Atheists in prison

March 12, 2010


It is often claimed that atheists are under-represented in prison. I did my normal thing, and went to see if it was true. It’s not. In all three cases that I found, the statistics did not support the claim, and if anything they indicate the opposite.

Scotland

A higher percentage of Scottish inmates claim to have no religion in comparison to the general population. According to the Scottish Government’s Statistical Bulletin, Prison Statistics Scotland 2007-8, Table 8, 34.1% of the prison population has no religion. This compares with 19% of the general Scottish population answering that they had no religion, according to the ICM research faith survey conducted for the BBC in November 2005.

England and Wales

A higher percentage of English and Welsh inmates claim to have no religion in comparison to the general population. According to the March 2000 report, Religion in Prisons, 31.9% of inmates claimed to have “no religion”, of whom 0.2% who specifically answered that they were “atheists” and 0.1% who answered that they were “agnostic”. The national census, 15.5% of people in the general population answered that they had “no religion” and 7.3% gave no answer at all. Therefore between 15.5% and 22.8% of the general population were atheists, in comparison with  31.9% of inmates.

More up-to-date data is shown in graph below which I made from the House of Commons library report “Prison population statistics“. Both the “no religion” and muslim populations in prison are growing sharply, perhaps reflecting changing religious belief in the wider English community?

United States

The United States keeps no official statistics on religious beliefs of inmates. The claim that atheists were under-represented in prisions was seemingly started, by Rod Swift, who wrote it on his website, and publicized the claim through the internet and sceptical magazines. He claims that he received an email from an employee of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Denise Golumbaski. According to this email, 0.2% of those surveyed specifically answered they were “atheist” and 19.8% give no answer. This compares with 0.5% of the US population at the time who identified as atheist, and 4 to 6% (according to Gallop) who gave no answer.

Conclusion

Although all three surveys indicate that people of “no religion” are overrepresented in prison, there are many complex factors which could be linked to criminal behaviour – including levels of education, age, economic well being. It may well be, for example, that atheists tend to be younger and more active – and therefore more likely to display criminal behaviour for reasons which have little or nothing to do with the atheist worldview. Nevertheless the claim that atheists are under-represented in prison is contradicted by the data in England, Wales, the US and also in Scotland.

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23 Responses to “Atheists in prison”

  1. Mr Z Says:

    I believe that atheists are believed to be under-represented in foxholes as well. This information does not seem to account for post incarceration conversions in either direction. In either case, prisons are not overwhelmingly filled with non-religious persons, indicating that criminal behavior is more for those who have faith than not. Trying to show a higher or lower per capita criminal population is tricky at best as there are far more contributing factors involved than just those you mentioned such as how likely a conviction is for non-religious than for religious felons. Another conclusion that can be drawn from this data is that more incarcerated criminals believe in a God than do not, and that people of faith are not under-represented.

    Either way, statistics can show a wide range of things with the same data dependent on how it’s presented.

  2. Chucky Says:

    Hi Mr Z,

    Yes. I agree. There might well be in prison conversions, or there might be bias against people of no religion. You just can’t tell.

    My purpose to write this was just to debunk the usual “0.2% of atheists in prison to 10% in the general population” claim – which is one I hear repeated a lot, but which doesn’t fit with the actual numbers.

  3. Mr Z Says:

    I think the information from UK prisons is probably misleading. There are also widespread reports that Christianity is quickly trending toward a minority world view in the UK. The 10% in the general population is probably low. In any country where it is not mandatory to be of a certain world view, but culturally stigmatic to not believe, it is impossible to determine who is truly of which world view. 10% may openly admit it, but what percentage simply are atheistic/agnostic in all ways except when asked if they are?

    I’ve had trouble getting people to tell me why they are Christians. It’s as if they did not decide to be, they just are. Almost as if I’d asked them why they are the height they are. For people to get to the point of openly admitting they are atheist they have to have fully committed to it. An example of this effect is borne out by the fact that there are more openly gay/lesbian politicians in the USA than there are openly atheist politicians. Cultural bias here has been dampened in the areas of racial and skin color bias, but bias against creed is still rather live and well. That sort of thing ruins statistics and puts poll takers in the awkward position of inquisitor, even if it is not deserved.

