For a religion in which wine plays such a central role, Christianity may prove surprisingly effective at curbing drug use, according to a study.
Data analyzed by DrugAbuse.com in “Drugs and Devotion: Comparing Substance Abuse by Believers and Nonbelievers” show a correlation between religious belief and a reluctance to experiment with narcotics.
Americans who said they are not religious are more likely to have used a host of illicit drugs, ranging from marijuana and alcohol to Ecstasy and heroin. Nonbelievers in the study, for instance, were 12 times more likely to use LSD and more than four times likely than their religious counterparts to try cocaine in the past year.
Additionally, states with the lowest rates of religious belief had some of the highest rates of drug use. The least-religious state, Vermont, where only 32 percent of residents said religion is “very important” in their lives, had the third-highest rate of illicit drug use. The most religious state, Alabama, where 77 percent said faith plays a significant role in their lives, had the sixth-lowest rate of illicit drug use.
Greg Jao, director of campus engagement and vice president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, said several components of Christianity, such as its emphasis on truth and comprehensive view of eternity, discourage nihilistic tendencies that may open the door to drug use.
“For me as a Christian, part of what my faith in Jesus does is it calls me to face reality ruthlessly in my own life and in the world around me,” Mr. Jao said. “I think it changes my perspective and timeline. I’m challenged as a Christian to think in terms of eternity — so, yes, this year or decade may be bad, but it’s not the whole of my existence.
“And I think Christianity challenges you to actually experience God in the quotidian, day-to-day experience of life,” he said. “So my need for an altered, super high is quite low because, in fact, while I may not always be happy, there’s a deep experience of regular joy.”
The study supports the notion that Christian theology discourages drug use. When asked for “very important” reasons not to use marijuana, 67 percent of religious eighth- and 10th-graders said it is against their faith. Nonbelievers in the study had little reason not to use marijuana. Only 27 percent of nonreligious high school students said it would violate their beliefs.
But Gen. Arthur Dean, chairman and CEO of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, emphasized the role that community plays in snuffing out drug use.
“Being involved in a religious service is what we would call a protective factor, which means that you are less apt to get involved in drugs or other negative activities that young people are involved in, if you are involved in some kind of a faith community,” Mr. Dean said.
“What we find is that involvement in structured activities, whether they be religious or whether they be sports or other kinds of activities, all serve as protective factors,” he said. “I believe if you did research on them, you would find similar results that you found on religion.”
The study also supports the hypothesis that communal norms best explain lower rates of drug use among the religious. Fifty-nine percent of religious high school students said their friends don’t use marijuana, compared with 39 percent of nonreligious students; 62 percent of religious students said their boyfriend or girlfriend would disapprove of drug use, compared with 42 percent of nonreligious students; and 81 percent of religious high school students said their parents would disapprove of marijuana, compared with 62 percent of nonreligious students.
The religious eighth- and 10th-graders were also more likely to say marijuana is not widely available and that they would not like being around others who do use the drug.
Although he acknowledged the crucial role that community plays in reinforcing norms, Mr. Jao said Christianity specifically provides a remedy against addiction that other groups may not.
He said Christians believe they are “addicted to sin,” comparing the faith’s fundamental tenants of resisting temptation, confessing wrongdoing and transformation to addiction-fighting programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I don’t think it’s that religious groups map AA, I think AA has found what religious groups have always known to be true — if you acknowledge your life is out of control, if you turn to God or a higher power and do these things, you’re transformed,” Mr. Jao said. “The 12-step recovery method adopts the core practices of religious groups, and so it doesn’t surprise me that religious practice actually restrains drug and alcohol use.”
Mr. Dean said illicit drug use has declined since the 1970s and ‘80s but is beginning to climb again — especially among young people.
Sue Thau, a public policy consultant at the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, said the emerging emphasis on treatment and recovery for addicts has neglected crucial efforts to prevent drug use in the first place.
“Most of the strategies that are being proposed are treatment, recovery and even the criminal justice system — all of which we support,” Ms. Thau said. “But we’ve been somewhat disappointed that the prevention aspect of how to get on top of this has not gotten as much attention.”
Mr. Jao said religion can play more of a role in fighting drug use and fostering public virtue, but only if we let it.
“Religion in small ways challenges me daily to live out the fruits of the Spirit, and to demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control — all of which would be immense virtues,” he said. “Imagine if those played out in a presidential election.”
• Bradford Richardson can be reached at email@example.com.
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