How Many Atheists are in England’s Prisons?

The only study I’ve ever seen of atheists in jail is from 1997 and it shows that we make up only 0.2% of the U.S. prison population.

Some more recent statistics about prisoners were just released in England.

ReligionPopulation
No religion26,626
Church of England23,039
Roman Catholic14,296
Muslim9,795
Buddhist1,737
Sikh648
Atheist570
Agnostic514
Hindu434
Pagan366
Rastafarian340
Jehovah’s Witness230
Jewish220
Scientology3

Here’s how Martin Beckford of the Telegraph puts it:

Christians remain the best represented group behind bars, with 41,839 worshippers, while those declaring themselves to have no religion, or atheist or agnostic views, now stand at 27,710.

That’s very misleading. It’s not fair to automatically group “no religion” in with atheists and agnostics in this case. Sometimes, atheists do include that category in their own numbers in self-identification surveys, but it’s the same mistake.

“No religion” includes people who don’t think about religion and who may have no stance about God whatsoever. It may also include religious people who don’t want to answer that particular question.

To assume “No religion” is synonymous with “non-theist” is incorrect.

Atheists (and even agnostics) do take a position on the nature of God — they have put some thought into it and attached a label to their way of thinking.

In any case, the 570 atheists in English prisons make up 1% of the population there.

That number is still far below the percentage of atheists in the general population, especially in the UK.

(Thanks to hoverfrog for the link!)

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    Would be interesting to pull up the religious percentages for the UK’s population and see what the proportion of in jail to out of jail is? (Sorry Hemant, I nearly failed stats, so if you can think of a better way to analyze the data, please do).

    The UK is enormously more secular than the USA, so you’d expect a lot more non-theists in jail.

    The “no religion” ticky box is a tricky one. Who really knows what it means – it could be “mind your own business”?

  • Moxiequz

    Maybe a better designed survey would have separate boxes for “atheist”, “agnostic” and “decline to state”. That would at least separate those who have no problem stating their non-belief from those who simply don’t want to give out that information.

  • Andrew R

    “No religion” includes people who don’t think about religion and who may have no stance about God whatsoever.

    Like babies, who most of us (myself included) would say are “born atheist.”

    “No religion” doesn’t necessarily mean “atheist,” but I wouldn’t include the above quote in the reasoning for that.

  • http://undiscoveredfuture.blogspot.com Rebecca

    I agree, percentages would portray the numbers more accurately. The number in jail from each religion needs to be compared to the total number of that religion in the UK (in jail + out), otherwise the info is virtually useless.

  • sc0tt

    We can’t include “no relgion” and “agnostic” in our ranks when it suits us and exclude them in cases like this.

    The definition of atheist has rightly evolved to include all non-religious people. The newspaper was right in lumping us together with non-religious and agnostic. It should also have lumped “Church of England” and “Roman Catholic” into a single category of Christian. Look at how that would change the results: 37 thousand Christians and 28 thousand non-religious.

  • http://cannonballjones.wordpress.com Cannonball Jones

    I agree that ‘atheist’ can generally be used to include generally non-religious people but in this case non-religious was offered as a separate category from atheism. It suggests to me more of a catch-all into which a lot of people I wouldn’t consider atheists would fall. I’m thinking of those who don’t care or think about religion, those who are religious but do not practice, those who are religious but would rather not advertise it for fear of violence or discrimination, and so forth.

  • Jon

    The figures from the 2001 census are here: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=293

    Unfortunately however the figure for “No religion” does not separate out atheists, agnostics, those who put Jedi or just plain non-believers. The question was also optional.

    My personal hunch is that the no religion in the prison figures will include a large number of people from the portion of society not brought up within any moral framework, secular or otherwise. They will I suspect be those who simply have never thought about religion more than something they were taught in boring old R.E. lessons at school plus a number who simply don’t want to say (for example I can imagine some Muslims in the current climate being reticent to be openly religious in an environment largely dominated by white anglo-saxon tabloid newspaper readers who are unlikely to be the most sympathetic – from what I’ve heard prison is not a nice experience so anything you can do to avoid drawing attention to yourself has to be a good move).

