(RNS) Leslie Zukor was a 20-year-old student at Reed College studying prison rehabilitation programs when something jumped out at her.

Volunteers Bill Boulden, left, and Jim Oliver, write letters to prisoners at the first meeting of the Freethought Books Project Correspondence Club in Buffalo, NY. Photo courtesy of Sarah Kaiser, Center for Inquiry

Volunteers Bill Boulden, left, and Jim Oliver, write letters to prisoners at the first meeting of the Freethought Books Project Correspondence Club in Buffalo, N.Y. Photo courtesy of Sarah Kaiser, Center for Inquiry

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While there were programs tackling drug abuse, physical and sexual abuse, technical training and more, all of them were offered by faith-based organizations. Where were the options for those behind bars who are atheists, like her?

“Not all prisoners are religious, and I wanted them to know that to turn your life around and be a good and productive member of society does not require a belief in God,” she said. “I just thought, wow, it is time to see about getting other perspectives in there.”

So Zukor launched the Freethought Books Project, collecting books about atheism, humanism and science and sending them to interested prisoners. She estimates that since her first book drive in 2005, she has given out 2,300 books, magazines and newspapers to perhaps hundreds of prisoners across the country.

Now, the program is experiencing a mass expansion. Late last year, Zukor, now a 28-year-old Seattle-based photographer and artist, handed it over to the Center for Inquiry, a national organization of humanists based in Amherst, N.Y. Since then, hundreds of books have poured in, including entire cartons sent by publishers and authors.

With the growth comes attention, not all of it positive. A number of Christian and conservative pundits have decried the project as seeking to “battle the Bible” and “turn inmates against God.” But Zukor and other nonbelievers — the “freethinkers” of the project’s name — say they have no such motives.

“Christianity has a mandate to convert people, but freethought does not have any such mandate,” said Sarah Kaiser, one of the project’s two new coordinators. “We just want everyone to have the freedom to express doubts and ask questions, and that is what these books represent.”

The Freethought Books Project has always been a small operation. While Zukor collected and sent out reading material from the Pacific Northwest, Joel Justiss, a San Antonio-based software developer, helped her identify interested readers through a secular newsletter he sent to prisoners. Justiss is a member of the Brights, a national organization of nontheists with a naturalistic worldview.

“The Brights have no resources to send books to people, so when I found out what Leslie was doing I said this is just what my people are asking for,” Justiss said. He sent each interested inmate a packet of material that included a page about the Freethought Books Project and forwarded their book requests to Zukor.

Justiss, who became a nonbeliever after 40 years as a Christian, said the need for nonreligious reading matter is high. The prisoners who write to him often describe being treated differently because they are not Christian, he said.

“Lots of times they complain, (that) we are excluded from the special benefits that religious prisoners have and we take a lot of flack from other prisoners as well as guards for being unconventional,” he said. “They say things like prisoners are some of the most religious people on earth.”

Under CFI, project organizers will still work with the Brights, but they will also seek additional ways to identify and contact prisoners, Kaiser said. The Bureau of Justice Statistics counted 6.9 million adults in the correctional system nationwide in 2012. The estimated number of incarcerated atheists ranges from .07 percent to .2 percent of all inmates.

“This means that atheists in prison are even more of a minority” than they are on the outside, Kaiser said, and therefore have a greater need for support. A 2012 Pew Research Center study found atheists and agnostics make up 5.7 percent of the general population.

So what’s on the Freethought Books Project’s reading list? When prisoners ask for basic information, Kaiser sends them “What Is Secular Humanism?” by the late Paul Kurtz, the founder of CFI and a major interpreter of contemporary humanism, or “Faitheist” by Chris Stedman, assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University.

Other donations include “Trusting Doubt” by Valerie Tarico, “A Manual for Creating Atheists” by Peter Boghossian and “The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible” by Steve Wells.

Not all those who request the books are nonbelievers. Kaiser said she received a letter from one inmate that read “God bless the Freethought Books Project” and contained a pledge to pray for more books to be donated. “There is definitely a contingent of prisoners who are religious but interested in knowing what freethinkers are all about,” she said.

The project will also expand to include a pen pal program, pairing inmates with nonbelievers on the outside. And while conservatives condemn the program, it’s drawn praise from prisoners.

“I thank you again for your infusion of sense into an environment that is, at best, utterly nonsensical,” one inmate recipient wrote. “It is heartening to see an alternative point of view represented in such a place and the books you’ve sent will be read and re-read many times over.”







  1. Since Atheists almost never go to jail and are almost never arrested I expect this book to sell about 8 copies.

    The number of Atheists in jail is .05% of the entire imprisoned population.

    Christians go to jail because they believe in two incredibly immoral concepts:
    Atonement and forgiveness are theirs for the asking.
    It is a disgrace that such bronze-age immorality continues at all.

      • Religion is a huge contributor to bad behavior.

        80% of Criminality is associated with some measure of mental illnesses All of which is mistreated by ancient notions found in religion.

        Heavenly Forgiveness and Atonement are delusions. Believing your evil deed will be forgiven later, is a psychological ‘get out of jail’ card and it leads to crime.

