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Religion and Drug Use


Drug use and religion have been intertwined throughout history, but the nature of this relationship has varied over time and from place to place. Alcohol and other drugs have played important roles in the religious rituals of numerous groups. For example, among a number of native South American groups, Tobacco was considered sacred and was used in religious ritual, including the consultation of spirits and the initiation of religious leaders. Similarly, wine, representing the blood of Christ, has been central in the Holy Communion observances of both Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches. Considered divine by the Aztecs of ancient Mexico, the Peyote cactus (which contains a number of psychoactive substances, including the psychedelic drug Mescaline) is used today in the religious services of the contemporary Native American church (Goode, 1984).

Although tobacco, Alcohol, peyote, and other drugs have been important in the religious observances and practices of numerous groups, many religious teachings have opposed either casual use or the abuse of psychoactive drugsand some religious groups forbid any use of such drugs, for religious purposes or otherwise. Early in America's history, Protestant religious groups were especially prominent in the Temperance Movement. Many of the ministers preached against the evils of drunkenness, and well-known Protestant leaders, such as John Wesley, called for the prohibition of all alcoholic beverages (Cahalan, 1987). The Latter-day Saints' (Mormons) leader Joseph Smith prohibited the use of all common drugs, including alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine (no coffee or tea), as did other utopian groups founded during the Great Awakening of the early 1800s. Religious groups and individuals were also active in America's early (1860s-1880s) antismoking movement (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1992). In contemporary American society, certain religious commitments continue to be a strong predictor of either use or abstinence from drugs, whether licit or illicit (Cochran et al., 1988; Gorsuch, 1988; Payne et al., 1991). For example, Islam forbids alcohol and opium use but coffee, tea, tobacco, khat, and various forms of marijuana were not prohibited, because they came into the Islamic world after the prohibitions were laid down. Indulgence in any debilitating substance is, however, not considered proper or productive. Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism may not prohibit specific drugs, but they and most other widespread, mainstream religious traditions also caution against indulgence in most substances. In our society, many who have indulged have sought the help of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA)both self-help groups founded on strong spiritual underpinnings.

This discussion is limited to recent conditions in the United States, focusing on potentially dangerous, abusive, and/or illicit patterns of drug use. Since such drug use is widely disapproved by most religious teachings and leaders, it is not surprising to find that those with strong religious commitments are less likely to be drug users or abusers. Moreover, research findings clearly show that religious involvement has been a protective factor, helping some adolescents resist the drug epidemics of the 1970s and 80s.

Because religion has been found to be a protective factor against drug use and dependence and because our society is concerned with drug use among young people, much of the research linking religion with drug use focuses on adolescents and young adults. This age range is particularly important for several reasons. First, it is the period during which most addiction to Nicotine begins; the majority of people who make it through their teens as nonsmokers do not take up the habit during their twenties or later (Bachman et al., 1997). Second, Adolescence and young adulthood is the period during which abusive alcohol consumption is most widespread. Third, recent Epidemics in the use of illicit drugs have been most pronounced among teenagers and young adults. Fourth, during this portion of the life span, many changes, opportunities, and risks occur; thus, the structures and guidelines provided by religious commitment may be especially important in helping young people resist the temptation to use and abuse drugs. Finally, evidence that religious conversion is most likely to occur during adolescence (Spilka, 1991) makes this period particularly appropriate for research on the link between religion and drug use.


Research investigating the relationship between religious commitment and drug use consistently indicates that those young people who are seriously involved in religion are more likely to abstain from drug use than those who are not; moreover, among users, religious youth are less likely than non-religious youth to use drugs heavily (Gorsuch, 1988; Lorch & Hughes, 1985; Payne et al., 1991).

Examples from 1979, 1989, and 1999.

Figure 1 shows how drug use was related to religious commitment among high school seniors in 1979, 1989, and 1999. Individuals with the highest religious commitment were defined as those who usually attend services once a week or more often and who describe religion as being very important in their lives; individuals with low commitment are those who never attend services and rate religion as not important. Figure 1 clearly indicates that those with low religious involvement were more likely than average to be frequent cigarette smokers, occasional heavy drinkers, and users of Marijuana and Cocaine; conversely, those highest in religious commitment were much less likely to engage in any of these behaviors. Other analyses have shown that similar relationships exist for other illicit drugs (Bachman et al., 1986) and for other age groups (Cochran et al., 1988; Gorsuch, 1988).

