What Percentage of Prisoners Are Atheists? Pew Forum Offers An Answer

Every time that question is asked, everyone always points to this page. It’s a (questionable) source from 1997 saying that atheists constitute 0.2% of the prison population.

Last week, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life released the results of a survey of professional prison chaplains across the United States. The results (PDF) offer some insight into the religious lives of prisoners. But keep in mind it’s not necessarily accurate — they’re asking chaplains across the country what they think the religious makeup of the prisoners is.

Although chaplains, like all observers, undoubtedly bring their own perspectives and predilections to bear, they also occupy a valuable vantage point as correctional workers who have regular, often positive interactions with inmates and take a strong interest in the role of religion in inmates’ lives.

Ok, so take all these results with a grain of salt.

Here’s the finding that’s relevant to us:

Atheists *might* constitute a larger percentage of prisoners than we previously thought… but we really have no idea:

Obviously, nonreligious means atheists, agnostics, and people who just don’t subscribe to organized religion — we don’t know the breakdown. But 11% overall is much more than anyone has ever said before. Even if it’s accurate, those (likely inflated) results are significantly smaller than the 32% of nonreligious people who make up the general population.

The Pew people say this (emphasis theirs):

Of course, some chaplains may have quite a bit of knowledge and others rather little knowledge about the religious preferences of inmates. And, even if chaplains had perfect information about the relative distribution of religious groups among inmates, these findings are not weighted in proportion to the size of each prison’s population and thus cannot provide an accurate estimate of religious affiliation among the U.S. prison population. Nonetheless, these findings offer an impressionistic picture of the religious context in which chaplains work.

So what percentage of the prison population are atheists? We still don’t know for sure. But it’s less than 11%. Probably a lot less. It’s hard to get accurate information on the subject…

(via Religion Clause)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Pcranny

    I’d have thought that if you go to jail in the US, the very best way to be treated remotely well and to be considered for early release would be to tell everyone you meet that you’ve “found Jesus.”

    Doesn’t have to be true….

    • http://www.facebook.com/bestlittlestudio James Henline

      As a man who spent 6 months in a low security correctional facility, I was a jailhouse christian, it allowed me to get out, go to the meetings and enjoy a can of coke, became an ordained minister at the Solid Rock Church in Lebanon Ohio twice in 6 months. Note that Lebanon prison was right across the street and they used to LOVE to make sure we knew the prison was right across the street.

      Worst part, while I was guilty of the crime and fully admit that, more atrocious things were done by the staff there than I ever did*.

      *Proved that a bank had an open back door after trying to unsuccessfully to alert them about it, moved money, turns out that’s a felony.

      • PJB863

        As someone who worked in a high security facility in Florida, I can tell you that James is absolutely correct.  It is one of the only ways to do something to break the boredom in prison.  I also know of people who were “perfect christians” while inside, and six months to a year after their release, they were back in prison for doing things that were decidedly “unchristian.”

        • Beanerls

          A lot of Christians do “unchristian” things all the time.  A lot of kids I went to high school with ended up in jail at one point or another.  Every single one of them was then and is now a self-proclaimed Christian.  

          Also, just because someone does not claim to be Christian does not mean that they are an atheist.  There are plenty of people who do not subscribe to Christian dogma and theology who still believe that there is a god.  These people usually label themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  That is a far cry from atheism.

      • Anonymous Comments

        So basically you are saying that you pretended to be a Christian. That means you should be in the atheist column. Which brings that total up even more. And if what you and others say is true, a lot of criminals are pretending to be Christians. Which brings the atheist total up even more.

  • Popeyewooly

    wait. they asked them “how many people do you think are of x religion?” and that’s supposed to be ACCURATE? cuz goodness knows, they might have a bias. And how can they know what a person thinks, themselves? what a ridiculous study.

    • Metacrock

      more auscultate than previous finds where the Holy smoke plays with the data. The real importance of the study is that it shows they switch faiths in prison to get parole and to make allies. So they don’t all go to prison as Christians, they become Chrsitians in prison. That means Christianity isn’t causing them to go.

