Tea Party and the Right

Atheists Are 0.07% of the Federal Prison Population, Threatening Fact for Christian Fundamentalists

It's a big disruption to the Christian right argument that you need a belief in God to live morally.

Religious fundamentalists often proclaim that if atheists don’t like their Christian America they can leave. It's worth reminding them that if every atheist left, America would lose 85 percent of its scientists (not that the fundamentalists love science) and a fraction of one percent of its federal prison population. That's a tricky one for the self-proclaimed righteous ones, because godlessness supposedly leads to sinful behavior. But the facts are the facts.

We have this statistic thanks to a 2013 report released by the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons obtained by blogger Hemant Mehta. The report looks at all the federally run prisons in the U.S. — that makes up about 218,000 prisoners — and the inmates’ religious affiliations. When they say that less than one percent identify as atheist, they actually mean 0.07 percent. That’s right, 0.07 percent. That is way less than one percent.

In reality, that number could be even lower. Seeing as how 17 percent don’t identify with any religious preference, this could mean more don’t believe in God(s) but choose not to identify as atheist. At the very least, they do not identify with any of the world’s major religions.

So how can this be? When the religious right is constantly claiming a moral authority in this country, how can it be that they make up more than half (the report shows 28.7 percent identify as Protestant and 24 percent Catholic) of the prison population?

According to Anthony Aranico, a theology student at Iliff School of Theology, they cannot make this claim because faith in God alone does not make one moral:

“Because you have faith doesn't mean you're morally perfect, or morally good. For some people it is a struggle to be moral, even when they know what is right [or] wrong, whether they're theist [or] atheist.” 

So it would seem that the religious right is wrong in claiming an authority on morality or even to claim that one must believe in God to be moral, Aranico continued:

“I don't think that people need to believe in God in order to be good. I do think that for some people, God does act as a moral compass, sometimes to the detriment of others, and sometimes to the benefit of others.”

Atheists love to tout this statistic and show it gives them ground to claim an upper hand on morality, but this is not so according to James Croft, doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and blogger at Temple of the Future:

“I do not believe it is a good indication that atheists are more moral. I think we would love to believe that, but it doesn't demonstrate that atheists are more moral as much as it reflects the fact that atheists tend to be better educated, more wealthy, and more white than the general population. In that overall climate, and given the factors which drive people to crime and the structural racism within the criminal justice system, it makes perfect sense that you will see less atheists, proportionally, in the justice system.”

Croft’s point about racial injustice is not one that should be overlooked. A 2009 Pew Research poll showed that 87 percent of African Americans identified as religious. When we look at the U.S. population as a whole, African Americans make up roughly 13 percent of the overall population, yet the percentage of African Americans incarcerated in the U.S. prison system is nearly 40 percent, according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics

So when you have 87 percent of one racial group claiming to be religious, and the prison population is made up of almost half of that racial group, it is no surprise that the number of religious people in prison is so high.

Aranico also questioned how many of these inmates found religion after entering prison:

“[M]y thoughts are how many people turned to some sort of faith while inside prison? Is there any benefit inside prison to have some sort of faith?”

Prisoners are also known to claim religious beliefs because of special benefits inside of prison. A prisoner could claim to be Islamic in order to receive halal foods or claim to be Jewish for kosher meals. You can also use religion as an excuse to opt-out of medical procedures such as a tuberculosis test. While the percentage of these false religious claims is unknown, it is worth noting that they exist and can skew numbers in different directions.

Religious prison outreach programs are also very popular in the prison system and do offer many inmates a chance to feel as though they can be forgiven for their crimes. So it would not be wrong to point out that while many may not go into prison claiming any religious affiliation, they may end up finding faith inside as a way to cope with incarceration.

Both Aranico and Croft seem to look past the morality issue and focus on a social injustice problem. One should also be leery of generalizations that everyone in prison has done something morally wrong. Due to the war on drugs, large numbers of people have been locked up for victimless crimes, so a high percentage of a prison population has committed no moral injustice.

One cannot overlook the importance of race on this issue. African Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, and only 14 percent of the drug-using U.S. population, yet 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges in the U.S. are African American. It seems that race plays a very significant role in this number disparity.

Other social issues factor in as well, as Croft points out, like education and wealth. In poor communities lacking well-funded education, many young people turn to crime to pay their bills and feed their families. The poverty divide is so deep and education equality is so poor, our lower income communities are pushing kids out of the school building and onto the streets.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation made a similar statement in its news release on this subject saying:

“Another reason for the low representation of atheists in prison is that atheists tend to be well educated and have higher than average socio-economic status. Prisoners tend to be less educated and poorer than the average American. This points out a flaw in American society, not in atheists' morality.”

So while the Christian Right is wrong to claim any ownership of morality in this country based on its personally held religious beliefs, it would be wrong for atheists to do the same. Of course, race and poverty play a much greater role in our penal system than anyone’s religion, and it would not appear that any religion, or lack thereof, plays any significant role in the majority of crimes committed. But it seriously disrupts the Christian right argument that you need to believe in God to live morally. 

Dan Arel is the author of Parenting Without God and blogs at Danthropology. Follow him on Twitter @danarel.