Statistics on Trial, or Why Prison Data Matters

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 [citation needed]? 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 Prison statics from the 1990s, then, are not only outdated, but greatly so, given the changes in American society.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.

Seodaemun Prison in Seoul, south Korea.
Photo taken by DaR (Flickr, CC Attribution-NonCommercial)

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.

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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  1. Nice post! If we lean a certain dataset we best make damn sure it actually gives valid support to the hypothesis. Otherwise there is the obvious risk of running into issues of confirmation bias and the Spaniards’ argument: “I don’t think that means what you think it means.”

  2. Another issue is that American atheists tend to be highly-educated financially-secure white people – That’s a group living with an unusually low temptation and unusually good social environment for avoiding a life of crime. I’d like to see the atheist vs. Christian crime statistics organized so that people of similar income / class / education etc. are compared.

    Otherwise it’s like noting that people who own yachts must be very moral because they never commit street muggings.

      1. Your premise seems flawed. Don’t white collar crimes (and crimes committed by rich folk) far more rarely result in jail time?

        Being a rich, educated, white atheist won’t preclude you from being a dishonest human being.

          1. I think you’re saying atheists are less likely to go to Jail. But more than religion I think socioeconomic factors are the key consideration in what lands people there. Frankly, having been a into the drug culture in the early part of my life (dealing it, & massively consuming it) myself, I got pretty deep insights into who gets into the system and why.

            People often get into crime because their lives are fairly hard at home & in their communities and they’ve been raised in a mindset that living the hood life is just the way you do things. I mean, if nobody else you know is going anywhere, and the overall attitude at home and in your community that higher education & high paying jobs are out of your reach, then your situation seems to be hopeless. So why not hustle & participate in theft to get ahead? You gotta survive right? And often society does not try to prove them wrong, there’s very little tangible assistance offered in poor areas to help them out of the cycle of poverty and the only deterrent against participating in crime as a part of life is the criminal justice system.

            My honest opinion on this is that our laws & social system are to blame. We offer no good social assistance to these communities. Our legislators, who come often from religious, highly priveleged backgrounds and have NO idea what life is like in these communities. And because of this, they scoff at social programs and instead write fucked-up laws that are “tough on crime” and show “zero-tolerance”. The sum of this situation is lots of people simply locked up with other people who make crime a part of their life. This only perpetuates the cycle and ensures that we’ll be spending lots on prisons and police for years and years to come.

            I believe whole-heartedly that if we had more skeptics & athiests/agnostics writing the laws themselves, we’d see more efforts to truly reform the system instead of just throwing more police at the issue. And this would happen because I believe this community is much more prone to looking at the root causes behind social issues rather than making judgements on biblical morality.

          2. I wasn’t making that claim, actually. I was addressing others’ claim that atheists are less likely to go to prison — and questioning it.

        1. You said “Being a rich, educated, white atheist won’t preclude you from being a dishonest human being.”

          I don’t know why you’re disagreeing, because that’s quite similar to my sarcastic second point, when I said “Otherwise it’s like noting that people who own yachts must be very moral because they never commit street muggings.”

          Instead of street muggings, the yachting class commits sophisticated financial fraud, then hires expensive lawyers to avoid punishment. The use of wealth to avoid punishment is the serious side to my far more tongue-in-cheek comment about our group maybe being better at not getting caught. Yet another valid issue.

          There’s no flaw to my premise. Instead, there are multiple and separate valid premises which shouldn’t be squeezed into one single premise. Among them, (1) I’m right – Highly educated people securely established in the middle class are indeed less likely to commit felonies. (2) But you’re also right and I’ve already agreed – Being in a group statistically less likely to commit felonies doesn’t imply that some particular individual in that group can’t be an absolutely vile human. (3) Wealthier people can use their resources and influence to disproportionately avoid punishment. (4) Bias can lead to disproportiate prosecution and punishment of less favored groups.

          So, there are numerous and equally valid reasons to question to atheist-vs-Christian crime statistics.

          Thus, I don’t think we disagree, I think you just wanted to talk about a different point than the one I opened with.

          1. I’m disagreeing with your premise that there’s somehow a lower temptation. On its face it makes common sense, but I don’t see how you have supported that objectively. If nothing else recent issues with income disparity and problems in the banking sector show that, indeed, rich, educated, often white people can be very tempted to thieve.

            That they aren’t out in the street stabbing someone for that money isn’t wholly non-germane, but I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t matter.

        2. I’m not an expert criminologist, but I poked around in some data from U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S. Census. The correlation between crime and socioeconomic class can indeed be very complicated. In particular, the strength of the correlations can vary quite a lot depending on what crime is being considered.

          Two important examples are rape and simple assault – For these, the crime rate varies little between different income classes. This fits with your view, but I was not surprised by the facts here: Rape is not an economic crime, and for simple assault, you can find an unfortunate abundance of spouse-beaters, drunks, and short-fused hotheads in any group.