  • Onebadscientist

    don’t be too sad…I’m actually glad to see the low numbers…honestly most of us as the critical thinker we are…are too smart to be caught up in the prison system unless we have some mental ilness lol…no complaints here

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Weaver/100000377905225 Mike Weaver

      I disagree. I’ve worked corrections. Many are pretty normal who tried out drugs and got caught. Then they get stuck in the prison system which is not a place for rehabilitation. It teaches you to say what people want to hear and thats about it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tiffany-Harding/1322662990 Tiffany Harding

    I find it hard to believe the Muslim population is so low.  The whole in house conversion thing has become a cliche’.   e.g Malcolm X

  • Anonymous

    Even if the number reflects the general population, that still defeats the argument that atheists are criminals and shows that humans will commit crimes regardless of religion just like teenagers will have sex regardless of abstinence only education.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TLHIXVS2CHDJNWYPZJIZ5NNZ3A Robert

      But it supports the arguement that Christians are far more likely to end up in jail than any other religious group.  I kid.  Sort of.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TLHIXVS2CHDJNWYPZJIZ5NNZ3A Robert

      But it supports the arguement that Christians are far more likely to end up in jail than any other religious group.  I kid.  Sort of.

  • Drew

    I can’t imagine that chaplains would be likely to misrepresent the facts, deliberately or otherwise… Oh, wait.

    • PJB863

      Don’t be in too big a hurry to malign the chaplains.  They are government employees and their job is to assist the inmates, not to proselytize.  E.g., if there’s been a death in an inmates immediate family, it is the chaplain who let’s the inmate know about it and find out what if any options and services are available to the inmate.  They typically require a counseling degree for this job.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    I’d be careful comparing this number to the 32%. This survey specified “No religious preference” while the other one had “religion is not important in their daily life.” The second one could include people who identify as a certain religion (ie. have a religious preference) but just don’t do much about it.
    Although the 11% from this study (even though its based on inaccurate anecdotal data) is still lower than the ~15% of non-religious Americans that I remember from other polls.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Weaver/100000377905225 Mike Weaver

      Remember that Non-Religious also include religious non-denominational.

  • Cwebb619

    I see one potential bias. Maybe they only surveyed those that attended a service and assumed those that did not to be non-religious

    atheistsocialworker.org

  • Cwebb619

    I see one potential bias. Maybe they only surveyed those that attended a service and assumed those that did not to be non-religious

    atheistsocialworker.org

  • http://twitter.com/luciferadi Adi Rule

    I’m not sure I see the value in a study like this. “An impressionistic picture of the religious context in which chaplains work”? Seems like it should have been an article.

  • http://twitter.com/luciferadi Adi Rule

    I’m not sure I see the value in a study like this. “An impressionistic picture of the religious context in which chaplains work”? Seems like it should have been an article.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, I’ve seen a lot of shady methodologies in polling, but this one about takes the cake. You’re asking chaplains what the religious makeup of the prison population is? Why not ask Republicans what the proportions of liberals and conservatives is? I mean, it’s not like they’ll have any bias in their estimation, will they?

    Even if you discount the very likely skewing of estimations (overestimating the numbers for denominations you disapprove of, for example) this is still far from an accurate method. Chaplains have limited information, and in a controlled environment like prison there are a myriad of different reasons one might or might not be labelled nonreligious.

    • Metacrock

      you are just dogmatically assuming they lie because they are religious right? why should I not assume you lie because you are not religious? Chaplin is in better position to know than you are.

      • http://twitter.com/SorryBadBeat SorryBadBeat

        Actually no…He is disagreeing because the methodology is completely unethical. Here are the statistics straight from the BOP website.Not sure if you can read but it says less than .2% are Atheist. http://www.bop.gov/news/research_projects/published_reports/gen_program_eval/volunteer_cpp.pdf

        • http://twitter.com/nickleus Nick Humphrey

          where does it say that? i can’t find that statistic or i don’t understand those charts at the end.

