both places is very special. Why nature cannot be one’s sanctuary?

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  • ben in oakland

    Religion does not occur in nature. There are no lion Catholics, there are no rino Baptists, there are no Mormon bees in the hives, dogs don’t care if you’re a muslim.

  • LucretiaAsh

    Well , I think we have different understanding what religion is and this is not a proper point to argue about. Just my humble opinion.