Even against the odds, in neighborhoods of disorder and poverty, religious practice serves as a significant buffer against drug abuse and juvenile delinquency. A study of 2,358 young black males from impoverished inner-city Chicago and Philadelphia found that a high level of religious attendance was associated with a 46 percent reduction in the likelihood of using drugs, a 57 percent reduction in the probability of dealing drugs, and a 39 percent decrease in the likelihood of committing a crime that was not drug-related. Thus, religious attendance was associated with direct decreases in both minor and major forms of crime and deviance to an extent unrivaled by government welfare programs.1)
The effect of religion is not solely a matter of external controls that curb adolescents’ risky behavior. Rather, religious attendance also promotes self-control, a positive allocation of time, attendance at school, and engagement in work.2) In addition, youth religious practice is linked to a decreased likelihood of associating with delinquent peers—a significant factor in youth crime.3)
While religious practice appears to have a general restraining effect on the likelihood of using drugs, this effect appears to be especially strong for adolescents living in higher-risk neighborhoods, where increased religious practice coincides with substantially decreased drug use.4) African–American youth living in impoverished urban neighborhoods who attended religious services at least weekly were half as likely to use illicit drugs as those who never attended.5) Furthermore, an analysis of national longitudinal data indicates that religious youth from low-income neighborhoods are not only less likely than non-religious neighborhood peers to use illegal drugs, but also less likely than peers in “good” neighborhoods who have low levels of religious commitment.6) In preventing drug abuse, religious practice trumps socioeconomic disadvantage.
According to the Adolescent Health Survey (Wave I), adolescents who worship at least weekly are less likely to use hard drugs than those who worship less frequently. Whereas only eight percent of students in Grades 7-12 who worship at least weekly have ever used hard drugs, 18 percent of those who never worship admit using hard drugs.7) (See Chart)
In at-risk, destabilized communities, religious practice was found to be a buffer against youth crime in the same way that it reduced the likelihood of substance abuse among adolescents. Even in communities where there are no strong social controls against delinquent behavior, religious commitment and involvement protects youth from antisocial behavior—both minor and serious. In the Add Health Survey, a major national survey of adolescents, a 6 percent reduction in delinquency was associated with a one point increase on an index that combined adolescents’ frequency of religious service with their rating of the importance of religion.8)
Mothers’ religious practice is also an influence in reducing the likelihood that children will become delinquent. Each unit increase in a mother’s religious practice is associated with a 9 percent decline in her child’s delinquency. The adolescents at lowest risk for delinquency typically have highly religious mothers and are themselves highly religious.9) Even in cases in which young people have become involved in deviant behavior, specific types of religious activity can help to steer them back on the right course and away from further criminal activity. In addition, evidence indicates that religious involvement during adolescence has a cumulative effect and thus may significantly reduce the likelihood that a young person will commit crimes in adulthood.10)
Adults who frequently attended religious services as adolescents are less likely to have ever been picked up or charged by police than those who did not. According to the General Social Surveys (GSS), 11.8 percent of adults who attended religious services at least monthly as adolescents have ever been picked up or charged by police, compared to 13 percent of adults who attended worship less than monthly as adolescents.11) (See Chart Below)
According to Dr. Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin, weekly religious worship delivers educational benefits that are equivalent to moving the poorer children into middle class neighborhoods.12) Nothing in public policy yields returns like these in education.