INSIDE THE WALLS | If Only More Atheists Robbed Banks

The Cell-Bunk Perspective on Forming a Humanist Study Group


I’m sitting on my cell bunk poring over a small stack of stats in fact-checking a book I’m writing when a random, unrelated headline catches my eye. A federal court, the headline proclaims, has granted humanist inmates the right to get together and discuss their views—a privilege long since reserved for incarcerated individuals who were members of a traditional religious congregation.

This may not sound like much, but for me it was huge. After nearly a quarter-century isolated from fellow nontheists due to my incarceration—including three years in solitary and one in a prison in the Yucatan—I was eager to escape the echo chamber of my own mind. After decades watching from the sidelines as religiously affiliated inmates gathered each week to share their views and celebrate their beliefs, I could hardly believe our chance had arrived.

However, as far as I could tell, no one around here was aware of the ruling. I figured it was up to me to spread the good news—after all, there couldn’t be more than a dozen or so nontheists here, and all within a quarter-mile radius. How hard could it be?

I soon learned that finding the occasional nontheist needle in a hostile theist haystack was no mean task. When I finally did find a few nontheists, I was still faced with the challenge of persuading them to come out of the proverbial closet, in an environment where theists may be an inmate’s only allies—his only buffer against the gangs.

You see, in a prison yard environment, those who hold minority views often avoid taking firm positions involving politics or religion—or rather, the lack thereof. And they avoid saying things like the “A-word” (atheist). So asking them to form a nontheist group is asking a lot.

Moreover, I should have known that the theist hordes weren’t about to sit back and allow godless heathens to waltz in and upset their centuries-old chapel monopoly cart without a fight. By the time I’d found a few interested nontheists and we were thinking about how we might share the good news regarding the court’s decision, the story of us godless heathens and our blasphemous designs to desecrate the Lord’s sanctuary with our unholy presence had spread like wildfire.

It didn’t take long for the theists to strike back. First came the all-out charm offensive. Any inmate expressing interest in the literature sent to us by the American Humanist Association, or who was caught associating with me, got the red carpet treatment. We were assured there was no need for a nontheist study group since we were all welcome to attend their religious services. They even promised not to hold our godless heathenism against us. It would fall on me to deliver the bad news to our gracious would-be hosts: thanks, but no thanks.

And that’s when I became persona non grata.

To be fair, I suspect my biggest obstacle to forming a humanist study group has nothing to do with theist shenanigans—or theist anything for that matter. I’d hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we nontheists may simply not have what it takes to sustain adequate representation among the inmate population. At the heart of the problem is our stubborn insistence on examining the facts before making life-altering decisions.

You see, someone who refuses to bet everything on the heartwarming and fuzzy, if unverifiable, promises of religion is unlikely to dispense with their fact-verification habit in pursuit of the ephemeral lure of easy money from criminal activity. Sustaining the criminal mindset requires a logic-leaping capacity, which the nontheist may lack. It requires a pair of de-facto rose-colored glasses with the capacity to deflect or filter out evidence of an avalanche of undesirable consequences that could very well slide down the slope of life in one’s direction.

This may go a long way toward explaining why some thirty of every one thousand Americans are atheists—yet as few as one in one thousand prison inmates self-identify as atheist. There just aren’t enough nontheists out there robbing banks and distributing controlled substances on the hazy notion that this is a rational means of acquiring cash.

In other words, at the root of my troubles forming a prison humanist group is the theory that nontheists aren’t filling prison cells for the same reason they aren’t filling the pews at church: they obstinately insist on inspecting the drifting morsels encountered in the sea of life—no matter how tasty— to look for the sharp, curved little objects tied to the string as bait.

As a result, while the theists in my midst claim bragging rights for sustaining thirty-one separate study groups, involving some twenty different religions and boasting several hundreds of participants in some cases—we nontheists are relegated to scraping the bottom of the barrel in the hopes of cobbling together one small study group.

The sad—or happy—truth is that prison is a lonely place for nontheists. Show of hands—any volunteers to rob a bank so as to help alleviate the chronic underrepresentation of nontheists in the prison population? No?

You see what I mean. Nontheists just won’t take the bait.