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Prison Incarceration and Religious Preference


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This document discusses some of the statistics available pertaining to prison incarceration and religious affiliation. This is not an in-depth study. Accurate, reliable statistics on this subject may not be readily available. Statistics (reliable or not) have been used by various writers to support two different, contradictory conclusions.

Specific religious groups show different levels of correlation with incarceration, although there are multiple reasons for this. Members of some religious groups are more likely to commit crimes and be imprisoned, resulting in a higher incarceration rate. Figures such as these may be related to religious culture, but may also be related to other demographic variables, such as geographical region (certain states have higher incarceration rates), economic status, race, etc. Also, some religious groups show higher rates of incarceration than found in the general population because of their heavy emphasis on prison ministry and higher level of success in prison-based recruitment (e.g., general Muslims, Nation of Islam, Scientologists).


Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 1999

Source: Peggy Fikac. "More prison inmates say they're Baptist than any other religion." Associated Press (The Abilene Reporter-News)
Baptist     39,781   30.3%
Unknown*    28,890   22.0%
Catholic    23,637   18.0%
Other       39,009   29.7%
--------   -------  ------
Total      131,316  100.0%

* Unknown: "22 percent are categorized as 'unknown,' representing inmates who didn't say or didn't care when asked for their religious denomination." Most of these would be classified functionally in the "nonreligious" category.

* Other: "The rest of the inmates are divided among the categories of Christian Church, Methodist, Church of Christ, Pentecostal, Muslim, Protestant, Jewish, non-denominational, no religious preference and other."


The passage below [source: Christine Wicker. "Dumbfounded by divorce" in Dallas Morning News, 2000; URL: http://195.7.48.75/release/new/dallas/morning/dallasreligion/p1s5m.htm] is indicative of how prevalent it is for people to cite a religious preference, even if they are not religious:

There might be... reason to question Mr. Barna's survey and many other studies of religious people the hazards of self-identification.

Bill Johnson... and his second wife, Donna, co-teach Rebuilders, Prestonwood Baptist's ministry to remarried couples... Mr. Johnson is also a therapist and federal probation officer. His work experience has caused him to note that it's awfully popular to be Baptist. "When I interview criminals going into prison or coming out of prison, most of them are Baptists," he said, laughing. "Everybody seems to be a Baptist, even if they're not religious or Christian."


National Census of the Jail Population, 1995

According to the DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics (National Census of the Jail Population 12/31/95), while 72% affirmed affiliation with religious institutions (determined through answers to the question on "Religious Background" on the Penal entrance form) 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). These figures are comparable to the national average as establish by the Gallup organization. [Source: Response to "Christians vs atheists in prison investigation".]

Prison Incarceration and Religious Preference
Futher Information

Link:Response to "Christians vs atheists in prison investigation" - Commonly-circulated atheist "article" about atheism and incarceration is actually from a 1925 document of doubtful validity written by Dale Clark.

This document discusses some of the statistics available pertaining to prison incarceration and religious affiliation. Specific religious groups show different levels of correlation with incarceration, although there are multiple reasons for this. Members of some religious groups are more likely to commit crimes and be imprisoned, resulting in a higher incarceration rate. But some religious groups show higher rates of incarceration than found in the general population because of their heavy emphasis on prison ministry and higher level of success in prison-based recruitment (e.g., general Muslims, Nation of Islam, Scientologists).


Possible Recent Statistics For a Fraction of U.S. Prisoners

David Rice has written to us (23 October 2002) concerning the origin of the data in the table below:
The data came from Denise Golumbaski, who was a Research Analyst for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The data was compiled from up-to-the-day figures on March 5th, 1997. (Note that as of the year 1999, Analyst Golumbaski is no longer working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons; I had telephoned Analyst Golumbaski to request the latest figures, and was told by another analyst that Golumbaski was no longer employed there.) The data was requested by Mr. Rod Swift, who passed it on to me for my web site. I later called the Federal Bureau of Prisons and confirmed that the data did in fact come from their database.

