There’s this thing being shared a bunch on Facebook: a piece from 2015 by Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist, about the disproportionately low percentage of atheists in the U.S. federal prison system. Mehta himself wrote in the piece that “It would be foolish to use this information to suggest atheists are more moral than religious groups,” but some people are sharing it around, declaring it to one more piece of evidence for atheists’ morality.
No. No, no, no, no no.
Can we please, please, not equate immorality with being in prison, and morality with not being in prison?
Incarcaration in the U.S. is hugely unjust. (Link, link, link, link, link, link.) Among many, many other things: It targets black and brown people in wildly disproportionate numbers: black and brown people are arrested more, are more likely to be convicted, and are more likely to serve longer sentences. Class is a big factor in incarceration rates, including the ability to afford high-priced lawyers, and the ability to shape the laws in the first place. Poor people are regularly incarcerated for minor crimes, while white-collar thieves of millions of people and billions of dollars go free. Plus, incarceration is often self-perpetuating. The often absurd and impossible demands of the parole system turn parole into a revolving door; a prison record makes it harder to get work, get into school, etc. — and given how racist U.S. incarceration is, removing the right to vote from people with prison records contributes to the systematic disenfranchisement of black and brown people, and diminishes their ability to change the system.
And of course, ridiculously huge numbers of people are incarcerated because of the drug war — which is being pursued in racist ways, creating and perpetuating a permanent black and brown underclass. If you smoke weed or do any other illegal drugs, or have ever smoked weed or done any illegal drugs, you’re in no position to claim any sort of moral superiority on the basis of not being in prison.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. I encourage readers to give other examples of injustice in the prison system, here in the comments.
When we argue that atheists are moral because so few of us are in prison, we’re agreeing that being in prison is a reasonable indicator of morality. This is flatly not true. It’s factually inaccurate, which atheists are supposed to care about. And it perpetuates the racism and classism in the U.S. justice system. The reasoning, if you can call it that, is absurdly and depressingly circular: black and brown people are in prison in hugely disproportionate numbers, so people assume that they’re more likely to be criminals — so they’re more likely to be targeted by law enforcement, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to get longer sentences. When we use low incarceration rates as a sign of atheists’ morality, think about what that sounds like to people who have been subjected to the unjust justice system for decades.
There are good arguments for why atheists are as moral as anyone else. This isn’t one of them.