Satanists, Odinists, and the weird world of prison evangelism

Mar 16, 2015

Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

By Daniel Genis

When I entered New York state’s prison system in 2004 to serve 10 years, I was shaved, given a number and told to check the box next to my religion. Prison guards handed me a long list of faiths: In addition to the regulars, there were Odinism, Rastafarianism, and the Nation of Gods and Earths. (The latter was once considered a gang, but years of lawsuits had turned it into a viable religious option.) Had I been honest, I would have checked the box next to “atheist.” Instead, I marked “Jewish,” reflecting my father’s heritage.

My motivation wasn’t the access to kosher meals or a desire to belong to a clan in prison, though both drive convicts’ religious affiliations behind bars. I opted in because I wanted to work for rabbis, a job that would put me in the company of educated thinkers whom I could relate to during the lonely decade I had stretching before me. Ultimately, it did more than that. It showed me the dishonest ways religion is spread in prison. The evangelists I saw used prisoners’ desperation to add to their faiths’ numbers.

The first thing I noticed after beginning my sentence — for five counts of armed robbery, a consequence of heroin addiction — was how many faiths were represented. During my decade behind bars, I met thousands of prisoners in 12 of New York’s joints, both maximum- and medium-security. I spoke with agents of Opus Dei, Fez-wearing Moorish Science Temple members, a few Druids and a surprisingly nice Satanist. I encountered Wiccans (warlocks, never witches), Odinists (worshipers of the Norse pantheon and almost exclusively white supremacists, though one Colombian was brought in), Nation of Islam men in bow ties (Farrakhan’s Muslims), Hebrew Israelites (black Jews), Zen Buddhists (meditation pushers), one Sikh (a Kashmiri cabbie who killed his passenger but fed me curry) and one Jedi (charming fellow, heinous murder). No one but me believed in nothing.

One reason a thousand flowers have bloomed is that the evangelism typical of mainstream faiths such as Catholicism and Protestantism has spread to newer players who place a greater value on the souls of convicts. At most, there are 20,000 followers of the pagan religion Asatru, sometimes referred to as Odinism, in the United States, while Catholics number 78.2 million. Hardly any Catholic missionaries came to the 12 facilities where I was housed, but I saw many evangelists from outsider faiths visit. Winning one new convert to a tiny corps is far more significant than winning 10 new converts to a horde.


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18 comments on “Satanists, Odinists, and the weird world of prison evangelism

  • interesting article. i think people in desperate circumstances, such as prison, need faith. they need it and at its best has a positive function. ie it morally reforms people, teaches them how to be good people, and to believe in something. I am sure you know the psychologist Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, who wrote ‘mans search for meaning’ , and suggested if someone has a particular reason to go on living, they would better be able to survive desperate circumstances. It doesnt matter that much what the beliefs are. For some, communist and fascist beliefs give their lives meaning, while for others it is paganism and Odinism. I think the work done by sincere religious evangelists in prisons is something to commend, as it helps people survive.

    an atheist has no particular reason to survive if an individual life has no inherent meaning or value in itself.
    i am not at all surprised at the growth of forms of religion in prisons, it only shows that it is a natural hunger in mankind.



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  • “An atheist has no particular reason to survive if an individual life has no inherent meaning or value in itself.”
    WTF?
    For the sake of loved ones, is one reason that springs to mind that keeps many a person going, religion or not. And as you say, ideologies can often take the place of religion, with the Party or the Nation being the Higher Power that is being served.
    But even if someone has no one (an orphan with no particular ties), and is indifferent to political ideologies, life still has meaning. The experience of life itself is worth living for. And the thought that this is all there is, enjoy it while you can.

    OTOH, the smarter religious people must live in a fragile psychological state. On some deep level, they must know they’re fooling themselves, and await the day when cognitive dissonance is too much to bear, and they look at themselves from outside, whether they’re dancing naked round a maypole at midnight or eating the blood and flesh of a long dead prophet, and ask “Do I really believe in this guff?”



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  • what really burns my ass about excuses like this, is that no, they don’t need it. They use it as a convenient “get out of jail free card”.

    “ya, i murdered a guy, and i feel really bad about it. So much so that… look! …i’m a Christian now!”

    No joke, i met a guy at the pub who wouldn’t stop bitching and moaning about how his girlfriend left him. only to eventually admit that “Well, ya, I hit her.” closely followed by “But i’m a Christian!” as if that made that shit perfectly OK!

    Buddy had NO idea that by his own “supposed ideology”… MAKES IT KINDA WORSE NO??!!

    I didn’t know whether to punch the asshole in the throat, or PUKE!



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  • Mike Mar 16, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    interesting article. i think people in desperate circumstances, such as prison, need faith. they need it and at its best has a positive function. ie it morally reforms people, teaches them how to be good people, and to believe in something.

    Faith reforms people!!?
    That must be why there is a disproportionately small number of atheists in jail, and a predominance of incarcerated religious folk – with Catholics topping the list in the USA!

    Now why was it called a god-delusion in wish-thinkers?



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  • Mike Mar 16, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    an atheist has no particular reason to survive if an individual life has no inherent meaning or value in itself.

    This is just repetition of the nonsense regularly preached to those kept dependent on spoon-fed “purposes”, such as promoting some religion, – denying that atheists, who decide their own purposes and objectives, can have any purpose in life unless they are spoon-fed religion!

    Atheists recognise that as “afterlives” are fantasy, we only have one life and have to make the best of it, value it, and make the most of it.

    Theist claims to the contrary, are like those dependent on crutches for walking, incredulously expressing that sprinters, hurdlers, and fell-runners, must fall over immobilised, because they don’t use crutches as those from enclosed dependent communities do!