Catholic                29,267   31.432%
Protestant              26,162   28.097%
None/Atheist/Unknown    18,537   19.908%
Muslim                   5,435    5.837%
American Indian          2,408    2.586%
Nation of Islam          1,734    1.862%
Rastafarian              1,485    1.595%
Jewish                   1,325    1.423%
Church of Christ         1,303    1.399%
Pentecostal              1,093    1.174%
Moorish                  1,066    1.145%
Buddhist                   882    0.947%
Jehovah's Witnesses        665    0.714%
Adventist                  621    0.667%
Eastern Orthodox           375    0.403%
Latter-day Saints          298    0.320%
Scientology                190    0.204%
Hindu                      119    0.128%
Santeria                   117    0.126%
Sikh                        14    0.015%
Baha'i                       9    0.010%
ISKCON                       7    0.008%
--------------------    ------  --------
Total                   93,112  100.000%



This table, presented in the original format as sent by Rice and as found in the Rod Swift article, is
below.


Groups listed above which are believed to have high rates of successful prison ministry-based recruitment
(their stated religious affiliation generally came
after incarceration):
    Muslim
    Nation of Islam
    Moorish
    Scientology


Note that in the year 2000 the total incarcerated population in the U.S., including federal prisons (statistics shown above), as well as state prisons, jails, etc., was approximately 2 million. The figures shown above may represent only about 4.65% of the total incarcerated population.

Source: Data provided by Denise Golumbaski, Research Analyst, Federal Bureau of Prisons as presented in Rod Swift. "The results of the Christians vs atheists in prison investigation" (URL: http://holysmoke.org/icr-pri.htm, as viewed 5 September 2000).

We are aware of two non-academic web pages, featuring commentary by self-described atheists, which attempt to present statistics in such a way as to indicate that religion leads to crime and incarceration. Some of these statements are addressed here, but that is not the focus of this page. Such a notion hardly requires refutation: available statistics, academic studies (as opposed to positional essays by atheists), and common experience attest otherwise.

Religious proponents, on the other hand, often use statistics relating to religiosity to show that religious participation prevents crime and incarceration.

The statistically verifiable reality should come as no surprise to those who have first hand experience with criminal and religious sociology:

1. The majority of Americans (85%) have a stated religious preference.

2. The majority of American prisoners (between 80 and 100%, depending on the study consulted) also have a stated religious preference.

3. A disproportionately high number of prisoners were not in any way practicing religionists prior to incarceration. That is, they exhibited none of the standard sociological measures of religiosity, such as regular prayer, scripture study, and attendance at worship services.

Thus, some commentators on one side have claimed that being religious is associated with incarceration. This is based only on religious preference statistics. American sociologists are well aware that nearly all Americans profess a religious preference. But there is a major difference between those who are actually religious affiliated, that is, members of a congregation (approx. 45 to 65% of the population, varying by region), and those who merely profess a preference, likely the name of the denomination that their parents of grandparents were a part of. (One of the best discussions of this phenomenon can be found in The Churching of America, 1776-1990, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark; New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.)

Commentators supportive of religious involvement invariably point to participation in religion (being affiliated), rather than having a stated (and quite possibly meaningless) religious preference as showing being a statistically strong deterent to crime.

According to the DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics (National Census of the Jail Population 12/31/95), while 72% affirmed affiliation with religious institutions (determined through answers to the question on "Religious Background" on the Penal entrance form) 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). These figures are comparable to the national average as establish by the Gallup organization. [Source: http://www.errantskeptics.org/Ancient_Statistics.htm.]

Attempts to "prove" either simplistic statement: "Religion leads to incarceration" or "Religion prevents incarceration" are polemical in nature and are neither academic in their approach nor statistially supportable. Neither statement is completely true, and both statements ignore the extremely large differences between religions. Each religious affiliation exhibits different statistical properties relating to incarceration. The actual situation in America can no more be summed up by a discussion of "atheists in prison vs. non-atheists in prison" than by analysis of "Buddhists in prison vs. non-Buddhists in prison."

