Note to Atheists: Low Incarceration Rates Are Not a Sign of Morality

prison photo

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.

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Note to Atheists: Low Incarceration Rates Are Not a Sign of Morality
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22 thoughts on “Note to Atheists: Low Incarceration Rates Are Not a Sign of Morality

  1. 2

    All valid points. But the fact that “finding Jesus” still works as a means to get paroled keeps the whole “you need religion to be moral” claim alive.

  2. 3

    It’s quite strange that Mehta acknowledges that the quality of the data is questionable and that the meme would fail undergraduate statistics (it glosses over multiple correlation factors), yet it crosses the threshold for bloggification. “Just Sayin’…” Slap a sexy headline on it and release it into the wild….

    For a community that likes to pat ourselves on the back for The Science, atheists can also be prone to uncritically repeating nonsense that panders to our own biases.

    Thanks for calling this one out.

  3. 4

    I would like to recommend to everyone here a superb book by Matt Taibbi titled “The Divide.” It covers in great detail everything that Greta discussed in this post.

  4. 5

    This argument is wrong on so many levels, here are a few over and above what Greta mentioned:

    1. It assumes that their current religious affiliation (while incarcerated) is reflective of their affiliation before (when they committed the crime).

    2. It assumes that religious surveys of prisoners are even accurate, which isn’t at all obvious.

    My guess is that the societal pressure of “religious=good” is magnified in prison in a way that encourages both sincere (and probably some insincere) converts in prison.

  5. 6

    It’s tough to find any metric about atheists which isn’t consistent with a group of mostly middle to upper class white people.

  6. 7

    I’m still partial to the argument because I’ve been both on the outside looking in, and on the inside looking out. I’m an African-American male from Texas. I’ve served over 10 years of incarceration in numerous institutions here in Texas. For two of those stints I was Christian and was Muslim for my last two bids. I’ve even done time in juvenile. I realize I’m just one person relaying a personal anecdote, but I just can’t help but to keep in mind that of all the many inmates I had encountered (literally thousands), I only met one self-professed atheist. Maybe we should consult more atheists that have been incarcerated to see how they personally feel about this argument before discarding it all together. You speak about all the many variables that must be considered with this argument. Wouldn’t many of the same variables apply in practically every argument concerning morality? Especially for the African-American community, from which I come.

  7. 8

    Ahh I came thinking you were meaning the low incarceration rates in largely atheist nations was not a sign of morality and I was prepared to argue. This is different and I accept this.

  8. 9

    It might be an OK observation if you’re talking about Chuck Colson and the whole Prison Proselytizing Industry. But the uncalibrated factors make any causal claim look pretty silly.

    Literacy correlates with non-incarceration, and with irreligion. But that isn’t a pro-secular argument, or even a claim, by itself.

  9. 10

    Atheists tend to be white, college educated and middle class, three groups with a lower incarceration rate than the general population.

    My white, middle-class brother was busted for an ounce of marijuana when he was in college. He was given a fine and a suspended sentence. A week later a black acquaintance was busted for half-an-ounce. He got 30 days and a larger fine than my brother. Ever since then I knew the system was racially inbalanced.

  10. 11

    I don’t want to lose sight of Greta’s points against equating “being incarcerated” with “being immoral”. Even if the stats were accurate and multivariate correlation factors were computed, Greta’s points would all still stand.

    I often find I have to kick myself for getting caught up on the math stuff at the expense of the rest.

  11. 12

    Fair points, but…. The argument is mostly used as a rebuttal to the often-made claim that “Atheists cannot have any moral foundations”. (If A’s had no MF’s, one might expect them to commit crimes more often, but we don’t see that.) Perhaps there is a better way of saying it, or another short, blunt rebuttal that could be made instead. I have said things like “There is not the slightest evidence that born-agains are better behaved than atheists. What little evidence there is points the other way”, and gone on to compare incarceration rates, divorce rates, and the crime rates seen in different countries with high and low percentages of atheists, acknowledging that such evidence is poor. So, I guess my real response to this post is, if incarceration rates are not evidence of relative rates of good moral character, then what would be? What evidence should we look for?

    Religious morality consists of doing what you are told, by some human being you have chosen to regard as an authority about what the creator of a hundred billion galaxies wants you to do. For Christians, that would be following either the Law of Moses, or the teachings of Jesus, or both. But most Christians don’t even know what Jesus taught, much less follow it.

  12. 13

    One more argument against the flawed “there are no atheists in prison holes ” argument is that most probably there are plenty of closed atheists in prison as well , in order to get parole pretending to be religious could be helpful .

