December 10, 2011

Fewer atheists in prison

This article looks at the religious beliefs of prison inmates and finds that the fraction of those who are non-believers is almost negligible, far smaller than their numbers in the general population.

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 penitentiaries 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.



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I actually find the article meaningless.

It would be more meaningful to know the percentages BEFORE criminals get caught. Many criminals, once caught and sentenced, turn to religion as an escape mechanism or a means of sincerely changing their moral status (because they mistakenly see being religious as being more moral) or a means of changing their perceived moral status (to get parole) or a means of simply joining a social group.

Then there's the underlying context of the question. I know many people who answer that type of question based on what religious background they were brought up in. Similarly, there are some people who act religiously (pray and go to a church) but self identify as agnostic, if they think they're trying to be intellectual (ie, they don't KNOW there is a god, but they have faith).

And what is "religious training"? I've had religious training, but I'm a non-religionist.

Posted by healthphysicist on December 10, 2011 06:31 PM

I also agree that this article has very little meaning. Considering the small percentages of Unitarians, atheists, agnostics, and free-thinkers in the population, to make a correlation between their ideologies and their presence in prisons is a stretch. And to say that religion has much to do with people who end up in prison is also a stretch. healthphysicist has it right when he says "I know many people who answer that type of question based on what religious background they were brought up in." The nominal affiliation of many people with a religion that they no longer practice or are delinquent in practicing skews the statistics and makes the naturalists come off in a better light.

Posted by G. Schwartz on December 10, 2011 11:10 PM

Shalom Mano,

I think the researcher misses the two-fold benefit of professing a religion if you're in prison: first, you get to attend religious services, visit with chaplain, enjoy holiday event, &c. and when parole time rolls around, you get to get all weepy eyed about how you found gawd in prison.



Posted by Jeff Hess on December 11, 2011 08:54 AM

Thank you for sharing this; too often people point to religion as a thing which makes people more moral and there is a belief that a good boy who goes to Church won't become a criminal... well, not so much.

The atheists and agnostics I know are also some of the most moral and giving people I know. Coincidence? I think not.

Posted by Grace V on December 12, 2011 11:28 AM

"healthphysicist" makes a great point on the "conversion" that takes place in prison. Without knowing their declared religion before committing a crime, I can't draw any conclusions on this poll.

On a side note:
Usually when one finds himself/herself all alone and in a dire situation, it is at this point that he/she turns to God or some spiritual being. I find comes natural to me, and that could be becasue of my up bringing.

What I'd like to know, if there are any Athiests reading this, is who do you call out to for help, strength, guidance, etc. when you feel all alone in an unbearable situation?

Posted by Chach the Plumber in Honlulu on December 15, 2011 10:10 AM


The point is that atheists do not call out for help to a imaginary person because they know it is a waste of time. They draw upon their own strength to take steps to address the issue and call upon people, who really exist and can actually do something, to help them.

Posted by Mano on December 16, 2011 08:56 AM