The report from the university's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, found a greater tendency to shun drugs and alcohol both among people who attend worship regularly and among those who personally consider religious belief important--whether or not they are regular worshippers. Previous studies have claimed that religion has beneficial effects in mental health, physical health and life expectancy.
Center vice president Susan Foster, who directed the latest study, said the report shows clear correlations but does not say faith is the direct or only reason people avoid alcohol and drug abuse. "We need a lot more research to understand the causes," she said.
The study speculated that religion might have a positive impact by specific teaching against using drugs and alcohol, by providing a "sense of acceptance and belonging" or by providing faith that "fills a need that makes substance use unnecessary or provides hope for the future."
Clergy recognize that abuse is widespread but get little training on how to deal with it, Joseph A. Califano Jr., center president and former U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare, warned in a statement accompanying the study. And psychologists and psychologists too often ignore religion's importance in treating troubled patients, he said.
Among U.S. clergy, only 12.5 percent have formally studied substance abuse, the report said. It recommended increased training to help religious professionals recognize signs of abuse, make appropriate referrals and prevent relapses. It also urged clergy to speak more from the pulpit about the problem.
For health professionals, the Columbia center recommended more training and sensitivity so they recognize religion's potential benefits and understand that many patients desire spiritual help to complement treatment.
The report drew upon data from a combination of sources, including the center's own annual surveying in 1999 and 2001, with margins of error from plus or minus 2.2 to 3.1 percentage points. Also used were the 1998 questionnaires in the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and figures from 38,000 respondents to the General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center.