Beliefs Institutions

Is it pretty outside? Then you’re less likely to go to church

A man walks along the Pacific Ocean at Goleta Beach Park in Goleta, California on July 30, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SCENERY-RELIGION, originally transmitted on August 6, 2015.
A man walks along the Pacific Ocean at Goleta Beach Park in Goleta, California on July 30, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SCENERY-RELIGION, originally transmitted on August 6, 2015.

A man walks along the Pacific Ocean at Goleta Beach Park in Goleta, Calif., on July 30, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SCENERY-RELIGION, originally transmitted on Aug. 6, 2015.

(RNS) Can a beautiful landscape compete with religious worship?

A Baylor University study, published in the journal Sociology of Religion, found that U.S. counties with nicer weather and prettier natural surroundings see lower rates of religious affiliation. The study authors suggest that, yes, people tend to use nature as a spiritual resource, making it a competitor with organized religious institutions.

Sociology doctoral candidate Todd Ferguson, who co-authored the study, noticed the correlation between natural scenery and lower religious adherence while looking at a map of regional variations in natural amenities. He saw that it was “almost a mirror image” of another map, one that showed varying levels of religiosity in the U.S.


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“People continually bring up this idea of nature-based spiritual fulfillment — whether it’s people who are hiking, surfing, backpacking — in other people’s work,” said Ferguson. “We were trying to see, if this is happening at the individual level, maybe it’s actually affecting large regions like counties.”

Using a U.S. Department of Agriculture scale for natural amenities and data from the Religious Congregations and Membership Study and the U.S. Census Bureau, Ferguson and his colleague Jeffrey Tamburello ultimately confirmed their hypothesis, examining religious adherence rates across 3,107 counties using the county-level rates per 1,000 people. The study included members of religious institutions as well as an estimated number of participants who are not officially members.

Counties in regions such as the Pacific Northwest with more natural amenities — mountains, bodies of water, forests, warm weather — had lower percentages of people belonging to traditional religious institutions than counties in regions such as the Midwest with flatter landscapes and colder winters.

Is this adverse relationship between natural beauty and religious affiliation an American phenomenon? Ferguson and Tamburello aren’t sure, but it’s a question “we’d love to explore next,” Ferguson said.


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“The way America was settled, the last part to be settled was the West Coast and that has the highest level of natural amenities. A lot of times, frontiers or settlements have lower levels of religiosity,” Ferguson said. “Our finding could be interpreted as an echo of the frontier West.” But Ferguson and Tamburello tested their hypothesis without the West Coast and the correlation remained the same, suggesting that their research can’t be boiled down to American settlement patterns.

Still, Ferguson said he wonders how the results might differ in another country, such as India, where religious practice may not be as centered on congregation membership.

Ultimately, the study is part of a larger trend in American sociology research interested in “the nones,” people who answer “none of the above” when asked their religious affiliation, Ferguson said.

“Scholars have been trying to figure out why there are variations in religiosity in America and this study is one step to helping us understand that. We offer one piece of this puzzle.”

YS/MG END WEISSMAN

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Sara Weissman

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  • Interesting thesis. But Some of the greatest saints were lovers of the beauties of nature seeing it as God’s artistry— In fact we now have a pope who chose the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi who was probably one of the greatest nature loving saints (of which there have been many). Maybe it is nature and organized religion as a unity that
    creates the deepest faith and strongest spiritual experience, if not necessarily boosting a greater religious membership.

  • While I have a faith home, I drop in as I can at the Church of Holy Mother Nature, which welcomes visitors seven days a week

  • The beauty and diversity in nature is a testament to the Glory of God. Heaven must be even more beautiful!

  • Apparently, there is a correlation between beautiful landscapes and low levels of churchgoing. But what is the explanation? Als rich folk are usually less religious, and van afford to pay more for a house, it might be expected beautiful areas contain more non-believers. But then the explanation is not the substitute spirituality of nature, but rather good old Mammon.

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