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There Is No Such Thing As an Atheist in a Prison Cell?

August 13th, 2009

It is estimated that 78.4% of Americans are Christian, and about 80% of the prison population is Christian. Jews, similarly, are almost precisely represented in prisons (1.7% / 1.7%). Buddhists, at 0.7% / 1.18%, are somewhat over-represented. Most over-represented are Muslims (not Nation of Islam), who compromise 7.3% of the prison population despite making up only 0.6% of the general population; this most likely represents a disproportionately large African-American population in prisons, and is mirrored in other groups likely to be represented more in African-American groups (Rastafarian, Moorish, Nation of Islam).

Guess which group is vastly under-represented? Those without religion. They make up 16% of the general population, but only 0.2% of the prison population is non-religious, almost 1/100th of what you might expect it to be. One would think that this says something about atheists and morality–interesting, as Christians often seem to think that those without religion will be immoral by nature. Seems that’s not the case. Either that, or atheists are incredibly skilled at evading capture.

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  1. August 13th, 2009 at 22:38 | #1

    Or perhaps atheists get the impression it’s a bad idea to self-identify as such when being asked the question by a prison functionary.

  2. Luis
    August 13th, 2009 at 23:13 | #2

    Just John:

    Hmmm… I suppose it’s possible, but it would require pretty extreme conditions. First off, we would have to assume that Atheism or simply being non-religious in general is so hated among religious inmates that, when the prison (not the other inmates) ask, you would be too terrified to admit it. Second, it’d have to be so universal that 99% of people who are non-religious lie about their beliefs. Now, I have heard that certain types, like child molesters, are singled out for mistreatment, but have never heard the same being true for non-believers.

    In the absence of fear for retribution, one would next assume that in the case of untrue answers, one would deny one’s religious affiliation more often than falsely claim to have one, on the basis of shame, not wanting to give your religion a bad name, or even avoiding censure from your religious group.

    Of course, most of our supposition depends upon the inmate’s answer regarding religious affiliation would become a matter of public record for that individual.

    Some other arguments I have found in looking up all of this: atheists tend to have higher incomes and more education, whereas Christianity is much stronger in groups with lower incomes and higher crime rates. And, just as likely if not more so, the Federal prisons bureau study’s methodology is not revealed and we don’t really know the particulars of the survey–so the data itself might be suspect.

    It’s just that, if this survey is an outlier, it is one hell of an outlier, in an unusually specific manner.

  3. Leszek Cyfer
    August 14th, 2009 at 01:58 | #3

    Many devotees think they’re better than the other, not so religious people. That’s one step short of thinking they’re above the law – which reality can painfully correct in no time.

    While atheists usually think they’re equall with their neighbours, or at least have an equall start – so are careful not to spoil their life with stupidity.

  4. stevetv
    August 14th, 2009 at 04:22 | #4

    I see this as conflating the statistics. “No religion” and “atheist” are not the same thing. There are plenty of people who are unaffiliated with a religion but believe in some sort of higher deity. In fact, the ARIS organization in the Wikipedia article separates “Agnostic + Atheist” from “None/No religion”. Combined, A & A’s make up 1.6% of the total population according to 2008 statistics, although I confess that number seems small to me.

    OTOH, the FBI doesn’t have a “No religion” category in their findings. So what happened to them? Probably they were subsumed in the “Unknown/No Answer” category, which makes up a significant 20% of respondents (or non-respondents as the case may be).

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