Do atheists really only make up less than 1% of the prison population?

Do atheists really only make up less than 1% of the prison population? August 23, 2015


I was reading my news this morning and have been a little behind when I came across a blog post by Hemant Mehta over at the Friendly Atheist blog titled, Atheists Now Make Up 0.1% of the Federal Prison Population and I thought back to the same article I wrote in March of 2014 for AlterNet in which I made the same claim and wondered if much had changed.

Mehta’s overall findings matched mine and he was correct in his overall assessment of the data, saying:

It would be foolish to use this information to suggest atheists are more moral than religious groups. We don’t know why all of these people ended up in prison, and the reasons are often much more complicated than we imagine. When you consider high poverty rates and low education levels, and how religion correlates with both, it makes little sense to argue that atheists are better people because of these numbers.

And then:

Remember that these religious affiliations are all self-reported. We don’t know how many atheists prisoners fall into the categories of “No Preference,” “Other,” or “Unknown.” Hell, for all we know, some of them may have said they were “Catholic” because that’s the faith in which they were raised. Some theists ashamed to be in prison may have also said they were “Atheists,” as if that explains their crimes. So we’re taking this information at face value.

When I originally researched this as he did, I found that many factors played into this statistic and felt it was a bit of a dishonest argument to throw back at the religious in debates. In my article, I discussed the findings and the morality argument with a few people.

When the religious right is constantly claiming a moral authority in this country, how can it be that they make up more than half (the report shows 28.7 percent identify as Protestant and 24 percent Catholic) of the prison population?

According to Anthony Aranico, a theology student at Iliff School of Theology, they cannot make this claim because faith in God alone does not make one moral:

“Because you have faith doesn’t mean you’re morally perfect, or morally good. For some people it is a struggle to be moral, even when they know what is right [or] wrong, whether they’re theist [or] atheist.”

So it would seem that the religious right is wrong in claiming an authority on morality or even to claim that one must believe in God to be moral, Aranico continued:

“I don’t think that people need to believe in God in order to be good. I do think that for some people, God does act as a moral compass, sometimes to the detriment of others, and sometimes to the benefit of others.”

And on the idea of atheists using the statistic as a moral advantage:

Atheists love to tout this statistic and show it gives them ground to claim an upper hand on morality, but this is not so according to James Croft, doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and blogger at Temple of the Future:

“I do not believe it is a good indication that atheists are more moral. I think we would love to believe that, but it doesn’t demonstrate that atheists are more moral as much as it reflects the fact that atheists tend to be better educated, more wealthy, and more white than the general population. In that overall climate, and given the factors which drive people to crime and the structural racism within the criminal justice system, it makes perfect sense that you will see less atheists, proportionally, in the justice system.”

Croft’s point about racial injustice is not one that should be overlooked. A 2009 Pew Research poll showed that 87 percent of African Americans identified as religious. When we look at the U.S. population as a whole, African Americans make up roughly 13 percent of the overall population, yet the percentage of African Americans incarcerated in the U.S. prison system is nearly 40 percent, according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

So when you have 87 percent of one racial group claiming to be religious, and the prison population is made up of almost half of that racial group, it is no surprise that the number of religious people in prison is so high.

I still find myself uncomfortable with the statistic because I don’t believe it reflects the morality or superiority of atheism when you really break it down and understand the American prison system.

In my original article, I quoted the Freedom From Religion Foundation on the same data, and they came to a similar conclusion but went a little further in defending “atheist morality.”

“Another reason for the low representation of atheists in prison is that atheists tend to be well educated and have higher than average socio-economic status. Prisoners tend to be less educated and poorer than the average American. This points out a flaw in American society, not in atheists’ morality.”

So while I love the morality debate, and while I think atheists have a much better argument in the debate, this is one statistic I don’t think will do either side any favors.

[Image: Connor Tarter / Flickr / Creative Commons]

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