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Religious Tolerance logo

Atheism (having no belief in a god or other deity)

Part 2

Three more topics about Atheism:
3. Are Atheists over or under
represented among the prison population?
4. Why did God create Atheists?
5. Suggested things that a theist shouldn't
say to an Atheist.

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This topic continues from the previous essay

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3. Are Atheists over represented or underrepresented among the prison population?

Many people feel that without a belief in God, a person cannot behave ethically. If God doesn't exist then there is probably no torture facility in Hell to punish people after death. Thus,many people believe that Atheists would be less motivated than Christians to to behave decently while on Earth.

One measure of ethical behaviors by Atheists might be the percentage of Atheist inmates in Federal prisons compared to the percentage of Atheists in the general population. Many web sites quote a 1997 document by Denise Golumbaski, a research analyst at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It was a response to a request by a Rod Swift for data on the religious makeup of inmates. 1 The first two columns in the following table were taken from this document:

Religion % In federal prisons
1997 1

% in the general population2007 2

Atheists
0.21%
1.6%
Christians
80.00
78.4
Jewish
1.77
1.7
Muslim
7.27
0.4
Other
10.75
17.9

Among the federal prison population, Atheists are drastically underrepresented by a factor of about 8 times, Muslims are drastically over represented by a factor of about 18 times. The percentage of Christians, Jews, and other inmates are more or less equal to their percentage in the general population.

The over-representation of Muslims might be due to intense conversion activities among inmates.

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However it is important to note that the incidence in the general population represents data from 2007 polls, a decade after the government data was compiled. The percentage of Atheists in the population approximately doubled from 1.6% to 3.1% between 2007 and 2014, so the percentage of Atheists in the general population was probably slightly smaller than 1.6% in 1997, making the above comparison slightly less spectacular.

Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College wrote an article in Sociology Compass in 2009 stating:

"In many people’s minds -- and as expressed so clearly in Psalm 14 ... -- atheism is equated with lawlessness and wickedness, while religion is equated with morality and law-abiding behavior. Does social science support this position? ..."

"But when it comes to more serious or violent crimes, such as murder, there is simply no evidence suggesting that atheist and secular people are more likely to commit such crimes than religious people. After all, America’s bulging prisons are not full of atheists; according to Golumbaski (1997), only 0.2 percent of prisoners in the USA are atheists — a major under-representation." 1 (emphasis by us)

Psalm 14 referred to above appears is translated from the original Hebrew into English in the New International Version of the Bible (NIC) as:

"The fool[a] says in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;  there is no one who does good."

Since many Christians -- particularly evangelical Christians -- believe that the biblical authors were inspired by God to write books that are inerrant (free from error) they assume that all Atheists behave very badly. Unfortunately, the NIV translation used above contains a mistranslation. The word "fool" here is a translation of a Hebrew word that actually refers to a person "... who is morally deficient."

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Updated information on Atheists in prisons:

In mid 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice responded to a Freedom of Information Act request from Hemant Mehta of Patheos. He requested an update to the federal government's earlier information release in 1997. Data as of 2013-APR showed that there are only 161 self-declared Atheists in federal prisons. They represent only 0.07% of the total prisoner population.

Unfortunately, the data may not be accurate because they are based on only those inmates who are willing to reveal their religion. Still, it appears to be the best information that we have to go on.

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4. Why did God create Atheists?:

If we assume that God is responsible for all creation, and that God is responsible for causing everything in the Universe, the this question might be a rational one.

Martin Buber wrote, in his book "Tales of Hasidism," that:

"There is a famous story told in Chassidic literature that addresses this very question. The Master [teacher] teaches the student that God created everything in the world to be appreciated, since everything is here to teach us a lesson.

One cleaver student asks: 'What lesson can we learn from atheists? Why did God create them?'

The Master responds: 'God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all -- the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because of some religious teaching. He does not believe that God commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he does not believe in God at all, so his acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right.'

'This means,' the Master continued, 'that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say 'I pray that God will help you.' Instead for the moment, you should become an atheist, imagine that there is no God who can help, and say: 'I will help you'." 3

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A Roman Catholic nun and former Atheist suggests five things for theists to avoid saying to Atheists:

Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble of the Daughters of St. Paul was raised a Roman Catholic, became an Atheist, and reverted to Catholicism later in life. She wrote a book suggesting ways of coaxing persons to return to the Catholic faith. 4

She made the following five recommendations to Christians about what not to say to an Atheist. They appeared on the Pursued by Truth blog on Patheos:

  • "You never were a real Christian:" The implication is that a person raised as a Christian who converted to Atheism never was a true Christian in the first place. In reality, many present-day Atheists had a firm grounding in Christianity, once firmly believed in God, but converted to Atheism later in life. As they matured, they may have had no sense of God's presence in their life, could find no proof of Gods existence, and could find no demonstrations of God's activity in the world.

  • "Atheists are always .......:" In reality, it is difficult to identify beliefs and behaviors that are common to all Atheists. They come in many varieties, with many different belief systems, systems of ethics, and life experiences.

  • "All Atheists hate God:" Most Atheists are like most Christians: They don't believe that Thor, the Norse god of thunder and battle, exists. They don't believe that Aphrodite, Apollo, Zeus and the other nine ancient Greek gods and goddesses exist. They don't believe that Venus, Jupiter, Diana, and the other main Roman gods exist. There are literally thousands of gods and goddesses who have been worshipped at various times in various places that neither Atheists nor Christian believe exist. The real difference between an Atheist and a Christian is that an Atheists does not believe in one more deity that a Christian. It is difficult if not impossible for anyone to hate some person, some thing, or some god that they don't believe exists.

  • "You can't be good without a belief in God:" Some sects within a few religions do not believe in a God and yet have a fully developed system of morality and ethics. Some groups within Buddhism form one example. All of the main religions and many philosophical systems promote the Ethic of Reciprocity, commonly called the Golden Rule. That can be used to develop a moral system.

  • "You are going to Hell after you die." This is not a useful approach to an Atheist who, because they don't believe in God, generally do not believe in Hell either. It is difficult or impossible to convince a person to fear a torture facility when that person believes neither in that location or in the God who is alleged to have created it. All you will succeed in doing in alienating the Atheist.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "What Percentage of Prisoners are Atheists? It’s a Lot Smaller Than We Ever Imagined," Patheos, 2013-JUL-16, at: http://www.patheos.com/
  2. "America’s Changing Religious Landscape," Pew Research Center, 2015-MAY-12, at: http://www.pewforum.org/
  3. book cover Martin Buber, "Tales of the Hasidim," published by Schocken (1991). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store Available in Paperback for $18.56 plus postage, or $7.46 in Kindle eBook format. The quotation is taken from Volume 2. This book contains both Volumes 1 and 2. The book was rated by 22 Amazon.com customers with 4.4 out of 5 stars.

  4. book cover Sr. Theresa Noble & Fr. Dave Dwyer, "The Prodigal You Love: Inviting Loved Ones Back to the Church," Pauline Books and Media, (2014). Available in Kindle eBook format for $7.49 or Paperback for $12.95 plus shipping. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com

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Copyright 2015 & 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2015-NOV-24
Latest update: 2016-NOV-11

Author: B.A. Robinson

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