Why different religions popped up across the world is a complicated question and one that can never be fully answered. While we may not know exactly why religion appeared and grew in the way that it did, a new study suggests an interesting association with not being religiously affiliated.

According to the Baylor University study, counties in the U.S. with more beautiful weather and scenery have lower rates of membership and affiliation with religious organizations.

“Beautiful weather, mountains, and waterfronts can serve as conduits to the sacred, just like traditional religious congregations,” said lead author Todd W. Ferguson, a doctoral candidate in sociology in Baylor’s College of Arts and Sciences, in a press release.

The research, scientists say, is not necessarily suggesting that enjoying nice weather tempts people away from going to a place of worship, or that they create a new organized religion because of nature.

“We’re not claiming that residents in areas richer with natural amenities are more likely to create a ‘Church of nature,’” Ferguson said.

Results suggest more that natural resources can act as a spiritual resource on their own. They could, in a way, compete with organized religious groups, providing a way to explore spirituality without identifying as a member of any group.

“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,” Ferguson said.

Another perk to fulfilling spiritual needs by connecting with nature is that the outdoor world has no time constraints — religious organizations and congregations meet only at specific times throughout the week, said researchers.

The study utilized data from the Religious Congregations and Membership Study, United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Census Bureau. Looking at data from 3,107 U.S. counties, they examined cross-sectional differences between areas using rates per 1,000 people. The study defined adherence as all members of a religious organization, including the children of members, and estimated the number of other participants who regularly attended services but were not considered members.

Study co-author Jefferet A. Tamburello said they also examined USDA data about environmental preferences, gauging if people liked things like winter sun, a temperate summer, topographical variation, and water areas.

The authors said that scholars are beginning to explore how activities that use natural features — backpacking, SCUBA diving, surfing — may be viewed as religious experiences.

“Scholars also need to explore whether the relationship between natural amenities and religion adherence rates is just an American phenomenon, or whether it also exists in areas such as Western Europe, which have lower rates of religious adherence,” Ferguson said.

Source: Ferguson T, Tamburello J. The natural environment as a spiritual resource: A theory of regional variation in religious adherence. Sociology of Religion. 2015.