Recent Trends in Drug Use and Religious Commitment.

Figure 1 presents data from three points in time, separated by ten-year intervals. It is obvious in the illustration that between 1979 and 1989, the proportion of high school seniors using the illicit drugs marijuana and cocaine declined markedly; also during that decade, the proportion reporting instances of heavy drinking declined appreciably, as did the proportion of frequent smokers. Between 1989 and 1999, the proportion of cigarette users and marijuana users rose somewhat; for year-to-year changes in substance use, see Johnston et al. (2000). For the present purposes, the most important finding in Figure 1 is that religion was linked to drug use at all three times, although the relationships appear a bit more dramatic during periods of heavier use.

Because high religious commitment is associated with low likelihood of drug use, it is reasonable to ask whether any of the decline in illicit drug use during the 1980s could be attributed to a heightened religious commitment among young people during that period. The answer is clearly negative, as illustrated in Figure 2. The same annual surveys that showed declines in drug use also indicated that religious commitment, rather than rising during the 1980s, was actually declining among high school seniors. It thus appears that other factors accounted for the declines in illicit drug use, factors such as the increasing levels of risk and the heightened disapproval associated with such behaviors (Bachman et al., 1988, 1990; Johnston, 1985; Johnston et al., 2000). Moreover, Figure 2 shows that religious commitmentespecially ratings of importanceactually rose slightly during the 1990s, so it does not appear that the rise in use of some drugs during the 1990s is attributable to any further drop in religiosity.

Religion as a Protective Factor.

The most plausible interpretation of the relationship between religion and drug use during recent years, in our view, is that religion (or the lack thereof) was not primarily responsible for either the increases or the subsequent decreases in illicit drug use. Rather, it appears that those with the strongest religious commitment were least susceptible to the various epidemics in drug use. Figure 3 (adapted from Bachman et al., 1990) provides one example in support of that interpretation. The figure illustrates trends in cocaine use from 1976 through 1988, distinguishing among the four different degrees of religious commitment. Cocaine use roughly doubled between 1976 and 1979 among high school seniors and began to decline sharply after 1986. But the most important pattern in the figure, for the present purposes, is that these historical trends in cocaine use were much more pronounced among those with little or no religious commitment. Put another way, it seems that strong religious commitment operated as a kind of protective factor, sheltering many youths from the waves of drug use sweeping the nation.

Denominational Differences.

There are important differences among religious groups in the emphasis placed on drug use (Lorch & Hughes, 1988). In particular, the more fundamentalist Protestant denominations, as well as Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) and African American Muslims, rule out the use of alcohol and tobacco and disdain illicit drug use. Research examining differences in drug use among young people finds that those who belong to fundamentalist denominations are more likely to abstain from drug use than are youth who belong to more liberal denominations (Lorch & Hughes, 1985). Analyses of the data on high school seniors (Wallace & Forman, 1998) corroborate the findings of earlier research; the number of young people strongly committed to fundamentalist denominations (e.g., Baptists) who use drugs is much lower than average and lower than the percentages for those strongly committed to other religious traditions.

Changes During Young Adulthood.

Panel surveys that followed high school seniors up to fourteen years after graduation revealed that substance use often increases in response to new freedoms such as leaving high school and moving out of parents' homes, whereas use often decreases in response to new responsibilities such as marriage, pregnancy, and parenthood (Bachman et al., 1997). Additional analyses of these data reveal that religion continues to be strongly related to various forms of drug use during the late teens, twenties, and early thirties. These analyses reveal that religious attendance and importance change rather little for most individuals, but when changes in religiosity occur, there tend to be corresponding changes in substance use. Specifically, increases in religious commitment are correlated with declines in the use of alcohol and illicit drugs. Smoking behavior, on the other hand, is linked with religiosity during high school and thus also during young adulthood. However, after high school, smoking behavior is relatively little affected by changes in religiositypresumably because by the time of young adulthood, most individuals who continue to smoke have become dependent on nicotine and find it very difficult to quit.