          For minor to moderate juvenile delinquency, I believe the correlation is also much weaker than many would expect. In fact, I think the correlation actually flips the other way for some petty juvenile mischief, so those spoiled middle-class white brats don’t come off looking so good.

          But other crimes fit my view, in particular burglary and homicide. For those, the rates definitely skew towards less-advantaged people victimizing other less-advantaged people. And this sub-set in turn skews the overall crime-and-class correlation.

          I wonder whether we can patch our differences by noting the felon vs. asshole distinction. Career felons can correlate with social disadvantage. Assholes, however, are fairly equally distributed.

  3. It seems that the statistics (assuming that they were accurate as of 1997) are useful in one way, though they get used for other purposes. If morality were truly dependent on religious belief, then you should expect the number of self-identified atheists within a prison population to be higher than it was reported. As has been pointed out, there are numerous confounding factors (wealth, education, etc.) that can create a lower number of atheists behind bars even if atheists are otherwise just as likely as anyone else to commit crimes. However, if atheism=immorality (i.e., theft, murder, assault, etc.) then we should expect to see a larger number of atheists in prison across the board.

    That being said, the issue of the age of the data as well as prison conversion are issues – perhaps rates of recidivism by religious belief category would be useful.

  4. I should clarify – if the statistics are true, then in their current form they seem to indicate that atheists are at least no more likely than the religious to commit crimes, and you would need to create a data set that controlled for wealth, education, place of residence, time of conversion, etc. in order to figure out if atheists are actually LESS likely to commit crimes.

      1. Y’all are going to love my follow-up tomorrow, then. I was going to address the socioeconomic stuff in this post but I figured I would separate my criticism of the statistics themselves from criticism of what they might mean.

  5. I’ve seen such a statistic, and amused my self by thinking of as many possible explanations as I can. (It is a good exercise in ‘correlation does not imply causation’.)

    * Atheists commit fewer crimes, because they are atheists. (The ‘moral superiority’ argument.)
    * Some third factor (e.g. wealth, education) causes both atheism and low criminality.
    * Atheists tend to live in places with poor police forces, so are less likely to get caught.
    * Atheists are smarter about not getting caught for their crimes (intellectual superiority.)
    * Atheists are such good liars that they are less likely to be charged or convicted.
    * Police are biased against theists, so they are more likely to get charged.
    * Juries are biased against theists, so they are more likely to get convicted.
    * Judges are biased against theists, so they get longer prison sentences.
    * Missionaries ‘recruit’ in prisons, so prisoners are more likely to convert from atheism to theism
    * Parole boards are biased against theists, so they get released later.
    * Parole boards are biased *for* theists, so prisoners convert (or claim to.)

    (Yes, I realize some of these are unlikely to be true, but they’re logical possibilities.)

    You can add ‘common causative factor’ arguments (like numbers 2 and 3 above) almost to your heart’s content. (E.g. Wealth leads to both atheism and good defence lawyers.)

    1. Your comment “or claim to” is very important. I wrote this already on Heina’s excellent follow up post, but just thinking about the thinking styles and self-justification of people who commit crimes speaks a lot to religious attendance in prisons.

  6. Meh. If we are going to be skeptical of prison policy, why not focus on abuse of inmates, minor nonviolent drug offenses wagering as much time as sexual offenders and the entire explosion of a corrupt industry of what once to be a job for government and society to handle. Slave labor, massive expenses, prison owners driving policy on law making.

    1. I have experience working in corrections and rehabilitation. While abuse of inmates – and abuse of staff by inmates – stands true, I’m curious about your data about drug offenses wagering as much time as sex offenses. I’m also curious about slave labor? And prison “owners” driving policy on law making, do you mean contracted prisons?

      1. I haven’t studied the statistics for average time for various crimes much (and those get distorted further by the way prosecutors use the law–in a recent discussion of releasing non-violent drug offenders, a prosecutor flat-out admitted that possession charges were often the only ones pursued because they were the easiest to make stick).

        OTOH, I can attest that schwarzwald is absolutely correct that the private prison contractors have been directly influencing legal policy. Most infamously, they were behind a massive push in Arizona to aggressively enforce immigration laws with prison time–for the exact reason that it would result in increased business for the prison industry.

        That said, schwartz, your post isn’t really germane to the topic posted–Heina’s (excellent) article is about a specific claim made by many atheists, not about prison policy in general (though most atheists who have a social-activist bent do care about such things).

  7. You touched upon an important point when you mentioned the religious get a better break inn prison on many counts, especially when it’s time for a parole hearing.

    A lot of the “religious” in custody are probably shaming for the benefits. But isn’t that the case on the outside, too? The social, economic, and political benefits of giving lip service to some religion are obvious.

    Look at all the politicians and celebrities that are among the “faithful” that are caught in illegal or immoral circumstances. Often these public figures are even religious leaders. How many highly successful preachers with an openly anti-gay stance have been caught in a “wide stance?”

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