Godlessness Rare Behind Bars

I saw two articles on the relative proportion of atheists in prisons versus religious groups, and I thought it worth sharing.

First, a compilation of present-day statistics:
atheists, being a moderate proportion of the USA population (about 8-16%) are disproportionately less in the prison populations (0.21%).
Next, a more thorough review from multiple studies. Quote:
It's suprising how many people say to me, "You're an Atheist? You must have no conscience about commiting crime then." Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if we examine the population of our prisons, we see a very different picture:

In "The New Criminology", Max D. Schlapp and Edward E. Smith say that two generations of statisticians found that the ratio of convicts without religious training is about 1/10 of 1%. W. T. Root, professor of psychology at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, examined 1,916 prisoners and said "Indifference to religion, due to thought, strengthens character," adding that Unitarians, Agnostics, Atheists and Free-Thinkers are absent from penitentiariers or nearly so.

During 10 years in Sing-Sing, those executed for murder were 65% Catholics, 26% Protestants, 6% Hebrew, 2% Pagan, and less than 1/3 of 1% non-religious. Steiner and Swancara surveyed Canadian prisons and found 1,294 Catholics, 435 Anglicans, 241 Methodists, 135 Baptists, and 1 Unitarian.

Dr. Christian, Superintendant of the NY State Reformatories, checked 22,000 prison inmates and found only 4 college graduates. In "Who's Who" 91% were college graduates, and he commented that "intelligence and knowledge produce right living" and that "crime is the offspring of superstition and ignorance."

Surveyed Massachusetts reformatories found every inmate religious, carefully herded by chaplins.

In Joliet, there were 2,888 Catholics, 1,020 Baptists, 617 Methodists and 0 non-religious.

Michigan had 82,000 Baptists and 83,000 Jews in their state population. But in the prisons, there were 22 times as many Baptists as Jews, and 18 times as many Methodists as Jews. In Sing-Sing, there were 1,553 total inmates with 855 of them Catholics (over half), 518 Protestants, 177 Jews and 8 non-religious. There's a very interesting qualified statistic.

Steiner first surveyed 27 states, and found 19,400 Christians, 5,000 with no preference, and only 3 Agnostics (one each in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Illinois). A later, more complete survey found 60,605 Christians, 5,000 Jews, 131 Pagans, 4,000 no preference, and only 3 Agnostics.

In one 29-state survey, Steiner found 15 unbelievers, Spirtualists, Theosophists, Deists, Pantheists and 1 Agnostic among nearly 83,000 inmates. Calling all 15 "anti-christians" made it one half person to each state. Elmira reformatory overshadowed all, with nearly 31,000 inmates, including 15,694 Catholics (half), and 10,968 Protestants, 4,000 Jews, 325 refusing to answer, and 0 unbelievers.

In the East, over 64% of inmates are Catholics. In the national prison population they average 50%. A national census found Catholics 15%. They count from the diaper up. Hardly 12% are old enough to commit a crime. Half of these are women. That leaves an adult Catholic population of 6% supplying 50% of the prison population.

Liverpool, England produces three percent as many young criminals as Birmingham, a larger city, 28% coming from Catholic schools. What does this tell you about parochial school systems or claims that religion is the guardian of morals?

Fifty-two percent of people belong to no church, yet live clean lives and supply less than 1% of the total criminal population. So much for religious indoctrination.
Interesting stuff. I would note a careful disparity must be made between correlation and causation. Also, the religious upbringing must be differentiated between the religious preference of the prisoner during the incarceration, as many get "jailhouse religion" at the expense of taxpayer dollar-funded programs in prisons and jails.
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First posted 9/2/06


vjack said...

Very interesting. As you mention, there are many possible interpretations of these data. However, I will have to remember this the next time I'm being accused of having no morals as an atheist.

nsfl said...


Perhaps you'll receive the retort that "Well, maybe atheists are just more clever and so don't get caught as much as other people."

But hey, it's better to be evil and clever than evil and stupid, right?


nsfl said...


A point I am sure the study authors were smart enough to consider, and this is likely why they checked into prior "religious instruction", not just belief at the time. Another thought to consider -- if an atheist gets converted so easily as "being caught and shown the evil of their ways", then they didn't lack faith in God because of the same reason that I, and most atheists I know, lack faith in God. Now, I think the larger point is that your inference may be true, but studies have shown pretty consistently (esp the ARIS CUNY) that only a fraction of adults who describe themselves as atheists go on to become, later in life, religious.

So, while it is possible that you are right, it is also completely without evidence. What we would have to consider, also, is what these prisoners mark on their census/surveys at the time of incarceration, such that the effect of prison chaplains is controlled.

Long story short, there are correlations between education and atheism, and between incarceration and atheism. We cannot say for certain that the cause of underrepresentation is atheism itself, for it may be caused by education, or some other factor that correlates to atheists (eg social class).

Anyway, I just found it interesting. Until someone produces data that are superior to these, that show the "true" atheist population prior to jailhouse religious conversions...oh well...

Anonymous said...

