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Drugs and Devotion

Why do some people seem compelled to experiment and others live their entire lives without ever taking a single puff, snort, sniff, or dose of an illicit substance?

Thanks to decades of social studies, we now know that a person’s genes, mental health, and socioeconomic status can all affect his or her chance of using drugs – but what about religion?

We’ve analyzed data from two nationally representative surveys to explore how religious beliefs – or a lack thereof – influence drug-taking.

To begin our journey through drugs and devotion, let’s compare religiosity and drug use across all 50 states plus Washington, D.C. If there is a connection between religious belief and substance abuse, we would expect to see clear differences between places that have very high and very low levels of religiosity.

The data for our religion map come from Pew Research Center, which, as part of its Religious Landscape Study, compiled a ranking of which states were the most and least religious in 2014. Our drug-use map uses data from the same year, collected by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) through the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

With the maps side by side we can see that there does appear to be some correlation between a state’s level of religiosity and its drug use, at least as far as the top and bottom 10 for each category are concerned. For instance, Mississippi was second for religiosity in 2014 and 50th (second to bottom) for drug use. Likewise, Alabama was first for religiosity and 46th for drug use. At the opposite end of the scale, Vermont was the least religious state (only 32% of people polled said their religious beliefs were “very important,” compared with 77% in Alabama), and it had the third-highest rate of past month drug use. Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Alaska all also appeared in the bottom 10 for religiosity and top 10 for drug use, indicating that there might be an inverse relationship between the two variables: as one goes up, the other goes down.

Let’s see if we can get a clearer view of the potential correlation by plotting the variables on the same chart.

The chart above plots past month illicit drug use on the vertical axis and religiosity on the horizontal axis, and is divided into four quadrants, each one representing a different combination of religiosity and drug use. Furthermore, each state has been color-coded to show its Census region, so that at a glance we can see which states match the inverse relationship between religious beliefs and drug use that was hinted at by our maps.

We can see that the top right quadrant, “higher drug use, higher religiosity,” is empty except for New Mexico. “Higher drug use, lower religiosity” contains nine states, five of which are in the Northeast and four in the West, with Washington D.C. almost making it in. The most interesting section, though, is “lower drug use, higher religiosity,” as it contains 14 of the 17 Southern states.

It does appear that there could be some correlation, but that might be all it is. After all, a lot more than religion differentiates Alabama and Vermont, including obesity rates, political affiliations, climate, sports teams, and so on. We, therefore, need to get a lot more specific. We need to directly compare the drug-use rates of believers and nonbelievers, regardless of where they live.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health is conducted once a year to track how people across the country have been using drugs. Alongside the questions about illicit drugs and alcohol, the survey – which includes about 70,000 respondents – also asks a host of questions on topics like well-being, education, and employment. The identifying statement we used to derive the data represented in the graph above and the many below is “My religious beliefs are very important.” If a respondent strongly agreed with that statement, we classed them as religious. If they strongly disagreed, we classed them as nonreligious. We were then able to compare lots of other variables against the religious and nonreligious groups, such as the one above: past year use of various drugs.

The graph shows the past year rates (red and blue lines) on the right Y-axis and the difference between the religious and nonreligious rates (purple bars). Right away, we can see that across all substances, the nonreligious group has higher past year usage rates. But the gaps between the rates differ a lot depending on the drug type. Cigarettes and alcohol (the two legal substances) show the smallest gaps. 59.8% of the religious group consumed alcohol in the previous year, compared with 77.4% of the nonreligious group, and 19% of the religious group smoked cigarettes, versus 36.2% of the nonreligious group. These gaps, while significant, pale in comparison to the substances at the other end of the chart, like LSD, which was used by 1.2% of the nonreligious group, but only 0.1% of the religious group (12 times less). Across all illicit drugs, the nonreligious respondents had a past year usage rate that was almost three times higher than the religious respondents.

We now know that, on average, people who are religious take drugs less often than people who aren’t. But when they do take them, do the faithful start at the same age?

Religious people first try eight of the 10 substances shown above later in life than their nonreligious counterparts. And the two substances that they do try earlier, LSD and ecstasy, only show small differences (0.1 to 0.2 years). The biggest difference is seen in crack cocaine and heroin: On, average, believers who try these drugs do so 3.1 years after nonbelievers. Interestingly, there is a smaller gap between when the religious and nonreligious groups first consume alcohol (1.3 years later for the religious) than marijuana (0.9), cocaine (0.8), and stimulants (0.7).

The NSDUH survey doesn’t ask respondents to go into detail about what their religious beliefs consist of, but it does ask how many religious services they attended in the past 12 months. This means we can find out if, for instance, marijuana users go to church less often than heroin users.

