House of Worship

Here’s an addendum to our previous post (which was in turn a comment upon a recent post, at Bill Vallicella’s Maverick Philosopher website, about atheism and morality).

In the ensuing discussion, commenter Dave Gudeman writes:

You know, as I think about it, I’m not sure I even agree with the assertion that atheists are not less moral. Of course if you are going to restrict yourself to people who claim to be atheists, then this is a rather elite group — typically well-educated and having a lot to lose by going too much against social norms. But the prisons aren’t filled with church-going Christians and observant Jews.

I’ll bet there is a strong negative correlation between having religion as an important part of your life and being a criminal. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a positive correlation between religious devotion and being a generally kind and charitable person.

Well, the results are in. Here, by way of a site called, are some statistics from one Denise Golumbaski, Research Analyst, Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Of 74,731 inmates responding, 39% declared themselves Catholic, 35% Protestant, 1.77% Jewish, and a mere 0.21% atheist.

Dave may object that he has already disqualified self-described atheists as an “elite group”, but he can’t really help himself to that, because what he is questioning in the first place is the assertion that atheists are no less moral. And while some atheists may feign religiosity so as to avoid bigotry, the numbers aren’t even close. Almost three-quarters of these inmates declared themselves as either Catholic or Protestant — right in line with their representation in the general population — while only one in 500 were atheists, who, even if they are only 5% of the general population (probably a low number) are therefore hugely underrepresented in prison compared to their God-fearing counterparts.

I think Dave is going to lose his bet.

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  1. Andrew says

    What a ridiculous assertion!

    Posted May 24, 2007 at 10:48 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Andrew,

    I assume you mean the Dave G. counter-assertion debunked herein. Yes, it was a bit of a reach, and while it seemed to have a sort of prima facie reasonableness about it, it is just the sort of unquestioned assumption that we need to make it our business to question.

    It was interesting that Dave felt the need to exclude self-declared atheists from his sample — on the grounds that they are generally well-educated, productive members of society. Not exactly a robust datum in favor of theism, that, though the irony of it seemed to be missed in the comment thread over at Bill’s place.

    Posted May 24, 2007 at 11:04 pm | Permalink
  3. Andrew says


    yes I did mean Dave Gs view. It was a busy week as I was out of town and probably should not have posted without taking the time to say something more substantive.

    Posted May 25, 2007 at 9:27 pm | Permalink