  13. 14

    While I agree with the points Greta & company are making, I find that it still makes for a nice comeback when some Religionist starts up with how immoral Atheists are: “If we’re so bad, how come there aren’t more of us in prison?” Maybe we’re not really better, but neither are we measurable worse.

  14. 15

    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.

    Legality and morality are two separate philosophies. Just because people might smoke weed or use currently illegal drugs has no relevance on their morality. It would depend on other factors like if they robbed people for money for drugs or neglected their children to get high. Those are the things I can see getting jailed for… smoking weed shouldn’t be one of them.

  15. 16

    John B. Hodges @ 12

    Humans are social animals. We evolved the concept of morality to help us live together in groups. Other social primates like chimpanzees and gorillas also display moral behavior.

    Unlike what many theists and not a few theologians say, there are no absolute morals. Some groups consider certain behaviors moral while other groups consider those behaviors immoral. When different flavors of Christians hold differing views on the morality of contraception and homosexuality, then it becomes obvious that morality is relative.

  16. 17

    if incarceration rates are not evidence of relative rates of good moral character, then what would be? What evidence should we look for?

    John B. Hodges @ #12: Rates at which we actually commit immoral crimes such as murder or theft (as opposed to the rates at which we’re arrested or imprisoned for them). Unfortunately, I don’t know how to get those numbers outside the “justice” system.

    I agree with ambidexter @ #16: Pointing out that other animals have morality helps with this argument. It can help to point out that we evolved as a social species to have empathy and a sense of justice (although it helps less with people who don’t accept evolution). Pointing out philosophical foundations of morality can also help. And something that can often help is to ask the believer: “If I could prove to you with 100% certainty that there was no God, would you suddenly start stealing and killing?” If they wouldn’t, explain that the same thing that would stop them would also stop you: innate empathy and desires for fairness, external social pressure and fear of punishment. If they would, point out how shallow and fragile this makes their morality (or else just back away slowly).

  17. 18

    I realize I’m just one person relaying a personal anecdote, but I just can’t help but to keep in mind that of all the many inmates I had encountered (literally thousands), I only met one self-professed atheist.

    Rodney @ #7: The question isn’t whether there are fewer atheists in prison: I think that’s plausible and even likely (although I also know there are good reasons for atheists in prison to pretend to be religious, so it’s hard to measure). The question is whether rates of incarceration say anything at all about morality. In a justice system as broken as ours, it really doesn’t.

    You speak about all the many variables that must be considered with this argument. Wouldn’t many of the same variables apply in practically every argument concerning morality?

    Yes, it’s more difficult to measure “who does what moral or immoral acts” when you have to set aside “who’s getting arrested and imprisoned for immoral crimes.” I’m pretty sure there are other measures, and that sociologists are looking at them and not seeing any difference in morality between atheists and believers, but you’ll have to give me a little time to dig that up. And yes, it’s hard to sort the measures out from other cofactors: financial instability is closely related to rates of religion, and because of the stresses created by it, it’s also closely related to common measures of morality like violence.

  18. 19

    While I agree with the points Greta & company are making, I find that it still makes for a nice comeback when some Religionist starts up with how immoral Atheists are: “If we’re so bad, how come there aren’t more of us in prison?” Maybe we’re not really better, but neither are we measurable worse.

    George Peterson @ #14: But it’s not a nice comeback. It’s a comeback that accepts and perpetuates the false and intensely racist idea that incarceration rates are a good measure of morality. Saying “Maybe we’re not really better, but neither are we measurable worse.” accepts that this is a reasonable measure of morality — and it’s a terrible one, a racist and classist one that harms millions of people. Find a better comeback.

  19. 20

    For George Peterson #14:

    In addition to what Greta said about not rebutting bad arguments with falsities, there’s also this:

    If their religion were true, if their god existed and has been doing what they claim he does, then why don’t we see evidence of Christians (or whichever religion it is) behaving significantly more morally than the general population?

  20. 22

    Doug Berger

    Legality and morality are two separate philosophies. Just because people might smoke weed or use currently illegal drugs has no relevance on their morality.

    But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? If you’ve ever done anything illegal, especially involving recreational drugs and haven’t been caught and sentenced to prison, they cannot claim that they are more moral than some poor black kid who did exactly the same and got thrown into jail for an extended time.
    That something is a crime should correlate with something being immoral, but I hope we can agree that this is not always the case. Just remember the young woman who got sentenced in Northern Ireland for having an abortion.
    And it works the other way around, too: just because something is legal, it doesn’t mean it’s moral. That’s something the dudebro crowd constantly conflates as well: Yes, it’s not illegal for you to be a sexist, racist asshole. It’s just not moral.

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