One atheist web page (http://holysmoke.org/icr-pri.htm) presented statistics stating that 0.209% of federal prisoners (in 1997) stated "atheist" as their religious preference. This site said that this is far less than the 8 to 16% of the American population that are atheists.

The atheist site, however, provided no source for the notion that "8 to 16%" of Americans are atheists. This statistic is completely without support from the available data. Gallup polls which include questions about religion have consistently shown that between 93 and 96% of Americans say that they believe in God. Presumably atheist writers would not suggest that up to half of their claimed "atheists" believe in God. The actual proportion of atheists in the United States is about 0.5% (half of one percent). This is the figure obtained from the largest survey of religious preference ever conducted: the National Survey of Religious Identification (Kosmin, 1990), which polled 113,000 people. The religious preference questions were part of questioning completely unrelated to religious preference (consumer preferences, entertainment, etc.), so the frequent retort of atheists that their numbers don't like to admit to atheism, and hence are undercounted, is unlikely.

Still, if one accepts as accurate the estimate that 0.209% of federal prisoners, this is still an incarceration rate only one half of their numbers in the general population.

The high estimates of "8 to 16%" of Americans being atheists are actually produced by combining figures from non-atheist groups. Basically, all people who don't profess a religious preference are sometimes claimed by atheists part of their grouping. The Kosmin survey of 1990 indicated that 1.5% of the population is agnostic, and 7.5% "nonreligious." "Nonreligious" does not mean the same thing as "atheist." It is a classification which includes people who believe there is no god, believe there is a god, or who don't believe either way, or believe that such information is unknowable. Grouping "nonreligious" along with atheists and agnostics, one would obtain a figure of 9.5%. This fits within the claimed "8 to 16%" figure provided for the total number of "atheists."

It is true that, historically, the word "atheist" has been used to include agnostics as well as atheists, and that it has been used to include "nonreligious" as well. But the word has also been used to include many people whose religious preferences conflict with the majority, including Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Wiccans, and others. After the Protestant reformation, Catholic writers used the word "atheist" interchangeably with "infidel", referring to all Protestants (whether Anglican, Baptist, or otherwise) as "atheists."

Today in the United States, "nontheist" does not mean "nonreligious", as indicated by the fact that all but 5% of the population professes belief in God, while approximately 9.5% of the population belong to nonreligious or "antireligious" categories.

In the federal prisoner statistics, a full 20% of the respondents either answered "none" or provided no response to the question on religious affiliation. Based on response patterns to similar questions on nationwide surveys, it is likely that all or nearly all of these persons would be in the "nonreligious" category (or the "atheists" category, to use the terminology from the atheist web page itself). Even without adding the ".209%" of the population that specifically identified themselves as atheists, the segment of the prison population which self-identifies as non-religious is approximately twice as large as found in the general population.

However, a valid argument could be made that the prison population may exhibit different response patterns pertaining to questions of religious identification than the non-prison population. An atheist pundit may believe that this difference is so extreme, that all 20% classified as "none" or "unknown" are actually Christians, Jews, etc., but were being beligerant or evasive in not saying so. A religious pundit might assume that all 20% are actually non-religious.

Sociologists and statisticians can not make absolute conclusions about this group, but based on previous experience with similar studies, the response patterns to this question are unlikely to differ significantly from the general population, and the "nonreligious" segment of the prison population does indeed seem significantly higher than the religious segment. Furthermore, academic researchers are likely to include additional measures of behavior and religiosity beyond mere religious self-identification, and conclude that although the segment of the prison population which specifies a religious preference is as high as in the general population, the proportion of practicing religionists (immediately prior to incarceration) is much lower.

