The Connection Between Religion, Science and Substance Abuse

How do religion, science and substance abuse fit together? According to a two year study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), combining the power of religion with the power of science and professional medicine can prevent and treat substance abuse and addiction.

It is unfortunate that very few, if any, clergy receive training for substance abuse. It is even more unfortunate that many medical professionals, especially psychiatrists don’t see the value in taking advantage of spirituality and religion to treat their patients who are struggling with addiction.

Religion and Science in the United States

Religion is a big deal in the United States. 92% of Americans are affiliated with a particular religion and the country has a wide variety of places of worship including cathedrals, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. As one of the most medically advanced countries in the world as well, the United States has some of the most sophisticated health care available. However, religion and science remain separated, and in some cases this may mean that the individual is denied the help that may aid their recovery and ease their pain, particularly relating to substance abuse. For many individuals in recovery, God and religion have played a part in their journey to sobriety.

The CASA study mentioned previously, surveyed an unprecedented amount of clergy and heads of theology schools, and some of its findings show that individuals who don’t consider religious beliefs important are more than one-and-a-half times likely to smoke, three times likelier to binge-drink, almost four times likelier to use an illicit drug apart from marijuana and more than six times likelier to smoke pot than individuals who have closely held religious beliefs.

So what are the disconnects between religion and the prevention and treatment of addiction? There are two significant ones. First, the extent to which clergy see substance abuse as a problem in their congregations and their lack of training to deal with it, and second, the medical profession’s failure to tap into the importance of religion and spirituality while dealing with the patients who struggle with addiction.

The Clergy Disconnect

The CASA study showed that 94% of the clergy surveyed consider substance abuse and addiction to be an important problem in their congregations. However, only 12.5% of them had received any training about handling substance abuse, and only 36% said that they preach a sermon on that issue more than once a year.

Recently, the Vatican’s Council for Health Care Workers released a 200 page manual on drugs and addiction, focusing on the church’s role in prevention and treatment. Among suggestions like church sponsored treatment programs, the manual urges the clergy to listen to their parishioners concerns about drugs and alcohol abuse.

The Doctor-Patient Disconnect

Medical professionals, particularly psychiatrists and  psychologists tend not to recognize the importance of God, religion and spirituality in treating patients struggling with substance abuse and addiction. Only 40% to 45% of mental health practitioners believe in God and only 57%  of psychiatrists would recommend that a patient consult their priest. 65% of psychiatrists said that religion was not included in their training.

It is clear that the chasm extends on both sides. If religious leaders became more engaged in addressing addiction issues, and medical professionals understood the importance of religion in their patients’ lives, then this would be a new, barely tapped resource in the battle against addiction.

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