    Unfortunately until we get a census question that separates atheist, agnostic and “none” this remains my unsubstantiated hunch. Also those entering prison, or answering the census for that matter, would when answering the question need to understand the difference between atheist/agnostic/non-theist etc. Given that educated, professional Martin Beckford in the linked Telegraph (a right-wing establishment paper known for mis-reporting non-theist issues such as the UK’s first Camp Quest) article doesn’t get what atheist means (he adopts the position theists want to be true of atheists as it makes the theist’s life easier: “Atheists … adherents to the view that there is definitely no God.”) what hope is there for someone of limited intelligence (as most of the prison entrants are) being asked this question on entry to prison actually understanding the difference?

    As a result I don’t think it’s possible to derive any sort of meaningful interpretation between the number of atheists at large and the number in prison and work out whether, as the US figures seem to indicate, it’s actually the theists that are proportionally more likely to end up offending against the laws of society.

    Cheers,
    Jon.

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Iason Ouabache

    Did anyone else laugh at there being exactly 3 Scientologists?

  • mikespeir

    That was the point I was going to make, sc0tt. In other polls we’re only too happy to lump “no religion” in with ourselves to show that we make up a significant portion of the population.

  • Richard P

    With uk having such a predominant religious presence I wonder if these stats are that significant? Let’s say in comparison to Denmark or Sweden where the population is mostly secular.
    Just a thought…

  • Philbert

    That was the point I was going to make, sc0tt. In other polls we’re only too happy to lump “no religion” in with ourselves to show that we make up a significant portion of the population.

    Or kiva.org donations.

  • Aj

    Truth is there will be atheists labelling themselves “no religion”, “Buddhist”, “Church of England”, and “Roman Catholic”. There will be theists and deists who label themselves “no religion”. It’s not going to tell us much of what we might be interested about.

  • Guffey

    Interesting article.

    In the US I have “heard” – don’t really know – that there is a huge outreach to the prison population for prisoners to find Jesus or be born again, whatever, very Christian. I’ve never heard of any outreach by Atheist groups to the prison population.

    I really am only going by the article, but it seems a good thing that of all the religions bhuddism is what prisoners seem to go for. I’d sure rather see that than christian.

    Wonder if that holds for US? I’d guess that there’s a bigger christian conversion here than any other.

  • http://wolfpurplemoon.livejournal.com Amy

    With uk having such a predominant religious presence

    Being from the UK, I never encounter much religion in my daily life, it’s certainly not a predominant presence.

  • JT

    Same point here sc0tt & mikespeir – you have to take bad stats with the good stats – as long as you are consistent – so what if there are a lot of atheists in prison in the UK? I’d be happy if we were in first place because it would mean the UK is just that more secular – in fact, we need to bring that number up here in the states – there aren’t enough of us represented – I’m going jay walking – WHO’S WITH ME?!

  • Stephen P

    I’m with Scott and Mikespeir: we can’t just exclude “no religion” when convenient.

    In this case however it is very unclear what it means. Given the absence of a “no answer” category, maybe “no religion” actually means people who did not provide an answer. If so, the people responsible for the figures need some serious retraining.

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    You’ve got to look at the context in which the question is asked. The context of being in jail is vastly different to being on the street, or at home filling in a census.

    And because the question will be “what is your religion”, people will mean something different from the noncommittal answer of “no religion”.

    Also, asking someone’s religion is different from asking theistic or atheistic belief type questions. If you’re an atheist Jew for instance, how would you answer the question? And would you answer it differently in jail, as compared to answering it for a census?

  • Ron in Houston

    Being from the UK, I never encounter much religion in my daily life, it’s certainly not a predominant presence.

    That’s because you shipped all your religious wackos over to torture us in the US.

  • Stephan Goodwin

    Here’s the problem: the statistics are about people in prison, not what their religion is coming into prison. It shouldn’t be surprising that people change faiths after being thrown in jail.

    What we need to get an accurate picture are stats of people entering jail. Even the article makes that point, but the statistics, it seems, do not. It almost feels like a purposefully misleading article. To lump atheists, agnostics and “no religion” in the same group when the stats don’t is dishonest. Additionally, the article betrays ignorance/dishonesty when it states atheists definitely know there is no god.

