My husband and I recently returned from a brief but lovely stay along the stunning shores of Lake Huron. We awoke each morning to colorful sunrises along the beach and enjoyed our coffee on a porch swing that overlooked the water. Because I love the water so very much, beach time really packs a powerful spiritual punch for me and makes me appreciate God and the gift of our Catholic faith so much more. These experiences encourage me to go deeper and to get to know as much as possible about the awesome God who created the world in such magnificent glory and detail.
That’s why I found a study released earlier this month by researchers at Baylor University to be somewhat a study in contradiction when it comes to Americans and how they experience God. The study, entitled “The Natural Environment as a Spiritual Resource,” is published in the journal Sociology of Religion and claims that counties with beautiful weather and scenery actually have lower rates of church membership and affiliation with religious organizations.
“Beautiful weather, mountains and waterfronts can serve as conduits to the sacred, just like traditional congregations,” said Todd W. Ferguson, the lead author of the study, who goes on to say that for some people, hikes in a forest, for example, allow them to “connect with the sacred” so they don’t feel any need to affiliate with a religious group because their “spiritual demands are being met.”
The study takes a look at the group now commonly known as the “nones” — those who do not identify with any particular faith or religious organization. They’re not necessarily atheist or agnostic, as the Baylor report points out, but they still claim to find something of the divine in forests, lakes and mountains. And some of the “nones” may even adhere, the researchers explain, to a “nature-based spirituality.”
The researchers looked at data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Religious Congregation and Membership study and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They also examined differences in religious adherence rates among more than 3,100 counties. In addition, the researchers reviewed data from the Department of Agriculture concerning environmental qualities people prefer, such as temperate summer, low summer humidity, warm winters and winter sun.
It would be interesting to take a more up-close and personal look at the reasons not only those identified as the “nones” but others included in the findings are spending their time finding God in nature and not in the pews. We might discover fallen-away Catholics who were sacramentalized but not evangelized as well as Catholics who might have a negative view of the Church because of a bad experience.
Whatever the reason, as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, it is in our human nature to recognize something or someone greater than ourselves when we take a closer look at creation.
“Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse” (Rom 1:20).
The good news is, in many ways, these people are searching for God, but they need to take that search a few steps further. Maybe their love of nature could be a starting point of evangelization. After all, the signs and wonders of the natural world — such as the beauty of a sunset along the water — should be bringing more people into church, not away from it, and most importantly into a deeper relationship with Christ.
Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 130.