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What Percentage of Prisoners are Atheists? It’s a Lot Smaller Than We Ever Imagined

Posted by on Apr. 15, 2014 at 1:19 AM
  • 8 Replies

What percentage of prisoners are atheists?

This is an important question with serious implications. If the number is high, it lends support to the idea that atheists are immoral (***Edit***: I should’ve made clear that not all prisoners are in jail for immoral reasons, though that is certainly the stereotype). If the number is low, it might provide some proof that, indeed, atheists have their own moral compass that doesn’t involve a holy book.

For more than a decade, if you Googled this question, you were directed to one of twowebsites, both referring to the same information (though even that’s in dispute) given to a “Rod Swift” by Denise Golumbaski, a research analyst at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. According to them, atheists made up 0.2% of the prison population:

There were always a lot of problems with that information:

  • The percentages did not take into account prisoners whose religious affiliations were unknown or who did not respond at all.
  • The data in question is more than 15 years old. Whatever it may have represented in the past, it’s practically irrelevant now.
  • There’s no link to any official document with this data, only HTML code that has gone unverified for well over a decade.
  • The websites talking about this data aren’t unbiased. They’re clearly atheist sites trying to make atheists look good. While numbers don’t lie, without the primary documents, it’s hard to evaluate how objective this information is.
  • Golumbaski, the research analyst, no longer works at the Federal Bureau of Prisons… so we couldn’t even confirm that she did this research.
  • The Holysmoke.org website this information appears on doesn’t exactly exude credibility.
  • It has been said that the U.S. doesn’t even keep any data on the religious beliefs of inmates. Tom Flynn once wrote in Free Inquiry: “… no prison I know of has permitted researchers to catalogue inmates’ religious affiliations. No such data has been kept by any department of corrections — or if kept, no such data has been released.”

Simply put, if a pastor offered this as evidence that Christians were all-but-absent in the U.S. prison system, we’d mock the hell out of them. We’d ask for better evidence. We wouldn’t let them get away with such flimsy data.

So why, as skeptics, do we keep regurgitating this information?

As far as we know, it’s just hearsay. That’s not to say it’s wrong, only that we really don’t have a good reason to believe it other than “this guy on the Internet said so.”

But if you go online, none of that seems to matter. The 0.2% number — based off the Holysmoke.org website — pops up all over the place. Google shows more than 24,000 inbound links to the site. Plus, it seems like whenever an atheist talks about morality, this statistic inevitably comes up.

A few examples:

In a viral 2010 blog post for the Wall Street JournalRicky Gervais used the data to support his own atheism:

You see, growing up where I did, mums didn’t hope as high as their kids growing up to be doctors; they just hoped their kids didn’t go to jail. So bring them up believing in God and they’ll be good and law abiding. It’s a perfect system. Well, nearly. 75 percent of Americans are God-fearing Christians; 75 percent of prisoners are God-fearing Christians. 10 percent of Americans are atheists; 0.2 percent of prisoners are atheists.

He repeated it again on Twitter just a couple of months ago:


In a 2009 paper published by Sociology Compass, researcher Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College cited the data (and the Adherents website, which links back to the Holysmoke.org site) when explaining how the negative stereotypes people often have of atheists aren’t rooted in reality (PDF):

In many people’s minds — and as expressed so clearly in Psalm 14 cited at the outset of this essay — atheism is equated with lawlessness and wickedness, while religion is equated with morality and law-abiding behavior. Does social science support this position?

But when it comes to more serious or violent crimes, such as murder, there is simply no evidence suggesting that atheist and secular people are more likely to commit such crimes than religious people. After all, America’s bulging prisons are not full of atheists; according to Golumbaski (1997), only 0.2 percent of prisoners in the USA are atheists — a major underrepresentation.

The 0.2% number has also been cited in book after book after book — includingVictor Stenger‘s New York Times bestseller — and op-ed pieces, all referencing the exact same data.

If the statistic is wrong, we must stop using it. But can we really confirm or deny this information?

Yes we can — and I finally have some definitive information to back it up.

Earlier this month, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Federal Bureau of Prisons asking them about the religious makeup of prisoners. Over the weekend, to my surprise, I received a response. Not only did they have the information, they gave me a faith-by-faith breakdown:

So… what do we learn from that information?

Of the prisoners willing to give their religious affiliations (and that’s an important caveat), atheists make up 0.07% of the prison population.

Not 1%.

Not even the 0.2% we’ve been using for so long.

Atheists constitute an even smaller percentage of the prison population than we ever imagined. (That includes prisoners whose affiliations were unknown. If I used Golumbaski’s method, the number would be 0.09%.)

In addition to that, Protestants make up 28.7% of the prison population; Catholics, 24%; Muslims, 5.5%; American Indians, 3.1%. I’ve put together a bare-bones spreadsheet with these numbers here — feel free to do with that what you will.

Keep in mind that these numbers only cover prisoners who self-reported their religious identification. They don’t represent all prisoners in the system. We will likelynever have perfect numbers… but neither did Rod Swift.

