When considering whether or not to drink, religious beliefs can affect those decisions. In general, most major religions advise their followers to recognize that alcohol can be perilous. Some sects advocate abstinence; others advise a more moderate approach to drinking. A 2019 survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts compares the drinking habits of those in different faiths.
We thought it might be useful to give a brief survey on five of the world’s major religions and their stance on drinking. Some of these may be surprising.
For this purpose, we’re listing them in order by the approximate dates when each religious faith began.
As the oldest religion mentioned here, Hinduism began in approximately 2300 to 1500 BCE, in the Indus Valley, a region not far from contemporary Pakistan. Some 1.3 billion people, or approximately 15% of the world’s population, consider themselves Hindus.
Though the religion is often not explicit about drinking alcohol, most Hindus avoid it. As one Hindu writer observes, “…to be a good Hindu one should learn to use substances like alcohol with restraint and knowledge of their potential side effects.” That word “restraint” keeps appearing, suggesting that personal responsibility for drinking is paramount.
That said, there are admonishments in Hindu texts, which advise alcohol as a major sin. Given the contradictions among these texts, personal responsibility comes to the fore. As in many religions, alcohol is not banned, but it is clear that heavy usage is frowned upon.
Judaism dates from 1312 BCE, and also discourages heavy alcohol use. But that said, wine plays a central role in Jewish religious life. In small amounts, wine is consumed during many Jewish rituals: a bris, a bar mitzvah, a seder. And though wine is mentioned fairly often in the Torah, most Jewish religious leaders make a case for moderation.
As an interesting aside, a gene found in approximately 20% of Jewish people, alcohol dehydrogenase 1B (ADH1B), seems to discourage use of alcohol. Coupled with a culturally low emphasis on drinking, this gene may partially account for the lower rate of alcohol use among Jews.
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The fifth precept of Buddhist practice is to refrain from intoxicants, and the original text seems to specifically pinpoint alcohol. However, as with many other religions, the exact interpretation of this varies. Many Buddhist practitioners believe that a single glass of wine, or moderate use of another substance, is acceptable.
Allan Badiner, a contributing editor for the Buddhist journal Tricycle, considers Buddhism’s warnings about intoxicants not as a strict rule, but as “a 2,500-year-old suggestion.” (Buddhism was founded around 400 BCE.) The important question is, “Can you consistently keep your mind focused on cultivating kindness, compassion, wisdom, and the practice that gets you there?”
A study of groups of Buddhist men in Thailand seems to confirm this stance. While the religion discourages alcohol use, many still drink. What seems to be most important is the spirit of the precept, which is to avoid substances that interfere with your awareness of your thoughts and actions.
Wine is also at the center of Christianity, and used in the traditional communion ceremony. (Some sects substitute grape juice, rather than wine.)
Many Christians feel free to drink alcohol (if not to excess), though the Bible warns against drunkenness—a sin akin to gluttony. Similar to the stance of other religions, alcohol is not forbidden, but excessive drinking is frowned upon.
In one survey, 59 per cent of Protestant churchgoers said they abstain from alcohol. But that same survey notes that 23 per cent of those think that the Bible recommends abstinence.
In the Quran, the document at the heart of Islam (founded around 600 CE), alcohol receives perhaps the sternest warning of any of the world’s major religions. “A complete ban on alcohol is widely accepted among Muslims as part of wider Islamic dietary law.”
And the prophet Muhammed weighs in: “If it intoxicates in a large amount, it is forbidden even in a small amount.” Further, he advises against any Muslims engaging in the buying or selling of alcohol—a clear recommendation to steer clear of the subject completely.
Can People Be Religious and Still Drink?
While some faiths are more precise in their language about alcohol, others are a little more ambiguous. Most assume that their adherents will study the religion’s teachings and principles, and come to their own conclusions. And that includes making their own decisions about alcohol. Abstinence is generally an option, not a mandate.
At Ria, we work with members individually. We listen to them as they describe their lives, their families, their work habits—and their belief systems. We recognize that the choice to drink is a personal one, and that people should be comfortable with whatever decision they make.
But whether you’re a religious person or a secular one, you don’t have to be a believer to recognize that cutting down on alcohol has very few minuses.