People who took an illicit drug in the past month were significantly less likely to have attended a religious service during the past year than those who did not (54.6% versus 36.7%). In fact, considerably fewer people who took any of the 11 substances above attended religious services than those who abstained from taking them. LSD showed the biggest difference (as it did in usage rates earlier): 67.6% of people who took it in the past 30 days didn’t attend a religious service during the previous 12 months, compared with 38.3% of nonusers. What’s perhaps more surprising, though, is that the drug with the smallest gap – smaller even than alcohol – was crack cocaine. 42% of crack users attended a religious service, compared with 38.4% of nonusers.

We’ve added more evidence to the theory that religion influences drug-taking, but we still don’t know what component of religious beliefs orient people away from illicit substances. Is it time spent at church, the doctrine itself, or some other aspect of faith? To find out more, we compared the religious and nonreligious groups across nine other questions.

The results above indicate that nonreligious individuals are twice as likely as the religious to say they “get a real kick out of doing dangerous things” and “like to test themselves by taking risks.” These risks don’t necessarily include taking drugs (although we do know they do more of that), but they do include not wearing a seatbelt while driving: 2.9% of the nonreligious group admitted to this reckless act, compared with 1.2% of the religious.

People who say their religious beliefs are very important are also significantly less likely to have ever sold an illegal drug, or have been expelled from school for using or selling drugs. More interesting than that, though, is that nonbelievers say they are almost twice as likely as believers to have been approached by someone selling drugs in the last year.

This result raises the question of whether religious people take drugs less often because drugs are less available to them than their nonreligious peers. To check this, we turned to the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey, which polls thousands of 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders once a year on their beliefs, lifestyles, and drug habits. It showed that, in 2014, 24.6% of 8th and 10th-graders said that someone had made an offer at school to sell or give them an illegal drug in the previous 12 months. For nonreligious students, the number was considerably higher: 36.8%. This could either be because the religious students are not in schools where drugs are available, or – more likely – the religious students’ peer groups don’t tend to include many drug users, and therefore, offers of drugs are few and far between.

There is significant existing research to support the second explanation. One paper, published in the Journal of Religion and Health in 2012, found that “religion is a protective mechanism against drug use, but this effect may diminish in light of exposure to users.” In other words, being around people who take drugs can increase drug-taking, even in people who are very religious.

To find out some of the other factors that influence a young person’s decision to take drugs, we can look at another question from the MTF survey, which asked: “What are your reasons for not using marijuana?” When we divide the 8th- and 10th-graders who responded to this question into religious and nonreligious groups, we get perhaps the clearest view of how believers and nonbelievers differ in their justifications for taking or not taking drugs.

The religious students more often than nonreligious students assigned “very important” to all 16 of the above reasons for not using marijuana. Understandably, “against beliefs” shows the biggest difference, with it being considered very important by 86.6% more of the religious group than the nonreligious one. “Marijuana isn’t available” and “friends don’t use it” were also considered very important reasons far more often by the religious group than the nonreligious, which echoes our earlier findings.

The 16 reasons above for not taking drugs are ones that are usually considered on a conscious level (e.g., “I won’t use marijuana because it might sap my ambition”), but the MTF survey also hints at other factors that could play a significant role in leading a young person toward or away from drugs. For instance, the 8th- and 10th-grade respondents were asked how many nights a week they had dinner with their parents. 33.6% of the religious students said six to seven nights a week, compared with 16.2% of the nonreligious students. They were also asked if their parents always know where they are when they go out at night, and 90.9% of the religious 13- to 16-year-olds said they always do, compared with 83% of the nonreligious youths. In the same batch of questions, they were finally asked once more about what effect their peers have on their thought process regarding whether they should take drugs. 16.2% of the religious group said they felt pressure from friends to use marijuana, compared with 21.7% of the nonreligious group.

The data show that people who consider their religious beliefs very important do indeed take drugs less often than people who don’t place any importance on them. But the explanation is undoubtedly more nuanced than “it’s because their religion prohibits it.” When young people are exposed to drugs in their environment, they use them more often, even when they are religious. And when they spend time in places that don’t feature drugs (like religious services), they become less likely to engage in substance abuse. According to the Journal of Religion and Health study, researchers call this “time displacement” – when a person’s exposure to drugs and drug users is limited by their participation in other activities, they avoid drugs. The interesting thing is that studies have shown that the time displacement activities don’t have to be religious in nature to be effective; secular and civic participation can work just as well.

In a broader sense, researchers who have investigated this topic have postulated that religiosity can be seen as a “proxy for conventionalism.” The challenge, therefore, is to figure out ways of providing unconventional individuals with the same support, guidance, and treatment that religious people receive from their faith-based lifestyles.

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