Atheism in prison

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The level of popularity of atheism in prison, and the significance of that level, is sometimes raised as an issue in whether we need God in order to be good. Some atheists point out the extremely low percentage of prisoners who identify as atheists as evidence that atheists tend to be good people and therefore stay out of prison.[1]

There could be other explanations for this low rate. Some prisoners might prefer to sign up for religious groups so that they have a group of friends they can hang out with, and who will protect them similarly as any other prison gang would. It used to be that some prisoners would join Jewish groups as a way of getting kosher meals,[2] until the quality of those meals was degraded as a deterrent. Typically, each religion gets to have an annual prison-funded religious feast as well. Some prisoners may also feel under pressure to join certain religions.[3]

Some prisoners might prefer to be listed as having "no preference" since this allows them to keep their options open; it is more plausible to tell the chaplain that one is switching from "no preference" to a certain religion (which might imply one was a non-practicing member of that faith who is now being active) than to say that one converted from atheism. Other prisoners might be unaware that there is an option to list themselves as atheist, or they might consider themselves agnostic and dislike being put under the "atheist" label. "No preference" can be regarded as another way of saying "none of your business"; it neither confirms nor denies one's religious status, but simply says one is not interested in sharing that information with the prison. A person who holds himself out as "nonreligious" rather than atheist may be subject to less persecution.

Being in prison also does not necessarily mean that one is an evil person, especially if there are bad laws that one might run afoul of. The United States, for example, is commonly but erroneously considered a Christian nation, and its laws are written mostly by churchgoing public officials. Some of the laws reflect Christian morality, such as those criminalizing drug use and certain consensual sex acts, such as prostitution.

Certain subsets of the population are also more likely to end up in prison. In the US (the country which has by far the most prisoners)[4] those groups tend to be Native American, Muslim, Pagan, Buddhist, Churches of Christ, and Jewish, respectively. At the other end of the scale, the most underrepresented religiously defined groups in US prisons are Pentecostal, atheist, Mormon, Apostolic, Hindu, and Eastern Orthodox, respectively.[5]

Atheism does lead directly to prison[edit]

In several Muslim countries apostasy (the renunciation of one's religion) is a crime punishable by prison or death. When the apostate leaves Islam and becomes an atheist, this can lead directly to prison.

See also[edit]


  1. Survey reveals only .02% of prisoners identify as atheists, Freedom from Religion Foundation, 22 July 2013
  2. Not Just Jews Eat Kosher Food in Prison, Jewish Daily Forward, 4 May 2012
  3. Prisoners ‘being forced to convert’ to Islam by influential Muslim gangs, Metro, 20 October 2013
  4. World Prison Population List by Roy Walmsley (2016) 11th edition. World Prison Brief. The US is number 1 for total number of prisoners and number 2 for per capita incarceration.
  5. Are Prisoners Less Likely To Be Atheists?, FiveThirtyEight, 12 March 2015