Sneak Preview: Atheist Inmates In Their Own Words

Norman Schlunt - Oregon

Norman Schlunt

I am so excited to finally be announcing this series coming up on my blog. I have been working on it for several months now, and I can’t wait to see what you think. I’ve written to dozens of atheist inmates, mostly in the U.S., to ask them what being an atheist in prison is like. I’ve received a few responses so far and am ready to start getting their answers out to you.

Before I do, however, I need to make a quick disclaimer. 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.

As such, posting the answers these men and women send me is in no way an endorsement of them as people. It is merely to satisfy a curiosity: is life in prison different or more difficult for atheists?

Interestingly, I was only able to find one atheist on death row in the entire world. Keep in mind, however, that I found them on penpal sites and there may well be more atheists on death row who just haven’t got an ad on a penpal site.

The first response I got was from Norman Schlunt, an inmate at an Oregon correctional institution. Here is a quick preview of what he had to say:

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.

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.

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.

The questions I have sent to the inmates are:

1. Have you always been an atheist?
2. If not, how did you become an atheist?
3. Have you ever been treated poorly in prison because you are an atheist?
4. Do you feel free to tell your fellow inmates that you are an atheist?
5. What is your overall opinion of religion?
6. What is your day-to-day life like in prison?
7. What is the hardest thing about being in prison?
8. Do you know any other atheists in prison?
9. Do you like to read atheist books and if so, are there any you have wanted to read?
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?
11. Do you think being an atheist gets in the way of being granted parole?
12. Are there any services atheist inmates lack in prison that are offered to religious inmates by nonprofits and charities aligned with a faith?
13. Do you perceive the religious inmates around you as “happier” than you?
14. Does the idea of accepting God and Jesus into your life get pushed on you in prison?
15. What are your coping methods that get you through the day?

If you want to add any questions to the list, please comment below and I will get them to the inmates who are taking part in this series.

Next week I will post Norman’s answers in full. If you feel like writing to Norman, you can send a letter to:

Norman Schlunt #15382448
SRCI
777 Stanton Blvd
Ontario, OR 97914-8335 USA

Please note that you have to include his inmate # for the letter to get to him. Also, note that your letter will be read by prison staff.

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I hope you guys enjoy this series! Constructive criticism welcome.

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