Menu Close

Does Atheism Lead to Criminal Behavior?


A common refrain from Evangelical zealots is that atheism leads to immoral, unethical behavior. (Please see Do Atheists Really Love to Wallow in Sin?) When asked for evidence to justify their claims, Evangelicals provide none outside of saying THE BIBLE SAYS! Back here in the real world, we expect facts and evidence to confirm the claim that atheism leads to immoral, unethical behavior; that atheists are more immoral and unethical than born-again Christians. Can atheists behave badly? Absolutely. However, their behavior is no different from that of Christian people. All of us are, drumroll please, human. And as humans, we are capable of good and bad behavior. Our goal (except for narcissists) is good behavior. As a humanist, I try to love my neighbors as myself. I try to do good works, treating others as I would want to be treated. Sometimes, I fail to live up to the humanist ideal. I can, at times, act badly. The arc of my life is towards kindness, decency, love, and goodness, and eating good food, but sometimes I can be an asshole. All I know to do is try again to be a better person. There is no God in Heaven or Devil in Hell. There is no sin or judgment, just good, bad, and indifferent behavior.

Yesterday, NPR published an article on the shortage of Muslim chaplains in federal prisons. What piqued my interest was a chart detailing the self-identified religious makeup of prisoners. What this chart made clear is that atheists are not the bad people Evangelicals claim they are.

religion federal prisons

Almost 71,000 out of 118,000 inmates identify as Roman Catholic or Protestant Christians. This chart also shows that Protest Christian — often Evangelical — clerics make up the vast majority of prison chaplains. This is true at the state, county, and local levels too. This should come as no surprise. Evangelical chaplains see prisoners as targets for evangelization; not all Evangelical chaplains, of course, but many of them do.

I spent countless hours “ministering” to prisoners at the Perry County, Ohio Jail, and Ohio state prisons. My goal was not evangelization. I chose, instead, to befriend prisoners. When I, along with another pastor, the late Larry Rue, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in New Lexington, Ohio, showed up on Tuesday nights at the county jail, we were there to listen, not preach. Other churches would come to the jail, stand outside the cells, and preach at the men. The prisoners hated these churches. So Larry and I went into the cells, sat down, and talked with the men, listening to their stories, wants, and needs. (Beavis and Butthead was always on the TV when we were there.) Sure, if they asked questions about God, Jesus, or the Bible, we would try to answer them. And we would pray with and for the men. We never led anyone to Jesus at the Perry County Jail, but I like to think we showed these troubled, hurting men a different side of Christianity (I plan to write about my jail ministry experiences someday).

As this chart makes clear, atheists are not more likely to commit crimes. What the NPR story also made clear to me is that we atheists need to do a better job “ministering” to incarcerated atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other nonbelievers. The problem, of course, is that Protestant Christian clerics and ministries are often the gatekeepers in prisons. At our local jail, Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio (CCNO) — a multi-county facility, Evangelicals rule the roost. I plan on contacting the facility to see what opportunities atheists and humanists might have to help inmates (as chaplains and other religious people do). I previously held services and talked to inmates one-on-one at CCNO when I was pastor of Our Father’s House in West Unity, Ohio, from 1995-2002.

The complete U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Inspector General report can be found here. There’s a hilarious (and ignorant) footnote on the atheist group that says “According to the BOP [Bureau of Prisons], it considers atheist inmates to be represented by its chaplaincy because, as trained religious experts, the BOP’s chaplains of any faith could provide counsel to atheist inmates if needed.” And all the atheists said, BULLSHIT. Using this logic, Christian chaplains could provide counsel to Muslims. Just imagine an Evangelical chaplain “counseling” an atheist inmate. When I sought out a counselor a decade ago, I deliberately avoided Evangelical counselors. I knew their approach and counsel would be horribly skewed towards their religious beliefs. Fortunately, I found a secular counselor, one of the few in rural northwest Ohio.

Do you know of any atheist/humanist prison ministry? If so, please share their info in the comment section.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Connect with me on social media:

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.


  1. Avatar

    Before I was a Christian, a very kind Christian man who was my supervisor befriended me. He would speak about Christianity and his joy when he served in his church, but he was no longer in his church as he felt that his church did not treat people in the way Jesus taught. They were too harsh in their discipline, too uncaring.

    This mans help stayed with me a long time and I had good memories of Christianity. When I did finally convert, it was noticed early on I had a preachers heart and had the conviction to preach and to minister.

    I finally accepted that this man I met was a ‘one off’ Christian, most of evangelicals are in my experience rude, arrogant, uncaring, judgemental, pharisaical.

    We just have to look at this site for the behaviour of evangelicals vs non Christians. If the bible is true and they are inhabited by the Spirit, which is the very Spirit of Christ, why do they behave so un-Christlike?

    • Avatar

      @William That’s because they aren’t true Christians and clearly lack faith or are in the spiritual process of healing. People pretending to be Christians to use religion as a tool. The Bible clearly states that there are many amongst you that are wolves in sheepskin. And also the wheat and tares are together in the field until the second coming. And finally, “you will know them by their fruits”

      • Avatar

        How convenient, André – just disown the bad-behaving among you so that you don’t have to explain why Jesus has less power than the nine-volt battery in a chirping smoke detector.

        Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to whip up a batch of haggis for the pipe band that’s marching in. 😀

  2. Avatar

    Wow,those Christian scientists have this prison ministry down.14 volunteers for 1 inmate. That is an impressive ratio.

  3. Avatar

    Humanism for All is a American Humanist Association prison outreach.

    FFRF got humanism accepted in to the Virginia prison system so that inmates can have access to the same resources. The article is “FFRF helps get humanism into prison system” on FFRF’s website.

  4. Avatar
    Steve Ruis

    According to your chart atheists make up 0.15% of that prison population. It is hard to get an actual number for the number of U.S. atheists but it is somewhere between 5-15% of Americans. So, atheists, according to these data, are far less likely to commit crimes that are the religious.

  5. Avatar

    There are people who are kind and caring among all faiths and among those with no faith. I feel like the nastiest people gravitate toward the nastiest groups, whether those groups are religious, political, or whatever. I am sure inmates would appreciate counselors who mirror their faith, but a good counselor should be able to offer support regardless of faith.

  6. Avatar

    To my mind there is a difference between a minister and a chaplain. Chaplains ideally should have a working knowledge of how to meet people in their faith, not necessarily to change that faith. I think it’s a special person who can do that, although training in diverse faiths could help, it requires the abandonment of the urge to convert.

    Most of us pagans don’t have a burning need for clerics, we need more access to books than most prisoners have.

    Michael Franzese, the former mobster who has an active YouTube presence, talks a little about being given a Bible while he was in solitary confinement. While he makes no secret that he is a believer, he hints he’s no longer exactly Catholic while never naming what sort of church he now attends. Classy, in a way you wouldn’t expect.

  7. Avatar
    Michael Mock

    I also wonder to what extent those statistics are shaped by expectation? If you want to present yourself to a parole board as a good, reformed person who deserves a second chance… well, “finding religion” while in jail is still a solid social “hack” for making that impression.

Want to Respond to Bruce? Fire Away! If You Are a First Time Commenter, Please Read the Comment Policy Located at the Top of the Page.

Bruce Gerencser