Religious labels

I have just discovered that I am a Presbyterian. I used to think I was Anglican. However, I do know that my beliefs are atheist.

This  confusion comes from the way religious labels are used. Ten years ago I visited Israel and spent Easter in Jerusalem. My Israeli guide asked me what my religion was and refused to accept my description of “none.” “What is the religion of your parents?” she asked, exhibiting the common belief that religion was an heritable characteristic.

Well, I don’t think my parents had any religion. They certainly never attended any church or told us children what religion they were. However, I did notice that when it came to filling out official forms – census and hospital admissions for example – they always wrote ‘C of E’, Anglican. Perhaps that answers my guide’s question.

But no. I have recently come across official documents from dealings my family had with government departments when I was 4 years old. These describe the family religion as Presbyterian! There hadn’t been any conversions. It’s just that people were never given a real choice in those days. They had to fill in the form and many probably chose their religion randomly.

So you can see why I am a bit sceptical of statistical data broken down by religion. Such data probably says very little about religious beliefs.

With that qualification in mind here are some data describing the religious affiliations of US prison inmates in 1997 (see Atheists, the religious, and their behaviours compared).

Apparently 0.2% of prisoners were atheist, 7.3% Muslim, 35% Protestant and 39.1% Catholic. When compared with the population as a whole the figures suggest that Muslims are about 9 times more likely to be in prison, Protestants 2/3 less likely and Catholics 2/3 more likely.

Atheists were 50 times less likely!

Data also suggests that Catholics are more likely, and secularists less likely, to support torture than the general population.

Atheists and agnostics are less likely (21%) to be divorced than Jews (30%) and Christians (24% or 27% for ‘Born Again’ Christians).

Religious labels really say very little about beliefs and values. But these data certainly conflict with the message some conservative theists give that us godless heathens are immoral people.

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7 responses to “Religious labels

  1. HAHA! That’s awesome!

    I use Christian and Wesleyan Methodist to describe my belief system. If I didn’t attend a Wesleyan Methodist Church and didn’t hold to the orthodox Christian belief system, I couldn’t possibly use either.

    We’re probably in agreement that it would be nice to see this cultural baggage stripped away and people just representing their actual views rather than simply their cultural inheritance. Like you, I would probably hazard at a guess that whilst many may culturally identify with Christianity, when their beliefs were actually examined, the figures for Christianity would be less in NZ than how it looks according to the census.


  2. You’re spot on about labels often not ‘meaning what they mean’…

    I’m unsure, however, as to whether your presentation of stats and figures about ‘likiness’ (to be in prison, support torture or get divorced) is a joke or not…
    Obviously you’d have to consider the number of (for example) protestants who are (for example) in prison to the number of protestants in that society, get a percentage, and do the same with others and then compare…


  3. For prison the ‘likely’ conclusions are based on comparing the % of prison population with the % of total population.

    The torture/divorce are just comparison of % in each case. That is if 30% of Jews are divorced and 21% of atheist/agnostic then Jews are more likely to be divorced.

    I don’t think there is any problem with the figures or interpretation of likeliness. The problem is what does an individuals response to a question mean about their beliefs.

    At some stage I did see a claim that similar figures of NZ showed a higher proportion of prisoners answered atheist than for society as a whole. I can’t locate the report now but there must be figures available somewhere to check that claim.


  4. “Such data probably says very little about religious beliefs.

    With that qualification in mind here are some data describing the religious affiliations of US prison inmates in 1997”

    You drew the right conclusion about data saying anything meaningful about religious beliefs. One guy I met said he was baptized Catholic at birth, then as a Baptist as a teen, but didn’t attend any church now and knew nothing about God. There is no telling what box he would check.

    But your first point was so overwhelmingly accurate that I don’t see how you can dismiss it by saying “With that qualification in mind . . .” then move on to your conclusion. That is an enormous qualification! Your original premise proved that the prison stats are meaningless.

    I do prison ministry, and I assure you that there is a massive difference between the authentic Christians there and those that checked a box relative to what their parents or upbringing was.


  5. Prison stats may well be meaningless – and the same can be said of the statistics about religious affiliation in general. And yet they are used to justify all sorts of things in society – eg. tax exemption, parliamentary prayers, etc.

    Your term ‘authentic Christians’ is subjective – you judge the authenticity. But statistics aren’t collected this way – they are based on declared positions. Thats just the way it is with that sort of survey – religious affiliation really has nothing to do with belief.

    However, Neil, with that qualification in mind. What is your assessment about the proportion of ‘authentic’ atheists in prison?


  6. I have no idea. I just go to one prison and don’t survey all people.

    I think we can judge the authenticity in general, but each person’s salvation is between them and God. Some people are good fakes. I know, because I used to be one before I become a believer. I was such a good fake that I didn’t realize I was a fake.


  7. Tyson Koska

    The whole religion-labeling thing has me completely baffled as well… I’ve written about it a couple times on my blog (… I feel like if people just took some time to examine what the hell they were implying with those labels, we’d be far better off…


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