According to a post by latimes.com, "How secular family values stack up":

Atheists were almost absent from our prison population as of the late 1990s, comprising less than half of 1% of those behind bars, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics. This echoes what the criminology field has documented for more than a century — the unaffiliated and the nonreligious engage in far fewer crimes.

Has the criminology field indeed documented the statistics (or other source of fact) that indicate that unaffiliated and nonreligious people engage in far fewer crimes?

If so, according to authority, what is meant by "far fewer"? And "crime"? (All crime? Violent crime?)

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    It had been noted before that professing a religion may be strategic before parole boards and the like, exaggerating any effect.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 3:15
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    Are you asking about correllation or causation? On top of @Oddthinking's point, MOST crimes in USA are committed by a very slim demographics, usually of lower income; and there's a definite correllation between atheism and higher income. Which would make atheists less likely to commit crimes for reasons having nothing to do with religion.
    – user5341
    Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 18:50
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    @DVK: I think to support that slim demographic claim, you'd have to make a distinction between commiting 'crimes' (defined as anything the government has chosen to make illegal), and the chances a particular person might be arrested, convicted and imprisoned. That's also why 'crime' in the US is not commeasurable with 'crime' in the USSR.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 19:25
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    I'd think a reasonable interpretation of the claim is that atheists commit fewer crimes, all other things being equal. In that case, answers should at least attempt to control for other factors known to be associated to crime rate, such as socioeconomic conditions. Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 5:11
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    @Alex That is 100% bull feces. Commented Apr 9, 2015 at 18:31

2 Answers 2


It depends.

The author did publish a peer-reviewed article in 2009 discussing the issue, with sources. I've verified most of the sources and they seem to be reliable and reputable.

Criminality and Moral Conduct

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

Although some studies have found that religion does inhibit criminal behavior (Baier and Wright 2001; Powell 1997; Bainbridge 1989; Elifson et al. 1983; Peek et al. 1985) others have actually found that religiosity does not have a significant effect on inhibiting criminal behavior (Cochran et al. 1994; Evans et al. 1996; Hood et al. 1996). ‘‘The claim that atheists are somehow more likely to be immoral,’’ asserts Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi (2007, 306), ‘‘has long been disproven by systematic studies.’’

Admittedly, when it comes to underage alcohol consumption or illegal drug use, secular people do break the law more than religious people (Benson 1992; Gorsuch 1995; Hood et al. 1996; Stark and Bainbridge 1996). 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 underrepresentation.

If religion, prayer, or God-belief hindered criminal behavior, and secularity or atheism fostered lawlessness, we would expect to find the most religious nations having the lowest murder rates and the least religious nations having the highest. But we find just the opposite.

Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is deep and widespread (Jensen 2006; Paul 2005; Fajnzylber et al. 2002; Fox and Levin 2000). And within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon (Ellison et al. 2003; Death Penalty Information Center, 2008). Furthermore, although there are some notable exceptions, rates of most violent crimes tend to be lower in the less religious states and higher in the most religious states (United States Census Bureau, 2006). Finally, of the top 50 safest cities in the world, nearly all are in relatively non-religious countries, and of the eight cities within the United States that make the safest-city list, nearly all are located in the least religious regions of the country (Mercer Survey, 2008).

Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions, Phil Zuckerman, Sociology Compass 3/6 (2009): 949–971, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2009.00247.x

In short, his argument is as follows:

  1. There's tons of studies, but a lot of contradictions.

    • We can say with certainty that religion is a good influence on drug use and other "vicimless" crimes -- they are called "anti-ascetic" crimes in the literature I've read.

    • There is no clear signal that religion inhibits violent crimes (there are many articles disagreeing with each other, lots of discussion about confounding factors, questionable methodologies, etc.)

    • Atheists are majorly underrepresented in prisons, although of course this doesn't prove the point, but certainly disproves that atheism causes criminal behavior.

  2. There's a negative correlation between large scale atheism and crime.

    • More secular countries have lower violent crime rates.

    • More secular US states have the lowest violent crime rates, more religious US state the highest.

    • The safest cities are either in less-religious countries or when in the US they are in less-religious states.

My personal opinion is that many of these studies tend to be poorly constructed. For example many studies on crime rely on objectionable proxy variables which are then contested by other studies. Is reporting that "one doesn't trust policemen" a reliable indicator of delinquency? Is religious literacy a good proxy for religiousness?

This particular article attempts to put together what we know about the subject of atheism, but of course its argument can't be stronger than its sources.

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    I think there is a good deal of truth in the idea that atheists (and agnostics, pagans, &c) tend to be immoral, IF we allow mainstream religion to set the definition of morality.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 6:39
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    Also, a point on the more secular countries, but most of them also have a higher standard of living overall as well. Since there are ties between violent crime and poverty you need to control for that in studies as well.
    – rjzii
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 16:12
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    @rjzii sure, but then you also need to correct for atheism being the cause of better education... there is no easy answer or obvious criticism to his points, in my opinion.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 18:02
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    @jamesqf I don't think that religions has been setting the morality agenda since illuminism. In fact, it is a conservative force, whereas atheism and secularism have historically been progressive forces, morally speaking. Right to abortion, divorce, homosexual rights... these battles were fought against religious morality.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 18:04
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    @Sklivvz Valid points but that's part of the reason why it is so hard to make conclusions on this topic. Showing that atheists commit few crimes is fairly straightforward, showing that atheism is why they commit few crimes is hard.
    – rjzii
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 18:08

To the best of our inadequate data, the answer is Yes.

A FOIA request shows prisoners who identify as Atheist are 1/10 to 1/20th (depending on whose survey we look at for rates of atheism) as common in prison as in the general population.

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    This is totally invalid--you can't make such a comparison because (1) you're relying on self identification and (2) you're not normalizing for demographics (atheists are likely to be affluent whites, who get sentenced less often even for committing crimes {especially drug related which is a large part of US prison population} - and are less likely to commit violent crime in the first place).
    – user5341
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 2:08
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    @DVK Of course you are relying on self identification! You have some mind-reading device that can tell you what religion someone believes? Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 5:34
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    You need to remove confounding factors before you compare inmates to general population. For example, wealth can give you better lawyers and less chance of landing in jail, and we know for a fact that atheists tend to be wealthier... This is to say, there will be religious people jailed because they are poor but innocent, and atheists who are not jailed while guilty because they are rich.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 9:16
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    Sorry, the stat you quote is useless as it stands. You have to account for confounding and bias in the statistic and you don't even acknowledge they might affect the conclusion.
    – matt_black
    Commented Feb 15, 2015 at 20:08
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    @nico that they are better at not getting convicted*
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Feb 16, 2015 at 13:41

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