Monday, July 22, 2013

What Percentage Of Prisoners Are Atheist?

This has been a hot topic of debate and often comes up when debating morality and atheism with theists. There was a study that came out in 1997 that said the percentage of atheists in federal prison was .2 percent. But a more recent study made by the Federal Bureau of Prisons that was obtained when the "Friendly Atheist" Hemant Mehta over at Patheos filed a Freedom of Information Act. The results he got back were recently compiled into a spreadsheet that can be seen below:

Given that recent studies put the number of atheists in America at about 2.4 %, according to this study by the FBP, atheists are .07% of the prison population, far lower than their overall makeup. Interestingly, those who report "No Prefer" are 17 %, and this is slightly lower than the rate of "Nones" which is about 19.6 % according to recent Pew studies.

We don't know what "Unknown" and "Other" exactly means as this could encompass a wide range of personal theistic and spiritual beliefs.

We also don't know if the prisoners converted in prison or if their religious affiliation was different at the time they committed their crimes. These numbers were also self-reported by prisoners to the prison system, they are not the result of widespread polling conducted on behalf formal statistical gatherings.

If you lump all the Christian denominations including the Mormons, Pentecostal, and Jehovah's Witnesses, you get a total of 121,834 prisoners that make up a total of 55 % of the total prison population in this study. That is lower than the number of Christians in America which stands at 73 %.

So what gives? Why are Christians and atheists underrepresented according to this study? If you add up all the non-Christian and non-secular/atheistic labels, which would include, Muslim, American Indian, Pagan, Rasta, Nation (of Islam) Jewish, Santeria, Moorish, Buddhist, Messianic, Hindu, Sikh, Science* and Bahai, you get a total of 20 % of the prison population in this study. This is far over represented from the traditional numbers of non-Christian faiths which according to Pew number at about 6 %.

So many non-Christian faiths are over represented, and Christian/secular/atheist labels are underrepresented. The problem however is how these things are labeled, and what concepts of god they believe in. Of all the faiths represented here, concepts of god vary tremendously within them. Someone who believes in a "higher power" might be labeled as "Other," but we just don't know for sure. However, it is an interesting topic for discussion.

*This might mean Christian Science, which some say is a cult.


  1. My guess is that Atheists are typically highly educated, professional, upper income. These folks seldom find themselves in the position of committing crimes, being arrested, charged, convicted and sent to jail - even if they have engaged in criminal behavior. On the other hand, the adherents of non-christian faiths are the disaffected of our society. As members of fringe religions, and not in the mainstream, they are looked down on and discriminated against. Outcasts, if you will. Members of these groups tend to rebel against society and its norms by committing crimes - and become convicted of those crimes - at a more frequent rate than other groups.

    Of course, I could be wrong.

    1. Well you are right in that for a long time atheism has been popular among academics who often have advanced degrees. Since atheism is spreading now, it'll be interesting to see what future trends develop.

  2. Is Atheism actually spreading, or are Atheists now coming out of the closet?



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