Freethought Today · August 2013

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Survey: Tiny percentage of inmates identify as atheists

Still convinced atheists are bound to be bad people? 

The Federal Bureau of Prisons released an April 2013 survey of 218,167 prisoners that reports 0.07% of prisoners call themselves atheists. You read that right. Not 7%, or even 0.7 percent, but 0.07% of American prisoners are atheists. 

Hemant Mehta first reported the statistic on his popular blog, The Friendly Atheist. Mehta wanted to corroborate the oft-quoted but dated, statistic that 0.7% of prisoners are atheists. 

His open records request to the Federal Bureau of Prisons proves that an even smaller percentage of American prisoners, 0.07%, identify as atheists. Because 2.4% of the general population of Americans are atheists, according to a 2012 Pew study, atheists make up a disproportionately small percentage of prisoners. (Pew shows one in five U.S. adults identifies as “nonreligious,” but doesn’t necessary use the term “atheist.”)

That goes a long way to debunk the myth that a person can’t be good without a god. “Atheists have their own moral compass that doesn’t involve a holy book,” Mehta wrote. 

Another reason for the low representation of atheists in prison is atheists tend to be well-educated and have above-average socioeconomic status. Inmates in general tend to be less- educated and poorer than the average American. This points out a flaw in American society, not in atheists’ morality. 

Holy books may condemn and vilify atheists as terrible people, but this statistic just adds to the long list of their inaccuracies: 99.93% of people going to prison are not atheists. 

— Andrew Seidel

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