Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Thursday, March 01, 2007

God's Advocate

Well, I said in my previous post that I was going to try to start today's post before 11:55. And I did. I started this post at 11:54.

...Okay, yeah, I did that on purpose. I'll try to have tomorrow's post up significantly earlier, though.

Anyway, I haven't had many comments on my blog lately, so I don't even know if anyone is reading this. (You know, I could install one of those site tracker things, I suppose...I've considered it. It would have the added benefit of finding out whether anyone gets here by odd search engine phrases.) But if no one is reading my blog now, that makes this the perfect time to post about something controversial that I'm not 100% sure I really want to be read anyway! Hooray!

Yeah, in this post I'm going to be playing a little devil's advocate. Or rather, since I'm going to be arguing against some claims I've often seen atheists make, I guess it's not so much playing devil's advocate as playing god's advocate.

The previous sentence would have been a more effective joke if I hadn't already given it away in the post's title.

Regardless, let's talk about some bad atheist arguments. I'm not doing this because I'm rethinking my atheism, of course; rather, it's because it particularly bothers me to see bad arguments made in causes I agree with. Back when I still considered myself a believer, it bothered me when I heard bad arguments made in support of the LDS church--there is, in particular, an essay called the "Book of Mormon challenge" that's a whole list of really stupid arguments which I'm probably going to touch on in a future post. (One of the many "future posts" I've been meaning to write for months and have yet to get around to.) And now that I've come to terms with the baselessness of my prior beliefs, I'm not any happier about seeing bad arguments made on behalf of atheists. Because such bad arguments may have the tendency to make atheists in general look bad, and...well, okay, enough preamble; let's get on to the arguments themselves.

Bad Argument Number One: Atheists Are Disproportionately Underrepresented in the Prison Population

This is something I've seen repeated a lot. Suppsedly atheists, while making up at least 8% of the overall U.S. population, compose less than 1% of the population of prison inmates. Okay, sure, if this is true, it's a pretty good counter to the idea that atheists are supposedly amoral and evil. But I hadn't seen any evidence that it was true. I was curious enough about this claim to do some googling, and, yes, I did find some pages that gave some numbers to back the claim up. This page and this page both come up on the first page of a Google search. does this one.

The page linked in the last paragraph is a page examining the claim that atheists are so underrepresented in the prison population. I'm not sure who compiled all the text, but there's a good chunk of one of the linked pages, at least, that was apparently written by a Methodist reverend associated with a Christian apologetics site, who based on some of the articles I've glanced through on his site seems to have some rather odd misconceptions about atheism. Still, of course, whether the pages were written by atheists or believers, that doesn't affect the validity of the arguments. seems to me they do a pretty good job of debunking the prison claim.

I won't repeat everything they say--you can, of course, read the pages for yourself--but I'll reiterate some of the most salient points. The data usually used to defend the claim that there are so few atheists in prison are from 1925, and there are good reasons to doubt their validity. The very premise that at least 8% of the U.S. population are atheists is suspect at best, and seems to have been arrived at by conflating survey responses of atheist, agnostic, and nonreligious, which are not the same thing (and are not conflated in the prisoner data the figure is being compared to!)

At best, the available data seem to allow the interpretation that around 0.5% of the U.S. population are atheists, and 0.2% of the prison population are. If true, that would still mean that atheists are underrepresented in prisons. But if so, it's by a far narrower margin than is commonly claimed, and it's still pretty iffy.

I'd really like to believe that atheists are underrepresented in the prison population. If there's better data to back up the claim, I'd like to see it. But if there isn't better data available--then let's stop spreading the claim around. We're not really helping anything by propagating misinformation (or unsupported information).

Bad Argument Number Two: Atheists Are The Most Distrusted Minority In America

I've seen this one bandied around a lot, too. And, again, a Google search pulls up some pages backing it up: the first page on the list is a story from the University of Minnesota newspaper, and the second an article on the American Sociological Association website--though both those pages simply repeat the exact same news story. An ABC News Page gives a different story about the same study the other pages are referring to.

Now, certainly atheists are widely distrusted--sometimes to ludicrous extremes. Yes, I'm aware of George (H. W.) Bush's famous assertion that he didn't think atheists "should be considered as citizens". I know a number of states still have laws on the books prohibiting atheists from holding public office. Yes, atheists are distrusted. No question.

But the most distrusted minority in America? Well...come on. Let's be serious here.

As it happens, I'm writing this article from a lab on campus (what am I doing on campus after midnight? Long story), and USC has full access to the American Sociological Review, where the study appeared, so I can pull it up online and see for myself exactly what it says. So, here's the deal:

The study consisted of a telephone survey in which randomly selected subjects were asked one of the following questions pertaining to their attitudes toward various groups of people:

Now I want to read you a list of different groups of people who live in this country. For each one, please tell me how much you think people in this group agree with YOUR vision of American society—almost completely, mostly, somewhat, or not at all?


People can feel differently about their children marrying people from various backgrounds. Suppose your son or daughter wanted to marry [a person in given category]. Would you approve of this choice, disapprove of it, or wouldn’t it make any difference at all one way or the other?

The article does not, unfortunately, give a complete list of the groups the survey subjects were asked about, but they included at least the following: African Americans, Asian Americans, atheists, conservative Christians, Hispanics, homosexuals, Jews, recent immigrants, and white Americans. 39.6% of those interviewed said that atheists agreed "not at all" with their view of American society, and 47.6% said they would disapprove of their child's marrying an atheist. In both cases, these were the highest percentages of any group asked about. (Muslims were in second place on both questions; in third place were homosexuals on the first question, and Hispanics on the second. (Homosexuals don't appear at all in the list of negative responses to the second question, incidentally, presumably because they weren't included in that question--after all, asking about letting your child marry a homosexual kind of brings up different matters from the other groups.))

