Yes, Please Stop Using the Atheists in Prison Claim

Yes, Please Stop Using the Atheists in Prison Claim June 20, 2014

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.

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  • Jeremy Shaffer

    I’ve never been too fond of that argument as it suggests too strong a correlation between morality and the law. There is one to some degree but the frequency that I run across people who wish to codify their religious beliefs (or morality as they laughingly call it) into law makes me wary of using arguments that conflate one with the other.

  • doublereed

    I think the idea for using prison numbers is just to make the claim testable and statistical (the claim being that atheists are generally moral people, and are at least no worse than religious). Obvously, any numbers trying to make this claim are going to be entirely dependent on the demographics of atheists. In fact, that’s kind of the point.

    So what statistic would be better to present this idea?

    Perhaps just the one that says we are better educated? Because that would probably be responded to with vicious anti-intellectualism, and then we can say “hey look he’s anti-intellectual”? Makes sense to me.

  • eric

    So what statistic would be better to present this idea?

    Well, you could start by looking trends in violence across different countries and how it correlates (or doesn’t correlate) with religiousity. There are a lot of confounding factors here too, but I feel fairly safe in saying that the growth of non-belief in western countries in the 20th and 21st centuries is not correlated with any significant uptick in murders, rapes, etc…

  • eric

    Small follow-on: it’s worth noting that a conservative could use the exact same sort of analysis (as I suggest) to prove their point, by selectively broadening their definition of immoral conduct. I.e., if you ignore behavior like rape and murder, and instead only look at things like “number of state-sanctioned gay marriages,” then you probably *would* find a correlation between that behavior and non-religiosity.

  • robb

    you know who else examined the problems with the numbers on prison statistics as well as the argument that they prove atheists are more moral before?


  • DaveL

    There is one major weakness in this criticism, and that’s that religion is usually presented as critical to morality, or even absolutely necessary. If the anti-atheist argument were merely that religion had a positive influence on morality, albeit easily swamped by socio-economic context, then this criticism would be spot on, but that isn’t the claim.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Given that we’re a movement of people not exactly known for dealing so well, if at all, with issues of race or class

    Speak for yourself, bub. I’ve got class up the wazoo.

  • Drew

    I’d add that I only really see this used as a counter claim, not to the argument that atheists can’t be moral, but to the claim that most people in prison don’t believe in god.

    Further I’d note that the original statistics were reportedly gathered on a questionaire during intake to the prison system. Thus the claim about in prison conversion is a non-starter.

    That being said, while the sampling of prisoners suggests that atheists are slightly underrepresented in prison populations, the points about race and economic stability can not be emphasized enough. Based upon the background of most atheists, you’d expect that they’d be underrepresented in this population.

    Other than rebutting the idea that most people in prison don’t believe in god the only thing the statistic might be good for is to support the notion that atheists, at the least, commit no more crime than believers (though given the caveats about race and economic status this may not actually be true either).

  • Cliff Gliddon

    Another rather obvious problem with the data: What was the methodology for measuring ‘morality’. How is having been in prison or not a valid measure of morality? Has there been any reasonable (something that most can agree on) discussion of how the two, prison and morality, are connected? People’s having been in prison, I would submit, is foremost a measure of conviction rates, including the previously mentioned difficulties as to class, education, income level, race and ethnicity, etc. (to expand a little).

    Also, even if you did have an acceptable measure of morality, wouldn’t you want to look at the data for moral v. immoral atheists in prison and on the outside, compared to moral v. immoral religious in prison and on the outside?

  • There’s a further problem in that, if you look at morality from their perspective, the religious are absolutely right.

    See, to many religions (especially of the fundamentalist sort), morality is about obeying their God’s rules and nothing else. And since many of those rules are absurd, or even immoral from a perspective of compassion and rational evaluation of consequences, it really is true that you have to be religious in order to be willing to follow them. So when atheists point to low violence rates in atheist-majority countries, they’re not going to find that convincing because many religions encourage and/or demand violence in support of their gods as moral obligations. Our adamant refusal to kill, torture, or oppress people for giving (or receiving) an orgasm to (or from) the wrong sort of person, for example, is a sign to these people of our immorality, where we see it as a sign of morality.

    To that mindset you’ll just never convince you can be moral without their god by pointing out how moral we are by our own definition. We have to hope we can convince them to change definitions.

  • Taz

    atheists should stop using the “there are very few atheists in prison” argument as a response to claims that religion is morally superior

    Can we still use it as evidence that atheists aren’t pond scum, which seems to be a rather popular view in this country?

  • The prison argument is exactly the argument used by racists. Nuff said.

  • “I’ve never been too fond of that argument as it suggests too strong a correlation between morality and the law.”

    Yeah, a lot of people are in jail for unjust laws. They’re victims of bad laws, not bad people.

  • Yet a further problem is that prisoners, or even people standing trial, are often pressured to profess religious faith. We know that some judges tend to look at a person’s religious faith when considering the length of a sentence or eligibility for parole. It wouldn’t be too surprising, therefore, if there were many closet atheists in prison who are simply feigning their devoutness in the hope of their cases being looked upon more favourably.

  • We’re going to be lucky to have Heina Dadabhoy blogging on FtB, because she’s a passionate activist, a writer with a very strong voice, and often comes at issues from a more interesting perspective compared to most other writers.

  • Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    Is there any overlap at all between people who are likely to assert that atheists are inherently less moral than Christians, and people who are at all receptive to the idea that incarceration rates heavily reflect race and class bias?

  • abusedbypenguins

    The vast majority of us are born with a conscience, knowing right from wrong, this is nature. Nurture takes over and can reinforce and build on what we are born with or can twist it or even beat it out of us. Religion is used to twist it for evil. For many thousands of years, thousands of wars have been fought over religion, what a waste. Religion is evil and must be swept into the dustbin of history.

  • gingerbaker

    Heina and Ed both are correct to point out confounders to the hypothesis re atheists and prison – but wrong that this is not a good argument.

    Nobody is saying the atheist prison stats (APS) should be used to demonstrate moral superiority of atheists. The reason APS is used is to counter stupid apologist claims that atheists must be immoral, because morality is dependent on religion. That is a very different issue, and the fact that prisoners are not 99% atheist belies it.

    IIRC, 21% of Americans no longer find religion important in their lives. That’s more than 60 million people. There are 2.4 million people in prison. Even I can do that math.

  • captain_spleen

    In any case, all you have to say is that, even according to Dante, Hell is chock-full of Christians.

  • OpenMindedNotCredulous

    If you haven’t read Matt Taibi’s new book “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” do so. Now. It is certain to be the most important book you read this year. It lays out using examples of real people, not just statistics, to starkly show how our justice system favors well off white people (like me) and screws the poor and non-white.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Here’s some guy trying to influence the stats:

    Christian Rocker Convicted of Murder Plot Reveals He Is Atheist

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