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.”)
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.
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.