Imprisonment and Religiosity

Richard G. Dumont

Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it.

—Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 2011

According to a recent report issued by the Population Reference Bureau, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. For countries that are comparable to the United States (affluent democracies, such as in, namely, Western Europe and Australia), the incarceration rate is 100 inmates per 100,000 population, whereas for the United States it is 500, a full five times greater.1 What accounts for this variability? Among the other well-documented differences between the United States and comparable nations is its high degree of theism or religiosity. The purpose of this research exercise is to examine the relationships between religiosity and prison incarceration rates. In doing so, we shall also investigate the potential involvement of other probable explanatory variables, namely race and income.

Table 1. Incarceration rates (in- mates per 100,000 population) for the 50 states and Washington, D.C., for the year 2010, presented in decreasing order of magnitude 867 Louisiana 686 Mississippi 654 Oklahoma 648 Alabama 648 Texas 572 Arizona 556 Florida 553 Washington, D.C. 552 Arkansas 508 Missouri 495 South Carolina 479 Georgia 474 Idaho 472 Nevada 468 Virgina 458 Kentucky 448 Ohio 445 Colorado 445 Michigan 443 Delaware 439 California 434 Indiana 432 Tennessee 416 South Dakota 403 Pennsylvania 387 Maryland 385 Wyoming 378 Montana 376 Connecticut 373 Illinois 373 North Carolina 366 Wisconsin 363 West Virgina 361 Oregon 340 Alaska 323 New Mexico 317 Kansas 309 Iowa 302 Hawaii 288 New York 286 New Jersey 269 Washington 265 Vermont 247 Nebraska 238 Utah 226 North Dakota 209 New Hampshire 200 Massachusetts 197 Rhode Island 185 Minnesota 148 Maine Source: National Institute of Corrections

Data and Methodology

The units of analysis are the fifty states and Washington, D.C. Data on incarceration rates derive from official 2010 statistics published by the National Institute of Corrections.2 Table 1 displays the 2010 incarceration rates, arrayed in descending order, from the highest to the lowest. Among the top twelve are a preponderance of Southern states, while the twelve with the lowest incarceration rates are found in the North, including all of New England, with the exception of Connecticut. Religiosity data are taken from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life U.S. Religious Landscape Survey for the year 2013.3 Although we examine differences among the major denominations of Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, and Catholic, particular attention is paid to five religious beliefs and practices, namely, “Belief in God or Universal Spirit,” “Importance of Religion in One’s Life,” “Frequency of Attendance at Religious Services,” “Frequency of Prayer,” and “Interpretation of Scripture.”

The response alternatives to each of the above beliefs and practices are as follows:

• “Belief in God or Universal Spirit”: “Absolutely Certain that God Exists,” “Fairly Certain that God Exists,” “Not Too Certain that God Exists,” and “Does Not Believe in God.”

• “Importance of Religion in One’s Life”: “Very Important,” “Somewhat Important,” and “Not Too or Not at All Important.”

• “Frequency of Attendance at Religious Services”: “At Least Once a Week,” “Once or Twice Monthly/A Few Times a Year,” and “Seldom or Never.”

• “Frequency of Prayer”: “At Least Once a Day,” “Once a Week/A Few Times a Week,” “A Few Times a Month,” and “Seldom or Never.”

• “Interpretation of Scripture”: “Word of God, Literally True Word for Word,” “Word of God, But Not Literally True Word for Word/Unsure if Literally True,” and “Book Written by Man.”

The first response alternative for each of the above five beliefs and practices are considered indicative of a high degree of religiosity, the last alternative constitutes low religiosity, and the middle response alternatives reflect moderate levels of religiosity.

For each of the five beliefs and practices variables, the percentages of respondents falling into identified categories were converted to standardized z scores. Subsequently, for each of the three sets of five z scores, the scores were combined to constitute the resulting composite variables of “High Religiosity” (HIGHREL), “Moderate Religiosity” (MODREL), and “Low Religiosity” (LOWREL). This study is concerned exclusively with the most extreme degree of religiosity, namely, HIGHREL. Table 2 shows the HIGHREL z scores for the fifty states and Washington, D.C., for the year 2013.

Figure 1. Relationship between High Religiosity (HIGHREL) and the incarceration rate (Inmate per 100,000 population) for the 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C.

graph with line showing direct correlation

Table 2. High Religiosity (HIGHREL) z scores for the 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., for the year 2013, arrayed in descending order of magnitude 11.88 8.36 8.09 7.73 7.35 7.1 5.82 5.78 5.15 5.03 4.56 4.3 4.08 2.86 1.92 1.9 1.28 1.02 1.00 .69 .69 -.04 -.18 -.21 -.36 -.36 -.36 -.53 -.75 -1.23 -1.26 -1.6 -1.6 -1.63 -1.76 -2.86 -2.9 -2.92 -3.22 -3.41 -3.85 -4.29 -4.34 -5.05 -6.2 -6.2 -6.9 -7.42 -7.84 -8.67 -8.67 Mississippi Alabama Lousiana South Carolina Tennessee Arkansas North Carolina Kentucky Oklahoma Georgia Utah Texas West Virgina Kansas Indiana Missouri Nebraska Virgina Idaho North Dakota South Dakota Florida Ohio Hawaii Delaware Washington, D.C. Maryland Pennsylvania Michigan Illinois Iowa Montana Wyoming New Mexico Minnesota Nevada New Jersey Arizona Washington Wisconsin California Oregon New York Colorado Connecticut Rhode Island Massachusttes Maine Alaska New Hampshire Vermont

