Twenty million Americans are afflicted with a substance-use disorder. And tragically, each year, nearly 160,000 die from alcohol and drugs. However, one of the most effective tools to prevent and/or recover from addiction is often overlooked—faith. And in a report that I co-authored with my daughter Melissa, which was published in the Journal of Religion and Health, faith is a driving force when it comes to prevention, especially among youth. The report is the second commissioned by the interdenominational initiative Faith Counts, which examines the socioeconomic contribution of religion to America.
Unfortunately, most Americans will find this surprising. In the latest Gallup survey, only 46 percent of Americans think that religion can answer today’s problems, but the reality is that religion provides answers for one of today’s biggest problems—addiction. Part of the misperception revealed in the poll is that fewer people are affiliated with religion today, resulting in less experience with faith and its positive impact.
So, what is the positive impact of religion on substance abuse or addiction that is outlined in the new study? Research shows that youth who are spiritually active, participate in a faith community, and invest in a prayerful relationship with God are less likely to use or abuse drugs and alcohol. By contrast, teens who do not consider religious belief important are almost three times more likely to smoke, five times more likely to binge on alcohol, and almost eight times more likely to use marijuana compared with the teens who strongly appreciate the significance of religion in their daily lives. And compared with the teens who attend religious services at least weekly, the teens who never attended services were twice as likely to drink, more than twice as likely to smoke, more than three times more likely to use marijuana or binge on alcohol, and four times more likely to use illicit drugs.
Many empirical studies also reveal that faith among adolescents and young adults can act as a powerful deterrent against drug and alcohol abuse, even when controlling for other contributory factors such as depression and anxiety. Higher degrees of religiosity among youth, including religious attendance, involvement, and reliance on religious beliefs in decision-making, are associated with limited depression and negative attitudes toward substance abuse. Adolescents who frequently attend religious services, who are involved in faith-based activities, and who place a high value on spirituality, exhibit greater resilience when facing the stressors that can lead to the use of drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Studies also show that high-school students’ attendance in religious services and the incorporation of prayer into their everyday lives can equip them with vital spiritual and moral guidance, which will decrease their inclination to use drugs and alcohol when stressors arise.
The evidence on the association between religious involvement and/or religiosity and reduced risk of substance use among adolescents is overwhelming. Teens who attend religious services weekly are less likely to smoke, drink, and use marijuana or other illicit drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, than those who attend religious services less frequently. Further, religious practice among teens discourages them from taking highly dangerous drugs. For example, people who attended religious services at least weekly in childhood and adolescence were 33 percent less likely to use illegal drugs.
Adolescents also benefit from their mothers’ higher levels of religious practice, controlling for factors that also influence the level of drinking. Higher teenage religiosity is also related to other factors related to a decrease in drug use, such as good family relations, high academic performance in school, having anti-drug attitudes, and socializing with friends who do not take drugs. Moreover, teens themselves tend to cite their peers’ religious and spiritual inclinations as reasons that discourage their peers from drinking and taking drugs.
Our study concludes that the decline in religious affiliation presents a growing national health concern, because the growth of disaffiliation with religion is concentrated among millennials and young adults, who are also the highest percentage of any age group to have a substance-abuse disorder. In a sense, the antidote is being rejected by the very people who need it most.
Brian Grim is a non-resident research scholar at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University and president at the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation. The original version of this article appeared on the Institute for Family Studies blog. Used with permission.