  4. BeamStalk Says:

    Good lesson on how to lie with statistics. The average height of males in America is 5’4″ or 1.62m roughly. My height is 6’6″ or 1.98m, that proves that the average is wrong. Likewise I can say I found a place that has an average height of 6’6″ for males and thus the average height for all males is wrong when it says it is 5’4″. That place is on the Basketball court and a few anomalies do not discredit the initial average but are actually expected (bell curves are bell shaped and curved for a reason).

    Plus there is the thing that certain Christian groups claim that they are the only source of morals and all non-Christians and especially atheists are completely immoral. This tends to prove them wrong but hey you can obfuscate for Jebus all you want.

  5. Katlynn Says:

    I think it’s funny that the non-judgmental christian population wants to prove we are immoral. How much time did you spend in Haiti? How much Charity do you personally participate in. This is not to include your five dollar communion plate offering this is hands on. Do you want my numbers they would shock you. I believe in humanity and the will to end suffering why because I have that power. You can see me and touch me. Top that God!

  6. Mr Z Says:

    Yes, I agree, but religion has a free get out of jail card on this, they’ll say that their god has blessed you and is working through you. In fact, they can attribute all good things to their god. It’s part of how they define their god. Mankind has no ability to be good unless their god is working through an individual. God doesn’t have to top that, his followers will do it for him to save him the effort. Now, for hurricanes and earthquakes and really bad stuff, their god does that all on his own, to punish people. If they are being punished, there is no need to help them out till they have repented their sins that brought the wrath of their god down on them, hence seemingly low ‘numbers’ for the faithful.

  7. Chucky Says:

    Hi Katlynn,

    I simply want to put forward the facts. You have probably heard atheists claim to be only 0.2% of the prison population, while making up 8-16% of the wider community. As you can see, that’s simply untrue.

    Me personally? Yes I have done work (although admittedly that was mostly in my skill area – computing – not on the ground in Haiti like you imply you have) for different charities, and give regularly to several. I’m not saying I’m any better than anyone, simply putting the truthful statistics out there on the blogosphere.

  8. wysiwyg666 Says:

    Beanstalk talks about average height of males and how the “average” is wrong so statistics is wrong.

    Of course, a real statistician would also provide standard deviation figures to give an indication of how closely the average matches the population.

    As for the basketball court example, he proves the value of statistics. The mean of the general population is demonstrably shorter than the mean for basketball players so we can deduce basketball players are taller than the general population based on this average, launching a scientific investigation as to why this is the case.

    Statistics don’t lie. People who don’t know how to interpret statistics lie.

  9. ... Says:

    Old blog I know, but just thought I’d point out people saying they are of “no religion” does not make them an Atheist. An Atheist is someone who comes to the conscious decision there is no higher power or “god”. I know plenty of people who are of “no religion” yet still believe in a higher power.

  10. Buddy Lee Says:

    I don’t know how you declare Mr. Swift’s statistics as invalid, unless you are doing it by faith.

    I asked the Federal Bureau of Prisons the same question in 2010, and they report atheists comprise .08% of the prison population. Here is the raw data:
    http://bornatheist.com/files/Federal_prison_statistics.pdf

    Why so few federal prisoners label themselves atheists is an unanswered question, but the fact atheists appear in prison at 1/20th of the expected rate certainly raises the question of whether the religionist characterization of atheists is wrong.

  11. Mr Z Says:

    @Buddy Lee,
    I presume that prisoners feel a certain amount of peer pressure to conform that is above and beyond what the average citizen experiences. That doesn’t even mention the fact that those who looking at life in prison or similar terms have a great deal of time to reflect – most of which is mirrored or answered by believers willing to talk to them and listen. Atheists don’t get a chance to go to prisons to ‘witness’ but religions get a free run at what can only be described as a captive audience. When you’re feeling a bit guilty there is nothing quite like someone wanting to forgive you and make you feel like your mistakes are only temporary. I’m certain that many non-believers welcome the news that their punishment is only temporary and that they can be accepted again… even if it’s the next life.

    The fact that there are so few atheists tells more about the character of prison populations than whether or not there are critical thinkers openly disbelieving. If going to worship services gets you better treatment, you’ll be a Christian. If the priest brings you smokes, you’ll be Catholic. And so it goes, there is little if anything in the data to suggest the motives and rationale behind why any prisoner chose to identify as believer or not.

    Those who are swimming against the currents are probably motivated as you would expect at face value, but even then there is no guarantee that the answer was not out of spite, hubris or some other non-motivational reason.

  12. Bubba Ray Says:

    How did you determine that “no religion” and atheist / agnostic are interchangeable terms.

