A few months ago, Colleen Kane realized she was falling out of touch with the spiritual side of life. She felt lost. For her, reviving it meant drawing closer to the Earth.
On a recent Saturday, she lay on the floor alongside a dozen other women in their 20s or 30s in a darkened high-ceiling studio in Falls Church in Northern Virginia. It was lit only by a small corner altar adorned with tiny lights, flowers, tarot cards, dirt, seeds and images of ancient female spiritual figures — in honor of Mother’s Day. A workshop leader talked about “big Earth energy.”
The workshops and the attendees are part of what experts say is a broad wave of nature-focused spirituality and religion that’s changing both traditional religious denominations in the United States as well as the vast realm of religiously unaffiliated seekerdom.
Almost 27 percent of Americans say they are religiously unaffiliated, according to the polling firm PRRI, up from 16 percent in 2006. They now account for a larger share of the population than any faith group and make up 38 percent of those 18 to 29, PRRI’s data show. Some are also, surveys show, deeply fed up with the fusing of religion and politics. A Pew Research poll last fall found 73 percent of Americans 18 to 29 said houses of worship “should keep out of political matters.”
Many are looking for a spirituality that’s first about affinity, self-growth and healing. And while the climate crisis is feeding some of the interest in nature-based spirituality, some who practice it say they are not necessarily drawn to environmental activism.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with social activism,” said Renee Shaw, a co-organizer of that Saturday workshop. “But here we are interested in a modality of healing, and all the natural processes of healing come from nature and from ancient practices, and doing that in community.”
Shaw practices and teaches a spiritual type of Southeast Asia kickboxing that weaves in various mystical ideas about things like tree spirits and finding enlightenment through the matrix of all living things.
Rain Manarchuck, 24, another student of Shaw’s, puts it a bit more bluntly: She’s sick of any religious or spiritual community that’s exclusive.
“This is: Get together, connect with nature. That’s it. People who work in accounting or boxing; there is no political alignment. Everyone singing together, trying to connect, just a culture of accepting and loving,” she said of the group. “It’s what religion should feel like.”
A different era of eco-spirituality
Many of the nature-based practices surging now — including astrology, crystals and shamanism — are thousands of years old. But practitioners like those at the Skin and Wellness Center that Saturday reflect a new era, experts say.
Starting in 2020, for the first time, a minority of Americans told Gallup that they belong to a place of worship. And almost half of Americans who don’t go to services said a major reason was that “I prefer to worship on my own.” Gen Z-ers and Millennials, in particular, don’t see nature-based practices as rebellious or alternative.
“Like with gender, this is all so open and fluid for kids,” Shaw said, speaking of the teen and tween she raises with her ex-wife, who is Episcopalian. “To them, it’s not a struggle. It’s not like, ‘how do you incorporate it?’ It’s more like: ‘Of course we’re reincarnated. Of course we live many lives. Of course we’re Episcopalian and can believe in God.’”
This era is also different because of the climate crisis and intense interest in the environment.
Books offering new research into the intelligences of trees and plants have been at the top of bestseller lists for several years in a row. Those include the 2019 Pulitzer-winning novel “The Overstory,” a love letter to trees, which in the book loom literally and ethically above the human characters. There’s also “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants,” about the reciprocal relationship between people and nature.
“Profound natural spiritualities are spreading with alacrity around the world, especially since the [1970 founding of] Earth Day, and gathering momentum,” said Bron Taylor, a University of Florida environmental studies scholar who is considered one of the leading experts on religion and nature.
In 2016, Taylor published a long analysis of the impacts of the major religions on the environment. (His conclusion: More research is needed.) He cited dozens of studies showing a growing body of evidence that experiences in nature produce their own kind of transcendence and awe. Subjects included environmental activists who see nature as sacred, scientists who see their spirituality tied to nature and the high correlation between people reporting feeling a “sense of wonder about the universe” and being atheist or agnostic. The growth of secularism is also feeding it, he says, “as a breeding ground.”
Faith and climate activism
The growing interest in nature spirituality is also evident among institutional faith groups. Evangelical organizations are increasingly taking people into nature and emphasizing human “interconnectedness” with other living things rather than “dominion over” — the framework considered standard in American evangelicalism until recently. Or new seminary credentials such as the master’s in theology and ecology that Princeton University’s seminary launched in 2022 or the creation care certificate that Lexington Theological Seminary started in 2020.
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, founder of Dayenu, a Jewish climate organization, said the increase in nature-based spiritualities and practices she sees has been unfolding for decades. Only now, she says, the climate crisis has injected a sense of urgency around existential, spiritual questions and challenges. Even some secular environmental groups, she says, have begun doing spiritual-esque trainings meant to create space for grappling with anxiety and grief.
Mark Brown leads Lifelines, an outdoor ministry of the evangelical group Cru — formerly Campus Crusade for Christ. Lifelines has seen participation in its outdoor trips jump from 750 in 2013 to 1800 in 2017, then drop slightly during the pandemic before rebounding in the last year. Evangelicals, he says, in recent years are renovating their theological approach to nature to include respect for indigenous people and a richer care for Earth itself.
He sees people looking in nature for healing from anxiety, screen-dependence and materialism.
“Young people know they have this desperate need for relationship with and to be connected with the Earth. In an organic way. They’re trying to figure out how to do that,” he said.
Dan Misleh is founder of Catholic Climate Covenant, a group that teaches and advocates from a Catholic perspective about ecology and climate change’s impact on the poor. A key tool the group uses is the historic 2015 church document “Laudato Si” by Pope Francis that calls humans’ abusive relationship with Earth a “rupture of sin.”
Misleh’s goal is to inspire more environmental activism among Catholics, but “Laudato Si” hasn’t had the impact he had hoped. He, like Taylor and other faith-based environmental activists and experts, has found that renewed spiritual interest in nature doesn’t necessarily translate into action in support of specific policies or changed behaviors.
“What I do see is there are more and more people concerned about climate change because more and more people are experiencing it. Now they’re asking tougher questions: What does the science say? How does my faith inform my understanding of my place in the universe?” he said.
When he talks with Catholic audiences about climate change, “one thing I tell them is: go outside. There is an amazing amount of diversity on this planet. That points back to God — to me. And God has asked us to be co-creators with him, to take care of this jewel.”
That language — of being ‘co-creators’ — is significant. To mainstream monotheistic faiths, humans have a unique, special relationship with God; they are the only living things made in God’s image. And in turn they worship only the creator, not the creation.
Connection over activism
To the people in the Falls Church group, the primary goal of their practice together is a sense of deep connection.
Since November, Shaw and her partners in the monthly events — Liz Trabucco, who specializes in a spiritual type of yoga called Kundalini, and Bianca Ardito, who focuses on dance and movement — have been hosting free monthly workshops on dates like the winter solstice, a new moon and Earth Day. Thirty or 40 people sign up each time, Shaw says, whether for practice in the studio or outside, even in the rain. Some exercises are intensely emotional, with people crying.
Fiona Nordemann, 28, works in development for a health nonprofit. Growing up in a nonreligious home in Switzerland, she always found meaning and affinity in nature and animals, “that this is the base of who we are.”
She has been joining the group since November. She values the sense of community with people who are also looking for inner growth, mental health support and discussion of shared ethics. Group conversations have meandered to how to address homelessness and people working without health care. On her own she meditates, practices yoga and reads books on spirituality.
“With nature, there is something coming back to you. These things are alive, and connecting with them can energize you,” she said. “I don’t know how other religions feel to people, but I feel this spirituality is reciprocal.”