What It's Like to Be an Atheist in Prison When Only God Forgives

Between chaplains offering guidance and the 12-step programs spiritual undertones, what happens when you want rehabilitation without needing to find God?

by Hussein Kesvani
Sep 4 2016, 4:00am

Photo by Chaddy Fynn via

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

Prison might be a grim place, but it's a holy one too. We've all heard the stories: hardened criminal commits heinous act, gets locked up for decades, and, after spending his first few years brawling and taking drugs, meets another inmate who quotes just the right bible passage so that our guy ends up finding God.

There's some truth to the narrative, too. While the UK as a whole is becoming less religious, there's been a significant increase in the number of religious people currently held in the UK's prison system. More than 42,000 Christians live behind bars, up from around 40,000 in 2004, while the number of Muslims has nearly doubled from 6,571 to just over 12,000. As a result, many prisons have adapted to help inmates on their journeys with God, providing prayer rooms, more access to chaplains, and facilitating special dietary requirements.

Which is all well and good, unless you're an atheist. No one quite knows how many prisoners could be classified as such, in part because the question isn't asked specifically, but over 25,000 prisoners were recorded to "not have a religion" in 2014.

I meet Alan (whose identity I've concealed as per his solicitor's request) in central London. Last year, he finished his eight-and-a-half-year sentence for robbery and assault, and during his incarceration moved between various prisons across the country. Having grown up in a semi-devout Catholic family, Alan's now a committed atheist. Several times in our conversation he refers to religion—all religion—as "total fucking bollocks." It's a bit awkward when I tell him I'm a Muslim, but he laughs it off, saying he hopes one day I'll "wake up and see some sense."

"Religion was a huge thing in prison; they were all mad for it," Alan tells me. "Part of it was the survival instinct: some of the boys who were associated with the prison gangs converted to Islam, and that was more to be part of the pack than driven by any sincere belief. They wanted to be part of a group, and I don't blame them—prison's a fucking lonely place."

Zealots aside, Alan says that the mix of free time, an abundance of Christian literature, and frequent conversations with chaplains from faith groups often led people to embrace religion again. For some prisoners, he says it was opportunistic—"they didn't care about religion, but also didn't want to be holed up all day. So they'd put on a bit of an act, convince the boss they wanted to change their lives in prison. Really that was just so they could go out and do group activities: sports, art, shit like that."

When I ask Alan why he didn't simply pretend to be religious, he shrugs. "I'm not a good actor. I'd have the opportunity to speak to the prison chaplain if I wanted, but I didn't see much use, and I wasn't willing to pretend I was religious to get fairly mundane privileges." Few people chose that path. As a result, most of Alan's prison life was lonely, with his time spent exercising, watching TV, and sleeping.

Nearly all prisons in the UK have at least one in-house chaplain to provide pastoral care and support, according to the Ministry of Justice. And while the care provided is supposed to be for all inmates, the historic role of the chaplain has nearly always been a religious one. "Spiritual issues are rife in prison—the sense of abandonment, loneliness, shame is palpable," says Ben Ryan, a researcher at Christian think tank Theos. "Faith-based chaplains can help formulate answers to these questions. They are trusted figures who have a different status to other prison employees. They're often used in official or unofficial brokerage roles, for example getting prisoners to end dirty protests, while the faith-specific element allows prisoners to fulfill their right to practice their religion."

Ben tells me that while chaplains are useful in the rehabilitation process for prisoners—providing literal "safe spaces" by the way of chapels—"more could be done to support the non-religious. There's definitely a shortage of alternative pastoral and welfare support."

It's a sentiment Alan would agree with, as he says the dominance of faith in the UK prison system meant there were few options available to him during the tougher parts of his sentence. He went through serious periods of depression, but says he "just didn't feel comfortable talking to the chaplain; he was a nice guy, but I felt when I was explaining things to him, he didn't really get it. Everything would go back to how I 'felt spiritually' and what I needed to do to boost my spirit. I told him I didn't believe in God, which he said was fine—but five minutes later, he'd go on about God loving everyone. It just made me more angry."

There's this idea that prisoners go in bad, and come out good—that's why I think religion is so powerful there. It's the whole idea of being 'forgiven' — atheist and former inmate, Alan

According to the British Humanist Association, cases like Alan's are more common than you'd think. For nearly a decade, the BHA has provided copies of the Young Atheist's Handbook to prisons around the country, and has lobbied the government to provide more resources for non-believers behind bars.

"'Chaplain' is a wholly Christian term and research shows that it often acts as a barrier for non-religious people in accessing support in times of crisis," says Simon O' Donoghue, BHA head of pastoral support. "Our pastoral carers provide a very similar service to religious chaplains, in that they provide a listening ear at times of crisis in order to tend to the pastoral needs of prisoners."

O'Donoghue tells me that while most 'rehabilitation' services in prisons are run by 'secular' organizations—namely the probation service and psychology departments—they still contain faith-based element. Just take "recognizing the need for a higher power" in the 12-step RAPt drugs program. "So if you have a drug or alcohol problems and you are an atheist," he says, "your choice is rather narrow compared to your religious counterparts."

Providing more choice in prisons will be difficult, though. According to the majority of voluntary chaplaincy organizations I spoke to, cuts to the prison service have hit prisoners the most, particularly in areas like welfare and support. Volunteers fill the gap, and, not surprisingly, most come from religious groups. You end up in a sort of catch-22, where the very types of people more likely to want to help—"because of the kind of redemptive narrative that exists in there," according to Matthew Wells, the national secretary of the Community Chaplaincy Association—might be the most alienating to atheist inmates.

"There's this idea that prisoners go in bad, and come out good—that's why I think religion is so powerful there," says Alan. "It's the whole idea of being 'forgiven.'" Instead, he suggests, prison should be a place with more emphasis on learning, "with all the free time, people could be using to look at their own opinions and decide for themselves who they want to be when their time is up—that's going to require more than some bloke telling you that God loves you."

Follow Hussein on Twitter.