The British Humanist Association recently announced that it is sending free copies of The Young Atheist’s Handbook to prisons and juvenile offender institutions across the UK. It’s not the first mass donation — the org has also given copies of The Young Atheist’s Handbook to secondary schools across England and Wales, and has raised money to donate copies to schools in Northern Ireland as well.
The book isn’t exactly an opposite-but-equal to the Bible — instead, it’s a memoir by Alom Shaha, sharing how, after being raised in a Muslim commmunity, he realized that he was not a believer, and how, as a young man, he sought a set of life principles and morals outside religion.
However, the distribution of The Young Atheist’s Handbook does represent a counter to the distribution of religious literature in prisons, schools, and other institutions. The British Bible Society, for instance, solicits donations to provide free Bibles to prisons. Literature pertaining to religion is often quite widely available, but similar literature in an atheist or humanist vein may be harder to come by.
The British Humanist Society’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson explained the donation.
“Prison libraries are full of religious texts and books about spirituality and overcoming adversity which take a religious point of view, but relatively few offer meaningful commentary on how to live a good life from a non-religious perspective.”
There is a similar program in the U.S., though it distributes atheist and humanist literature only on request, rather than en masse. It’s through Center for Inquiry, and provides books from a long list of titles.
Is The Young Atheist’s Handbook — or any atheist-centered literature — needed in prisons? After all, we often hear how small the atheist population is within the prison system. Sure enough, the British prison system is similar to the American system in this: statistics released in 2008 and reported by the Telegraph show that less than 1 percent of the prison population identifies as atheist, with about the same number identifying as agnostic. (In the U.S., according to a FOIA response obtained by Hemant Mehta, atheists make up less than a tenth of a percent).
However, when seeking moral guidance and support, every individual, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, should have access equally to support and information. By donating The Young Atheist’s Handbook, the British Humanist Association has made prisons a little more equal for those outside the majority belief systems.
There is a little criticism — on the organization’s Facebook page, there are accusations of forcing beliefs on prisoners by making The Young Atheist’s Handbook available in prison libraries — but for the most part, the donation appears to have been well-received.
[Photo via: YAH Just Giving]