Write an Atheist (Prisoner)

I recently found out about a website called writeaprisoner.com, a website which lets you do exactly what it says; it’s actually a lot like a dating website, with photos of each person, self-written bios which read just like dating website bios, and a detailed search function, just like a dating website. And one of the parameters they allow you to search by is… religion.

So I decided to run some searches, curious to see how the percentages break down in terms of atheists/agnostics vs Christians vs. other religions. Before we get into the results (which were quite interesting), there were a few caveats regarding the data which became immediately apparent:

  • Many of the “religion” options are obviously not mutually exclusive, with some of them actually going “three levels” deep (e.g. Baptists are also Protestants, and Protestants are also Christians). For purposes of what I’m interested in though, that’s pretty much a non-issue since all of the Christian denominations clearly fall under the umbrella of “Christianity”.
  • Another category is called “Non-Denominational”, which–here in America at least–is often used (somewhat disingenuously) as a synonym for fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. Which of course is only “not a denomination” in a technical sense; their core doctrines of Biblical literalism, strict inerrancy, salvation by faith, political conservatism, overemphasis on Paul, and underemphasis on Jesus are really just as much of a “denomination” as any other (granted you’ll find some N.D. churches which don’t fit this mold, but those seem to be in the minority). Either way, N.D. Christians are still encompassed within “Christianity”, so ultimately it doesn’t really affect the Christian vs. non-Christian breakdown (though I admit it’s possible that not all of the N.D.’s understood the term to mean “non-denominational Christianity”).
  • Slightly more problematic is the category of “N/A”, which could conceivably mean anything from an atheist to a non-religiously affiliated theist, much like the “None/Unaffiliated” category that you’ll typically see on religious surveys. So certainly some of the “N/A’s” could be atheists/agnostics who reject the label for some reason or another, though it would be sheer speculation to guess how many that could be. However, as is the case with the N.D. category, the site allows for the specific options of atheist or agnostic to be selected for those who identify as such, and the numbers I’ll be comparing against also include the “Unaffiliated” category, so regardless of how many of the “N/A’s” may actually fall under one of the other categories, it will still be an apples-to-apples comparison.
  • Obviously the people who have signed up to participate as prisoners are not a random sampling of the prison population, so this is far from a truly “scientific” analysis. Such is life.

So, on to the data. The first thing that jumps out: The percentage of atheists and agnostics is virtually nonexistent. Among the 8,353 male prisoners, only 33 identify as atheist and 81 as agnostic, making for a combined 1.3%. Among the 728 female prisoners, only three are agnostics and one is an atheist, for a combined percentage of about 0.5%. Overall, only .37% (about a third of 1%) of all of the prisoners explicitly identify as “atheists” (and interestingly, the numbers of atheists/agnostics in this sample, as miniscule as they are, are actually significantly higher than those from prior surveys of the prison population).

Here are the combined numbers in one chart:


So how does that compare to the general population? According to the 2012 Pew Research poll, 2.4% of all poll participants in the general population identified as atheists while 3.3% identified as agnostics. Those percentages have grown dramatically since 2007, when the numbers were 1.6% and 2.4% respectively. While it would be tempting to use the latest figures (and doing so would certainly be more favorable towards atheists/agnostics), obviously the participants in writeaprisoner.com weren’t all arrested/convicted after 2012, so a more fair comparison would be to use the older figures (such as 2007).

And when we look at the 2007 numbers, what we find is that “atheists” are under-represented by a factor of about 77% (in other words, only 23% as many atheist prisoners as you would expect) and atheists/agnostics are under-represented by about 69%. Christians, meanwhile, are also moderately under-represented, by about 24%. Perhaps no group is as under-represented as Hindus, however, who make up only .0044% of those on in the sample, despite making up about .04% of the U.S. population (i.e. under-represented by about 90%).

The difference then, comes almost entirely from those in the N/A and “Spiritual” groups, (and to a lesser extent Muslims) which are vastly over-represented compared to the general population (a combined 29% in prison vs. 12% outside). This is also consistent with other crime/prison studies which have also found that those towards the “middle” of the theistic spectrum tend to commit the most crime, while the highly devout (i.e. regular churchgoers) and the highly secular (i.e. “committed” atheists, and to a lesser extent those who identify as “agnostics”) commit the least.

It’s worth noting, however, that there is another likely explanation for the huge number of N/A’s among the prisoner sample. While the percentage of “unaffiliated” in the general population was about 12% in 2007, the demographics of the unaffiliated nationwide skews drastically towards younger age groups, which also tend to commit the most crime. So it’s not surprising (in fact, it would be expected) that you would also see a larger percentage of them in the prison population too.

Of course, this factor also makes it even MORE remarkable just how few atheists and agnostics there are in that same prison population, given how much those skew towards the younger demographics as well.

Bottom line: Despite the fact that 45% of all Americans claim that a belief in God is necessary to be moral, and despite the widespread belief that atheists lack any objective moral standards (or, according to some, any moral standards at all), these numbers further affirm what we’ve known for quite some time now: that statistically speaking, atheists actually commit the least crime of just about any demographic group (which happens to be the case not just in America, but globally as well).