Do Atheists Abuse Substances More Than Theists, and Why?

Do Atheists Abuse Substances More Than Theists, and Why?Understanding the risk factors for the use of drugs and alcohol is a useful method for gaining an insight into what leads people into substance abuse. Roughly four out of every five Americans identifies themselves as Christian and say they have never doubted the existence of God, so are the one in every five people with no religious affiliation over-represented in the proportion of substance abusers? Several studies have been conducted in this area, and these provide a valuable insight into the role of religion in substance abuse.

The Studies

Generally speaking, the research indicates that people who don’t identify with a particular religion or regularly attend church are more likely to abuse alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs. It’s difficult to measure a person’s level of religious affiliation, but the regularity of church attendance is generally considered the best approach. A report from University of Michigan and University of Pittsburgh researchers shows that only 26.3 percent of those who attend services once a week or more are drinkers, compared to 54.5 percent of people who never attend religious services. This trend continues for teens who report using marijuana who attend church weekly and who never attend. Similarly, a survey from Columbia University shows that 19 percent of teens who attend religious services weekly had consumed alcohol in the month prior to the survey compared to 32 percent who attend once a month.

Studies based on the participants’ reported religious affiliation also follow the same trend, with the non-religious being more likely to abuse substances than believers. A study conducted across Scotland showed that non-religious participants were more likely to have over 14 drinks per week, smoke, use marijuana, amphetamines, LSD, and ecstasy. This was often around twice as likely. Research from Brigham Young University, which looked at religious affiliation and drug use in Utah, found that people reporting no religion were more likely to have consumed alcohol in the last 30 days, and more likely to have done so anywhere from four to 12 days of the last month.

Why the Discrepancy?

The difference in the reported levels of drug and alcohol use across religious and non-religious teens and adults means that there are clearly some elements to religion which serve to protect people from substance abuse. There are numerous potential explanations for this difference, but the most obvious one concerns the nature of existence. For someone who believes in some form of God, life has a clear sense of purpose: to be a good person, abide by specific religious laws and worship, with the promise of a utopian afterlife if he behaves. In contrast, the non-religious individual is faced with the notion that he is an insignificant speck of carbon in an incomprehensibly vast and uncaring universe. If one of these two situations was going to lead to despondency and addiction, it is clearly the non-religious one.

The difference in the levels of substance abuse cannot just be explained by this reasonable assumption, however. There are also several additional factors which provide an insight into the nature of addiction and substance abuse. Dealing with set-backs and stresses in life is an important skill, and one of the most common faulty methods of dealing with these problems is using substances. A study from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine looked specifically at the role of religion as a “buffer” for stress, providing protection to believers from day to day troubles. As a result, the respondents who said they were able to turn to prayer when facing a personal problem and those who said they could rely on religious teachings in difficult times were less likely to use alcohol and drugs.

There is an additional factor at play too, that religious individuals (particularly teens) are more likely to have a strong support network of peers. Communities gather at local churches, and positive role models who abide by religious laws or customs regarding the consumption of alcohol or drugs undoubtedly have an effect. If a teenage girl is considering having her first drink, for example, an older friend may be able to educate her about alcohol and teach her about the religion’s view on the issue. These types of relationships (as well as social expectations) will undoubtedly make teens less likely to drink. The effect could also be a factor for adults, particularly if their friends disapprove of alcohol and drugs.

Conclusion – The Solution for the Non-Religious

For the non-religious, without the comforts of a rewarding afterlife or the guidance of an unflinching code to live by, the need for healthy methods of stress relief is evident. It’s important for atheists or those without a particular affiliation to remember that alcohol and drugs aren’t methods of solving problems, merely of forgetting about them. Likewise, they should trust their peers to offer support in times of stress or difficulty, because without the congregation, strong ties to family and friends can offer much needed psychological help. Religion seemingly makes it easier to abstain, but with the right approach the non-religious won’t fall prey to addiction either.