One of the questions that most people who live religion-free are tired of hearing is some variation on the classic inquiry as to “where” a person without faith would get her or his morality. That line of inquiry has been very adequately addressed by many, and I venture a humble guess that most Skepchick readers, secular or not, probably understand quite well that moral behavior is not a perquisite of the religious.
A spin-off of that well-trodden ground, however, is an argument that I often hear made in favor of atheistic morality as superior to religious morality: prison statistics. It is alleged that atheists are underrepresented in the American prison population and thus are morally superior.
If prison statistics do matter in the debate on morality and religion, the origin of the most commonly-cited numbers should be examined. After all, 99% of statistics are made up, right ? As it turns out, the numbers are taken from a 1997 survey of the prison population. So far, I have not been able to find a way to verify the results of the study, but if they are true, there are still issues with them.
First of all, the survey is from over ten years ago. As has been widely reported via the Census Bureau as well as other polls and surveys, the population of non-believers in the United States has been greatly increasing in the past decade or so. According to a Pew study from 2002, the number has jumped by 110% between 1990 and 2001 alone. The percentage of those who identify as non-religious in the United States is 18% according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey. Prison statics from the 1990s, then, are not only outdated, but greatly so, given the changes in American society.
Secondly, there is the question of classification and self-identification. There are plenty of people who are not terribly religious who might still identify as Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and so forth. As anyone who has tried to probe the minds of religious folk knows, religion is often strongly associated with identity but may not as strongly be a dictator of belief and worldview in the minds of those who identify as religious. Additionally, people who identify as being not religious may not be atheists, so conflating the two is a fallacy.
Last, but not least, is the important factor of religious conversions in prison. Religious organizations who want to increase their number tend to proselytize not to individuals who are doing too well in their lives and instead work with those who are hurting, be it financially, personally, or legally. Whether or not that is a cynical ploy to target the weak is anybody’s guess, but people in prison tend to be in a terrible place in life, to say the least, and thus both in need of help and psychologically vulnerable. Prison conversions are a fairly common occurrence, especially given their helpful effects on parole and the discrimination those without religion face when dealing with criminal charges.
I, for one, would like to see more recent and carefully-obtained data on atheist prison statistics, as the constant reference to the 1997 survey means that such data matters to people in their discussions of morality. The question remains, however, as to what such statistics would actually mean.
Do any of you Skepchick readers have better and/or more recent data than I have been able to find? Comment away! Also, look for my follow-up tomorrow where I will address the socioeconomic issues associated with prison.