A study of the religious affiliations of Americans by county has concluded that the more naturally beautiful their home is, the less likely they are to be part of a mainstream religion. What is not clear is which way causality runs – are non-believers more inspired by the beauties of nature, and therefore inclined to move there, or does daily experience of the natural world dampen one's ardor to pray?
In the journal Sociology of Religion, Todd Ferguson and Jeffrey Tamburello of Baylor University compared data from surveys of religious adherence by county with assessments of natural beauty and optimum climate. While our tastes in temperature vary, the authors used Department of Agriculture data on average preferences for summer and winter weather, humidity and even topography to identify naturally favored counties.
The statistical methodology used to reach the conclusion will need to be scrutinized closely. Many factors influence religious affiliation in the United States, such as age, ethnicity and income. Controlling for all such factors is challenging, and it is possible that the correlation will turn out to be a function of something that the authors missed.
The most obvious potentially confounding factor is wealth. Sociologists of religion have argued for over a century that material security is connected to declining religious beliefs. People with plenty of money to spare are also likely to spend some of it on waterfront accommodation.
However, if it is found there is more to the correlation than rich people enjoying a nice view while feeling like they don't need God, the causes may prove revealing. “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.
Nevertheless, Ferguson, who has a Master of Divinity and is now studying for 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.'”
An alternative explanation for the correlation might be that living somewhere placid and calming reduces the need some people feel for religious protection against disaster. One of most cited studies in the sociology of religion is Bronislaw Malinowski's work in the Trobriand Islands. Malinowski found that fishermen venturing onto the perilous open ocean applied “magical thinking” through rituals that were skipped by those catching food in the calm (and very beautiful) waters of the lagoon.
Whether there is anything to such speculation will probably have to wait for further research, but Pope Francis' efforts to save the planet might be better for humanity than they are for Church recruitment. On the other hand, perhaps it is time Richard Dawkins got involved in efforts to save the wilderness.