  • nobodyssister

    I would have thought that the percentage of atheists would be higher than the percentage of Christians, because the prisoners that “Find Jesus” get paroled, leaving the atheists behind.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tiffany-Jade-Brown/640358790 Tiffany Jade Brown

    The thing is…this really proves nothing. I’m a crime victim survivor. The perpetrator of my crime always considered himself an agnostic. Then, when he was sentenced and sent to prison, he “found Jesus.” A lot of people find religion in prison. Unless a survey could be taken right when someone enters the system, I can’t really say that this proves anything. And this is coming from an atheist and somewhat anti-theist. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tiffany-Jade-Brown/640358790 Tiffany Jade Brown

    The thing is…this really proves nothing. I’m a crime victim survivor. The perpetrator of my crime always considered himself an agnostic. Then, when he was sentenced and sent to prison, he “found Jesus.” A lot of people find religion in prison. Unless a survey could be taken right when someone enters the system, I can’t really say that this proves anything. And this is coming from an atheist and somewhat anti-theist. 

    • Skjaere

       This was my immediate thought. American culture codes “Christian” and “good person” as synonyms. If someone in prison at least pays lip service to having faith in order to convince the authorities that they’ve cleanup of their act, how does one measure that? Professed belief and actual belief are not the same thing at all.

  • Stoodrv

    This study only shows that once in prison a high percentage of inmates will profess, to a prison chaplain, to be religious and only according to that chaplain. Studies like this are meaningless to anyone who thinks rationally. 

    An atheist like myself would be truer to the cause to point out how poor a study like this actually is. 

    Just my opinion.

  • http://twitter.com/arensb arensb

    So if I’m reading this correctly, the median value of 5 means that half of the respondents said that 0-5% of inmates are atheists, and half gave answers between 5 and 100%. The mean of 10.6% is much higher than that, which suggests a Bill Gates effect: most answers were clustered around the low end (let’s say 1-10%) while a few respondents gave unrealistically-high numbers, like 90%, which skewed the mean upward.
    (Note that I’m just speculating on the distrbution of answers, which doesn’t say whether those answers have anything to do with reality.)

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ORRVVC5R2QWLTXEM6SX5L6BORE Jay Arrrr

    “No religious preference”. That covers a lot of territory. Suppose you had a survey about Sex, and 11% of the respondents stated “no sexual preference”.

    Now tell me, from that number, how many in the total survey group are Asexual.

    Why in hell can’t we get a survey question that cuts to the chase? Yes or No, do you believe in “gods”?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Weaver/100000377905225 Mike Weaver

      Because historically the government (mostly WASP) conducted these surveys in order to identify those people for segregation (ie mulattoes, Latinos, Irish, etc). Later it was done for civil rights and minority support (such as college financial support). 

      But the bottom line is it nationally identifies Many atheists don’t feel safe enough to let themselves be identified (name, SSN, address, etc) on an official documentation, in a predominantly Christian country, run by Protestant and other activists, appearing to want to replace the constitution with the bible. Get my drift?

       This allows watch groups to have potential access to you. Combine that with the Tea Party momentum with Rick Santorum and that makes my hair stand up. 

    • Metacrock

      why must assume that “no preferences” means they are religious? it can also mean they are atheists. It’s clear the data is not good enough to make conclusions upon.

  • Okworks

    “Obviously, nonreligious means atheists, agnostics, and people who just don’t subscribe to organized religion”

    It doesn’t say “nonreligious” it says “no religious preference” which could mean anything. Couldn’t someone who is between transitioning from on major religion to another potentially claim that they have  no religious preference?  There has got to be a few categories that were lumped into “no religious views” along with Atheists.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

    Sounds like very flimsy numbers.