    Particularly in the England / Wales survey how does a .2% response stating that they were atheist lead to the conclusion that 31.9% of inmates were atheist?

  13. Wadema Says:

    It seems like the original poster is basing his conclusions on the same kind of “facts” that establish the world was created in 7 days and all life was destroyed in a great flood, except the few that boarded an ark.

    Faith cannot stand to be challenged. Facts have no role in faith based decisions.

    Better to leave them to their delusions.

  14. Chucky Says:

    Hi Bubba,

    Well that is precisely my point. If accept no religion as a proxy for atheism, and you compare those who answer “no religion” in the general community to those who answer “no religion” in jail, then there are more atheists in prison. If you compare those who specifically say they are “atheist” then the numbers probably aren’t statistically significant, but again, doesn’t support the idea that there are fewer atheists in prison. The problem only comes when you compare “no religion” to those answering “atheist”. To do that would be dishonest, and that is precisely what people do when they say that there are fewer atheists in jail than in the general community.

  15. Bubba Ray Says:

    “If accept no religion as a proxy for atheism”

    Why would you do that ?

    “The problem only comes when you compare “no religion” to those answering “atheist”. “

    Which appears to be what you have done in using the England / Wales data. You have census data which indicates “no religion” and from that you’ve generated a figure for “atheism”

    Ever consider that the survey methodologies might not be able to give a direct comparison ?

  16. RedBeard Says:

    As an atheist, the problem I have with your article is the fact that your definition of “non-religious” is unclear. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but “non-religious” is not necessarily synonymous with “atheist”. One can be non-religious while still maintaining a marginal belief in God.

    If it’s not too much to ask, I’d appreciate some clarification on just what you mean by “non-religious”.


  17. The data from the inmates is totally wrong. Not a little bit. Totally. Each inmate has a better chance of getting out if they can just convince people that they’ve changed and now fully accepted god. You are all morons for not realizing that Rod Swift’s data is 100% wrong.

    Jason Taylor
    http://twitter.com/jasontaylor7

  18. Nicholas Moore Says:

    Seems to me that you’re lumping all non-religious as atheists/agnostics.

    You can be non-religious and still believe in a god. No religion does not = atheist.

    The survey conducted is stupid, and can’t be considered accurate until the right questions are asked.

    Ask “Do you believe in a god?” And if yes, do you belong to a particular religion?

  19. Austin 3:16 Says:

    Hey Chucky,

    I mentioned Zuckerman, I have no idea who Zimmerman is what his methodologies are and why you keep bringing him up. Further why you can’t explain what the deficiencies with his methodologies are?

    ++ ….. definition of atheism – only those who self identify as atheists.

    I haven’t actually provided or used a definition at all. How about a bit of honesty please o moral Christian.

    I’ve just pointed out you can’t use atheism and no-religion interchangeably when it suits you to do so.

    Which is what you’ve done with your “atheists in prison” article. (ps I didn’t see the retraction is it still coming?)

    Especially when you’re comparing two very, very different survey methodologies. The 2001 census does not have atheism listed as a category at all. Yet you’ve used that as a comparison with the March 2000 report, Religion in Prisons which does have a category for atheism.

    It’s a fundamentally dishonest approach.

    The 2005 Eurobarometer poll asked the following questions.

    Whether the person:

    - believed “there is a God”
    - believed “there is some sort of spirit of life force”,
    - “didn’t believe there is any sort of spirit, God or life force”.

    In Sweden some 23% of respondents indicated that they don’t believe in and sort of spirit, God or life force. Prima facie I’d say we could call them atheists.

    You’ll note that nowhere at all does the question ask what religion you belong to.

    I would define an atheist as somebody with no belief in God or gods. I wouldn’t define them as somebody who does not belong to any particular religion. It’s quite possible to believe in God and not consider yourself a member of a religion. I’ve had very devout Christians tell me that there not in a religion, there in a relationship with God. it’s quite possible to be part of a religion and not believe in God. Dakwins himself has identified as a “Cultural Christian”

    As the commentator Nicholas Moore said on July 28, 2012 at 11:20 pm “You can be non-religious and still believe in a god. No religion does not = atheist”


  20. “Atheists in prison Thoughtful Faith” was indeed genuinely entertaining
    and insightful! Within todays universe that is quite hard to deliver.
    Many thanks, Lois

  21. Glynn Webb Says:

    ‘Business Ethics’; that is as much of an oxymoron as ‘False religion’ is a tautology.


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