Atheist Inmates In Their Own Words: Critical Thinking Behind Bars
This post is part of a series on what it’s like to be an atheist in prison. To read other parts in the series, please click here.
I’ve sent each inmate some preliminary questions to get the conversation going. Some of these inmates have done things that, to many of you, will be unforgivable. I will be disclosing some of their names, so you can easily find out what they’ve done to end up in lockup. You may be disgusted to find out their crimes, and you have every right to be. This series, however, will not be about their crimes. How they got to prison is not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in painting a picture of what life is like for nonbelievers in the joint. If you find it is too upsetting to be part of giving them a platform, please choose not to read this. You don’t have to be part of it. If you find you have questions that arise as you read their responses, please post them in the comments below or email them to me @ firstname.lastname@example.org and I will make sure the person gets them.
The first instalment in this series is thanks to Norman Schlunt, an inmate in an Oregon correctional institution. Here are his answers:
1. Have you always been an atheist?
No. I was born and raised in a strict Seventh-day Adventist home. For eight years of my childhood, my parents were missionaries in Africa. They were (and still are) extremely conservative – we practiced strict Sabbath observance, suffered through morning and evening devotions, prayed at all hours of the day, ate no meat, never owned a television, listened only to classical or religious music, read no fiction or comic books, paid tithe on everything including gifts, and prayed for forgiveness even when we didn’t know what sins we’d committed. And of course, I was homeschooled.
2. If not, how did you become an atheist?
Around the age of eight, I started asking hard questions. Why does Genesis have two different stories of creation? If a flood covered the earth, where’d all that water go? How does God know everything I think? How do prayers get to God? Where is heaven, and what about hell? If someone gets translated, how do they breathe on the way? But I never got any good answers, and my folks always got frustrated when I asked. Sometimes they punished me, just for asking. I knew that something was wrong, but the light went on once and for all when I attended public school in South Africa in 1975-1976. For the first time, I met other kids who didn’t believe in God, and I knew that I didn’t either. I didn’t call myself an atheist because I didn’t really know what one was, but that would come later.
3. Have you ever been treated poorly in prison because you are an atheist?
Not really. My housing unit officer loudly ridiculed me when he delivered a book I’d ordered – The Age Of Atheists by Peter Watson – and then tried to bait me into a conversation about God a couple of days later, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle.
4. Do you feel free to tell your fellow inmates that you are an atheist?
Generally, I’d say yes, but with a caveat. Prison is not filled with critical thinkers who are open to new ideas or alternate views on life’s great questions, so it’s easy to wind up in a wreck with a simple word or two that might be interpreted as a challenge to another man’s dignity or intelligence. Opinions on religion and politics are especially vulnerable. So if I know (or even suspect) that someone is outspoken or dogmatic about their religious beliefs, I’ll keep my atheism to myself as a matter of self-preservation. I’m not willing to risk violence simply to make my opinions known. Otherwise, I’m quite comfortable telling most inmates that I’m an atheist. Yes, many men take my admission as an invitation to debate the matter, but I’m well versed in the major arguments, so I usually don’t mind. And most men are shocked to learn that I was raised as an SDA.
5. What is your overall opinion of religion?
My overall opinion of religion is very poor, but not only because of what I endured as a child. To me, the fundamental problem with religion is that it is built upon lies, and the nearly universal failure of those who practice it to admit – or even consider – that the basic tenets of their faith are logically flawed. That an otherwise rational person can will themselves to believe a proposition for which they have no evidence, and to then teach their little children to do the same, is further exacerbated by the fact that most of us have agreed to view this sort of behavior as perfectly normal. It should not be.
6. What is your day-to-day life like in prison?
For me, daily life in prison is fairly structured, usually busy, and ultimately routine, but it took several years to make it so. Because I’ve got about six years of clear conduct, I live in a privileged housing unit. Except for the morning and afternoon count times, the unit dayroom is open from 6:45 am to 9:45 pm, which allows me to create a routine that suits my personality. I work full time as a telemarketing agent in the prison’s outbound call center, which makes the weeks pass quickly even though the days on the phone often drag. After dinner, evenings pass quickly – except for an occasional game or two of table tennis, I’ll sit out at my table reading and answering email, texting with my kids or friends, and phoning my kids. After the dayroom closes, I’ll write or read till maybe 11:00 or 11:30 pm, and one more day is done. Weekends bring a chance to sleep late, till maybe 8:30 am or so, and to spend an hour or two at yard, if the weather is nice. But for me, keeping a routine and staying busy are most important; busy days turn into weeks, and before I know it, the month is gone. That’s the best thing that can happen to a guy in prison.
