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)