There were 139,002 people in the U.S. federal prison system last year, and exactly 143 of them identified as atheists. Those self-described atheists made up a mere 0.1% of the federal prison population.
That’s according to a Freedom of Information Act request I filed last summer with the Federal Bureau of Prisons that arrived earlier this month.
I made similar requests in 2013 and 2015 and the numbers have been roughly the same each time, suggesting this proportion isn’t changing even as the percentage of atheists in the general population steadily, yet slowly, inches upwards. More significantly, it means our presence in U.S. federal prisons is significantly lower than what we find in the general population. (Last year, a Pew Research Center analysis found that self-identified atheists made up 4% of the population.)
This isn’t just a rehash of what we already knew, though, because unlike seven years ago, there’s one new data point that we’ve never seen before today.
Humanists in federal prison
In 2015, because of a lawsuit filed by the American Humanist Association, the federal prison system agreed to acknowledge “Humanism” as a religious option, allowing nonreligious inmates to identify with that label and receive the same perks afforded to religious inmates, such as access to meeting space and the ability to discuss their beliefs with large groups. “Atheists” did not receive the same opportunities.
That meant this FOIA request would, for the first time, reveal the number of inmates who currently identified as “Humanists” rather than “atheists.”
What we now know is that 63 inmates have chosen that option, representing a mere 0.045% of the total inmates. Even if all of those people identified as “atheists” instead, that group would still make up 0.1% of the federal prison population. (For what it’s worth, those 63 Humanists include 55 white inmates and 8 Black ones. All of them are men.)
These numbers should be taken with a grain of salt
There is bound to be a temptation to suggest these numbers show that atheists are more moral than religious people. But I would caution you to avoid saying that for a variety of reasons.
- We don’t know why all of these people ended up in prison. The reasons are often much more complicated than we imagine. When you consider that high poverty rates and low formal education levels are significant factors in incarceration rates, and that religious belief tends to correlate with both of those, it makes little sense to argue that atheists are better people using these numbers. Many of the same factors that allow people to ditch their faith also help them avoid the kind of decisions that lead to prison. (When you’re college educated and making decent money, for example, you’re more likely to be non-religious and less likely to end up behind bars.)
- All of these religious affiliations are self-reported. We don’t know how many atheist or Humanist prisoners fall into the categories of “No Preference,” “Other,” or “Unknown.” Hell, for all we know, some of them may have said they were “Catholic” because that’s the faith in which they were raised. As I mentioned earlier, there are benefits to claiming you’re religious in prison that have nothing to do with the afterlife, and it’s possible that inmates who don’t believe in God (or don’t think about God at all) are either unfamiliar with the term “atheist” or unaware that they could use the “Humanist” label while also getting the perks of religious membership.
- There are benefits to saying you’re religious. There’s no shortage of stories of former inmates who receive shorter sentences or receive parole in part because they “found God” while behind bars. It also makes for a more inspirational story. While many of those anecdotes are undoubtedly true, it’s possible inmates cling to a religious label because they believe they’ll be perceived as better people. On the flip side, it’s also possible that some devout believers were so ashamed to admit their faith (and their hypocrisy) that they simply said they were non-religious, as if that might explain their crimes. We’re taking all this information at face value without the ability to dig deeper.
- The data only take into account the demographics in the federal prison system. There are many more prisons out there at the state level, and we do not know the religious demographics of that population.
- It’s unclear when this information was acquired. Was it when the prisoners were first admitted into prison? What if they changed their minds while in prison? How well does it reflect their current thinking about God? We simply don’t have those answers.
Why these numbers are still useful
Even with all those caveats, though, this information is enormously helpful for the general public because it counters the assumption that “immoral” atheists are found at higher rates in prison than in the general population.
My OnlySky colleague Phil Zuckerman wrote a book in 2019 called What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life, in which he talked about why atheists were undoubtedly coming out ahead on questions of morality:
In terms of who supports helping refugees, affordable health care for all, accurate sex education, death with dignity, gay rights, transgender rights, animal rights; and as to who opposes militarism, the governmental use of torture, the death penalty, corporal punishment, and so on — the correlation remains: The most secular Americans exhibit the most care for the suffering of others, while the most religious exhibit the highest levels of indifference.
The pandemic worked the same way; atheists were overwhelmingly on the side of science, vaccines, face masks, and social distancing while white evangelicals were… not. To put that another way, the things white evangelicals usually claimed as evidence of their morality didn’t actually show anything of the sort.
That line of reasoning applies to serious crimes as well. If you’re religious, the thinking goes, you would never do something so awful as to land you behind bars. Those who do such things aren’t real Christians, they argue. But when Protestants make up approximately 23% of the federal prison population, and Catholics represent 17%, and Muslims represent 8.1%, which we now know they do, it’s much harder to argue all of those people are exaggerating their beliefs.
And when finding an openly nonreligious inmate in prison becomes as tough as finding a needle in a haystack, it’s much harder for Christian apologists and pastors to argue that faith is necessary to keep people on a righteous path.
These numbers are also helpful because it forces people to have a deeper discussion about our prison system as a whole and the role religion plays before and after anyone enters it. Handing prisoners a Bible will not make them better people. Requiring them to meet with religious chaplains, or listen to visiting ministers, or participate in Bible studies when they don’t actually believe any of that won’t make them better people.
The path to redemption does not go through God.
For anyone interested in the religious demographic numbers, along with a(n annoyingly microscopic) breakdown for each federal prison, you can see the information here.