Method: The sample consisted of youth of Mexican heritage (N=804) drawn from thirty-nine schools in a large city. At T1, all students in grade five were selected to participate. An attrition analysis revealed no major differences between those who remained in the study two years later at T2 compared to those who dropped out of the study. Surveys—available in English and Spanish—were administered by trained university proctors. The survey included items to assess religious affiliation, attendance (never=0 to every week=5), and importance (not important=1 to very important=4), and 30-day and lifetime use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and inhalants. The latter items—based upon Flannery and associates (1994) work—were chosen for their developmental appropriateness and their similarity to measures used in other large studies of adolescent substance use (Hecht, et al., 2003; Kandel & Wu, 1995). Logistic regression was used to test the hypothesized relationships between religion and substance use while controlling for gender, age, SES, academic performance, and linguistic acculturation.
Results: With one exception (recent alcohol use), the first hypothesis was confirmed; religious affiliation at T1 did not predict recent or lifetime substance use at T2. With three exceptions, the second hypothesis was supported; higher levels of religious attendance at T1 was inversely associated with recent alcohol use, and recent and lifetime marijuana and inhalant use at T2. Conversely, the third hypothesis was unconfirmed (with two exceptions—religious importance at T1 was inversely associated with the lifetime use of cigarettes and marijuana at T2).
Conclusion: The results suggest that religious attendance exhibits a greater protective influence than self-ascribed importance of religion. Participation in religious networks may provide youth with a forum in which to develop relationships with positive peer groups and adults. Given the degree that religion is woven into Latino culture (Wilson 2008), this finding may help explain the discrete pathways through which culture exhibits a protective influence, although further research is needed to confirm this hypothesis.