Do the Numbers Tell the Story?26 February, 2008
Damnit. The Spanish Inquisitor beat me to publishing this one (in the interest of honesty and full disclosure, I originally found it over at Pharyngula), but I not only spotted the survey, but I also ran across another one over at Holy Smoke which shows (from 1997 (I haven’t found a more recent one yet)) the percentages of peoples of faith and the faithless within federal prisons. It has some curious numbers, especially as compared with the one over at SI.
According to the survey from 1997,
Catholic 29267 39.164%
Protestant 26162 35.008%
Rasta 1485 1.987%
Jewish 1325 1.773%
Church of Christ 1303 1.744%
Pentecostal 1093 1.463%
Jehovah Witness 665 0.890%
Adventist 621 0.831%
Orthodox 375 0.502%
Mormon 298 0.399%
Judeo-Christian Total 62594 83.761% of the 74731 total responses
So, back in 1997, just under 84% of the federal prison population was Jewish or Christian (is Rastafarianism a form of Christianity?). Today, Judeo-Christianity accounts for 78.4% of the population. So it sounds like the religious may be overrepresented within the prison population. But this also looks at data about a decade apart. But back in 2001 (which is a little closer than 2007), according to this web site, Judeo-Christians make up 81.1% of the U.S. population. This means that believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition were almost exactly as likely as the general poplulation (I’m assuming a margin of error in the national figure which is not given at Religious Tolerance.org. )
On the other hand, only .209% of the federal prison population identified as atheist. A 1995 Galluprinceton Religion Research Center survey found that 96 percent of Americans believe in God (which I found when I searched for news articles in 1997 over at Google). Other estimates in the same article search (and I was very depressed that about 90% (rough estimate) of words associated proximally with “atheist” were negative) gave numbers as high as 12% to 15% (for atheist, agnostic and other non-believers) and as low as 1%). Even if we go with the lower number (1%), atheists were underrepresented in the prison population by a factor of eight. (Another narrative account of prison populations is available at skepticfiles)
I am not a statistician (though I did take a course called “How To Lie With Statistics” to fulfill my stats requirement in college). I know that the data I have used is from different years. And I also know that definitions of atheist, agnostic, Christian, etc. are not always identical from one survey to the next. That said:
I have been asked, both personally and in conversations within the comments of other bloggers sites, how an atheist can be moral without god. An objective look at the numbers would imply that atheists can be moral (or at least non-criminal) without the invisible sky guy breathing down our collective necks. It makes for an interesting comparison when the religious and non-religious prison populations are compared.
So. Can anyone think of any other things which might be skewing the data? Perhaps income or education? The prison population in America tends to be less educated and poorer than America as a whole. Are the less educated and poor more or less likely to be religious?