Since religious commitment is negatively related to drug use, it becomes important to understand the possible causal processes underlying that relationship. Wallace and Williams' socialization influence model (1997) specifies a number of possible mechanisms through which religious commitment might operate to influence adolescent drug use. The model postulates that health-compromising behaviors like drug use are the result of a dynamic socialization process that begins in childhood and extends throughout the course of life. According to the model, the family is the primary and first socialization influence, and a continuing source of socialization into the norms and values of the larger society. The model hypothesizes that religion, peer networks, and other contexts in which young people find themselves (e.g., schools) operate as key secondary socialization influences that impact drug use, primarily indirectly, through their influence on key socialization mechanisms, including social control, social support, values, and individual and group identity. Below, we describe some of the ways in which religion, parents, peers, and other potential causes might overlap to influence adolescent drug use. The socialization influence model further suggests that key aspects of adolescent religiosity, particularly denominational affiliation and religious attendance, are often under the control of parents and reflect the types of doctrinal beliefs, teachings, and adult and peer models to which parents want their children exposed.

Content of Religious Teaching.

One possible causal process seems obvious: Most religious traditions teach followers to avoid the abuse of drugs. Restrictions vary, of course, from one tradition to another, and the greater emphasis on prohibition in fundamentalist denominations seems the most likely explanation for the lower levels of use among adherents. But even in traditions that do not explicitly or completely ban drug use, there is still much teaching ranging from respect for one's own body to family responsibilities to broader social responsibilities, all arguing against the abuse of drugs. Because all drugs, including cigarettes and alcohol, are illicit for minors, young people who are strongly committed to religion may abstain from drug use simply in obedience to the laws of the nation; but even more important, they are likely to act in obedience to what they perceive to be God's laws.

Parental Examples and Precepts.

In addition to the direct teachings associated with attendance at religious services, young people raised in religious traditions are likely to be exposed to parents and other relatives who follow such teachings. Thus, part of the explanation for less drug use among religiously involved young people may be that their families reinforce the religious structures against use and abuse. A further factor may simply be availability; religious parents who do not drink, smoke, or use drugs will not have these substances in their homes, thus reducing the opportunity for young people to experiment with them.

Peer Group Factors.

The dynamics operating within the family probably have their parallel in broader social contacts. That is, those who are strongly committed to religion probably associate with others holding similar views. Thus, the strongly religious are less likely to belong to peer groups that encourage experimentation with cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs and more likely to participate in peer networks and activities that do not involve drugs. Given the strong relationship between drug use by peers and an adolescent's own drug use, the norms of the peer group are especially important as predictors of whether a particular teenager will start using drugs (Jessor & Jessor, 1977).

Overlaps with Other Causes.

Religious commitment among young people is correlated with a number of other factors known to relate to drug use. In particular, students who achieve good grades, who plan to go to college, and who are not truant are also less likely to use drugs, as well as more likely to display high levels of religious commitment. These various factors are closely interrelated in a common syndrome (Dryfoos, 1990; Jessor & Jessor, 1977), and thus it is difficult to disentangle causal processes. Indeed, it could be argued that religious commitment is probably one of the root causes, contributing to both educational success and the avoidance of drug use. Analyses of possible multiple causes of drug use (or abstention) have shown that religious commitment overlaps with other predictors, but only partially. In other words, although religious commitment may be part of a larger syndrome, it also appears to have some unique (i.e., nonoverlapping) impact on drug use.


The relationship between religion and drug use among young people is not completely straightforward. On the one hand, a considerable amount of research indicates that young people who are strongly committed to religion are less likely than their uncommitted counterparts to use drugs. On the other hand, data presented here and elsewhere suggest that religion has had relatively little impact on recent national declines in drug use among young people. Further examination of this relationship reveals that America's drug epidemic occurred primarily among those not affected by religion; highly religious youth were relatively immune to the plague that infected a significant portion of the nation's youth. Accordingly, we conclude that religious commitment has been, and continues to be, an effective deterrent to the use and abuse of licit and illicit drugs.

This work was supported by Research Grant No. 3 R01 DA 01411 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. We thank Dawn Bare for her contribution to data analysis and figure preparation and Tanya Hart for her editorial assistance.

(See also: Ethnic Issues and Cultural Relevance in Treatment ; Jews, Drug and Alcohol Use Among ; Prevention Movement ; Vulnerability: An Overview )


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Jerald G. Bachman

John M. Wallace, Jr.

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