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Outside of a church, prison may be the most likely place to find a bunch of people actively reading the Bible. There’s no shortage of prison-centric ministries and that’s for good reason: Christians believe they work.

A Pew Research Center survey from 2012 found that 73% of state prison chaplains believed that faith-based programs were “absolutely critical” when it came to rehabilitating prisoners. (That’s a biased group, no doubt, but they’re not alone in thinking a prisoner who finds God has genuinely become a better person.)

Here’s the problem with that thinking, though: It’s not true. And now new research has found more evidence for that theory.

In a paper recently published in the journal Justice Quarterly, professors Iman Said (Pennsylvania State University) & Kimberly M. Davidson (Florida State University) looked at the impact of religion in prison and found that there’s no reason to believe it decreases the likelihood of recidivism more than other methods of rehabilitation. In other words, there’s no evidence that prisoners who “find God” in jail — and are subsequently released — are less likely to commit crimes again.

That’s largely because there are more pressing issues that affect their futures. If they can’t find a decent job, or if they lack any kind of accountability, or if they’re still struggling with addiction, then no amount of Jesus is going to change their situation.

There’s no evidence that prisoners who “find God” in jail—and are subsequently released—are less likely to commit crimes again.

The researchers specifically looked at men with substance abuse problems who participated in a study at a prison in Pennsylvania. They were asked about their religious life before, during, and after their time in prison over a series of interviews.

Here’s what wasn’t surprising: Many of the men whose religious beliefs either stayed the same or grew stronger behind bars definitely got benefit from it. When you are dedicating your life to a cause — whether it’s educating yourself, volunteering with groups, or reading the Bible — that’s undoubtedly beneficial for you. It gives you something to work towards. It keeps your mind from wandering off in ways that are unhealthy. Hobbies are good!

But does reading the Bible in prison prevent recidivism moreso than other forms of rehab? No.

A lot of the men who left prison (known as “re-entry” into society) had so many other issues to deal with that faith became a low priority. So the potential benefit of in-prison religion didn’t pan out as hoped.

Numerous barriers to maintaining employment and securing housing, the emphasis on renewing ties with family and significant others, the precariousness of their new identity, and inability to maintain ties with religious peers from prison all serve to prevent religion from effectively supporting the re-entry process.

Among those who did not return to a criminal life after reentry, just about all of them said they had strong social networks helping them out — like their families taking them back in and helping them get back on their feet — and virtually none of them said those networks were faith-based. Even when they said religion played a role in their success, we know by their own admission that they had plenty of other things working in their favor too (like supportive family members).

This is just one study, of course, but the bottom line is that if we want to help prisoners return to society, we need to make sure they have job training, a place to live, and the feeling of safety. Handing them a Bible isn’t going to cut it. Or, more realistically, pretending that prison ministries are enough to help inmates succeed after reentry is nonsense without also eliminating the other structural barriers standing in their way.

Said one of the researchers:

Our findings call into question prison-based religious programmes as the sole way to reduce recidivism and boost post-release success and suggest a lack of a relationship between religious beliefs and recidivism.”

None of this is to say we should eliminate chaplains or take religion out of prison for those who want it. It’s just a reminder that religion alone is never the solution. The things prisoners need after reentry are things a strong secular government can provide — at least if officials care enough about the problem to do something about it.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.