This post is part of a series on what it’s like to be an atheist in prison. To read other parts in the series, click here. Some of these inmates have done things that, to many of you, will be unforgivable. I will be disclosing some of their names, so you can easily find out what they’ve done to end up in lockup. You may be disgusted to find out their crimes, and you have every right to be. This series, for the most part, will not be about their crimes. I’m interested in painting a picture of what life is like for nonbelievers in the joint. If you find it is too upsetting to be part of giving them a platform, please choose not to read this. You don’t have to be part of it.
With that said, I’ve sent each inmate some preliminary questions to get the conversation going. If you find you have questions that arise as you read their responses, please post them in the comments below or email them to me: firstname.lastname@example.org and I will make sure the person gets them.
Mike Webber, an inmate doing time in Oregon for murder, wrote to me about being an atheist in prison. This is continued on from last week’s post. Here is part three:
In order for atheism to compete with religion and ignorance and all the less desirable facets of human nature and what appeals to it, atheism must get far more organized. It needs to be the better solution and be everything that religion and government should have been but is not. Brutally honest, seeking better ways to do things with a priority on helping people better themselves. There also needs to be a political wing of atheism to get power so we can do things like other powerful religions and have atheist rights protected. This is best done by history’s example of being the majority. There is safety in numbers. The more atheists there are and the more wealth and power they have the harder it is to discriminate against them. Also, the more atheists there are, the more we can positively change government and society for the better. Hopefully, we can reduce the ridiculous hypocrisy, corruption, inefficiency and incompetence. Unfortunately, atheism competes with religion and must find ways to adapt to attract more people. We would probably need similar tactics and the ability to fulfil similar needs and desires that religion does. It must be done openly without contradiction or compromise. Atheism needs to be clearly defined so it can advance a clear, helpful and honest agenda for the betterment of all.
I have not read many atheism books per se, and most were old and too academic. The books did not get into the nitty-gritty details of disproving creationist lies, contradictions and other failings of God or religion. They didn’t even educate on such topics. In essence, they were virtually non-persuasive to people who are prone to religious belief or even the average person.
My extremely violent and abusive father bought a big study Bible and did what some priest told him to do when everything in his life went bad for him. He had a car wreck that almost killed him and his wife. He was addicted to drugs. He was an alcoholic and had no money or job. His violence drove his family away from him, and he had no friends. The priest told him to read the Bible, pray and ask forgiveness. He did this by himself and after a while he’d still had no spiritual experience, nothing supernatural and his life did not get better. So, he decided it was all bullshit and packed the Bible away. I think this illustrates many important things. If he ever got to reading the New Testament, he failed to find and accept the wisdom in Jesus’ words there and failed to see he still had to put forth the effort to change himself in order to better his situation. No matter what, he had to understand it was his flaws and behaviours that destroyed his life and others around him. He had to understand that only changing those habits and behaviours would make him and his life better. At least it would give him a better chance at success. However if instead of trying to find God by himself, he was helped by say a church group occupying his time, cheering him up, helping him financially, helping him find a job then all this help would immediately change the situation. It would put him on a path to success, and encourage him to believe – if not in God, then the helpfulness of the church. He would then probably have felt obligated to become a part of their society. This is what atheism must do if it wishes to be able to compete with religions and gain ground. If atheists want atheism to be something more than its current limited existence, there must be a religion, a political party and holistic society of atheism, supporting atheists and advancing the atheist agenda.
I have been treated poorly in prison for being an atheist only on the rarest of occasions that I know of. There are many other things to be treated badly for that are more common, and Oregon is not a hardcore bible-thumping state. However, a lot of discrimination happens without you knowing about it. Why did you not get that job or that cell move or why did you get caught or singled out for punishment when others who were more obvious were not? It is hard to tell why. You can speculate all you want, but only the person making the decision knows if it was legitimate luck or discrimination and for what reason. In prison, people like to argue and exert their power over others. They get retribution or take their anger out on others for whatever reason, prisoners and staff alike. I have been treated badly and discriminated against for many things. I doubt atheism was at the top of the list of reasons but who knows. I was labelled a communist by a middle-aged 40-ish nurse during a 30-day mental health evaluation at a hospital as a juvenile because I drew a spiked skull with Corrosion of Conformity. Apparently, that’s what “godless communists” do: rebel against democratic Christian government. Isn’t it an oxymoron to put fanatical closed-minded religious people in charge of evaluating someone else’s mental health? It’s sort of like having a blind ophthalmologist examine your eyes to see if you have vision problems.
I feel free to tell other inmates I am an atheist even though lots of religious inmates try to convert me or look down on me for not believing in God. They look at you like you are dumb or a communist or something. This is just human nature. It happens with politics, economic policy and any other topic people feel strongly about. People like to elevate themselves by putting someone else down. The real sparks fly when you talk about hot-button topics such as gay rights, politics, abortion, war, government, laws, gun rights, evolution, etc.
I know a few other atheists in prison, but I have no clue how many people in prison are atheist or agnostic or whatever. People change on a dime in here for one reason or another. I have seen a lot of weird shit. For example, an unrepentant homosexual found out he had kidney failure, and as a prisoner, he was last on the list for kidney transplants. That means he would never get one and was on his way to dying in prison in less than a year. No surprise when he, all of a sudden, became Christian and believed he was going to Heaven. Of course, he began having mental difficulties due to health problems so who knows if his conversion was because he was scared and not thinking clearly or was trying to get help through the church. Anyway, prison is a hostile and adversarial environment (again Oregon prisons, for the most part, are not as bad as most other state prisons) where people play a lot of politics for various reasons. This includes gang activity, emphasis on reputation, respect, fear of being victimized. So, people act differently than they are on the outside or would be in other environments. However, some people become more realistic and honest about who they are and what they are about. These people are figuring themselves out and deciding what they want to be. When they figure it out, they assert themselves as such and go about trying to live their lifestyle. Others try to avoid politics and keep to themselves. Prison is a hodgepodge of everything, really. There are some commonalities because the majority of prisoners have had similar problems, situations, histories, needs, desires, habits, etc. Thus religion becomes part of the politics of many groups in prison, even though it would probably not be the case outside of prison. A lot of groups in prison use religion as a way to associate and communicate and differentiate themselves from other groups. White supremacist groups or Aryans adopt symbols of religions that convey what they see themselves as (Vikings, knights, etc.) or what they want others to see them as. You know, strong, superior, apart from others, etc. They may find their roots as Odinists to go along with their agenda or ethnicity. Irish maybe come Celts, blacks become Muslims, and Native Americans have their religions. For the less violent, more conformist and less politically assertive you have general Christianity. Wicca is for the rebels, nerds, those with “alternative lifestyles” or spiritualists. This allows people within these groups to legally and more easily associate, worship and communicate together. They help each other do fundraisers, assert rights and get special meals, privileges, paraphernalia etc.
I want to know if you agree with Mike on all of this, or if you differ on some of the things he’s said. Let me know in the comments! Or if you would prefer to write to Mike yourself, you can send him a letter:
Michael Webber #12362542
4005 Aumsville Hwy SE
Salem, OR 97317 US
As I mentioned last week, Mike sent me close to 8000 words, so I have to split this up. That means you’ll get part four next week. Make sure you’re signed up to receive updates in your inbox as I post these. The form is in the top right sidebar. Or you can follow me on Twitter for all my updates: @godless_mom
Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay