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Non-Believers Overrepresented in UK Prisons?

John on November 28, 2006 at 2:24 am

There’s a brief report in the Telegraph on some surprising statistics released by the Home Office in the UK.

The Home Office has issued statistics dividing the prison population in terms of prisoners’ religious affiliation. It’s riveting. The proportion of all prisoners saying they have a religion compared with those with none is about 2:1.

But of those who commit sex crimes the proportion rises to 3:1, among whom Anglicans feature disproportionately. Catholics are far more likely to be burglars than to commit fraud. Nearly a fifth of all jailed Buddhists – Buddhists! – are imprisoned for sex crimes. And Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs are over-represented among fraudsters and forgers – the flipside, perhaps, of their entrepreneurial, small-business activities.

What’s interesting is the criminal unbelievers. They are vastly over-represented among burglars and those who commit violence against the person. In the last census, the number of atheists was only 15 per cent of the population, so it is remarkable that one prisoner in three is an unbeliever. Secularists, championed by Professor Richard Dawkins, like to make out that the religions have no monopoly on morality. This survey goes to show that the fear of God has something going for it.

I did some searching but couldn’t find a breakdown of offense type by offender’s religion anywhere online. I did find a bit of confirming data in the form of a Home Office Statistical Bulletin from 2004. Click here for a pdf and go to page 115:

The largest group of prisoners on 30th June 2004 was Anglicans, who accounted for 33 per cent of the prison population. The other main groups were those with no religious affiliation (32 per cent), Roman Catholics (17 per cent) and Muslims (9 per cent).

Again, not the full picture, but it does confirm the 2:1 ratio mentioned in the Telegraph piece.

To be fair, “no religious affiliation” includes self identified atheists and agnostics but these are only a small percentage. Most of these folks simply have no religious affiliation. Clearly they felt strongly enough about that not to mark themselves down as “Church of England” on some form, but it hardly makes them devotees of Dawkins. It makes them agnostics in a vague sense, not a definitive Huxley-esque sense. Nevertheless, it does seem that people with no religious affiliation are very well-represented in UK prisons.

And to be fair in the other direction, we also have to wonder how many people who did self-identify as “Anglican” are doing so because that’s the sort of church their family attended on Christmas when they were kids. How many of these people had been to church in the three years before their arrest? No idea. We do know from experience that — especially when it comes to Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and other “high church” faiths — people do sometimes assume membership is simply a family tradition.

I think it’s pretty safe to assume those who checked “no affiliation” genuinely had none. I don’t think we can assume that those who claimed a particular faith actually practiced it. They may have, many of them surely did, but I would bet many of them did not as well.

It would be interesting if someone would really explore this topic in more detail. [HT: Telegraph link shamelessly stolen from See-Dub at JunkYard Blog]

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