Ventura, of Nones and Beauty

A recent paper published in the Sociology of Religion, entitled “The Natural Environment as a Spiritual Resource: A Theory of the Regional Variation in Religious Adherence”  gives a compelling reason as to why Ventura County may have such a large population of religiously unaffiliated individuals.

We hypothesize that the environment, as a spiritual resource, would compete with more traditional religious organizations. Thus, we expect that regions with higher levels of natural amenities would experience lower rates of religious adherence.

I find myself taking issue with the papers use of the word Spirituality. Here, they attempt to define what they mean “spirituality” points to the personal, subjective, non-institutionalized, and unmediated experience with the sacred. Unfortunately they do not define what sacred or divine is, and so I am left vaguely frustrated. When I stand in front of the ocean, or a waterfall, I feel awe. Connected to nature perhaps. But I do not feel like I experience the divine. In fact, I almost feel like this paper has the connection backwards.

First let me summarize the paper. Taking the above hypothesis, they correlate the amount of natural amenities (mountains, lakes, oceans, forests, etc) with an inverse effect on religious adherence. That is to say, the nicer place that you live, the less likely you are to be religious. The authors believe that nature is fulfilling the role that churches typically fill, in spiritual connection. They use studies of religious attendance, and census surveys of counties, in order to quantify the connection between religious adherence, and nature.

They do make a pretty good argument. But I question whether nature is in competition with religion, or if it is the other way around. The paper skirts around any kind of theistic claims, but this to me is very significant. If there is a god, you would think worshiping him in the manner prescribed in his holy book would be the greatest form of connection. If nature is an alternative to connect to this deity, then it should be far weaker than the method preached from the pulpit. Why then, in areas where there are more natural amenities, do these amenities win out over going to church?

I think the reality is that churches create a weak version of what you can experience hiking to a water fall, or walking along the ocean at sunset. Those with religious beliefs often feel the strongest connection to their deity when experiencing nature. But they have been taught to associate those feelings to god.

If just the correlation holds true, this could explain why Ventura County, the most beautiful place to live in the US, also has a 55% “none” population.


David G

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2 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    Yes. Nature is awe-inspiring. I too don’t need to label my feelings of awe when I’m outdoors in nature as “spiritual”. The distinction of the word spiritual is sloppy for most people. The word is like the word “love”, so many meanings the word is almost meaningless–unless we clearly define. Thanks.

  2. Paul says:

    Good write up Dave. I agree that using words like spiritual and divine shows a paucity language skills, and they dance around the topic of deity as a result. But I am not sure it is their language skills as much as their philsophical sophistication with things secular. Maybe they cannot verbalize it because they just cannot conceive it. Spirit or spiritual has many different meanings to people (i.e “the spirit of the law”, “mineral spirits” “team spirit”). I’m reminded of when I was in France and putting gas in the car and it was called “essence”. I was essentially filling my car with spirits! “If you can’t describe it, then it must be related to the gods.”

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