Monday, February 7, 2011 Login

Religion & Incarceration


“If you meet a random American walking down the street, the odds are only one in 62 that he or she will self-identify as atheist or agnostic…. [T]he United States today has more Christians than any other country in human history. The current U.S. population is more Christian than Israel is Jewish and Utah is Mormon. Meanwhile, Christianity remains, for good or for ill, a vital political force, not just on the right but also on the left, and the Christian Bible remains the scripture of American politics, invoked thousands of times a year on the floor of the U.S. Congress.

“Over the past two decades, I have taught the ‘Christian America’ debate to hundreds of students in my Religious Studies courses. When we finish our discussion, I call the question. My Christian students almost invariably describe the United States as a multicultural nation of religions, but my Jewish students tell me you have to be blind (or Christian) not to see that this is a Christian country. Here Christmas, not Passover, is a national holiday, and the only question about our presidents’ religious affiliation seems to be from which Christian denomination they will come.” - Stephen Prothero, chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University and the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t; USA Today (April 27)

“The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate, and total documented prison population in the world. As of year-end 2007, a record 7.2 million people were behind bars, on probation or on parole. Of the total, 2.3 million were incarcerated. More than 1 in 100 American adults were incarcerated at the start of 2008. The People’s Republic of China ranks second with 1.5 million, while having four times the population, thus having only about 18% per the US incarceration rate.” - Wikipedia

According to the CIA World Factbook, the US population is approximately 78.5% Christian while China’s population is only about 4% Christian.

If Christianity makes people more moral, why is the rate of incarceration so much higher in the US than it is in China?

Consider this chart:

According to the CIA World Factbook, only about 2% of Japan’s population is Christian – yet as this chart shows, it has one of the lowest incarceration rates of any major industrialized country. If Christianity correlates with greater morality rather than greater immorality, how can this be? Why doesn’t a country with very few Christians such as Japan find it necessary to lock up far more of its population than the much more Christian United States?


We find the same pattern within the US that we find in the world at large. The Bible Belts states of the South have by far the highest incarceration rate of any area of the country (about 180% the rate of the Northeast). And the very religious states of Louisiana and Mississippi have incarceration rates that are some 330% and 280% that of what seems to be our least religious state (Vermont). If Christians really are more moral than non-Christians, how can this be? Why do the most Christian states apparently have the highest percentage of their people behind bars?

I’ve asked these sorts of questions before – perhaps most notably in the entry I posted back on Jan 20, 2007. I have yet to hear a good Christian response.

Given the recent discussion in my notes section about the relative numbers of atheists and theists in prison and my last entry about US churchgoers being more likely to support torture than non-churchgoers, I thought it a good time to ask them again.

So: Do YOU have any answers? Exactly why do YOU think our so-called “Christian Nation” finds it necessary to throw a far higher percentage of its people into jail than far less Christian nations do? Does Christianity breed criminals? Are American Christians unusually vindictive? Or is there some other explanation?

(NOTE: I’ve pretty much given up trying to base any logical argument on the relative numbers of atheists and theists in prison because the data is so scarce, old, and problematic. The sorts of figures I’m sharing in this entry, however, seem widely accepted and to come from multiple sources – and they seem to have held up over time. If you think they’re wrong, please tell me how and why.)

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