We’re also only talking about prisoners in the federal prison system — about 218,000 people — not all prisoners in America.

Prisoners can change religious affiliations, too. We don’t know if these numbers represent what they believed when they committed their crime(s) or what they believed after they went through some personal transformation.

Finally, it’s also important to note that 17% of prisoners reported no religious preference. They’re not necessarily atheists and may even believe in a higher power. We really don’t know. 3% were “Other” and 3.44% were “Unknown.” We can’t assume these people are atheists or Christian or anything else. However, if you combined the Atheist/No Religious Preference groups and lumped them together as “Nones,” as some sociologists do, you’d get 17% of the prison population… I’m not sure that tells you anything useful, though, because of the murkiness of the labels.

When you look at Swift’s numbers from 1997 and the information here, there are some rough similarities. Yes, the raw numbers are different (we have a lot more prisoners now!) and some of the proportions have changed, but it seems very plausible to me that Swift really was given that data by Golumbaski.

Were we wrong to quote the 0.2% number for this long? Not necessarily… but I still don’t believe we had a good foundation for that. Using a shoddy website with no verifiable information as the basis for a claim we make is the type of thing we expect from religious people. We must be better than that.

Here’s another question worth asking: How does the prisoner data compare to the religious makeup of the general population? In other words, are atheists over-presented or under-represented in prison?

If you look at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (PDF), you’ll see that self-described atheists make up 1.6% of the population. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (PDF) puts atheists at 0.7% of the population. (If those numbers seem awfully low to you, make sure you’re not confusing atheists with the ever-rising percentage of “Nones.”)

In both cases, atheists are *very* under-represented in prison and that’s heartening to see. (The proportion of Catholics in prison is about on par with their makeup in the general population, Muslims are over-represented in prison, and Protestants appear to be under-represented though you really have to look at individual denominations to get a clearer picture of what’s happening.)

Given the data we have, and acknowledging its limits, self-professed atheists constitute an even smaller percentage of prisoners than we ever thought.

For what it’s worth, I tried to get in touch with Golumbaski, the research analyst at the Federal Bureau of Prisons whose response to Swift gave us the oft-cited 0.2% number. I wanted to confirm that she actually worked at the FBP and that Swift’s information represented research she had done. While it appears she did work with the FBP at one point (she was mentioned in a 1997 paper put out by them, though the paper makes no reference to prisoners’ religious beliefs), she now works at a private law firm. I left her a message, but have not heard back.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/07/16/what-percentage-of-prisoners-are-atheists-its-a-lot-smaller-than-we-ever-imagined/

by on Apr. 15, 2014 at 1:19 AM
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Replies (1-8):
Its.me.Sam.
by Bronze Member on Apr. 15, 2014 at 1:38 AM

i am not sure how they correlate... i mean.. in general crime isnt committed BECAUSE of a belief in a god/s/ess/es, just as atheists dont NOT commit crime because theyre atheist. 
it is MORE important IMO the % of scientists that are atheist lol.. people who are contributing such amazing things to our world.  and philanthropists (i believe i heard that the people who gave most money over their lifetime to charities (dedicated great things like saving lives, providing opportunities and health aid etc)  were atheists - gates, buffet, and someone else i cant remember)
sorry if this is all jumbled... couldnt get my thoughts into well written words at the moment lol 

Clairwil
by Gold Member on Apr. 15, 2014 at 12:46 PM

When I researched it, the best figures I could get were:

Affiliation   % in population    % in prison   relative frequency

Atheist         6%                 1%             0.2
None           24%                 9%             0.4
Other **        3%                 3%             1.0
Jewish          1%                 1%             1.0
Christian      65%                77%             1.2
Muslim          1%                 9%             9.0

** Hindu, Pagan, etc.

You have to be very careful to distinguish between "Atheist" and "None".

grandmab125
by Platinum Member on Apr. 15, 2014 at 5:22 PM

 Isn't this post a re-tread from about a month ago?  Seems we've been there, done that recently.  If it wasn't this exact one, it was another one saying the same thing.

1stmuslimah
by Silver Member on Apr. 15, 2014 at 6:04 PM

Until CM which I have been on for years I was not real familiar with real Atheists as far as I know as found they don't exactly broadcast that they are Atheist. I have met and friend-ed many on this site. Before CM and actually speaking to and posting with them I have always heard how angry, bitter, hateful people they are. I still hear it but pay it no attention.

I also can't say I know allot of prisoners or presentages of who is what in the prison system.

I have leaned mostly from interaction over the years here that all I have heard about Atheists is not true. They have morals , good morals just like any other decent person. I have only come across one on here who is a bitter nasty person but I don't associate that to her being an atheist I just a assume she is a bitter person who probably can't even stand her self.