As was the case with Table 1, Southern states predominate among the top twelve, while the bottom twelve are all in the North, with the exception of California. Data are analyzed using simple bivariate descriptive statistics and scatter-diagrams, as well as multivariate regression analysis, as appropriate.4


Correlational analyses involving Incarceration Rates (INCRATE) and the three major religious denominations, Evangelical Protestant (EPROT), Mainline Protestant (MPROT), and Catholic (CATH) yielded the following correlations with INCRATE; EPROT = .574 (p=.000); MPROT= -.425 (p=.002); and CATH= -.348 (p=.012). States having the highest proportional representation of Evangelical Protestants have the highest incarceration rates, while states with proportionately more Mainline Protestants and/or Catholics have lower rates of incarceration.

Figure 1 is a scatter diagram displaying the relationship between High Religiosity (HIGHREL) and the Incarceration Rate (INCRATE). The correlation coefficient (r) of .634 (p=.000) is indicative of a strong positive relationship. This finding supports the hypothesis that the higher the religiosity, the higher the i
ncarceration rate

Although it may be tempting to conclude that our work is done (this may be especially true for those of us self-identifying as secular humanists or atheists), we are obliged to consider additional and/or alternative potential explanatory variables. Our commitment to reason and the scientific method compels us to do so.

In that regard, the Population Reference Bureau report, cited at the beginning of this article, provides useful guidance. The report notes that the incarceration rate for blacks or African American men was 3,074 per 100,000 population, as compared with 459 per 100,000 population for white men. That study also suggests the effects of low income on incarceration rates. Accordingly, it is incumbent upon us to examine the joint effects of our three independent variables, High Religiosity (HIGHREL), Percent Black (%BLACK), and Median Household Income (INCOME) on the Incarceration Rate (INCRATE).

An Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) Regression Analysis was performed to address this research question, the results of which are displayed in Table 3.

Table 3. /></p> <p>Results of ordinary least squares regression analysis of Incarceration Rate (INCAR) on %BLACK, INCOME, and HIGHREL %BLACK INCOME HIGHREL Intercept r 0.579 -0.435 0.634 Beta B s.e.b. 0.44 5.85 1.7 -0.263 -0.004 0.002 0.247 7.43 4.93 0 571.58 119.72 P 0.001 0.069 0.138 0 R2=.524, F=17.25, D.F.=3.47, p<.001 Adjusted R2=.494 Note: All correlations (r) are statistically significant at p</p> <p>Although all correlations are statistically significant, it is clear from the regression analysis that %BLACK is the strongest predictor of Incarceration Rates (INCRATE), followed by Median Household Income (INCOME). By comparison, High Religiosity (HIGHREL) plays a minor, and nearly inconsequential role. In fact, by performing an additional multiple regression analysis involving only %BLACK and INCOME as variables, I am forced to conclude that HIGHREL accounts for but 2.7 percent of the variation in Incarceration Rates (INCRATE).</p> <h3>Conclusion</h3> <p>I began this study by examining the relationship between high religiosity and the incarceration rates for the fifty states and Washington, D.C., and found a strong positive relationship. As a secular humanist, I was gratified by this finding, since it conformed with my beliefs and values, as well as hoped-for results. My commitments to reason and science propelled me to consider other possible explanatory variables, however. Guided by the findings of previous research, I incorporated race and income into my analyses. Including those two independent variables, along with high religiosity into a multiple regression analysis, I found race to be the most powerful predictor of incarceration rates, followed by income. Contrary to prior expectations, high religiosity was revealed to play a very minor and basically inconsequential role. In the parlance of statistical analysis, the relationship was revealed to be a spurious one.</p> <p> </p> <h3>Notes</h3> <p>1. Tsai, Tyler, and Paola Scommegna, “U.S. Has World’s Highest Incarceration Rate,Population Reference Bureau. Accessed at

2. National Institute of Corrections. Accessed at

3. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. Accessed at

4. I am indebted to William Miller for the free online use of his versatile and powerful statistical analysis package, OpenStat. See his book, Statistics and Measurement Concepts with OpenStat. New York: Springer, 2013.



Richard G. Dumont

Richard G. Dumont is the author of numerous articles and books in the field of sociology. His most recent books are Economic Inequality and What YOU Can Do About It and When Hate Happens, So Does Other Bad Stuff (both from Friesen Press, 2012 and 2013 respectively) He is a frequent contributor to Free Inquiry.

Religiosity seems to correlate with criminal conduct . . . until you examine the data more scrupulously.

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.