It is just this kind of specious argument that totally discredits and detracts from otherwise sometimes interesting and well thought out arguments. What years were these 'studies' carried out? Were they done according to accepted 'scientific' rigorous criteria?

I can tell you that I worked for 25 years in maximum security prisons, and my experience completely negates the claimed 'correlation'. All inmates are asked to fill in a form on admission, stating their religious affiliation....they most often put down whatever their parents or even grandparents were. Most inmates (other than jailhouse 'conversions') also were completely irreligious in terms of their own personal life....regardless of what they put on the form. this spans the years from 1977-2002. I've looked this up in the past, having run into your quoted 'facts' before, and I believe that some if not most of the so-called 'studies' were from the 19th and early 20th centuries....and more appropriately reflected an inmate's 'family' faith origin...not any personal faith held by such inmates themselves.

I repeat, this kind of mindless regurgitation of so-called 'facts', many if not all having been long discredited....is absolutely no credit to either your position....or 'rational thought'.

Anonymous said...

Further to my previous comments, please check this response to the ancient, and much-discredited 'facts' that your article relies on. This article, claiming the same (or similar) so-called 'authorities', has been making the rounds of atheistic/humanistic/agnostic/freethinker websites for years....apparently without any 'critical examination' as to veracity. I repeat...it does all of you a disservice...much as it does all Christians a disservice for a Christian to put forward spurious 'facts' to support an otherwise unsupportable view.


Unfortunately, what this reminds me of...especially in light of the rational, intelligent approach set out in other articles on your site, is the oft-repeated 'facts' from the also discredited Kinsey report, repeated ad nauseum by the Gay Lobby to support their claims to a larger percentage of the population than recent polls allow.....ie; 1 in 10. Never mind that one would have to be an idiot not to know that Kinsey was anything BUT objective, that he hand-picked his subjects, that his study had a disproportionate number of sex offenders and ex-cons, etc. Yet, Gay organizations here in Canada still use his 'results' to support their argument that they make up 10% of the population. It is intellectually dishonest...as is your use of spurious internet garbage to support your diatribe against religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

bvinc said...

This article is by far much better, and even references your first article:


Anonymous said...

Thanks Brain! This is an easy link to that article.

D.L. Folken said...

Actually, the godless performing godless acts are all behind bars. I don't know if any practicing Christian that is currently behind bars. If everyone followed Christ rather than carrying a label and then acting godlessly, we wouldn't have a prison problem.

You might check out AA sometimes. You will notice that they don't help people by convincing everyone there is no God, just the opposite, it has been proven that knowing God can put your life on track.

We also see this in chuch colson's prison ministry which has helped thousands.

God Bless..

Mark Plus said...

That the authorities who run the prison system subject their inmates to religious harassment just indicates that they consider proselytization a form of punishment.

Adrian said...

In other places I've read that prisoners who declare a religious affiliation get to attend worship services which goes a long way to break up the monotony of prison life. It will also make you a part of an established group which can provide companionship, entertainment or protection.

Given the incentives for declaring religious affiliations I think we should not take these stats at face value.

I also wonder how these figures square with surveys published by adherents.com which places the none/atheist/unknown population at over 20%: http://www.adherents.com/misc/adh_prison.html

Note too that neither of the links in the original article (nor the adherents.com source) link back to the original survey to allow us to examine methodology. Without this, I think it is dishonest to cite these figures as there is a high chance that they will be revised in an unfavourable way.

NightFlight said...

>>>You might check out AA sometimes. You will notice that they don't help people by convincing everyone there is no God, just the opposite, it has been proven that knowing God can put your life on track.

You realize don't you that AA's success rate is abysmally low?

Roger said...

Hey,I can just hear someone saying,"All those inmates were probably not "really" saved to begin with".

Rob R said...

While Tyro and Walt makes a good point, lets grant the face value claim here.

My hypothesis about this would be that those who are behind bars are less questioning of those impulses and intuitions that don't immediately pose an issue for them. Religious beliefs do pose an issue, but just not immeadiately.

Consider also the claim that the more educated tend to be more atheistic. The more educated tend to question those intuitions.

From my own personal experience though, two of the atheists I've come into contact with personally and earlier in my life engaged in all sorts of criminal behavior and they connected their lack of belief in God with their moral indifference. That is of course a small consideration from anecdotal evidence.

Manifesting Mini Me (MMM) said...

Even if the statistics are correct, I believe that the evidence of ppl who are in the process of deliverance would be consistent with following Jesus, Who encourages that our sin be brought to light - ultimately, the purpose of bringing sin to light is not to put it into practice or be exposed and condemned for it, but to eventually grow to become contrite and confessional about it. By God's grace, there is deliverance for those who have been ensconced in destruction and not able to comply immediately towards being a caring and sensitive human being.

But then again I keep forgetting that the religious figure you are debunking here is one that demands immediate and complete conformity, recommends that we conceal our contempt and wrath in conceit and self righteousness.

