This is the first article under our new semi-regular column, “Inside the Walls,” featuring commentary and perspectives from incarcerated humanists.
Most people who enter prison with a lengthy sentence quickly find God. I, on the other hand, found humanism.
At the age of fourteen, I shed the encumbrances of religion and proudly identified as an atheist. However, when your entire family consists of staunch Catholics, and you have yet to encounter another “out” atheist, to where and to whom do you turn for moral guidance? I felt alone in my rejection of faith, and as a result I began wandering down a road of rebellion, heaping scorn upon organized religion and “traditional” values. I knew quite well what I didn’t believe but, unfortunately, never took the time to reflect on what I did believe. In other words, I was too preoccupied with the negative to give any consideration to the positive. If I had discovered humanism at the same moment I lost my faith in a god, I may well have embarked on a far different road, one that didn’t lead to me spending the rest of my life incarcerated at the age of eighteen.
It wasn’t until the New Atheist movement began thunderously making noise that I finally recognized that there could be more to being a nonbeliever than raging against religionists and their incoherent interpretations of reality. Though I delighted in the rigorous deconstruction of religions by the “Four Horsemen” of the movement (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris), it was the periodicals of secular humanism—specifically Free Inquiry and the Humanist—that truly enlightened me. I found within their pages, nestled in the erudite words of their contributors, the indispensable guidance I had been missing for so long, the moral beacon by which I could navigate through the darkness of prison. Benevolence, fairness, compassion, and responsibility replaced anger, hatred, and a self-destructive pessimism that had bordered on nihilism. Secular humanism gave me a purpose, a reason to change from the person I had been into the person I wanted to be. And you would imagine that such a transformative worldview as humanism would be supported and granted the same accommodations as those provided to religion. But it’s not, and therein lies one of the obstacles atheists and humanists face while in prison.
Over the years I have attempted to introduce and foster a healthy humanism within these walls. I spent two years struggling with administrators, chaplains, and others just to be allowed the right to purchase an American Atheist necklace from an outside vendor because our commissary didn’t offer anything for the nontheist. Currently, all religious items have been removed from our commissary and must be specially ordered through the chapel from an extensive catalog of pre-approved items. Conspicuously absent from this extensive catalog, however, is anything for practicing humanists. I therefore filed a formal request—ironically called a religious accommodation request—with the office of religious services, to add a humanist necklace to the catalog and to purchase one for my personal use. Their response was that my request would be reviewed and I would be notified of their decision. It’s been over a year since I submitted the necessary information, and despite numerous follow-up letters to their office, I haven’t heard back from them.
At one time, the chapel mailbox, which sits in a row of other institution mailboxes, was decorated with a large Christian cross that had been painted on its face. I felt compelled to write a polite letter to the chaplain in charge, explaining that the chapel provided services not just for Christians, but also for Muslims, Wiccans, Buddhists, and other believers (though nothing yet for humanists), and that the explicitly Christian symbol on the mailbox could be interpreted by non-Christian inmates as a sign of favoritism or discrimination. I suggested that the cross be painted over and the mailbox left unadorned in order to maintain a respectable neutrality. Of course, the process of bringing about change in prison is typically snail-paced, and this issue was certainly not met with any immediate action. It would take nearly two years after my initial letter for the chapel mailbox to be repainted. None of the other inmates even seemed to notice.
It’s difficult to find more than a handful of liberal-minded people in prison. While the rabid hounds of bigotry and intolerance bark incessantly within these walls, there I sit, calmly and passionately promoting LGBTQ equality, defending the reproductive choices of all women, and denouncing violence against minorities like immigrants and Muslims. It is my complete immersion in the humanist moral philosophy that has rehabilitated me, not incarceration. But try as I might to share with others what I’ve learned as a humanist, too few are willing to listen. They are far more resolute in either remaining the identical persons they were prior to their arrests, or they’re too swept up in religious fervor to even acknowledge the merits of secular morality.
Religious faith is so pervasive in prison that an atheist can often feel alone, similar to how many of us feel when we, as Greta Christina has written about, “come out.” So it’s especially refreshing and a great opportunity when another nonbeliever arrives. Most, like my younger self, haven’t been acquainted with humanism. I enjoy introducing them, much like a matchmaker, to books like Greg Epstein’s Good Without God and to Free Mind and the Humanist, with the hope that they too will discover a beacon to help them navigate through the darkness of this uncaring environment.
As a nonbeliever, my morality isn’t built upon the sands of sacred writ but on the stable ground of experience, reason, science, and the humanist philosophy of compassion and empathy for everyone. I am emboldened not by a love for a god but by a genuine love for humankind. I believe it to be my duty to promote happiness and health, to inhibit agony and sorrow, whenever and wherever possible.
Being a humanist in prison requires patience, honesty, and commitment. But I will tell you something—it sure is worth it.