By Jeff Brumley and Terry Goodrich
Young people are less likely to try alcohol and drugs if they attend religious services regularly and self-identify as religious, a new Baylor University study has found.
The study suggests that youth who feel connected to a “higher power” may experience more purpose in life, and therefore be more inclined to avoid chemical substances when faced with hardships in life.
But that’s only going to be true in churches and families where God is presented as loving and forgiving and not as a judgmental rule giver, according to some adult Christians who are now in recovery.
In interviews with ABPnews/Herald, they warned against seeing church and youth group attendance alone as antidotes to the lure of drugs and alcohol. Those recovering from substance abuse say they became addicts and alcoholics despite consistent worship attendance and strong identities as Christians.
Even the Baylor study acknowledges its findings don’t hold true for all youth — a lesson North Carolinian Ben Hawkins learned all too well.
Hawkins, a member of two churches including First Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C., said he felt continuously depressed and disconnected from God growing up, despite regular attendance at Mass and other events at the Catholic parish in which he was raised.
It didn’t take him long to find substitutes.
“All my stuff started when I was 12 — that was the first time I got drunk and that’s when I had my first joint,” Hawkins said.
His alcohol habit grew to include the use of cocaine, prescription medications and other drugs. It all resulted in being jailed 10 times for DUI, five of which resulted in convictions.
But plugging into a 12-step recovery program and into church has turned Hawkins’ life around, he said.
Hawkins said he isn’t sure that anything would have prevented his descent into addiction because “I am wired this way.” But it might have helped if the religious environment he was raised in had presented faith to him in a more meaningful way.
“Keep learning about God interesting,” he advised churches and parents. “Keep the kids engaged — that gives them a head start.”
‘Daily spiritual experiences’
The study of 195 juvenile offenders was done by researchers at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, the University of Akron and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. It appears in the journal Alcohol Treatment Quarterly.
Juvenile offenders in the study were referred by a court, mental health professional or physician to a two-month residential treatment program and were assessed by researchers at intake and discharge through interviews, medical chart reviews, drug screening and reports by youths, parents and clinicians.
Study findings, which support a growing body of research, suggest that young people who connect to a “higher power” may feel a greater sense of purpose and are less likely to be bothered by feelings of not fitting in, said researcher Byron Johnson, co-director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.
Researchers used four measures: alcohol or drug use; craving for alcohol or drugs; prosocial behaviors (service to others); and self-centered or narcissistic behavior.
Forty percent of youths who entered treatments as agnostic or atheist identified themselves as spiritual or religious at discharge, which correlated with a decreased likelihood of testing positive for alcohol and drugs.
“Daily spiritual experiences” such as prayer or worship also were associated with “a greater likelihood of sexual abstinence, increased prosocial behaviors and reduced narcissistic behaviors,” researchers wrote.
Johnson noted that fewer adolescents today are connected to a religious organization than were youths of previous generations. Twenty-five percent of the millennial generation — people born between 1980 and 2000 — were not attached to any particular faith, Johnson said, citing a 2010 Pew Research report.
Among possible reasons that adolescents may opt not to experiment with drugs are religious instruction, support from congregations, or a conviction that using alcohol and drugs violates their religious beliefs, Johnson said.
“Changes in spirituality during treatment may serve as the ‘switch’ that moves youth off the track of substance dependency and onto the track of recovery and enhanced well-being,” the article concluded.
‘Only a matter of time’
One who made that switch was Cody Royer, a state representative for Celebrate Recovery in Missouri.
Being present at church will help neither youths nor adults if their faith isn’t built on solid spiritual ground, Royer said.
“Even in recovery, just saying ‘I believe in Christ and I come to church’ doesn’t necessarily eliminate addiction for some people,” he said.
Recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and CR, which is a Christian-based program founded at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, can work hand-in-hand to help Christians acquire or re-acquire a faith that can help in recovery, he said.
Churches can help, too, as long as their teachings about addiction, drugs and alcohol are not judgmental.
Even someone who believes substance abuse is wrong will be powerless to resist on that basis alone. “It’s only a matter of time before that’s not going to work,” said Royer.