  • BenZ

    I never take this seriously because of the huge number of conversions that can happen in prison. I want to know the religious/nonreligious convictions of people who are arrested and/or convicted of committing various crimes. Then we can draw correlations about adherence to the social contract v. religiosity.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Weaver/100000377905225 Mike Weaver

      Religion has and always will appeal to those who are in a rock and a hard place. ie poor, inprisoned, lonely. Because it gives hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. How does atheism do that honestly? Ask yourself and answer that question. I think you will find that it doesn’t do much of anything. 

      • Nick

        Precisely — religion is all about establishing a delusion to overcome the lack of faith in yourself. I don’t require the fear of “somebody watching over me” to do the right thing in life. Atheism isn’t a religion; it isn’t a philosophy, and it certainly doesn’t seek the “destruction of religion” (that, is anti-theism), so put down your local church pamphlet and do some research. And no, Hitler was a devout Christain, thank you.

  • bla

    65.7% Christians and according to wiki – 78.4% (12.7pp more) in the society; Protestant % match perfectly (51.3%), no idea where does the wiki take it’s data though. Muslim have much bigger % than in the society, and there’s 16.1% unaffiliated (5.5 pp more),

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Weaver/100000377905225 Mike Weaver

    I’m going to speculate that that the number is higher. Because prisoners sometimes have a choice to go to church or do clean up. Same as in Army boot camp. People went to church to get out of working or for a change of scenery.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Scott-Rhoades/100000175617377 Scott Rhoades

    How hard is it to simply survey prisoners? If it is set up right and they know their answers will be completely anonymous we would certainly get more accurate results than this. 

    • Erp

       Being assured it is completely anonymous is a bit tricky if one is a prisoner especially if the survey takers want to make sure people don’t take the survey multiple times.

      This is assuming the prison authorities permit such a study.

  • http://northernfrog.myopenid.com/ TNT

    I’m really glad that another atheist but myself has chosen to debunk the oft quoted personal correspondence that lead to the atheist meme: “there are less atheists in prison” BS.
    However, this pew study is nearly as worthless. Canada is filled to the brim with “non-affiliated” people, but most of these are believers. In Canada, we have NO STATS about faith at all, only about religious affiliation. And it will get worse. The government recently put an end to the mandatory long-form census, so us Canadians will be even less informed.
    One commenter spoke of “fear of expression” in jail. I can totally see that. Some lunatic religious freak would soon be stabbing anyone who dared say they were non-believers. So in essence, there are probably MORE atheists in jail than any of us imagine. It’s the bias of the system.

  • Erp

    Some of the other aspects of the survey are more interesting.   For instance many prisons do keep track of prisoners declared religion but the data is rarely published (page 8).   Also the survey does not include any Federal prison chaplains since the Federal government did not give permission. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tr-Dev/100003542966660 Tr Dev

    What I find most interesting is that over 64% of the prison population appear to be xtian of some sort.  Of course, most believers will tell you that they converted after they committed their crimes as atheists and got sent to prison.  Love how believers try to wiggle out of everything.  It is more apt to say, I think, that they were always xtian, they just stopped “practicing” when they were being unproductive citizens and committing crimes.  I can think of a few “gangbanger” rappers who wear big gold crosses and rap about drugs, guns, and sex.  Maybe it’s just a fashion statement?

  • http://www.facebook.com/Funky.Uncle.Matt Matt Begley

    As I recal, the numbers were gathered from questionares filled out at the time of incarceration by prison staff and related to the prisons in only one state which I do not recal, though I am attemting to find out. Those Numbers were 75% of convited felons claimed Christianity which equals their ratio in our population. The number of was 0.2 % of convicted felons claimed atheism while the number is about 15% of our population are atheist. There are vairiables such as deception that could skew these results but certainly not to the numbers presented here.

  • Anonymous Comments

    First of all, this country has a higher proportion of religious people than atheists. Do these findings take that into account? Plus, it depends on what prisons the statistics came from. Some parts of the country have a greater concentration of religious people than others. What prisons did these statistics come from? 