    Additionally, there is no “Protestant” category. I know there are some of them over there, are there just none of them in prison, or did the Protestants mark “no religion” because they had no option on the form?

    Protestants and non-denominational Christians make up 18.1% of the British population according to Wiki in 2001. The no religion category is a third of the total. From what we know of American prisons, it is likely these are Christians with no options on the question.

    The following comparision uses 2001 census data, so it might be off for changing groups like the Muslims.

    Church of England: 29.2% of prisoners, 20.9% of citizens

    Roman Catholic: 18.1% of prisoners, 9.0% of population

    Muslim 12.4% of prisoners, 2.7% of population

    Buddhist 2.2% of prisoners, 0.3% of population

    Sikh 0.8% of prisoners, 0.6% of population

    Hindu 0.6% of prisoners, 1.0% of population

    Jewish 0.3% of prisoners, 0.5% of population

    Unfortunately I don’t have stats for the other groups for a better rundown. Do note that in 2007 45.7% of the British population claimed to be no religion and they only make up 33% of the prison population NOT taking into account Protestants and non-denominational Christians who had no other option.

  • Philbert

    I was digging around on the UK Ministry of Justice site, trying to find the source document that the article was based on. I could not find anything in their search engine except for reports of prisoner religion at various individual prisons. The categories varied from prison to prison, sometimes “atheist” appeared and sometimes not, and in some examples there is an “other Christian” category. I’m not sure, but I think that the inspectors just ask people what their religion is and record all the groups that come up in a particular prison.

    If anyone can find the actual source data it would be nice to see.

  • Stephan Goodwin

    I think people are missing the point…even if the 33% of “no religion” is accurate, that is still a HUGE under-representation for Britain (45.7%).

  • Kaylya

    For what it’s worth, I was once looking into the stats for the US population and there’s good reason to question their accuracy/veracity. All sources I found ultimately point to this one: http://www.holysmoke.org/icr-pri.htm

    Basically, someone claiming that he asked the Federal Bureau of Prisons about it by e-mail and they sent him that in response.

  • CybrgnX

    The analysis points to a different conclusion actually. The reason for so few atheists is because we tend to be skeptical of most things and smarter than theists so evaluating illegal activities is at a higher plan so we tend to get awa with it more often and not get put in jail. Again we prove are mental superiority!!!!

  • CybrgnX

    Iason- considering the cost to be a scientologiest you must be at a higher then normal financial level to start off. So the crimes you commit are also on a higher level where the power people tend to get away with it. So until you go broke paying the church you have no reason to do lower level crime where you tend to get caught.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not fair to automatically group “no religion” in with atheists and agnostics in this case. Sometimes, atheists do include that category in their own numbers in self-identification surveys, but it’s the same mistake.

    I had to laugh at this one. Many organized atheist groups will cite absurd stats like 30 million or 60 million atheists in the US by intentionally conflating people who choose “No religion” with atheists and agnostics when it suits their agenda, but when it comes back to bite them in the ass, they back away from it quicker than flies come to shit.

    Better to stick to the truth in the first place. Otherwise some atheist group will end up claiming a billion atheists in the US. (I’ll let ya’all figure out the problem with that statistic!)

  • Diggity

    Kinda interesting, as my original theory for why atheists were under represented in US prisons was that they had thought more about moral questions (forced to ask why or not to do this-and-that if there wasn’t a god ordering it). Doing this mental work led to a more fully developed morality or ethics to later refer to when situations arise inviting crime.

    So it said atheists thought more about ethical matters than the religious, but I didn’t think about how “non-religious” would be. One would think that the “non-religious” would think about that stuff even less. That is…IF they declared themselves non-religious for lack of thought about religion, as opposed to thinking a lot about it and deciding against -organized- religion.

    What would be best is a survey grouping these results with the results of how they would answer the question:

    “Prior to incarceration, how much thought did you give to questions of morality or ethics or religion? Rate yourself on a scale of 1-10.”

  • Richard P

    Amy,
    I never meant to imply anything other than to what the comparison would to a more secular based society than the UK. Like a country that doesn’t have it’s own religion guided by it’s supreme leader.