Virtually any article in an academic, peer-reviewed sociology journal that addresses religious behavior and criminal behavior finds that religious behaviors such as church attendance, prayer, home observances, etc., are either negatively correlated to criminal and/or anti-social behavior (drug use, school drop-outs, etc.), or have no correlation. In other words, according to social scientists, religious behavior is associated with lower rates of criminal behavior.

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 nother 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.

A sociologically more meaningful measure of religious participation, as Finke and Stark point out, is religious affiliation, that is, a count of people actually on church rolls. For most religious organizations, the numbers of affiliated members or congregants provided by the churches is smaller than the number of people who identify with a particular group in surveys. For instance, nearly twice as many people in the United States say they are Episcopalian in surveys than actually are on the rolls of Episcopalian churches. These are non-affiliated Episcopalians. They still have a place for Episcopalianism in their identities, but they are not likely to contribute financially to Episcopalian churches or attend them. Some religious groups have affiliation numbers which are very close to self-identification numbers (for example: Latter-day Saints and Seventh-day Adventists). A few religious organizations report higher numbers than actually claim to be adherents in surveys. In general, however, affiliation is a subset of self-identified adherents. Nationally, about 60% of the U.S. population is affiliated. The states with the highest proportion of affiliation are Utah (75%), Rhode Island and North Dakota. The states with the lowest affiliation rates are Oregon and Washington.

But affiliation just indicates names registered with a religious organization. These may include fully participating or completely non-participating individuals, but at least they are people who are presumed to be known by the organization.

Sociologically, a more meaningful measure of religiosity than affiliation is church attendance. Nationally, about 50% of the U.S. population claims to have attended worship services during the previous week in response to Gallup polls. This roughly indicates the proportion of the population which considers themselves regular churchgoers. More detailed sociological studies involving counting actual participation in all churches and religious meeting places on successive weekends and comparing results to census data indicate that during any given week, approximately 25% to 30% of Americans attend a worship service.

Attendance at worship services is not the only indication of religiosity, of course. Other behaviors, such as prayer, religious study in the home, charitable giving to religious organizations, volunteerism, etc. are other frequently used measures of religiosity.

Other studies mirror the data provided here, including one in which about half of Americans indicated they were either essentially not religious at all (regardless of whether or not they had a religious preference), or only nominally religious.

From a functional standpoint, a case could be made for an assertion that half of the U.S. population are "functionally atheists." That is, although they may profess belief in God, their behavior is unmodified in any way because of such a belief. They exhibit patterns of marriage, language, entertainment choice, voting, sexual behavior, charitable giving, employment, education, etc. which are indistinguishable from essentially non-practicing "religionists" of other faiths, or of the self-identified nonreligious population.

That religious behavior lags far behind identification will come as no surprise to those critical of religion. They might point that if all 75% of the U.S. population which claims in self-identification surveys to be Christian actually lived according to Christian teachings, there would probably not be 2 million incarcerated people in the country. About 0.72% of the U.S. population is currently incarcerated. This is the highest figure of any industrialized nation, except perhaps Russia. Federal prison statistics clearly show that these individuals do not come only from the approximately 25% of the population who consider themselves non-Christian. Indeed, all religious groups with statistically significant strength are represented in U.S. prisons.

A full appreciation of how religion relates to incarceration rates is impossible unless one examines the different incarceration rates for different religious groups.


"Theists vs. Nontheists" In Prison Populations: A False Dichotomy

There is no sociologically valid basis for comparing "theists to nontheists" with regards to incarceration rates (or any other sociological measure) because "theists" do not constitute an identifiable social group. The fact that non-practicing (functionally nonreligious) people are highly over-represented among prisoners is a separate issue, apart from questions relating to belief and philosophical position.

