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This popularly referenced survey gives statistics about the number of atheists in US prisons.

It suggests just 0.21% of the prison population is atheist. There are more scientologists! This is surprising because atheists represent about 15% of the US population.

Now, this survey is often used to show that atheists are more moral. (I lean towards this idea, being an atheist myself.) However, I have been told that such a survey is useless - many "closet" atheists would be worried about reprisal from checking the "atheist" box, especially in a predominantly Christian environment. This would tend to bias the results.

Has any research been performed about this?

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    Keep in mind the dynamic that prisoners "convert" to Christianity to appear reformed. – iterationx May 10 '11 at 20:26
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    If there is a concern about "being Christian", why would over 7% report as Muslim, while the US population of Muslims is only 0.8% (According to Pew)? Although interesting question. My friend is atheist and he has noted this study to me in the past, and I am interested in knowing how accurate his argument is. – JasonR May 10 '11 at 20:42
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    I fail to see how this would show that atheists are more moral. Becoming an atheist doesn't change your morality! I think this correlation should be read the other way, if true. Moral persons tend to be atheists. – Sklivvz May 10 '11 at 21:28
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    I remember we found a problem with this study on Atheism.SE, but I can't remember what it was. – Borror0 May 10 '11 at 22:04
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    Sklivvz nailed it. Without religion to poison your worldview against anyone different than you, I think it leads to the more humanist type of behaviour. @iterationx, I believe the numbers are for inmates checking in [needs citation]. @qes, that MAY be one case, but by that same token, they probably wouldn't BE atheist. ;) Although both of you bring up good points as to why this should be looked at more closely. (And yes Brightblades, this is the same one I showed you.) – Larian LeQuella May 10 '11 at 22:57
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+50

The 0.2% statistic comes from the The Home Office in the UK, not the US.

I found it on thoughtfulfaith.wordpress.com, which claims to debunk this claim and has a good use of internal citations.

(For archival purposes)

"[...] 31.9% of inmates claimed to have no religion, of whom 0.2% who specifically answered that they were atheists and 0.1% who answered that they were agnostic."

Thoughtful Faith

The blog is indeed true, as sad as it is. I checked the report and verified.

This is from the Atheism Stack Exchange Data Dump. I don't know the author since data dumps are anonymized.

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    Did they check for Jedi? :) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jedi_census_phenomenon – Benjol May 16 '11 at 11:47
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    Data dumps are anonymized so you won’t find the author there. +1 for posting the answer. Unfortunately however, it is missing the comments which have some (in my opinion; full disclosure: they were my comments) interesting caveats about this statistic. In a nutshell: the statistic is highly implausible and I would attribute it to artifacts (technical details of the questionnaire) unless it can be corroborated. – Konrad Rudolph May 16 '11 at 12:15
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    The numbers are still very jumbled, though: "31.9% of inmates claimed to have “no religion”, of whom 0.2% who specifically answered that they were “atheists” and 0.1% who answered that they were “agnostic”" - are we using the 31.9% ? or the 0.2%? and for either: why? – Marc Gravell Aug 21 '12 at 12:33

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