I will add that one thing that does not do the Atheist any justice in showing people they are not the hateful bitter people of no morals that others like to portray them as is the organizations I have read about more lately than in the past. It seems every week there is an article or 2 posted about them having a problem with something completely stupid. I don't know how big these organizations are. Going by the many I have had exchanges with over the years i have to assume they are small extreme groups who have nothing else to do but be angry and bitch about something which is not something that is exclusively unique to only Atheists but for the average person who knows nothing about them these groups do them no justice.

Clairwil
by Gold Member on Apr. 15, 2014 at 7:36 PM


Quoting 1stmuslimah:

I will add that one thing that does not do the Atheist any justice in showing people they are not the hateful bitter people of no morals that others like to portray them as is the organizations I have read about more lately than in the past. It seems every week there is an article or 2 posted about them having a problem with something completely stupid. 

There are atheists and atheists organisations who sometimes campaign about important things.

There are atheists and atheists organisations who sometimes campaign about stupid things.

There are atheists and atheists organisations who don't campaign at all.

There are believers and religious organisations who sometimes campaign about important things.

There are believers and religious organisations who sometimes campaign about stupid things.

There are believers and religious organisations who don't campaign at all.


The impression you gain from the media about the relative frequency between these categories don't necessarily reflect the actual relative frequency.   What it reflects is the media's conception of what makes a good story.

There are, alas, quite a significant number of media outlets that are of the firm opinion that "Atheist does something objectionable" makes a great story.   A far more sellable story than "Atheist does something sensible".

1stmuslimah
by Silver Member on Apr. 15, 2014 at 8:01 PM

 

Quoting Clairwil:

 

Quoting 1stmuslimah:

I will add that one thing that does not do the Atheist any justice in showing people they are not the hateful bitter people of no morals that others like to portray them as is the organizations I have read about more lately than in the past. It seems every week there is an article or 2 posted about them having a problem with something completely stupid. 

There are atheists and atheists organisations who sometimes campaign about important things.

There are atheists and atheists organisations who sometimes campaign about stupid things.

There are atheists and atheists organisations who don't campaign at all.

There are believers and religious organisations who sometimes campaign about important things.

There are believers and religious organisations who sometimes campaign about stupid things.

There are believers and religious organisations who don't campaign at all.

 

The impression you gain from the media about the relative frequency between these categories don't necessarily reflect the actual relative frequency.   What it reflects is the media's conception of what makes a good story.

There are, alas, quite a significant number of media outlets that are of the firm opinion that "Atheist does something objectionable" makes a great story.   A far more sellable story than "Atheist does something sensible".

 Oh I agree completely. Especially how the media exploits us I know how they are and am sure it is done to Atheist and other groups as well. They report what sells. According to the Atheist I have gotten to know many of them tell me they even keep it a secret that they are Atheist because it is not a very popular thing in the USA to make publicly known. So that being said and knowing how the media does with us Muslims I don't even pay attention to half the things that are said about Atheist or other groups. I go by my personal experiences and opinions. While of course I don't agree with their beliefs I have never found but that one who is not a normal person, good mom, with good decent morals just like any other decent person. Of course I am going by what I know of individual's on line but many of them I have posted with years.

What I was talking about was the stupid things that seem like a waste of energy to me for example an organization having a fit because some one has a nativity scene in their own from yard, or a billboard on the high way about a religion in which they paid for any other person wouldn't even notice it or give damn about it. Stupid stuff like that.

Clairwil
by Gold Member on Apr. 15, 2014 at 8:11 PM


Quoting 1stmuslimah:

What I was talking about was the stupid things that seem like a waste of energy to me for example an organization having a fit because some one has a nativity scene in their own from yard, or a billboard on the high way about a religion in which they paid for any other person wouldn't even notice it or give damn about it. Stupid stuff like that.

Can you name a single religion, for which there isn't some priest or minister doing equally stupid stuff?

Also, I'm not convinced the billboards are particularly stupid.  Have you read the stories from the atheists in their own words about why the billboards are there, and worded in a particular way, or are you accepting at face value the narrative placed upon them by the media?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/20/transport.religion

1stmuslimah
by Silver Member on Apr. 15, 2014 at 8:17 PM

 

Quoting Clairwil:

 

Quoting 1stmuslimah:

What I was talking about was the stupid things that seem like a waste of energy to me for example an organization having a fit because some one has a nativity scene in their own from yard, or a billboard on the high way about a religion in which they paid for any other person wouldn't even notice it or give damn about it. Stupid stuff like that.

Can you name a single religion, for which there isn't some priest or minister doing equally stupid stuff?

Also, I'm not convinced the billboards are particularly stupid.  Have you read the stories from the atheists in their own words about why the billboards are there, and worded in a particular way, or are you accepting at face value the narrative placed upon them by the media?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/20/transport.religion

 No I can't there are all kinds from many different groups who always have a bitch about something stupid. As unpopular as I have learned being an Atheist is though I'm sure more use it as a "gotcha ya" and go with it to confirm their message of Atheist being an angry group of people.

Actually I don't read the articles. I might skim from time to time but don't have much interest or it's obvious from the title what it is and i don't even open it.

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