While many congregations of different faiths preach against drug abuse, it has been unclear whether a youth’s religious involvement has any effect on his risk of drug abuse.
Now a new national study by two Brigham Young University sociologists finds that religious involvement makes teens half as likely to use marijuana.
The study – which will be published October 13 in the Journal of Drug Issues – settles a question scholars have disagreed on in the past.
"Some may think this is an obvious finding, but research and expert opinion on this issue have not been consistent," said BYU sociology professor Stephen Bahr and an author on the study. "After we accounted for family and peer characteristics, and regardless of denomination, there was an independent effect that those who were religious were less likely to do drugs, even when their friends were users."
The study, co-authored by BYU sociologist John Hoffmann, also found individual religiosity buffered peer pressure for cigarette smoking and heavy drinking.
The term religiosity as used in the study has to do with people's participation in a religion and not the particular denomination. Hoffmann said the protective effect of church and spirituality supplements the influence of parents.
“Parents shouldn’t force it, but they can encourage spirituality and religion in their families, which in itself becomes a positive influence in their children’s lives,” Hoffmann said.
Two data sets were used in the study, 13,534 students who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health and 4,983 adolescents in a state-wide survey of Utah schools. Individual religiosity was measured by two questions: one asked the students how frequently they attended church and the other asked the students to rate the importance of religion to them.
"The power of peers is less among youths who are religious," Bahr said. "Meaning if you are religious, the pressure from peers to use drugs will not have as much effect."
However, researchers found that religiosity didn’t have the same effect on use of illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Professor Bahr gave his insight as to why:
"There are pretty strong social norms against illicit drugs throughout society," Bahr said. "So even if you aren't religious, you receive many messages against illicit drugs. But that may be less so for drinking, smoking and even using marijuana, which tend to be strongly opposed by many religious groups."
Another result showed that the religiosity within the community as a whole does not play as big a role as formerly thought by researchers.
"Previously, it was thought that if someone grew up in a religious community and went to church, then the community’s religious strength would make a difference,” Bahr said. “We basically found that this was not the case. Individual religiosity is what makes the difference."