To consider incarceration rates of "atheists" vs. "theists" is like comparing Hispanics to non-Hispanics. While it may be possible to group figures that way, it doesn't make a lot of sense to do so. Non-Hispanics are better broken down into Asians, African-Americans and Whites (if one doesn't further break them down by other factors such as age, education, etc.) Likewise, it makes no sense to group all non-atheists together, as if Amish, Muslims, Quakers, Baha'is, Hindus, Presbyterians, Orthodox Jews, Baptists, Deists, Lutherans, Unitarians, Rastafarians, Wiccans, etc., all exhibited similar behavior. Obviously some of these groups exhibit relatively little criminal behavior, while others would exhibit relatively more criminal behavior. Certain crimes are more prevalent among certain groups. 85% of Americans cite a specific religious affiliation. So if you combine figures for people of all religious affiliations you get essentially the same figure that you would get for the whole U.S. population. The figure would only be different if essentially all religious groups were skewed in one direction, which they are not.

A person's philosophical position about the existence of God is distinct from that person's ethical behavior. A person's position on this single point is not a predictor of ethical or criminal behavior, any more than a person's preference for country vs. rock music. Atheism does not necessarily equate to criminal or unethical behavior, just as a professed belief in God does not necessarily preclude criminal or unethical behavior.

One problem faced by some religious writers as well as some atheist writers who have tried to equate religious belief or atheism with criminal behavior (and probably a major reason why there is no empirical data to support either contention) is that a person's philosophical position on this one point is not the major factor in determining criminal behavior. Factors such as level of income, employment/non-employment, level of education, race, geographical region, age, sex, etc. are all tracked by the government and other organizations. All of these characteristics correlate more readily to criminal behavior. (GLBT status, on the other hand, has not been shown to correlate generally to incarceration rate, although it is highly correlated with pedophilia. According to gay researchers Karla Jay and Allen Young, 73 percent of the gay men they report having engaged in sex with boys 16 to 19 years of age or younger; 86 percent of convicted child molesters who molested boys describe themselves as homosexual or bisexual. See also: World Net Daily article; More)

There is no monolithic group of "theists." This is a term that describes a philosophical position (as identified by atheists), not a self-identifying group of people. People may congregate with other Catholics, other Muslims, other hockey fans at a sports event, other Stephen King fans at a book club, other mothers at a play group, other gays at a bar, etc. but "theists" do not come together as a single group, and do not exhibit an identifiable pattern of social behavior. Likewise, atheists are not a monolithic group, and most atheists are not formally affiliated with any organization based on their atheism. Like theists, atheists are found among all races, ages, levels of income, religions, etc., and those factors are going to correlate far more readily to statistically predictable patterns of social behavior, including levels of incarceration.


Appendix: 1997 Federal Bureau of Prisons from Denise Golumbaski, as formatted in Rice/Swift

Note that in this version, the names of a couple of religious groups remain non-standardized, and self-identified "Atheist" remains separate from "Unknown/None."
Response              Number      %
----------------------------  --------
Catholic               29267   39.164%
Protestant             26162   35.008%
Muslim                  5435    7.273%
American Indian         2408    3.222%
Nation                  1734    2.320%
Rasta                   1485    1.987%
Jewish                  1325    1.773%
Church of Christ        1303    1.744%
Pentecostal             1093    1.463%
Moorish                 1066    1.426%
Buddhist                 882    1.180%
Jehovah Witness          665    0.890%
Adventist                621    0.831%
Orthodox                 375    0.502%
Mormon                   298    0.399%
Scientology              190    0.254%
Atheist                  156    0.209%
Hindu                    119    0.159%
Santeria                 117    0.157%
Sikh                      14    0.019%
Bahai                      9    0.012%
Krishna                    7    0.009%
----------------------------  --------
Total Known Responses  74731  100.001% (rounding to 3 digits does this)

Unknown/No Answer      18381
----------------------------
Total Convicted        93112  80.259% (74731) prisoners' religion is known.

Held in Custody         3856  (not surveyed due to temporary custody)
----------------------------
Total In Prisons       96968

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Web page created 5 September 2000. Last modified 19 April 2007.