Do the Numbers Tell the Story?

26 February, 2008

Religious Zealotry and RationalityDamnit.  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?



  1. The fact that the prison population in America tends to be less educated and poorer than America as a whole strongly suggests to me that this is probably a more significant factor in their incarceration than their religion or lack thereof. I don’t think that there’s much of a correlation between a convict’s religious beliefs and the reasons for his/her imprisonment. In my opinion, the predominant factors are mostly socio-economic.

    On the other hand, I do think that the less educated and poor, conditions which are usually synonymous, seem more likely to be religious, while the more prosperous and educated seem less likely to be religious.

  2. My thoughts also. Though it does put lie to the idea that religion by itself has an possitive effect upon the poor.

  3. I agree that the numbers seem to belie the common belief that religion equates with morality. Conversely, the numbers also belie the belief that we unbelievers are less moral. But in keeping with my previous comment, one reason why there may be fewer atheists in prison is that atheists are usually more highly educated and as a consequence occupy a higher rung on the socio-economic ladder.

    Since there haven’t been any conclusive studies of this, at least that I’m aware of, my position is purely conjecture. All in all, though, it seems to be a logical conclusion based on the evidence I have available. But, unlike the “true believers,” I’m perfectly willing to change my position if evidence to the contrary is presented.

    Nice change to the color scheme of your blog. As we get older some color combinations are harder on the eyes. And at my age (72), I have to look away from the screen and rest my eyes more often with some. But, I like what you have to say and how you say it, so, even with the old scheme, I was prepared to take a little longer to get through your posts.


  4. Less educated and poor are more unlikely to be able to hire good lawyers or fight the legal system and generally have a larger bias against them in the court and the jury.

    Another thing to consider is that in order to gain parole inmates are encouraged to admit their guilt and seek a higher power (similar to AA). Religion might be part of a ticket to getting out.

  5. P.S. I have nothing to back my statements up. They’re my own thoughts. I’d love to hear more from someone who knows more facts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: