Why Aren't Atheists In Prison?

A colleague of mine put together two studies.  One was a Pew poll of the U. S. population and the percentages of people by their respective religious beliefs.  The other was a study done by the U. S. prison system of the prison population.  

The study compared, by religion,  the percentage of people in general population versus the percentage of the prison population.  For example, Catholics are about 39% of the general population, but only 24% of the prison population.  Protestants, on the other hand, are also about 39% of the U. S. population but are 51% of the prison population.

Six other religious groups are ranked.  The three groups most likely to be in prison are protestants, Catholics and Mormons.  The least likely, and by a large margin, are atheists and agnostics.

Each person can come up with their own explanation for this surprising findings.  But, it does seem to me, at least, to make a powerful point.  That is, atheists have a moral grounding at least as good as religious people.  It seems just not true that one needs religion to be a moral, upright and good citizen. 

You may send comments to jon.lindgren@redriverfreethinkers.org

10 Responses

  1. Mac–It could be that there are atheists who want to be identified as Christians. Sometimes they may get points in the system what with the faith-based rehab programs. Or, that atheists as a group have higher education and incomes and come from a population less likely to be in prison. But, it could also be that atheists have values to enhance the common good that are at least as good, and, maybe even better, than those of religious people.

    1. Jon, you are a much brighter man than I. Since we both seem to have a healthy respect for tolerance, I can tell you I am a man of faith. However, it’s been my observation that people of ‘faith’ do some of the most horrific things in the name of their faith. I’ve also observed countless people of faith who seem to think rules apply to others, but not them; some who seem to think it’s only a sin when they get caught; and the final group that has the belief that since they ask forgiveness, everything they do is somehow excused. I’m from the region and really am only acquainted with Christians, so my observation comes from that perspective.

      For what it’s worth, I submitted the 15 point questionnaire to several friends, and my unscientific study revealed that the most pious and self righteous of my acquaintances knew the least of world religions. Quite curious since they consider themselves authorities. I also find it curious that the older I get, the more I find that character and integrity have very little to do with religion/faith.

      I think your understanding is probably more accurate.

      1. Thank you for your comment, Mac. When it comes to improvements in how we treat our fellow man, both believers and nonbelievers alike could use some improvement. We all need to work on it all the time.

  2. While some of what you referenced in your comment may be true – I would like to add my perspective:
    I used to work in a prison, and asked about just this topic while I worked there – the reason there were no athiests in that particular facility is because those who affiliated themselves with a religion (even satanism) were allowed time out of their cells and their housing units to participate in religious ceremonies and prayer times… sometimes for large portions of the day. Those who are athiest don’t have prayers or ceremonies to perform, so… no time out.
    Seems simple – but often the simplist explanation is the correct one… yes?

    Now, why inmates choose to affiliate themselves with a particular religion, while incarcerated, could also prove to be an interesting discussion… surely not everyone is sincere in their choices…

    1. Breezy–Good point, interesting expereience you have had. We do not know what is inside the minds of people who respond to surveys, it may not always reflect what they are really thinking. One this is hard to dismiss in this case. The old argument that our society needs more religion in order to be a “good” society seems to have been set back by these prison statistics.

      1. That, and the number of crimes that are committed against fellow human beings, justified by religious reasons… still going on in “modern times” in other countries…

        Which country is it that is proposing to pass a law calling for death sentences for known (or even just accused) homosexuals? (I forget… but do recall that, despite some questionable American reporting of the proposal being shot down, it is still active being proposed… ) And the proposed law is supposedly based upon Christian influences and missionary work in this country. Cripes – which I could recall… but, dang it, drawing a blank. Hmmm…. the country that’s been affiliated with members of C-Street organization…

        Ok – I give up. Can’t come up with it. Anyone else know which country that is?

        Point being – seems to me that, too often, religion and the passion people feel about their religion/faith of choice incites violence.

      2. Oh! And – I forgot to say – yes, many inmates choose to “find God” while incarcerated in order to favorably influence parole boards.

        Do you know – is the study based upon declared religious affiliation at the time of intake into the prison… or does the study look at just broad info – both declared at intake, and affiliations declared during the period of incarceration…? Depending on how the info was gathered, that could change the interpretation of the info, too…

  3. Breezy–What tangled webs we weave. Advocates of religion in government pitched the idea that they could be so successful helping inmates. So, we have Chet Coalson’s Prison Fellowship group and Pres. Bush’s advocacy–neither of which proved they could do better than secular programs with the same budgets. They are playing games with the truth. Then, inmates, no fools at recongnizing a good deal when they see it, may be playing games in return. We just don’t know. I saw a TV news item once where a church group was receiving permission in some state to “treat” sex offenders. A guy said, “We specialize in treating sin. This is just another sin.”

  4. Pingback : Yes, but your sample is biased… | Reform Journalism

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