The sun sinks below the horizon and the water laps onto the sand, still warm from the day’s heat. Or perhaps you prefer your sunsets served atop a mountain range, with a side of cool, pine-scented breeze. Beautiful natural locations like these can serve as a spiritual balm—so much so, in fact, that people who live in pleasant environs are less likely to be affiliated with a religious organization than people who do not. That was the report from a new study out from Baylor University, which found that the more lovely a county in the U.S. is, the lower the rates are there for membership in a church, temple or mosque.
For the study, researchers looked at data from four sources: the Religious Congregations and Membership Study, the U.S. Census Bureau, the USDA and the Dept. of Agriculture at the state level. (I hear “USDA” and think “milk and eggs,” but the USDA tracks the environment, too.) Baylor’s researchers found that Americans ideally want to reside in a county that boasts warm winters, not-too-hot summers, lower humidity during summer months, and access to a waterfront. And when people do get to live in a sublime place like that, they are less likely to be regularly attending services or participating in religious events like communion, baptism or bat mitzvah.
“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 lead author Todd Ferguson, who is studying for a PhD in sociology at Baylor. In the research, he and his coauthor noted that scientists are now beginning to study how experiences in the natural world, like hiking, surfing or mountain climbing, can rise from the level of “activity” and become more of a religious experience. He also added that scientists will need to determine if this inverse relationship between natural amenities and adherence to religion is a uniquely American phenomenon, or happens in other places in the world.
Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!