Heina Dadabhoy, who will soon be joining Freethought Blogs, has a thoughtful and important essay at Skepchick explaining why atheists should stop using the “there are very few atheists in prison” argument as a response to claims that religion is morally superior.
I’ve examined the problems with the numbers on prison statistics as well as the argument that they prove atheists are more moral before. Since then, Hemant Mehta at the Friendly Atheist has obtained better numbers, but the issues with the argument persist. Arel’s piece addresses them, even though many of its readers seemed to have ignored that part.
Atheism is a movement comprised mostly of middle-to-upper-class white people. A middle-to-upper-class white person is far less likely to be incarcerated than a poor person and/or a person of color. The only way atheists as a whole might be less likely to be incarcerated than theists would be if we were a female-majority community. Atheism is hardly the cause of white middle-to-upper-class people’s underrepresentation in the prison population, injustice in the criminal justice system is…Given that we’re a movement of people not exactly known for dealing so well, if at all, with issues of race or class, it’s important that we avoid using arguments that lack nuance in terms of racism and classism. To address religious folks claiming that religion makes one morally superior, we atheists can cite examples of religious people behaving immorally, with or without theological justification, and of atheists acting in a moral fashion. We can bring up rules in religions that no believer follows or theological edicts that are not very moral (and even immoral). We can talk about how many religions claim that justice will be served in an afterlife, meaning eternal punishment for finite and often quite trivial “sins”. There are enough other arguments where we don’t have to rely on problematic and potentially fallacious arguments to make our point. We should, and can, do better than that.
Amen. There’s also the problem that even if those statistics were relevant, they don’t distinguish between those who were religious when they committed their crime and those who converted after going to prison. Lots of people turn to religion when they hit “rock bottom.” We need more thoughtful arguments across the board and this is one great example.