Why is the South more religious than the West? It could be the scenery.
A new study discovered a correlation between beautiful landscapes and less religious communities.
Do you live somewhere in the U.S. that's B-E-A-utiful?
I'm talkin' cover-of-a-travel-brochure gorgeous here.
If you do, you're also less likely to be traditionally religious.
I know — not the most obvious connection. But an area's natural environment and its population's religious affiliations (or lack thereof) are actually correlated.
New research by a team at Baylor University examined 3,107 counties across the continental U.S. and found that those with more natural amenities — that is, nice weather and beautiful landscapes — are home to fewer traditionally religious people.
To reach that conclusion, they utilized the Religious Congregations and Membership Study, which provides data on how various populations across the country identify when it comes to religion. They also used the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Amenities Scale, which ranks counties based on the number of "environmental qualities most people prefer" (think interesting landscapes, warm winters, access to water ... you know, the places you've been tempted to move your entire adult life).
And voilà! They discovered a pattern. Check it out on the maps below. The one on top reflects the Natural Amenities Scale (the darker the county, the more natural amenities it has). The map on bottom reflects the concentrations of people who identify as religious (the darker the county, the more religious it is).
See how the maps are inverted in many areas of the U.S.?
Researchers made sure to consider different variables that could play a role in the pattern. Take, for instance, civic organizations and a community's recreational opportunities (alternatives to religious engagement that take up a person's time) — when two counties had the same amount, the one with more natural amenities had fewer religious people.
The correlation was most evident in the western U.S., which had both the lowest overall rate of religious counties and the highest average level of natural amenities.
The study suggests earth's natural beauty may, in a sense, serve the same purpose as religion for an individual.
The satisfaction some Americans get from being one with nature may meet the same need other Americans satisfy through their religious faith, according to the study.
"When a person hikes in a forest to connect with the sacred, she or he may not feel the need to affiliate with a religious organization because her or his spiritual demands are met."
And that's kind of beautiful, if you ask me.