Are Atheists More
Likely To Be Criminals?
To: "Positive Atheism" <email@example.com>
Sent: Wednesday, August 16, 2000 1:29 PM
Dear Mr. Walker,
Firstly, thank you for your wonderful webpage, which I have found very interesting and helpful.
Second, and forgive me if this question has already been asked
(I am somewhat new to the forum and haven't quite navigated its entirety),
are atheists more likely to be criminals? I saw on one "atheist"
webpage that atheists make up less than 2 percent of the prison population
but I have been unable to confirm the stat, and there is considerable evidence
that it is either outdated or faked. I was unable to find any statistics
linking religious practices with percentage of prison population at the
Depart of Corrections web page. I was hoping that you might know of some
reliable sources. Thanks,
From: "Positive Atheism" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Wednesday, August 16, 2000 5:53 PM
This question deserves more study, and this is not the first time I have openly wished someone would study it. The best way would be to ask people being booked what their religion is, and remove from those statistics with those who end up not being convicted. Since the word atheist carries such a stigma, a fair study would include several synonyms for atheist such as agnostic and not religious. Asking during the booking process would eliminate the error introduced by jailhouse conversions and renewals of faith. I would also eliminate victimless crimes from the definition for crime, here, listing in the study which violations of law were exempt from this definition for the purposes of this study.
Most would say no, that theism or atheism does not make one a criminal -- unless you fall for the notion that it is a "crime" or "sin" not to have faith in a deity. (Who knows how many people have been put to death for the "crime" of atheism!?) Ingersoll observed that all outlooks have their share of bad apples and virtuous people, and that these traits are evenly dispensed.
I would say that those who are "devout" in any outlook (if it is proper to think of an atheist as "devout") would be less likely to commit regular crimes, although fundamentalistic thinking does lead to an increase in crimes involving bigotry and such crimes as neglecting the health of a child in hopes of a miraculous cure for the child's disease.
I have noticed that many Christians, for example, get their sense morality not from their religion (the Bible) but from their culture. Notice how many Bible edicts are ignored today by all (including the devout) and how many virtues that we all take for granted are absent from the Bible.
Nevertheless, I think the fear of hell has not shown itself to be a very effective deterrent for crime. (And this would make a great question in the study of those being booked: "Do you believe in an afterlife? If so, does it consist both of Heaven and Hell? or does Karma determine how one will be reincarnated?) I suspect that the Christian doctrine of atonement (which is, by the way, completely absent from the Gospel of Luke) or some other criteria where Heaven and Hell are determined by one's loyalty, rather than one's behavior, would be shown to encourage rather than deter an individual's tendency to commit a crime.
I would love to sit here and tell you that I think that atheism, in and of itself, is superior than theism in this respect. It seems sensible that if we realize that we must do our own work rather than depending upon a god, we will get more work done. The same would hold true for an individual developing and implementing one's personal ethic.
However, I have spent lots of time associating both with atheists and with theists, both on a personal level and within organizations, and I must tell you that my observations support Ingersoll's remark: I've been ripped off by devout Christians (both posing as friends and for the sake of the Gospel) and I've been ripped off by atheists (both posing as friends and for the sake of propagating atheism). The Twelve Step program was a living hell -- at the hands of the more devout members -- and the non-theistic alternative programs cannot be said to have been any better in this respect at the hands of leading spokespersons for Humanism (according to my observations).
Key to this, I think, is my observation (above) that most of us get our sense of ethics from our culture, not from any religion, philosophy, or ideology.
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
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