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.
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.