        Though Psychosis is absolutely NOT limited to religious people, religious delusional thinking contributes to these psychoses in innumerable ways which the non-religious are rarely exposed to.

        “At the end of Mass, Jesus is going to turn into a cracker just for you,”
        is no way to raise a healthy mind.


    • You have absolutely no idea how many atheists there are in prison. :) You just made that up. However, inasmuch as professed atheism (as opposed to practical atheism) is generally correlated with educational attainment, I would assume that people who have a well thought out disbelief in God (or, for that matter, people who think a great deal about anything at all) are probably under-represented in the prison population.

      You have, however, done an outstanding job of recognizing why “non-faith based” rehabilitation programs have so little chance of success. When you have committed some horrific crime, and everybody hates you, and you hate yourself, atonement and forgiveness are pretty much the only ways you’re going to get out of the pit you’ve put yourself in. Somebody coming along and say”hey– you and your life don’t suck all that much. Just shape up, get over it and move on with your life like [college educated person with good job and no criminal record) me!”

      • Last sentence got cut off:

        Somebody coming along and saying “hey–you and your life don’t suck all that much. Just shape up, get over it and move on with your life like [college educated person with good job and no criminal record] me!” is just not going to get very far.

        • CATHOLIC,

          You said, “You have absolutely no idea how many atheists are in prison.”

          Not true. The research has been conclusive. .05% of the prison population is Atheist.
          99.05% are Christian or Muslim.

          Google it yourself for the links to Pew Research.

        • CATHOLIC,

          You said, “…saying “hey–you and your life don’t suck all that much. Just shape up, get over it and move on..”

          Is that what you think? The single most effective way to improve the economy of any country is to emancipate the women. Every country which has done this has become healthier, more peaceful and wealthier.

          Religion kills emancipation of women. Religion LEADS to poverty. And Religion embraces poverty.

          So you, Catholic, are part of the problem I’m railing against.

      • CATHOLIC,

        Unfortunately, you religious people haven’t given much thought to why religion contributes to crime. Not a day goes by without the dangers you promote.

        Religion WORKS AGAINST:
        All Science, Reason, free inquiry, evolution, women’s rights, gay rights, Church State separation, establishment clause of the US Constitution, Socratic method, contraception and sexual health, mental health, intellectual freedom, International Peace, Middle East diplomacy

        Religion PROMOTES:
        Poverty, Bigotry, Misogyny, Surrender to Eschatological Armageddon, Gullibility, Theocracies, Ignorance of Scientific and Medical methods, Intellectual repression, superstition, Faith Healers and other Con men, Surrender to unaccountable authority, pseudo-science, para-psychology, sexual repression, genital mutilation, Israeli settlements, Islamic hegemony, honor killings, faith-based suicide bombings, holy war, holy terror, etc…

        And Religion sanctifies EVIL behavior by FORGIVING it unconditionally.

        If religion was useful to ancient barbarians that might be a reason we call them ancient barbarians!

  2. Atheist Max

    i’m a Christian who is not anti-science, anti-reason, anti-evolution, anti-women’s or gay rights. I affirm the separation of church and state, the Socratic method, contraception and freedom of choice for women, effective mental (and medical) health for all people without applying any stigma, intellectual freedom, international peace (war as absolute last resort, as I am as pro-life as I am pro-choice), and believe the peace in the Middle East is essential to our national security.

    So, who are you talking about?


      It appears you have claimed the right to decide for yourself what is good and true despite the Christian doctrine which says such things are a matter of scripture. Good for you.

      You cherry pick the Bible for those verses which you agree with: Perhaps on matter of empathy and compassion, caring for the sick, etc? …Even Atheists like me do that, too.
      Good for you.

      But if you raise children as Christians they may pick other verses for themselves. You have given the Bible your general ‘blessing’…So even though you may not agree with verses about repressing women, slavery or homosexuality, your children may find themselves comfortably on that side of God’s doctrine just as easily as you have found yourself opposed.

      You don’t agree with anti-evolution movement but your dollars sent to your church do support that movement. Tennessee and Texas are outlawing science education as I write this bringing us into the dark ages.

      You agree with separation of church and state, but does your Pastor, does his parish? The Evangelical Lobby alone sent $100 million dollars to Israel last year to support the seizure of Palestinian land because of the eschatological belief that Israel must build its second temple in order to enable the Messiah’s return. $100 MILLION to buy the return of Jesus! It is Nonsense – yet almost every Christian is unwittingly contributing to this lobby through their church.

      You do not believe in Hell, you can’t. If you did you would not cherry pick the Bible – but you know belief in Hell causes psychosis in some children and damages others beyond repair, stunting their questioning ability and critical thinking skills for the rest of their lives.

      You do not agree with these things, and you know they are damaging – and yet you support it. Why?

      Love needs no Gods. Compassion and morality do not originate from these doctrines. I hope you think about this.

    • Mark Edwards,

      You have decided, quite RIGHTLY, that you are better than your Bible. You are no slave of that book. You have edited the ‘word of God’ to fit your life – you cut out the claims about women, homosexuals, slaves, torture and the sour preachments of Jesus which are dubious and cold.

      The Bible is not ‘an authority’ over you.
      Ask yourself. What do you need it for?

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