Alcohol Abuse and American Faith

Alcohol Abuse and American Faith

Anna Dorminey is an associate editor at the Marriage & Religion Research Institute (MARRI), a project of the Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Christian Post on March 15, 2013.

St. Patrick's Day is a celebration of the life and work of the escaped-slave-turned-missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland. However, as Thanksgiving has gone the way of Black Friday and Advent has gone the way of Frosty the Snowman, so St. Patrick's Day--originally a Catholic feast day--has gone the way of pub crawls and the National Shamrock Fest.

This is not to say that Americans (or people of any nationality) drink or abuse substances today more than in the past. After all, "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" are just descendants of "wine, women, and song." But a recently released survey on alcohol consumption shows, as Reuters reports that some Americans imbibe a little too much. The national survey "Alcoholic Beverage Consumption by Adults Compared to Dietary Guidelines" found that eight percent of American men and three percent of American women are heavy drinkers - that is, they drank (respectively) at least five or four drinks on the day prior to the study. This corresponds to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's definition of binge drinking, which, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, is "a pattern of alcohol consumption that brings the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level to 0.08 percent or more. This ...usually corresponds to 5 or more drinks on a single occasion for men or 4 or more drinks on a single occasion for women, generally within about 2 hours."

These men and women were merely the heaviest drinkers studied. The CDC defines heavy drinking as an average of over two drinks per day for men and more than one per day for women. Nine percent of the men and 8 percent of the women studied said they had exceeded this recommended limit on the previous day by consuming (respectively) three to four or two to three drinks.

And here we return to the matter of religious faith: The Marriage & Religion Research Institute (MARRI) found that heavy drinking is rarest among those who worship weekly. Under 10 percent of those who worshiped weekly were heavy drinkers, compared to almost 20 percent of those who worshiped less than weekly but more often than monthly, and around a quarter of those who worshiped less than monthly or who never worshiped.

MARRI also analyzed individual propensity to "sometimes drink too much" alongside worship habits. The data showed that approximately one quarter of those who worshiped weekly reported sometimes drinking too much alcohol. In contrast, about 36 percent of those who worshiped less than weekly but more often than monthly, about 43 percent of those who worshiped less than once a month, and about 47 percent of those who never attended worship services reported doing so.

In the research synthesis report "95 Social Science Reasons for Religious Worship and Practice," MARRI outlined a host of religion's benefits to society. Among these is a lower tendency to succumb to addiction and participate in risky behaviors. For example, young people who hold religion to be of high personal importance and worship weekly are less likely to drink heavily, drive drunk, or ride with drunk drivers. Even if a religion does not specifically prohibit alcohol consumption, there is a relationship between degree of religious involvement and reduced likelihood to drink. Recovering alcoholics show lower rates of alcohol abuse as they pray and mediate (as suggested in Alcoholics Anonymous Step 11) with greater frequency.

The mechanism by which these benefits are achieved isn't totally clear. Certainly, a close relationship with God manifests itself somewhat differently in each person's life, and each individual has unique thorns in his flesh. But foundational to the teachings of many religions, and certainly to the Christian religion, is the principle that human beings are deeply valuable and that human life is a thing to be protected and spent with great joy and intentionality. Furthermore, the Bible teaches that the body of a Christian believer is a temple. Perhaps it is the internalization of this belief - that my flesh is home to my soul and the Spirit of God and merits care - that reduces the individual tendency to abuse substances.

Whatever the reason, the connection remains: Practicing your faith may help reduce the likelihood of alcohol abuse and inebriated mistakes, and that's a truth worth celebrating.