From the December 2010 E-Block.
A favorite fundamentalist atheist myth over the years has been that prison inmates are overwhelmingly Christian, and that this in some way proves that Christianity is bad for morals. As a former prison employee myself, and having written an article for the Christian Research Journal on the subject of inmates and spirituality (see link below), I’d like to collate some of my findings and observations on this claim, as well as comment on a response that has been issued by a group called Errant Skeptics.
The atheist case builds on statistics reputedly obtained on March 5, 1997. The statistics indicate that some 83% of inmates with a known religious affiliation profess for some faith in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
There are a few problems, initially, with what relevance this data has.
First, it represents a very small sample from a very limited population – in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. As I indicate in the CRJ article, each state collects its own statistics. Some states have not done surveys on inmate religious preferences in a long time. Some have mixed categories. However, without the much larger state populations, to say nothing of county jail populations, this survey doesn’t do much to capture a decent picture of inmate religious preferences.
However, it must be added that in those states that did have useful data, “Christian” designations ranged from 60 to 90 percent of inmates.
Second, a very large number of inmates are listed as having “unknown” preference or no answer. In fact, the number is so large that if it had been a group itself, it would have ranked third (18,381) after Catholic (29,267) and Protestant (26,162), and before Muslim at a distant fourth (5,435). Such a large group of unknowns by itself means that it is illicit to draw any conclusions from this study about connections between religion and incarceration.
Third, the study only reports then-present inmate religious preferences and does not account for conversions while behind bars. There are a number of evangelistic groups that do prison ministry (Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship, for example) and for a connection between incarceration and criminality to hold, it must reflect preferences prior to incarceration.
Fourth, and of most relevance to my experiences: The atheist argument assumes that there is no motive for an inmate to profess a religious preference other than being a practicing adherent of a religion. But there are many other reasons why an inmate may choose a certain religious preference (some of which also apply in the outside world):
- The may have been raised in a certain environment and, should they die in prison, wish to be buried according to their family’s religious traditions.
- They may be eligible for special visits on religious holidays if they express a preference.
- They may be able to attend religious services which provide a break in a rigorous and demanding schedule (to say nothing of the fact that religious facilities in prisons have air conditioning, whereas dormitories usually do not).
- They may join a religious group as a way of belonging to a social network that will support them in prison (eg, defense from other inmates).
- They may think that expressing a religious preference will earn them rewards from staff, or make staff less suspicious of them and less likely to search their belongings.
- When it comes time for parole or “good behavior”, being a member of a religious group can be perceived as a point in favor.
Would there be any way to collect serious data on this subject, that might prove (or disprove) the atheist claim? Here is what would need to be done:
- Redo the study with a much larger sample.
- Get rid of the “unknown” and “no answer” category – if possible. Seeing as how this is a population which considers “mind your own ***** business” a civil answer, that might not be possible!
- Query religious affiliation prior to incarceration.
- Establish affiliation according to practice. This admittedly cannot be done easily. Errant Skeptics wisely notes an important distinction between merely expressing a preference, and actual practice. Preference does not measure “the standard sociological measures of religiosity, such as regular prayer, scripture study, and attendance at worship services.” It measures, rather, an expression of a default. It may simply mean, “this is the church my parents or grandparents went to.” As Errant Skeptics puts it: Religious proponents may be less pleased at the studies of religious behavior that indicate that even nominal measures of religious behavior lag far behind religious identification. As mentioned earlier, simply stating a "religious preference" in answer to a survey question may mean nothing other than that the respondent remembers the religious preference of a parent or grandparent. A respondent answering "Presbyterian" to a question may attend church every week, in addition to helping at a church-sponsored literacy program for 3 hours every Wednesday, praying daily, having a particularly forgiving heart, and studying the Bible almost daily. Or they may have never been inside any church, except to attend weddings and funerals, since they were ten, when their mom dropped them off at a Sunday children's program almost every week for 8 months straight, saying "We're Presbyterians. I want you to learn what that means." The "self-identified" Presbyterian may fit into either of these categories. One of these categories is not expected by sociologists to have any affect whatsoever on behavior.
The Errant Skeptics report points to a 1995 study of jail population which indicates that “while 72% affirmed affiliation with religious institutions…only 54% of Federal and State Prisoners actually consider themselves religious, and 33% can be confirmed to be practicing their religion. This is demonstrated by attendance records at religious services, which averaged anywhere between 30% and 40%, depending upon the time of year and the institution in question (and who was preaching).” On the surface, this survey did a better job of separating preferences from practice, and also trying to divide out fakers from actual practitioners (that is, “consider themselves religious” vs. “confirmed to be practicing”) – and it also does little to support the fundamentalist atheist connection between religion and criminality.
I will now switch over to a more personal view, speaking as one who has worked in prisons for many years. Many inmates claim a religious preference. In reality, most inmates are actually deists at best and atheists at worst, who use religious profession in a cynical way to get themselves some sort of special treatment, if they use it at all. Most that I met would say they believed in God for no other reason than that they were taught to; if you pressed them for more, you might end up creating a convert to atheism! A few might say they believe in God for some reason that would amount to a form of the argument from design. But in strictly functional terms, all of these would be either deists (who do not think of God as being in any sense relevant to how they live) or atheists (who act as though God does not exist at all).
However, it would be incautious to use this to make a connection between irreligiousness and criminality. I would rather say that the fundamental “first cause” for both is the same root: Indifference to anything that does not serve the interests of self. People do not usually get to prison because they care about others. Nor do the selfish tend to be interested in religion (which usually demands commitment of the self), though it is interesting that Scientology (a self-centered religion if there ever was one!) thinks of prisons as primary recruiting grounds.
In sum: The Christian inmate myth is bogus.
Here is my article for CRJ on religion in prisons.
Here is the report by Errant Skeptics.