Fellow Atheists: Quit Bragging About Our Prison Underrepresentation

Dan Arel’s piece on atheists and the prison population has been making the rounds, along with the seemingly inevitable assertion that the statistics prove that atheists are no less (and perhaps) more moral than theists.

I understand the impulse. Truly, I do. But that doesn’t make it any less problematic.

Every time I speak at a high school or in any other context where I’m engaging a theist majority, I make a point of addressing it and I still get questions about the issue of atheist morality.

Because most forms of the Abrahamic religions set themselves up as the best, and sometimes only, sources of morality, it’s become cliche for theist to ask atheists about the origins of our morality (“Without god, where do you get your morals?”), assert that we have no morals (“Why aren’t you just raping and killing everyone?”, “So as an atheist, you just do whatever you want.”), and/or explain that any morals we do have ultimately come from their deity (“The Constitution has laws that are from the Bible”, “You can deny God but He’s the one who taught us to be moral.”)

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn's depiction of Moses
hardly a reliable source of morality

These inquiries represent fallacious reasoning, to be sure. Even within the same sects within the same religions, believers hardly unilaterally agree on which moral principles are mandatory, let alone advisable. It’s why Catholic nuns marched for racial equality while the KKK claimed Biblical superiority, or, today, Iran forces SRS on gay men while many other Muslim-majority countries put them to death and Canadian lesbian Irshad Manji advocates LGBT equality under the banner of Islam.

I’ve examined the problems with the numbers on prison statistics as well as the argument that they prove atheists are more moral before. Since then, Hemant Mehta at the Friendly Atheist has obtained better numbers, but the issues with the argument persist. Arel’s piece addresses them, even though many of its readers seemed to have ignored that part.

Atheism is a movement comprised mostly of middle-to-upper-class white people. A middle-to-upper-class white person is far less likely to be incarcerated than a poor person and/or a person of color. The only way atheists as a whole might be less likely to be incarcerated than theists would be if we were a female-majority community. Atheism is hardly the cause of white middle-to-upper-class people’s underrepresentation in the prison population, injustice in the criminal justice system is.

Marijuana leaves

Intersectional issues aside, being arrested and convicted means being caught breaking the law. Would most of us atheists consider, say, possession of small amounts of marijuana to be a crime worthy of incarceration, let alone an immoral act? Yet prisons teem with non-violent drug offenders. As for being caught, I will return to the example of marijuana. How many of us class and race privileged* atheists would be imprisoned for drug possession had it not been for residence in low-density housing  in areas rarely patrolled by the police? Living in a detached home reduces the likelihood of a neighbor or passer-by reporting drug use to the authorities but is hardly an indicator of superior moral character.

Given that we’re a movement of people not exactly known for dealing so well, if at all, with issues of race or class, it’s important that we avoid using arguments that lack nuance in terms of racism and classism. To address religious folks claiming that religion makes one morally superior, we atheists can cite examples of religious people behaving immorally, with or without theological justification, and of atheists acting in a moral fashion. We can bring up rules in religions that no believer follows or theological edicts that are not very moral (and even immoral). We can talk about how many religions claim that justice will be served in an afterlife, meaning eternal punishment for finite and often quite trivial “sins”. There are enough other arguments where we don’t have to rely on problematic and potentially fallacious arguments to make our point. We should, and can, do better than that.

* I am a person of color, yes, but part of a minority that isn’t especially targeted by the police, and was raised upper-middle-class.

Fellow Atheists: Quit Bragging About Our Prison Underrepresentation

13 thoughts on “Fellow Atheists: Quit Bragging About Our Prison Underrepresentation

  1. 1

    There’s also the fact that in many jurisdictions professing a Christian faith is counted as a step in the right direction toward rehabilitation. So I wonder how many of those Christians in prison are just trying to shorten sentences. I’ve got family who’ve done hard time, and while he was in prison he was the model of a Christian prisoner, services whenever they were offered, had his Bible with him all the time, could spout scripture at the drop of a hat. Now he’s out, and none of it stuck. It was a means to an end.

  2. 2

    Yeah, except GeekGirlsRule, that is pretty much the argument **always** made by theists for why they imagine that nearly everyone in prison is really atheist, and just pretending to be religious, so… yeah.. as true as that may be, they argue that its just what you say, “A means to an end.”, and that everyone in there is, “Not a true christian.”

    Personally, I just see it as a sign that it didn’t stick before they got in there, so its not going to stick after either, especially when the system is designed more towards shitty measures, like nonsense about being nicer when getting out, while the rest of the time just caging them, with no real, tangible, usable, attempt to teach skills, or how to function in society, or, usually, any help reintegrating (no, a parole officer doesn’t count.) Basically, everything a prison in some country with less obsession about incarceration and punishment, and much more interesting in reintegration of prisoners into useful roles in society, would be doing instead, while we in the good old US, do less and less of, and less effectively. Basically, a bloody angel, if such things existed, would have to use religion as a, “means to an end”, just to get decent treatment in some of the places, and by the time they got out they would probably be working for the other side anyway, due to the only thing being learned in them being how to be a better criminal, and how to deal with other criminal, not how to be a solid citizen or deal with *normal* law abiding people.