  • Aj

    Anonymous,

    I had to laugh at this one. Many organized atheist groups will cite absurd stats like 30 million or 60 million atheists in the US by intentionally conflating people who choose “No religion” with atheists and agnostics when it suits their agenda, but when it comes back to bite them in the ass, they back away from it quicker than flies come to shit.

    I don’t think 30 million in the US is absurd at all. If over half the “non-religious” in the US are atheists then that’s about right isn’t it? I’m listening to Tom Flynn on Point of Inquiry right now telling me Pew thinks it’s more like 66.6% of the “non-religious” that are atheist. I’m going to have to look into it more until I’m really convinced but I don’t understand why it would be absurd to think that atheists are 5-10% of the US population.

  • Cafeeine

    Aj, while I disagree with Anonymous’ tone I mirror his content. There are a number of atheists who will use “non-religious” and atheist interchangeably in any situation, trying to rack up numbers. This is not a practice held by everyone, I don’t recall seeing what Hemant’s stance on the issue is and I have no reason or intent to imply anything, but let’s not ignore the elephant in the roon.

    The possibility of 60 million US atheists isn’t absurd, but it is reaching from the current numbers. Furthermore, when we have these UK numbers and we now make the distinction that ‘non-religious’ =\ ‘atheist’, we are remiss if we don’t point out that this error is often made by atheists as well.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    There is a difference between cultural atheists who were raised without a religion or religious tradition and self identifying atheists. As a parallel there are people who are Church of England but who don’t practice any sort of religion and there are CofE members who are highly religious.

    I think that the figures indicate that those not raised within a religion (cultural atheists) are almost as likely to commit crimes as those raised within a faith. The proportions are nearly the same as the general population after all. However among self identifying atheists, who have actively decided against religion as a viable option, there is much less chance of criminal behaviour.

    I’d be interested in seeing whether or not the parallel ran true for those who actively chose a faith. Perhaps it is the thoughtful approach to decisions rather than religion that reduces criminality.

  • Stephan

    I think that the figures indicate that those not raised within a religion (cultural atheists) are almost as likely to commit crimes as those raised within a faith. The proportions are nearly the same as the general population after all. However among self identifying atheists, who have actively decided against religion as a viable option, there is much less chance of criminal behaviour.

    No, it really isn’t. Again, ignoring the fact that Protestants don’t seem to be on this at all, nor is there a N/A, they could have chosen no religion. Additionally, even if they didn’t choose no religion, no religion is the only category significantly under-represented (according to 2006 data). Other than Jews and Hindis, the other religions are significantly over-represented in the prisons.

    To be fair, if you use 2001/2005 data for no religion, then it seems to be equal across the board (31-44% of the population).

  • gribblethemunchkin

    No religion is a deeply unhelpful category as it doesn’t tell us that persons views on god, faith or morality. It only tells us that they are not practicing a religion.

    The UK is a highly secular country (despite our official religion) and the vast majority of those “no religions” will be people raised without a religion who have never given religion or god any thought at all. Unfortunately this makes them easy to convert while in a prison situation as they have no critical thinking defenses.

    Religious radicalisation in prisons, amongst muslim predominantly, is quite a problem at them moment, and i’d imagine that even very mild muslims self identify as such while in prison as it provides a ready made support network with other muslim prisoners and chaplains.

  • keddaw

    Just because some/most “non-religious” people haven’t thought about shouldn’t discount them, likewise many/most RC or CoE people haven’t thought about it but just call themselves that anyway.

    BUT…

    If you do think about it, and become an atheist it doesn’t mean you are any less likely to commit crimes, simply that you are too smart to get caught!

    • Tony L. Castleberry

      My late friend Charles Fiterman used to say that the prison population of atheists could indicate a few things: 1) That we are less likely to engage in acts of questionable morality/legality and 2) That we are smart enough to not talk to police without a lawyer present.
      I think it is more the former myself but there is probably a good deal of truth to both.

  • http://thoughtfulfaith.wordpress.com Chucky

    If you break up catholics and protestants, those of “no religion” are now the largest religious group in UK’s jails. I’ve graphed the relative population over since 1997 in my last blog post here: http://thoughtfulfaith.wordpress.com/2010/03/12/atheists-in-prison/


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