The Protective Factors of Religion and Spirituality in Substance Abuse: A Brief Review of Research

Author: Hooman Keshavarzi

The issue of substance abuse is a major concern in the United States of America.  Incidence of substance abuse has been increasing in the past decade.  This is especially a concern and problematic for adolescents as many start to experiment with drugs and alcohol around this time.  Adolescents begin searching for an identity and purpose (Dew et al., 2008).  Initiation in substance use at this age is even more important now because of how early drug use places an individual at greater risk for later use (Miller, Alberts, Hecht, Trost, & Krizek, 2000).  There has been a lot of research that has found religion as a protective factor in the initiation of substance use (Adamcyzk and Palmer, 2008; Chitwood, Weiss, Leukefeld, 2008).  In fact there is an inverse relationship between religiousness and substance use (Chitwood, Weiss and Leukefeld 2008; Gorusch, 1995; Marsiglia, Kulis, Nieri, & Parsai, 2005; Sanchez, Oliveira and Nappo, 2008; Stewart, 2008;).  Religious activity at one point in time predicts substance non-abuse at later points in time (Gorusch, 1995).  Religious adolescents in particular have been found to be less likely to use alcohol or marijuana in relation to their less irreligious counterparts (Adamczyk & Palmer, 2008).  This is important for clinicians as treatment and preventative efforts may be informed by this information.  Despite the strength of religion, research on the role of religion in drug use is relatively small in comparison to genetic, neurotransmission, personality disorder, parent and peer relationships, SES and subcultural factors (Chitwood, Weiss,  & Leukefeld, 2008).  This may be possibly due to the influence of modern scholars secular attitudes towards the role of religion in healthcare, thus minimizing or overlooking the influence of religion in modern society.  This review brings together research focusing on religion and spirituality as protective factors in substance use and synthesizes this information in an attempt to stimulate treatment that is congruent with the literature.

Protective Factors


Aspects of religion that function as a protective influence vary.  It is not clear the strength of each of these variables.  Research has produced a number of aspects of religion that reduce rates of substance abuse in religious populations who sanction its usage.  It is clear that participation in religious activities creates a positive peer group that shares beliefs and discourages substance use (Hodge, Cardenas, & Montoya, 2001).  These shared beliefs work to moderate the normative influence of societal views on alcohol and tobacco.  In fact social support through religious peers leads to offsetting negative peer pressure in preventing initiation of use (Gorusch, 1995, Sanchez, De Oliveria, Nappo, 2008).  In addition, having religious peers reduces the opportunity of access, due to the restricted access by religious friends (Adamcyzk & Palmer, 2008).  Nurturing and supportive modeling decreases the likelihood of future use.  It must be kept in mind that a restrictive religious orientation and restrictive religious parenting leads to negative religious coping and contributes to an increase in usage and poor psychological adjustment (Dew et al., 2008; Gorusch, 1995).  This is important, as being religious in and of itself may not act as a protector, but rather having a positive religious orientation is characteristic of the research that suggests positive outcomes.  However, the consequences and fears of being ostracized by one’s religious community also acts as a deterrent.  This is a form of social control that keeps religious individuals from entertaining the idea of using substances (Adamcyzk & Palmer, 2008).  There have been a lot of preventative efforts by various organizations to educate adolescents in schools and communities to minimize usage.  On the surface it may seem counterintuitive that religious people don’t spend too much time educating or teaching substance non-abuse (Gorusch, 1995) and yet their rates of abuse are significantly less than the general population.  However, instead of educating, religion functions to create an internalization of anti-abuse norms and a lifestyle of impulse control.  This is done through instruction by parents, religious authority figures and peers that serve to model and reinforce anti-abuse norms (Gorusch, 1995).  Religion provides learning experiences that afford them the opportunity to form leadership skills, coping mechanisms, cultural knowledge and lifestyle/identity development for adolescents (Dew et al. 2008)


The most significant aspect of spirituality is that it counteracts self-rejection and derogation, creating a positive sense of self.  It permits creating personal norms that decrease or inhibit substance use (Hodge, Cardenas, & Montoya, 2001).  Individuals that identify as spiritual often spend a lot of time restricting their impulses, almost as training that allows them to overcome the temptations of peer pressure.  Coping mechanisms are developed through a spiritual worldview and a comfort with the self and their identity.

Spirituality and Religion

The combined effect of religion and spirituality appears to be the strongest predictor of non-abuse.  Spirituality may not have as much of an effect in when used isolation, since spirituality does not have specific rules sanctioning or discouraging substance use due to the personal and experiential nature of the construct (Hodge, Andereck, & Montoya, 2007).  This opens oneself up to modifying their beliefs when it may seem too daunting to resist peer pressure.  Rather, aspects of the combined approach permits each of them to reinforce one another.  Spirituality may increase faith, the experiential part of their religion and adherence to religious laws for a religious person.  Religion may provide parameters for spiritual individuals.  Both have more stress outlets through prayer, friends and positive religious beliefs.  Some aspects of spirituality that are helpful may not be exclusively spiritual aspects but overlaps with religious communal support.  Thus, other studies have included them in religion and the two together reinforces the social aspects of belief.  For example, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) tends to emphasize a spiritual connection with a higher power and upholds non-denominationality.  This spirituality has been linked with positive outcomes.  Some have even stated that the belief in a higher power is directly linked to successful cessation (Schaler, 1997).