Now, does this show that atheists are distrusted? Absolutely. I think the study shows that quite well. (Not that it wasn't already obvious.) But does it show that they're the most distrusted minority in America? No, it doesn't. It shows that they're more distrusted than African Americans, Asian Americans, conservative Christians, Hispanics, homosexuals, Jews, recent immigrants, and white Americans. But that's far from being a complete list of minorities. What about Satanists? Would more Americans be comfortable with their child marrying a Satanist than an atheist? How about known terrorists? How many Americans would say that known terrorists agree, even somewhat, with their vision of American society? Those are minorities that I'm pretty sure the researchers didn't ask about.

(Which is not, I hasten to add, an indictment of the study. After all, the researchers don't claim to have proven that atheists are the "most distrusted minority in America". That's a claim that was invented by the news outlets reporting on the story, and later picked up by the atheist blogosphere. The researchers aren't responsible for that.)

Now, you could say I'm splitting hairs here. Surely no one really thinks of known terrorists as composing a "minority", even if in a technical sense they are. (There are more non-terrorists than known terrorists in America, right?) Even Satanists--well, there aren't really enough of them around to count, are there? But where do we draw the line as to what counts as a minority and what doesn't? Sure, there's been a study showing that atheists are more distrusted than certain other minorities, but until we can compare them with all minorities--and, of course, we can't--then saying that they're the "most distrusted minority in America" is a bit hyperbolic.

You may say I'm splitting hairs here. Maybe I am. But I'm not convinced splitting hairs isn't important in this case. After all, atheists are already distrusted. Making claims that are technically false--or at least undemonstrable--isn't really going to win us any trust. By all means let's continue to point out how atheists are unjustly mistrusted, but let's not keep going on about how we're the "most distrusted minority in America". Because, y'know...we're not.

(And, incidentally, the study does contain some good news. In the introductory remarks, it compares surveys done over the years about whether or not Americans would be willing to vote for members of various minority groups for president, and notes that the proportion of Americans who say they'd be willing to vote for an atheist for president has increased--from less than 20% in 1959, to about 40% in 1978, to 49% in 1999. Granted, that's still a disturbingly small proportion, but at least it's growing (although not as quickly as the corresponding proportion for homosexuals, which surprisingly jumped from about 25% in 1978 to almost 60% in 1999). So I guess that could be taken as evidence that acceptance of atheists is growing...albeit unfortunately rather slowly. Though, then again, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the renewed emphasis on religion in politics under the Bush administration has brought those numbers down again in the last seven years...)

Well...I guess that's it for now. Again, I'm by no means trying to argue that atheists aren't distrusted, or that such distrust isn't unmerited. Certainly atheists can be just as moral and benevolent as believers, and certainly there's a lot of unjustified distrust of atheists among the American populace. But we can raise those issues, and try to work against popular opinions and misconceptions, without introducing some misconceptions and distortions of our own. That's all I'm saying.

Tomorrow...something less controversial!

No, wait, tomorrow I'd planned to post about my thoughts about Richard Dawkins. Never mind.


At 3/02/2007 10:13 AM, Blogger Infophile said...

Actually, I've heard one explanation for the dearth of atheists in prison that seems to make sense: The food. Normal prison fare is crap, but those people with religious laws about the food they can eat (normally Hindus and Buddhists run into problems here) have to be provided for (though I'd disagree with this), so they get special meals, which often end up being better. This means that a lot of people end up lying about their religion so they can eat the better food, and atheists that ended up in prison are often the type who would see no qualms about this.

At 3/02/2007 12:39 PM, Blogger Carlie said...

I read it! Ok, not all that often, but regularly.

I think that the prison argument is actually a good one. Not because of the statistical significance, which as you point out is small, but because it directly refutes one of the main anti-atheist arguments that atheists are evil and criminal. If everything theists said about atheists was true, then the prison population should be overwhelmingly atheist.

I don't know about the food part referenced in the last comment. That makes a bit of sense, but most of the religious special diets are vegetarian, which most Americans wouldn't like for more than a few days.

At 3/02/2007 3:32 PM, Anonymous Fatboy said...

I still check your blog at least once a week, so keep those posts coming. (I may have commented under "Jeff" before. I decided to start using my old nickname since there are less "Fatboys" commenting in the skeptic/science blogoshere than "Jeffs." Anyway...)

I agree with you that it's a bit of hyperbole to call atheists the most distrusted group in the U.S. But, to give you one more data point that people use to come up with this claim, Gallup did a poll last month where they asked:

"Between now and the 2008 political conventions, there will be discussion about the qualifications of presidential candidates -- their education, age, religion, race, and so on. If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be …, would you vote for that person?"

And atheists got the least approval in that poll - 53% saying they'd vote for one, and 45% saying they wouldn't.

At 3/02/2007 3:38 PM, Blogger Lifewish said...

You're on my list of RSS feeds. There is no escape from being read.

On the subject of atheist arguments, one of the most common ways I see people tying themselves in a knot is by confusing proof of a position with disproof of its converse. So, for example, evolutionary biology doesn't prove that God didn't create the world; it just disproves the notion that He was strictly necessary.

That's a rather unsubtle example, of course, but there are lots of times where this problem comes up and neither debater even notices it.

At 3/03/2007 7:23 AM, Blogger Carolyn the Red said...

I'm reading (clearly not every day, but I'm reading).

I think the prison thing seems to imply that religion makes absolutely no difference to someone's morality.

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