  3. 3

    This could easily be the poster child for “correlation does not imply causation”. If you can’t think of 20 possible (not necessarily plausible) explanations, you’re not trying very hard. For example, “Judges don’t like religious people, so they give them longer sentences.” If you restrict yourself to plausible explanations, it is still easy to reach half a dozen.

  4. 4

    What a terrific piece, raising a regularly overlooked point. I wish there were SEWs (Economic) to match the SJWs. The correspondence of religiosity to poverty ought never be overlooked, but it is, far too often. It’s far too easy for the armchair post-doc to criticize what the Kwazy Kwistian or Mad Mooslim did today, without examining the true roots of their despair (and, obviously, not including the predatory politicians and pundits who play their religion cards while not believing an iota of it). And needless to say, those with little to no education are easier to gull than college-educated young professionals, and fomenting their violence and intolerance is no longer a cottage industry, but a worldwide mega-multinational. Religion is less the enemy than those who profit off its application by convincing the poor that their problems are due to religious persecution rather than economic predation.

    I would also note one other confounding factor: much as in the modern military, a modern prison cellblock is probably run by hardcore devotees of some sort of faction, so to express one’s conformity with the prevailing Islam or Christianity or Nationalism or Libertarianism or whatnot is to stay in proper lockstep with those who determine your fate.

  5. 6

    I’d never heard that particular bit of faulty reasoning before. The idea that you can predict morality or criminal behaviour as a straightforward conditional probability with religion (or Christianity) as the condition is truly odd. The article does a fine job of pointing out that this clearly does not work, and a few of the factors that would go into a more reasonable model. Far too often these “conclusions” are based on being able to fit a conditional probability to a single dataset for a fixed population.

    Some days I really wish people would learn a bit more statistics, and specifically that schools would teach Baysian networks (or at least the principles of it).

  6. 7

    I have to second the notion that Christian apologists (or mostly some random doofus like the rest of us), come to us with the idea that atheists are criminals. As far as my own experience goes, I have enough Witnesses contacting me to try and convince me to leave “atheism,” as if it were a religion. I’m a hellbound atheist because I want to sin and break the law. Well, the prison population statistic comes in handy.

    Even though it never goddamn works.

  7. 8

    Great argument and consider me convinced. It’s one of those things that you may even *know*—I certainly don’t think doing time is indicative of one’s moral character in many cases so much as one’s misfortune in getting caught—and yet I hadn’t put all this together. In part because while being in prison is not evidence that one is a bad person, there are more violent, evil people in prison than in the general population. The two get conflated, and they should not. In no small part because the masses of perfectly nice and non-violent people in prison are now being locked up with scary people and they have little protection and no escape. Which is one reason that I think putting non-violent drug offenders in prison is clearly cruel and unusual punishment. Having a bag of pot on your person should not subject you to being menaced by bad people. Minimum security is inadequate protection.

  8. 9

    I think you do a great job spelling out the confounders to the hypothesis that atheist’s under-representation in prison rolls proves they are more or equally moral then the religious. Nevertheless, the argument put forward by religious polemicists is that atheists must be immoral, and the relative paucity of atheists in prison rolls is still good evidence that that argument is false.

    Those who claim that religion plays little or no role in their lives make up as much as 21% (if I remember correctly) of the American population. That’s more than 60 million people. One would think that if atheists are immoral, they would completely dominate the prison rolls. Obviously, this is not the case and is good evidence that the apologists are wrong.

  9. 10

    Well there’s one big reason we should stop bragging, socioeconomic privilege.

    A lot of people who grow up in poor communities are surrounded by religiosity, or at least, then culture of religiosity. People who are atheists tend to come from more affluent backgrounds, and have become atheists because they or their ancestors had a lot of time away from hard day-day struggles in order to formulate a highly intellectual opinion about what’s after death.

    So when you say “but the atheist prison population is much less” it’s really saying “money & comfort breeds apostasy, and I am of that”

    1. 10.1

      Then, how about this for an argument, “Religion is obviously a horrible replacement for economic well being, and safety.”? It still means religions suck at making people better, like they constantly insist they do.

  10. 11

    Religion is having psychotic beliefs in invisible supernatural beings because dealing with the reality that we’re all highly evolved monkey’s and the concept of no longer being alive one day is so disturbing. It’s easier to believe in total nonsense, most people aren’t ready to have their security blankets taken away. A lot of people fake religion whenever it’s useful, but a lot more are sincere in their delusions.
    Just saying.

    1. 11.1

      Actually, religion is not “psychotic” (religious beliefs do not constitute mental illness, according to psychology) and making false claims about evolution (i.e. that we are “monkey’s” rather than apes) won’t help to educate anyone.


      What is the relevance of your comment, by the way?

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