  • Anonymous Comments

    Apparently from some comments below a lot of criminals are “jailhouse” Christians so they can get early release. There is at least one below who has confessed to it. And a comment by someone else this is absolutely true.

    Therefore, if you are a person of logic and reason, you can only conclude that a lot of the professed Christians in jail are actually atheists. Better bring that total up in the atheist column.

  • Thomas

    There’s an old saying … “There are no Atheists in Foxholes”. I’m an Atheist, but lets be honest here …  it’s obvious that there will be a larger percentage of Religious people in prison!! When you’re down, you’ll cling to anything to get through. I’m sure that many of these people considered themselves Atheists before going in.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=646204820 Jason Hagberg

    I threw some chicken bones on the floor and they say 21.7 percent of prisoners are atheists.  Debate.  Ended.

  • I C Watson

    No religious preference does not mean “Atheist.” 

  • Mike other

    “No religious preference” does not mean one does not believe in God. This is worse then a tv poll from fox news.  You can’t assume ones belief in God , you have to ask the question directly. Furthermore a census is more complete then a random polling. And this doesn’t qualify as a random polling. You have a survey of options of those who have a personal bias. You have statistically nothing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Desertphile David Rice

    “It’s a (questionable) source from 1997 saying that atheists constitute 0.2% of the prison population.”

    Yes, the page is questionable, and so are the numbers: so why did you not contact me and ask your questions? I am the owner of that page; I am the person who first published those data— first on FidoNet, then on the Internet via Gopher, Archie, Usenet, and then WWW. At the time we had no idea the data would be repeated more than a quarter of a million times, nor that the data would be considers “controversial” or even worthy of study and criticism.

    Rob Swift acquired the data merely by asking for it; note that the numbers reflect only the inmates in all Federal prisons who specified a religious affiliation or none: that still left out many thousands of inmates who did not answer the question. There are currently 217,395 inmates in USA Federal Prisons: since year 1997 the Federal Prisons population has doubled, chiefly due to the “war on drugs” and other poverty-related reasons.

    I have explained these facts literally more than 500 times for the past 15 years; I have made YouTube videos explaining this; I have given presentations at skeptics’ meetings and conferences on the subject. I have stressed over and over and over again that the data are not sufficient to state any conclusion with confidence— let alone state that people who lack belief in the gods are some how “better people” who commit fewer crime.

    Note that attempts by me and Dr. Swift to acquire subsequent data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons were requested by the Bureau; while the BoP still collects the data from its inmates, the BoP will no longer provide the data, and one can only guess why.

    Finally, there are either more people in the USA who lack belief in the gods now than 15 years ago, or they are just more honest now in stating they lack belief in the gods. The reported percentage of atheists in Federal Prisons will therefore have increased.

  • Harold Baize

    I agree with IClaudia, this is an obviously biased survey and a classic example of faulty methods. It is little more than a report of the prejudices of prison chaplains. It is like asking racists about minorities and reporting the result as fact.The reputation of the Pew Forum should suffer, but in their defense, they probably don’t claim it to be an accurate estimate of the percentage of non-believers.

  • Daddy Love

    Pay more attention to the median than the mean. The mean can be skewed by one guy estimating 50%

  • Sami

    Just watch too, if Marijuana is legalized(as it SHOULD be, because it isn’t dangerous in the LEAST), that percentage will go down to almost nothing while the others will either go up or not change at all.

  • Catherine

    I’m surprised that it is still unknown about how many prisoners are non religious but I would think that most should believe in some type of god to keep strength while being held captive, but there is also the reasoning of a grudge being held and anger. Many prisoners have anger that they are being treated like caged animals so their faith has vanished. But that 11% can vary drastically, how can it be clarified in depth?

  • janet

    the prison game is to pretend you’ve found religion after incarceration to help yourself get an early release with the parole board. better to ask the criminals if they were a practicing (whatever religion) at the time of the crime. that’s really what we want to know, right? if lack of religion leads to immoral behavior.


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