Science Sunday #1: Religion and Substance Abuse

In this new section of my site I will review and critique the academic literature on a wide range of topics. Not all of these posts will have anything to do with religion or non-belief; as a person who values academic learning above most other things, I feel it is in everyone’s best interest to be widely read. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to a certain kind of blog post. That being said, I will begin this section with a review of “Religious/Spiritual Well-Being, Coping Styles, and Personality Dimensions in People With Substance Use Disorders” from The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 23:204–213, 2013.

First, I want to clear the air here; this study shows a negative correlation between Religious/Spiritual Well-Being (RSWB) and substance abuse. That is, as religiosity increases, substance abuse decreases. This is an important finding because we atheists and otherwise non-religious/non-spiritual people are more likely to develop substance abuse problems. While some religious and spiritual people might exploit this study to say something like, “Atheists are drug addicts. Here’s the proof!” the rest of us now have the ability to better understand this phenomenon and to do something about it. Thankfully, the authors of this article have secular advice to non-religious and non-spirutal people who suffer from substance abuse problems.

The researchers examined 389 healthy, detoxed patients at a secular substance abuse clinic in Austria. Using language from previous research projects, the researchers investigated the subjects’ “ability to experience and integrate meaning and purpose in existence through a connectedness with self, others or a power greater than oneself”:

It consists of 48 items and six subscales (each with eight items): Hope Immanent, Forgiveness, Experience of Sense and Meaning as parameters of well-being concerning the immanent (bio-psycho-social) domain, and Hope Transcendent, General Religiosity*, and Connectedness for the transcendent (religious/spiritual) domain.

* Whether or not the patient follows a mainstream religion.

A non-addicted control group was also examined using the same methodology.

The researchers hypothesized the group of patients with addiction would score lower on all or most of the variables. In other words, they reasoned (using their own words) “religious/spiritual well-being would be significantly lower among addiction patients.” Their results appear to confirm this hypothesis (for full results, please see study. If you don’t have access to it, feel free to contact me for a copy).

The authors continue:

These findings are consistent with those of Piedmont (2004) because it would appear that people with substance use disorders who are more religious/spiritual also show positive coping and conversely show less functional coping mechanisms when they display lower religious/ spiritual well-being.

In other words, religious people with substance abuse problems are better able to overcome their addictions than their non-religious counterparts.

However, these findings should not necessarily be taken at face value. Correlation is not causation, and the researchers are very clear about that:

Therefore, it is unclear whether it is genuinely a spiritual disposition that uniquely accounts for these associations or whether our findings may reflect a more broadly based relationship between psychological well-being and positive aspects of personality and coping, which is apparent in both the general community and addicted inpatients. So, too, the significant amount of mental illness in the addiction group may have confounded our findings of lower RSWB.

Finally, the researchers take great care to address the sensitivities of those who have low RSWB. Going back to the above list of criteria, Hope and Forgiveness and Sense of Meaning (both non-spiritual/non-religious components) were significantly associated with lower addiction rates. In other words, future substance abuse treatment programs might offer secular psychological treatments to non-spiritual/non-religious patients with similar results.

While this study suggests non-believers are more susceptible to substance abuse problems, I need to state that these findings in no way suggest believers are immune from substance abuse problems. Addiction can overcome anyone, no matter their socio-economic-religious status. Believers with drug/alcohol problems, however, are more likely to successfully complete a substance abuse treatment program and remain sober. Non-believers, on the other hand, might benefit from this study if treatment centers take these results into consideration when drafting new treatment protocols. It is my hope that future research is done to help mitigate addiction amongst all people.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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2 Responses to Science Sunday #1: Religion and Substance Abuse

  1. Peter Mann says:

    A good synopsis of an interesting article.
    Not that i agree with some of the premises.

    First dissent : addiction is neither unnatural nor intrinsically harmful.
    For example, we are all addicted to food, and suffer extreme withdrawal symptoms.
    Despite our daily cravings, Nobody argues that food is immoral and must be prohibited.
    A distinction needs to be drawn between routine use and surrendering sovereignty.
    The propagandist stereotype of drug addiction is invariably an abdication of responsibility.
    It is plausible that for some individuals, what were last century reclassified as demonic drugs actually serve as micronutrients for an unbalanced endocrine system.
    For some folk, the use of psychotropics or opiates makes them feel more normal.
    Persistent defiance of prohibition is erroneously being presumed to be out-of-control addiction.

    Having lost dear friends to opium, i have firsthand observations of the dynamics.
    My conclusion is that the harm associated with persistent opiate use derives not from our ancient plant ally, but from alienation and malnutrition caused by unbearable blackmarket pricing, and that premature deaths are typically due to uncertainties about quality and dose control. My lost friends cannot be replaced, and i am sure that those otherwise decent and sensitive individuals would have fared far better before our public domain herbals were demonised and prohibited. Historically, this view is supported by the inescapable fact that the “epidemic” developed exponentially after Puritan Prohibition created seductive opportunities for getRichQuick entepreneurs on both sides of the “Law”.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      Personally I think that many drugs are just great! Psychotropic mushrooms and LSD are wonderful ways to enjoy a large part of the weekend. So I agree with you there. I might have to go back to the original article and check out the methodology chapter to get a better sense of what they mean by addiction. Obviously they don’t mean it in a general sense (i.e. when you pointed out that living things are addicted to food). They probably defined it as people who are physiologically dependent upon a psychotropic substance in a manner sufficient to make quitting very difficult if not essentially impossible. This stands in contrast to general dependency. For example, I am dependent on caffeine to start my morning off good. If I do not have it I am not in a bad state. Thanks for the comment!

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