Faith — the anti-drug


Johnson in front of church

Photo by Daniel R. Burke


More than the influence of a tight family, more than dedication to school, the factor that most influences poor urban teens to stay away from illegal drugs is a commitment to religion.

The irony in this finding, in a newly published study by a fellow at the Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society (CRRUCS), is that the dramatic data showing this has been available for years.

But no one was interested in it.

The study is by Byron R. Johnson, distinguished senior fellow at CRRUCS, using data from the National Youth Study (NYS), the government’s most recent longitudinal study, beginning in 1977, of 1,725 persons aged 11 to 17 early that year.

Among the surprises: Religion rules, even as teens get older. The study, which was published by CRRUCS, states that the deterrent effect of religion peaks at age 18.6.

And Johnson found religion ruled even when he controlled for good neighborhoods, strong social networks and school attachments. In other words, youths from poor neighborhoods who are committed to religion are not only less likely to use illegal drugs than others from poor neighborhoods; they are also less likely to use illegal drugs than those from good neighborhoods with a low religious commitment.

“We’re the first ones to have stumbled upon this finding,” Johnson said. “It makes you wonder where everybody has been.”

After all, the raw data has been available for a number of years. “It is one of the most studied data sets on youth in America,” he said. “But researchers have been pretty close-minded,” he said, about factoring religion into their studies. In fact, the NYS dropped religion from the data after the first five waves of data collection, or by the mid ’80s.
Religious groups have also had little interest in hard research, satisfied with anecdotal evidence.

“A lot of people want to know do these things work or don’t they,” Johnson said of religious programs to cure social ills. “The data have been looking pretty compelling. The role of religion in the lives of young people — we find it makes a difference, not a small difference but a big difference. Religious kids are much less likely to be involved in deviant, criminal activities.”

In this study, Johnson found religion was a stronger factor in preventing illegal drug use than strong family ties and strong school ties. “They [religious youths] are less likely to use drugs than teens with strong family ties but low religious commitment, and they are less likely to use drugs than teens with strong school ties but low religious commitment,” the study stated.

Johnson came to Penn from Vanderbilt, brought here by CRUCCS Director John J. DiIulio Jr. CRUCCS’ mission, in addition to examining the effectiveness of faith-based social initiatives, is trying to get government to include religion in future data sets. The recent shift in the political climate toward religion leads Johnson to be optimistic. “Religion will be appearing in all kinds of data sets,” he said.

Asked of his own religious leanings, he said, “I personally believe in the data.”

Originally published on September 28, 2000