7. What is the hardest thing about being in prison?
That’s easy – being separated from my kids. It’s not as bad as it was in the early years, but it is still excruciating to watch from a distance as they strive to survive and thrive in spite of what I did to them. Knowing that the distance is my own fault is perhaps the worst. I’ve not truly forgiven myself for my failure as a father or a role model.
8. Do you know any other atheists in prison?
I know of only two others, both lifers, both in my unit. It’s my understanding that the proportion of acknowledged atheists in prison is extremely small, perhaps on the order of less than one percent.
9. Do you like to read atheist books, and if so, are there any you have wanted to read?
I definitely enjoy reading atheist material. I’ve been impacted by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. I’ve read (and still have) The Age of Atheists, The Portable Atheist, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Arc, and Christianity Is Not Great. I’d still like to read The God Delusion, The End of Faith, God is Not Great, The Christian Delusion, and The End of Christianity. If I leave a book like that lying out on my table, it won’t be long before someone feels compelled to comment.
10. If you have struggled with addiction, have you found an alternative to AA that does not rely on a higher power? Or have you chosen to do the AA program in spite of it?
I was an alcoholic early in life and wound up in an intensive court-ordered outpatient treatment program for two years. Alcoholics Anonymous was a big part of that program. I did follow the steps, except for handing it all over to that higher power, and to this day I still use things that I learned in AA. But I hated the higher power thing, and quit going to meetings as soon as the court released me. I learned that I’m far more powerful than alcohol, and I’ve proven it conclusively since May 28, 1994. So in that regard, I guess I found my own higher power. But here at my prison, there’s no alternative. If you’ve got substance abuse problems, it’s AA or nothing.
11. Do you think being an atheist gets in the way of being granted parole?
Absolutely. All three full-time members of Oregon’s current Parole Board have made it clear on the record that they view religion and faith-based support programs as integral components of any successful parole plan. Would they admit to flopping an inmate for religious reasons? Since parole is a liberty interest under the U.S. Constitution, I doubt it, but they could easily couch it under some other guise. I don’t see the Board until 2031, but I’m already thinking about ways to counter their inevitable criticism on this point. I fully expect it will be a challenge.
12. Are there any services atheist inmates lack in prison that are offered to religious inmates by nonprofits and charities aligned with a faith?
None that I’m aware of. I don’t spend much time down around religious services, though, so I’m probably not a reliable source on that subject. But to be fair, I should mention that I’ve been called to a chaplain’s office on two occasions, to be informed of a death in my family. I’ve always been treated with the utmost respect and never been assumed to be religious in any way.
13. Do you perceive the religious inmates around you as happier than you?
Not at all. I tend to see it the other way around, that because I’m fully accountable for my own life, I know where I am and where I’m going. If I’m not happy, I can change what I’m doing, and where I’m going. But I’m surrounded by those who hope and pray and cling to the belief that God will spring them on appeal. Soon. Of course, it never happens, and then they just stay in their cells, where it’s tough to pick up a decent radio station. I always wonder how prayer gets through…
14. Does the idea of accepting God and Jesus into your life get pushed on you in prison?
Only by other inmates. Every once in awhile I’ll become peripherally acquainted with someone, and they’ll try to take me to the side and earnestly impress upon me the indispensable nature of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Most mean well, so I politely tell them that I am an atheist and will not be discussing religion with anyone. That’s usually sufficient.
15. What are your coping methods to get you through the day?
Well, staying busy and having some sort of set routine is probably most important. We call it “programming,” and it sets the stage for everything else. It’s easy to pass time and stay out of trouble if you know where you’re going, what you’re doing when you’re doing it, and who you’re doing it with. After that, I’ve developed alot of little tricks that work well for me: I keep to myself, listen to music while I write or read (to discourage random, time-sucking conversations from passersby), always focus on positive outcomes, refuse to engage in random negativity or prison gossip, proactively choose my friends and conversations, go outside every evening (in the summer), do some kind of exercise at least every couple of days, and above all, make communication with my friends and family in the outside world my ultimate priority. Knowing that I’ve got meaningful, non-prison relationships waiting for me after work makes all the difference most days. All the petty stuff just fades off into the background.
Thanks to Norman Schlunt for taking the time to answer these questions. If you have any follow up questions for Norman, please post them in the comments below or send them to me @ email@example.com and I will make sure to get them to Norman.
Alternatively, you can contact Norman yourself via email (yes, I was surprised, too!) but beware your emails will be read by prison staff. Norman’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also send him a letter at
Norman Schlunt #15382448 SRCI 777 Stanton Blvd Ontario, OR 97914-8335 USA
This is part two in a series about godless inmates in the US prison system. To read other parts in the series, please click here. To support this blog, buy a shirt here. Don’t forget to tell me what you thought in the comments!