I keep forgetting that the religious figure you are debunking here did not offer salvation from destruction by offering Himself as a place to express and ultimately confess our immature and hard heartedness, but commanded that we behave ourselves and mask our fears and insecurities in order to earn his approval. The god you preached hates and expresses reproach against authenticity and human vulnerability. The god you recommended only blessed those who were most able to maintain an image of goodness rather than heartfelt contrition and repentence.

Anyway, idolotry is alive and well and not all that uncommon to witness, especially in the religious. Just keep in mind, that God loves even those and Jesus commends them even if all they are capable of doing is standing up for His name when others are being persecuted for their faith. The nets of grace have indeed been lowered!

Manifesting Mini Me (MMM) said...

BTW did you notice the name of this post, "Godlessness Rare Behind Bars" sounds like you are saying that prison is a very Godly place??? Just wondering......

JJR said...

I'm an atheist, but I always have to wonder about studies like this.

If I were incarcerated, I might self identify as Presbyterian (the faith tradition my mom tried to raise me in) if for no other reason than to avoid being f*cked with by both fellow inmates and by my jailers.

Plus rightly or wrongly, religious devotion and observance is viewed favorably by parole boards. That's just a fact of prison life.

There's ZERO incentive for being an "out" atheist behind bars and every incentive to LIE YOUR ASS OFF.

Elliot said...

It is basically the population demographics strata. It is also a double edge sword though, if you present the prisoner data in this way --- the percentage of atheists who donated money to 9/11 victims families will be of much less percentage then theist donors.

Anonymous said...

Are you kidding me? Apart from a couple of valid points by Walt and JJR this is laughable. Here are some facts about "prison religion" from someone who has been involved for seventeen plus years:

Fact #1: The religion declared by the incoming offender only speaks to the rights he wants protected while he is incarcerated. Declaring "None" as your religion doesn't mean you don't have a religion it means you don't want to exercise your religious rights. Declaring "atheist" as your religion however, means you can exercise your religion through participation in an atheist group only. Now, take a guess how many of those there are? Then turn around and guess how many Christian groups there are? Now let's see, I want out of my cell a couple of times a week just to move around. Which of these will I declare. It's not rocket science. It doesn't even take an education to figure it out.
FACT #2: The declared religion has to do with movement only. It does not prevent an individual from investigating other religions or receiving religious materials. There are no policies or procedures limiting religious materials to an offender because they are different from that of his declared religion.
Fact #3: An offender can change his religion once incarcerated. It happens all the time. And it usually happens going from atheist to Christian for no other reason than listed above. "Oops, I can't move around as an atheist but I can as a Christian so...." If a man moves from Christian to atheist he probably isn't going to change his id because it effects his movement. That would never be reflected in your data.
Fact #4:Hey Mark Plus: Proselytization by staff is prohibited by law and volunteers only have access to offenders of the religious group they represent. Christians don't try to make Christians out of Atheists, Muslims, or African Hebrew Israelites and vice versa ad nauseum. Mixing such groups at an official level is a potential security threat and a resulting disturbance has the potential for litigation and job loss...so, I hate to break it to you but, it doesn't happen.
Exception: Offenders are not prohibited from proselytizing one another on their wings.
Additionally, the state constituion here prohibits forced attendance at any religious meeting.
Fact #5: For 99% of the inmate population religion is a convenience and they declare it because they want a benefit from it. Yes, participation in chapel services is considered for parole. Yes, there are gangs that gravitate to specific religions but as long as you don't cross them, you aren't really in any danger. An atheist isn't in danger because he declared himself to be an atheist. BTW:I have twice as many Satanists as I have atheists...(2 of 2000).

If you want to reach a solid conclusion about the data then I suggest that you establish how many atheist groups/organizations are conducting volunteer programs in prisons across this country. Where you find prisons with atheist groups you'll most likely find a higher number of declared atheists. Where you find little or no atheists, you'll find a low number of atheists. It's not bragging rights, it's the truth with any religion where there is the possibility of participation by a guy who wants out of his cell for a while.


ihedenius said...

I heard Matt Dillahunty say (year ago app.) on the Atheist experience that he used to urge caution with regards to 'jailhouse religion' but he had since got an indication that the numbers were _entry_ registrations. Meaning of course that 'jailhouse religion' is not a factor.

Wiah I knew how to get solid information on that.

Anonymous said...

Much as I agree with the reasoning, the data doesn't support it: 20% of the prison population didn't respond to the question on religion at all. We don't know what they are, but they may be predominantly "no religion". That would make prison population roughly representative of the US population as a whole (except for a somewhat higher population of Catholics, probably due to ethnic effects).

Anonymous said...

"If you want to reach a solid conclusion about the data"

Well, there is other data indicating that religion correlates positively with some forms of anti-social behavior, such as teenage pregnancy, child abuse, and domestic violence. It's a slight effect but it's there.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't this show that all those miserable sinners are exactly where they belong; in prison. When we see the rest of them there, along with all their preachers, that will be a good start.

Unknown said...

The Green River serial killer, Gary Ridgeway, who murdered 48 women, was a deacon in his church. Imagine that.