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It's the faith talking: How religion may reduce alcohol abuse

“If I start going back to church, I’d have to stop the smoking and drinking.”
— actress Katherine Heigl

More than a few New Year’s resolutions for 2017 will involve reducing alcohol use or stopping drinking altogether.

A lot of people will not succeed.

What may give them a better chance, however, is having a strong faith, research suggests.

A new wave of studies provides insights into the myriad ways religion appears to protect against alcohol abuse.

One of the latest studies suggests faith may reduce alcohol abuse by providing a sense of meaning in life that is lacking in people more likely to turn to alcohol.

And that’s not all.

Faith also may play a role, the study found, by reducing exposure to a mass media that extols alcohol use.

Those glorifications range from associating beer drinking with life on a beach surrounded by beautiful members of the opposite sex to portraying alcoholics as lovable scamps or charming rogues in popular TV shows such as “Two and a Half Men” or “Mad Men.”

Sorry, Charlie.

Religion and alcohol

Religious groups have different perspectives on alcohol use.

Some such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prohibit it outright. Other groups such as the
Catholic Church use wine in the celebration of the Eucharist.

(And there is this old joke: How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Two, one to call the electrician and one to mix the drinks.)

But there is nearly universal teaching against alcohol abuse among faith groups.

The message seems to have been effective.

A survey of some 100 studies found that nearly all indicated that religious affiliation and practice had a positive effect on preventing alcohol-related problems.

Several studies in recent years across multiple disciplines have found factors from attending worship to social support to spiritual well-being to the importance of religion in one’s life are associated with lower alcohol use and fewer instances of abuse such as binge drinking.

In a new study, researchers in Israel explored some of the underlying psychological reasons for the alcohol-faith connection. They surveyed 110 young adult men who self-identified as either Orthodox Jews or secular.

Secular participants reported higher weekly consumption of alcohol, as well as a greater craving to use alcohol compared to Orthodox participants, the study found.

At the same time, the Orthodox men studied reported higher levels of meaning in life and lower efforts at searching for meaning, along with lower exposure to the media through outlets such as television and the Internet.

The connections were consistent with past research that indicated people who feel their lives have no meaning or purpose are more likely to drink. This “existential vacuum” can lead to alcohol use as a source of relief from emotional suffering, the researchers noted.

“Our findings suggest that the beneficial effect of religious belief and practice over alcohol consumption is largely explained by the higher sense of meaning in life that characterizes religious individuals compared with those who identify themselves as secular,” the researchers reported in the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture.

Less exposure to mass media portraying alcohol in a positive light also played a role, they suggested.

“It is possible that highly religious young adults consume less alcohol due to the fact that they are restricted from using ‘unhealthy’ media,” the researchers said.

Fighting back

Popular culture is not giving up.

In a recent episode of “The Odd Couple,” two of the main characters each follow up a night of heavy drinking to forget their problems by putting a straw into separate bottles of liquor. Cue laugh track.

Religious communities, however, are playing a substantial role in the struggle against alcohol abuse

Societal attitudes have led many congregations to drop prohibitions on activities such as homosexual behavior and sex before marriage. But they have remained relatively steadfast or have even increased their efforts to address public health issues such as alcoholism.

The 2012 National Congregations Study found nearly four in 10 congregations reported opening their doors for groups, classes or events supporting people dealing with alcohol or drug abuse.

One study of fast-growing churches in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) showed the percentage having special rules on drinking alcohol increased more than five-fold, from 2 percent in 2002 to 11 percent in 2011.

Not all the influence is positive.

Shame and guilt over violating religious norms keep many believers from seeking help. And ceding too much control over their lives to God may lessen personal efforts to deal with problems such as alcohol abuse.

But the research indicates that believers who work cooperatively with a divinity they perceive as loving and merciful, in congregations where members care for one another with compassion and understanding, have powerful resources to prevent or recover from alcohol abuse.

And maybe a few more resolutions will stick in a nation where an estimated nearly 88,000 people die each year from alcohol-related causes.

Cue sober reality.

Image by WELSTech Podcast, via Flickr [CC0]
Image by Tiago Cassol Schvarstzhaupt, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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