ReligionSkepticism

Morality on Trial: Why Prison Data Doesn’t Matter

In my previous post, I broke down the issues with prison statistics in the debate on secular morality. Here, I am going to turn my skeptical eye to the way people use and interpret said statistics.

Why people bring up the (debatable) statistics that show that there are fewer atheists in prison than there ought to be seems obvious. When debating morality and its origins with the religious, such data might seem like the ultimate debate move for the secular. The percentage of us in prison is smaller than our percentage of the popular, which means that fewer of us rape and murder. Check and mate!

The reality, of course, is not so simple.

Demographics make a difference when it comes to religiosity or lack thereof. People without religion are, statistically speaking, most likely to be white. Not only are white Americans less likely to be imprisoned, but they are less likely to have come from an impoverished background, further lowering their chances of being imprisoned. Why race and affluence matters in terms of imprisonment is not a question that I can answer in a short post, but the fact remains that being a white and relatively well-off American means that you are not likely to go to prison in the first place.

Another issue that people fail to consider when using prison statistics as proof of morality is why people are imprisoned. People do not go to prison for failing to meet basic moral standards, but for being convicted of a crime and sentenced to time in prison. The vast majority of human beings would agree that rape and murder are reprehensible, but not everyone in prison is guilty of rape or murder.

Photo taken by decade_null (Flickr, CC Attribution-ShareAlike)

According to the US Bureau of Justice, although over half of the 2009 prison population had been convicted of a violent offense, some of the offenses for which people are incarcerated are probably not immoral in most of our eyes. Included on the list of offenses that allegedly deserve incarceration are drug possession, morals and decency charges, and liquor law violations. While it is tough to generalize when it comes to the secular community, I think it is pretty safe to say that a sizable portion of the group supports the decriminalization of marijuana use, sex work, and alcohol sales made after 2 AM. Given that, it seems disingenuous as a whole to point to imprisonment as if it were a marker of immoral conduct.

There are many arguments that we as skeptics can use to prove that morality transcends religion, and that the non-religious can be — and are — moral people. In an ideal world, we could all simply lead by example and show that moral behavior does not have to be religiously motivated. As it stands, our respective abilities to be moral will be called into question no matter how well we act. Should we choose to participate in that debate for the seemingly-millionth time, we should at least be sure of our facts as well as the implications of the arguments that we make.

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Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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7 Comments

  1. I think you make some excellent points, especially as regards the types of crimes that are likely to send someone to prison and how these crimes don’t necessarily correlate with any meaningful broad definition of morality.

    I would quibble on one point though: “Not only are white Americans less likely to be imprisoned, but they are less likely to have come from an impoverished background, further lowering their chances of being imprisoned.”

    While this is roughly true, it does represent a potential for some sloppy overgeneralizations. While whites are less likely to be impoverished, that’s a matter of statistical trends and there are plenty of white people living in poverty. It seems that it would be more accurate to look at it from the other direction and focus on the fact that atheists tend to come from relatively affluent, educated backgrounds, and while these people tend to be disproportianately white, it is likely the education and financial comfort that influence their world view as much, if not more than, their ethnicity.

    1. The reason I avoided statements like “atheists tend to come from relatively affluent, educated backgrounds” is because I could not find data to prove that this was the case regardless of ethnic background. Do you know of some survey or study of which I am unaware?

    1. According to that page, just under 50% of secular folk are college educated. While this is a higher percentage than that of the population at large, it hardly means that even a majority of atheists are college educated, so I would still hesitate to say that education is why fewer atheists are in prison.

      In terms of the affluence data, it seems to be generalized based on state: “Within the United States, we ?nd similar patterns: the states with the highest rates of poverty tend to be among the most religious states in the nation, such as Mississippi and
      Tennessee, while the states with the lowest poverty rates tend to be among the most secular, such as New Hampshire and Hawaii (United States Census Bureau 2008).” That is not a strong enough connection for me to be able to say that atheists tend to be more affluent.

      I don’t disagree with your claim, I just am not seeing any data that would enable me to confidently make that claim. I wish there were better data sets with which I could work. I have linked my data; it isn’t sloppy or overgeneralizing to claim that white Americans are less likely to be imprisoned and that most atheists in America are white.

      1. Please, don’t misunderstand what I am saying – I do not believe what you wrote to be a sloppy overgeneralization, it’s a fair description of a general trend, but rather that the way in which it is written leaves it open to being misunderstood to mean that something about having a small amount of melanin in one’s skin predisposes one to atheism.

        Basically, knowing how things tend to get taken and misconstrued online, I am concerned not that you are saying something incorrect, you are clearly not doing so, but that the way in which it is phrased is likely to be taken to mean something other than what you meant.

  2. I think, in addition to the excellent post by Heina here, that the actual mentality of the people who live in prison has not yet been addressed. People who are incarcerated often have “criminal thinking” cognitive errors, including self-justification, minimization, etc. People in prison may join religious groups or identify in larger numbers because it is a way of self-justification.

    Also, the way that prisons ask questions about religious identity may influence answers. Asking “Are you religious or spiritual” may result in “yes” just because of the consistent cultural oppression of atheists and agnostics. People who have committed crimes probably don’t want to be skewed further into an “out” group.

    Lastly, because people in prison are often locked up for many hours a day, they often join many religious groups just to get out of their cell and either 1) worship 2) engage in further criminal behavior during the services 3) just enjoy being out of their cells.

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