Is Organized Religion Losing Parishioners to Mother Nature?

A recent study in the journal Sociology of Religion concluded Americans who had more beautiful homes were also less likely to be part of a mainstream religion. Lead researchers, Todd Ferguson and Jeffrey Tamburello of Baylor University, analyzed data from surveys of religious adherence by county against valuations of natural beauty and ideal climate.

U.S. counties with pleasant weather and beautiful natural landscapes have lower rates of religious affiliation. The study authors suggest, yes, people tend to use nature as a spiritual resource, making it a competitor with organized religious institutions.

View of Mt Rainier from 410 at Chinook Pass

View of Mt. Rainier at Chinook Pass. Courtesy of The Adventure Post

The researchers substantiated their hypothesis by examining religious faithfulness across 3,107 counties using the county-level rates per 1,000 people. The survey included members of religious groups as well as an approximated number of participants who are not officially members. Although preferences in temperature vary, the authors of the study utilized data from the Religious Congregations and Membership Study, the U.S. Census Bureau, and Department of Agriculture data on average propensities for summer and winter weather, humidity, and topography.

Those with a high disposable income had a higher probability of spending their money on waterfront properties. Nevertheless, there is more to the research than simply being wealthy and enjoying a great view while being unreligious, it’s the causation that proves interesting. “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,” said Ferguson.


Southern California. Courtesy of PIZn

Ferguson, who has a Master of Divinity and is now getting a PhD in sociology, added, “We’re not claiming that residents in areas richer with natural amenities are more likely to create a ‘Church of nature.’” Though, the study does suggest people tend to view nature as a spiritual resource instead of relying on organized religious institutions.

“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.”

Another answer to the parallel might be living somewhere serene and fair-weathered reduces the need some people feel for religious protection against natural disasters. Bronislaw Malinowski’s work in the Trobriand Islands is one of most cited studies in the sociology of religion. Malinowski discovered fishermen who endeavor onto the hazardous open sea applied “magical thinking” through ceremonies that were unutilized by those catching food in the calm lagoon waters.


Bristol, TN. Courtesy of Bilnkit’s Travel Journal

Neither “Tornado Alley” nor the “Bible Belt” have definite borders, but map searches do show a striking pattern. Counties in the Pacific Northwest with more natural amenities: mountains, bodies of water, forests, and a temperate climate, had lower rates of followers belonging to religious institutions than counties in the Midwest and South with flatter landscapes and more severe weather.

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

Maybe we should get out of the buildings and get into the great outdoors. You’ll be amazed at the way nature can make you feel spiritual.


Are you religious? If so, what kind of dwelling do you live in and where is it located?




Zara Zhi
Zara Zhi
Zara is a freelance writer and filmmaker who has worked for numerous magazines and news sites. When not coming up with puns or writing screenplays, she enjoys having blind children read to her and donating plasma TVs. Follow her on Twitter: @zarazhi