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-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
Even as scholars continue to explore the relationship between religiosity and juvenile delinquency, the evidence continues to demonstrate that religion and substance use don’t mix. The latest study, by social workers at the University of Michigan, brings additional rigor to the table, demonstrating how the well-established inverse correlation between the two operates at the individual level, at the community level, and in some cases, at both levels at the same time.
Looking at data from the 1998 to 2002 waves of the Monitoring the Future (MTF) study that provided a sample of nearly 17,000 high school seniors, the Michigan researchers found that higher levels of individual student religiosity (measured by frequency of church attendance and the degree to which a student said religion is important) is robustly associated with lower levels of 1) smoking in the past month, 2) binge drinking over a two-week period, and 3) annual prevalence of marijuana use (p.001 for all three measures).
Using data from the Youth, Education, and Society study of 227 public high schools that had not administered the MTF between 1998 to 2002 but whose principals provided information about their schools and their seniors for the same years, the study found that schools with higher religiosity (measured by the mean of student religiosity scores) correlated with each of the three measures of substance use (p.01 for each). All three links remained significant even when controlled for school demographic factors that might also correlate with religiosity and drug use.
Moreover, in regressions that controlled for individual characteristics as well as school factors, the study further established that substance use is influenced by the interaction between student religiosity and school religiosity. According to the social workers, “The protective effect of individual-level religiosity against substance use is enhanced in more highly religious contexts, whereas in less religious contexts, individual religiosity appears to be less protective.”
The strength of their findings lead the researchers to call for greater public attention to the role of religion in preventing adolescent substance use, a recommendation that may be difficult to pull off in today’s media and political environment. But attention to what the elites would rather ignore could not be timelier, as declining rates of U.S. weekly church attendance since the 1970s has clearly played a role in depressing levels of adolescent well-being.
(John M. Wallace Jr. et al., “Religiosity and Adolescent Substance Use: The Role of Individual and Contextual Influences,”Social Problems 54 [August 2007]: 308–27.)