Faith Based Recovery: Stigmas & Reasons for Turning to Religion

9 min read · 4 sections

Religious belief has often been a topic of discussion in counseling and therapy, as to whether it can provide patients with a foundation for better mental health. The same dynamic has been examined in substance abuse rehabilitation, and many faith systems have models for providing patients with a structure for healing and self-improvement. This guide to a faith-based addiction recovery looks at the complicated intersection between drug and alcohol abuse, religious belief, and rehabilitation.

Do Religious People Abuse Drugs and Alcohol?

Much research has been conducted on how religious belief impacts drug abuse, and vice versa. A study in Switzerland, for example (where around 66 percent of the population are either Roman Catholic or Protestant) found that men who profess a belief in God have a lower chance of smoking cigarettes or marijuana, or even taking psychedelics, than men who have no religious belief.[1] Researchers suggested that a belief system “is a protective factor against addictive behavior,” to the point where religion might be a condition that prevents the misuse of addictive and chemical substances.

It would be inaccurate to say that “people who are religious will not become addicts.” The study, for example, did not determine whether there are differences in the test groups (religious and atheist) that come down to ethical values or to social determinants (such as where they live) that can also be a bigger factor in whether or not they use drugs than what their religious beliefs and practices are.

Nonetheless, the researchers were satisfied that further investigations into the development of addictive behaviors should consider protective factors, such as the possibility of adhering to a faith system.[2]

Other research has offered some ideas as to why this might be. MRI scans of people with religious beliefs have found that experiencing powerful moments connected to perception of the faith in question “activate the same neural systems” as those in people who consume drugs. Neuroscientists working at the University of Utah found that spiritual experiences share similarities with the euphoria that comes with consuming a psychotropic substance. In other words, the mental change that occurs during a drug high is comparable to the mental change that occurs when participating in a powerful religious experience.[3]

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Feeling the Spirit

A study of 19 young members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints revealed that when those people “felt the spirit” (a specific concept in the Mormon faith, which has been described as “a warm shiver and a tingle [going] through [the] body”), the areas of their brain dealing with reward and reinforcement (the nucleus accumbens) were activated.[4] Additionally, the lobes of the brain that regulate attention and decision-making were also stimulated by the experience of “feeling the spirit.” Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the same sections of the brain that trigger the release of the dopamine neurotransmitter when drugs are consumed, which is the main mechanism of addiction.[5]

A Search for Purpose

Why do religious people use drugs? At an extreme end of the spectrum, people who have left their respective religions consider spiritual devotion to be a form of addiction in and of itself. The language used to describe the feeling of enjoying the effects of drug and alcohol – pleasure, joy, security, happiness, comfort – is the same used when talking about the benefits of corporate religious worship. People distancing themselves from their religious communities discuss experiencing withdrawal in the same way that discontinuing drug use induces distressing psychological effects. Pacific Standard magazine notes one person who writes of anxiety and mood disorders as a result of separating from “years of being obsessed with finding the assurance of personal salvation.”[6]

Perhaps because religious belief and substance addiction have surprisingly similar neurological mechanisms, the risk factors that compel a person toward drug and alcohol use might overcome, or play into, the function of faith and spirituality. In “God Forbid! Substance Use Among Religious and Nonreligious Youth,” the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry noted that the search for identity, community, and purpose among adolescents may be strong enough for them to find such important markers in both religious gatherings and harmful peer groups. While religion can protect against substance abuse, youths – especially those from low-income and minority groups – face “multiple developmental and social changes,” so much so that the hypothesis of religion being a protective influence may be challenged.[7]

Further research has suggested that religious belief alone may not be enough to dissuade people from using drugs. In “Religious Involvement and Drug Use among Urban Adolescents,” researchers writing in the Journal of Scientific Study of Religion point out that even though religion maintains a significant effect on the use of and attitudes toward drug and alcohol use, the degree of importance of religion as a predicting factor depends on the nature of the substance involved and “other sources of social control” that a person’s respective church may or may not be in alignment with.

Drug Use among Christians

The Huffington Post reported on the results of an unscientific poll of 1,012 drug users, sorted by the different spectrum of religious belief covering practicing Christian, agnostic, and atheist. The results of the survey had 95 percent of self-reporting Protestants and Catholics admitting to smoking marijuana, more than the 94 percent of atheists who did so. Harder drugs like cocaine were used by only 30 percent of Christians, and 30 percent of Protestants and a slightly smaller amount of Catholics said they used prescription stimulants, narcotics, psychedelics, and hallucinogens recreationally.

As many as 75 percent of the Catholics and Protestants who admitted to drug use agreed with the statement that “drug-induced spiritual experiences can be positive for individuals,” and that experiencing a high had spiritual value. Some people admitted to buying drugs at their church. Under 20 percent of Catholics, and more than 15 percent of Protestants, admitted to attending church services while under the effects of cannabis. This suggests that despite the potentially protective effect of religious belief, “the grip of addiction does not discriminate based on religion.”[8]

The complexities of the reality of drug addiction have led to many of the world’s religions debating on how to approach the danger of substance abuse among their faithful and what this means for the person at the center of the problem. In the past, most traditions considered chronic alcohol abuse or drug addiction to be a moral failing or a sin. Some of the central sociological concepts of a religious tradition, such as meaning and righteousness, predate the modern scientific understanding of addiction. While this has given members a community, discipline, and a sense of purpose, it has also on occasion put these faith traditions at odds when it comes to accepting the now-standard model of addiction as a disease.[9]

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