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  • interesting article. i think people in desperate circumstances, such as prison, need faith

    No. Read the article to the end. What it’s sought for isn’t faith or deities: it’s basic sustenance. By claiming a faith that’s not part and alley of the enstablishment, the convicts get something very corporeal that makes their existence a little more bearable.
    Whatever the agenda of the various preacher is, what makes them interesting is the material advantage they can give. Faith or gods don’t count: it’s the blanket and the meal -and, perhaps, the occasional conversation and defense from blatant injustice.

    A question I’d like to ask to an informed American about the topic is: are organizations like those disallowed if they don’t claim the belief in a deity or it’s just that no secularist thought to come up with one yet?

    it only shows that it [belief in a deity or ensamble of them] is a natural hunger in mankind.

    Not the slightest bit. The way those “faiths” are treated shows brilliantly one thing: humans are primates and need to rely on someone for sustenance. And if a label is required to get to that, nobody is gonna care.

    an atheist has no particular reason to survive if an individual life has no inherent meaning or value in itself

    This mantra is really getting up my nose. My life is full of meanings even while I sleep and I cannot recall a single moment when my brain was on idle in the last 10 years at least: if your god-fearing life is so full of meaning that you can’t stare at a wall for a minute without considering suicide, you should really go out more. Get yourself in a bar and meet people.



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  • “…it only shows that it (religion) is a natural hunger in mankind.”

    I recommend you read “Why We Believe in God(s)- a concise guide to the science of faith“, by J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., MD. This will help you understand why it seems to be a “natural hunger”.

    Book

    Video

    Steve



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  • A question I’d like to ask…

    There is precedent, including a Ca. man.

    I wonder, would an outside employer not even consider hiring a ‘convicted atheist’ (presuming the person continues declaring atheism); i.e. polls show an atheist would be the last person u.s. voters would choose for president.



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  • 12
    Michael says:

    I’ll just remind everyone, Atheism-a lack of belief in the existence of god or gods. End of story.Atheism nothing to do with anything else.



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  • Alan4discussion Mar 17, 2015 at 7:05 am

    http://ffrf.org/news/news-releases/item/18197-survey-reveals-only-02-of-prisoners-identify-as-atheists

    The U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons released an April 2013 survey of 218,167 prisoners that reports 0.02% of prisoners are atheists.

    His open records request to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons proves that an even smaller percentage of American prisoners, .02%, identify as atheists. Because 2.4% of the general population of Americans are “atheists,” according to a 2012 Pew study, atheists make up a disproportionately small percentage of prisoners.

    Ricky Gervais @rickygervais

    If all the Atheists & Agnostics left America, they’d lose 93% of The National Academy of Sciences & less than 1% of the prison population.



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  • Mike :

    an atheist has no particular reason to survive if an individual life has no inherent meaning or value in itself.

    My life might have no particular “meaning”, but like those rival lichens vying for a piece of rock surface in the Arctic, I’m blowed if I want to give it up !

    ( “meaning“, a word so dearly loved by the believers in nonsense !)



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  • Mr DArcy Mar 17, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    (“meaning“, a word so dearly loved by the believers in nonsense!)

    . . . . . and who usually are unable to understand the “meanings” of the words in their own holy books without “faith” rhetorical reinterpretation blinkers!



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  • Reading some of the comments in the WP site is quite enlightening (saying more about the respondents than being intellectually stimulating). First is the made up statistics and unsupported claims bandied about to prove supposed points. Such as … if the US is 80% Christian, then statistical average is 80% of the criminals are also Christian, that’s a lot of crime committed by god-fearing people. But, of course, all those criminals can only come from the non-Christians 20%. Christians don’t commit crimes.

    Militant atheist? What exactly is that? And how is that different from militant Christians? You know, the ones that blow up abortion clinics and kill abortion doctors. Plenty of well-known cases of that happening. Are there any cases of atheists going on killing sprees in the name of atheism? Some white-supremacy groups are atheistic, but atheism isn’t their main focus.

    Reading the very un-Christian, judgmental comments, there’s a lot of hatred for a group of people who “turn the other cheek.”



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  • Pure speculation on my part, but I would think that “natural hunger” comes from a combination of gaining reasoning and self-awareness, combined with curiosity, a need to explain things (more for survival sake several millennia back), combined with a need to structure a growing society to bring order to chaos. Throw in pride, which mankind has in abundance, and you have a good recipe to:
    * explain everything in the universe
    * give meaning to life
    * defeat death
    * control the masses
    * grant hope to people, thus empowering them to stay in line. The meek shall inherit the earth and the poor who will become rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

    Can you think of a better way to keep people in line than to have them regulate themselves through the power of belief?

    On a different note, I always love a good H2G2 reference. Thanks!



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  • Reading the very un-christian, judgmental comments, there’s a lot of hatred for a group of people who “turn the other cheek.”

    What does that sentence even mean? That we atheists are making un-christian, judgemental, hateful comments about “groups of people”/ religious? christian?…are those the people that “turn the other cheek”? Or are you trying to say the opposite?

    I am interested in clarifying your comment because it could go either way, and you should be understood even if you are trying to say that we atheists are hateful and judgemental….but, this is NOT a religious website. Here, we are free to disrespect all religions without the condemnation of “believers”.

    I would also suggest that the basis of the article is the correlation between religious beliefs and incarceration rates and the “gang effect” that fringe religious groups are being afforded to that populous. Arriving at the conclusion that religious beliefs are more detrimental to morality than atheism.



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