Science on Religion

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Religion associated with reduced alcohol usage in Hungarian youth

DrinkingAlcoholics Anonymous sometimes receives criticism for requiring its participants to rely on a “higher power.” Not all of its participants believe in one. Besides, what difference would that make anyway? Research by Bettina Piko (University of Szeged, Hungary) and colleagues suggests it may make a big difference after all. They found that religious belief correlates with less alcohol usage in boys, religious participation correlates with less alcohol usage in girls, and (oddly enough) New Age beliefs correlate with increased alcohol usage.

The boys and girls who participated in this study reside in Hungary, a country with one of the highest adult alcohol consumption rates in the world. Not surprisingly, its youth follow suit (like father, like son). Given Hungary’s low levels of religiosity, the researchers wanted to see if a link could be found between religiosity and alcohol consumption among youth.

To do so, they randomly selected high schools from the Hungarian city of Szeged. From those high schools, they randomly selected particular classes, and then distributed questionnaires to the students in those classes. Since this study concerns only underage drinking, they eliminating any respondent of 18 years of age or older (leaving them with 592 total completed questionnaires).

These questionnaires surveyed the high schoolers on their New Age beliefs (for example, healing powers, curses, reincarnation, telepathy), traditional religious beliefs (for instance, God, Jesus, heaven, hell, soul), their alcohol usage, and their spirituality (using the Spiritual Well-Being Scale, which has items such as, “I believe that God/Higher Power is concerned about my problems” and “I believe that there is some real purpose in my life”).

Upon running the appropriate statistical analyses, they found that gender makes an important difference in how religiosity correlates with alcohol usage. Girls reported more religious affiliation, religious attendance, traditional religious belief, and New Age belief than boys. Despite having lower rates of traditional religious belief, boys, and not girls, who adhered to traditional religious beliefs had a lower chance for current alcohol use. Rather than adhering to traditional religious beliefs, it was when girls frequently attended religious services or prayed more than once a week that they had a lower chance for current alcohol use (as well as a lower chance of heavy episodic drinking). Additionally, spiritual well-being correlated with lower odds of current alcohol usage across genders. It is also worth noting that overall boys and girls did not differ in their drinking patterns.

Unexpectedly, the researchers found that New Age belief predicted both lifetime prevalence and current alcohol usage. They conjectured that this relationship might be explained by New Age beliefs’ tendency toward passivity and fatalism. In other words, it may encourage people to find passive coping mechanisms (like alcohol). Of course, they admit this is a mere guess. A more informed answer will require future research.

Of course, correlation does not mean causation. Boys having religious beliefs does not cause them to avoid drinking, and neither does girls' praying cause them to avoid heavy drinking. There is probably something about the character of these teenagers that enables them to dodge alcoholism and also tilts them towards religion. So perhaps there is something worth fostering in belief in a “higher power.”

For more, see “‘To Believe or Not to Believe?’ Religiosity, Spirituality, and Alcohol Use Among Hungarian Adolescents” in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

 

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