The Real Reason Why There Are Few Atheists in Prison

I’ve heard atheists brag about the statistics on how few atheists are represented in the prison system (less than 1%) as compared to everyone else. What they are trying to prove is that you do not need God or a religion to be a good, moral, law-abiding person. While this may be true for some, this argument is nevertheless perplexing because it does not stand up to scrutiny.

First of all, it doesn’t take much to realize that the prison system probably doesn’t consist of too many of the highly-educated, upper middle class. A notable portion of the middle class, maybe, but more than likely those lacking in finances and a decent education make up the majority of the incarcerated (i.e., the lower middle class and the poor). So how many of these people are likely to ever use the term “atheist” in their communities or circles? More than likely close to zero as they probably had more immediate priorities to focus on. Thus the non-religious would be just that–not religious and without God in their lives, but without a need to label themselves as “atheists.” “Atheist,” like “Bohemian” and “eccentric” are mainly terms of the elite, not the common man.

Another very obvious fact is that many in prison find religion while in prison; whether it be Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or various other faiths. Ample time for reflection while incarcerated gives many time to go from being “an aimless drunk/cheat/thief/insert sin here” to being a “born-again Christian/Muslim/Buddhist/insert religion here.” Atheism, on the other hand, would not offer a prisoner the comfort, solace, and guidance offered by various faiths.

Which begs the question: If many had to find God and religion while in prison, doesn’t that mean that they were without God and religion to begin with? Doesn’t that make them de facto…atheists?



  1. myatheistlife

    Oh SNAP! I know what you mean… there are NO Christians who do bad things… EVAR! Christians have never done bad things, right? Am I right? CUZ like, Christians are with God, like, amiright?

      • myatheistlife

        And apparently lack a sense of humor? If the prison population is greater than 60% Christian who were Christian before they went to jail, it negates your position with flair. BTW, an atheist is someone what claims to not believe in gods. You have not counted for the benefit from claiming religion for those in prison. No matter how you slice and dice the numbers, the majority of prisoners were professed Christians when they committed the crimes that got them in prison. The best you can do here is show that the percentage of atheist prisoners matches the percentage of atheist non-prisoners. This in turn shows that believing in gods does not make you better than those who do not. Why any apologist would take up such an argument is beyond my understanding.

      • myatheistlife

        Well, it’s interesting you should say that. From the very link you provided:
        “On 30 June 2007, 62 per cent (4,463) of prisoners gave Christian or a Christian denomination as their religion (Table 8). One hundred and thirty three prisoners (1.9 per cent) specified Muslim as their religion. Thirty four per cent of prisoners were recorded as having no religion.”

        I might be accused of bad memory, but the difference between 66% and “a majority” is trivial. I don’t think you’ve looked at the data. The Pew Forum has done some work on this as well:

        Different countries will give different cultural biased answers, but in no case is it indicated that Atheists are the greater segment of prison populations broken down by religion.

      • synapticcohesion

        The harsh reality according to the article is that atheists are a tiny segment of the population in general, yet statistically, they are overrepresented in the prison population. Disproportionately so when compared to their numbers in the general population. And as I had mentioned earlier, many inmates become Christians while in prison so there is nothing surprising about these statistics.

      • synapticcohesion

        You are also right about cultural biases. “Atheist” is not a term that most inmates are likely to use anyway. And self-proclaimed atheists in general usually have point (sociopolitical) to prove with their atheism–they are not likely to tarnish atheism and atheists by identifying themselves as such while in prison.

  2. NotAScientist

    There’s a difference between being religious and having a religion.

    I’d be willing to allow that most people who go to jail don’t start off as religious. But the vast majority, at the least, have a religion.

    • synapticcohesion

      If it was just a convenient label they used without any genuine religious connection to it, then that would still make them de facto atheists, would it? De facto meaning in reality, in practice.

      • NotAScientist

        Depends how you play around with the definitions.

        I have plenty of Christian friends who you would call ‘defacto atheists’. But they wouldn’t call themselves that. And I don’t think anyone other than you is allowed to give yourself a label.

      • synapticcohesion

        If they don’t believe in God, Jesus–or any God/gods–then they ARE de facto atheists. I would wonder what’s going on in their minds where they think they are Christ-ian if they don’t believe in Christ. Being a Christian is not something that you inherit.

      • synapticcohesion

        To what extent is it different? To the extent that it’s not really Christianity anymore? If they are believers and are basically decent, law-abiding people, then I would say you friends are indeed Christians and not “de facto atheists.”

  3. NotAScientist

    “Doesn’t that make them de facto…atheists?”

    Not really. Most people who ‘find religion’ actually had it to begin with, they just didn’t take it seriously.

    Newt Gingrich ‘found Catholicism’ after one of his divorces, but he wasn’t an atheist before then.

      • NotAScientist

        That’s your definition. But there are plenty of people who consider themselves Christian (or any other religion) and they don’t read the scriptures, don’t go to church or do anything you would consider ‘religious’. But if they filled out a form, they’d put ‘Christian’.

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