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Here is an interesting research report How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States. OK it looks at the United States and the data is not directly relevant here, in new Zealand. But the principles certainly are – the way we all subsidise supernatural religious beliefs and their propagation via exemption from taxation and local body rates.

Ryan T. Cragun, assistant professor of sociology, Stephanie Yeager, senior business management major, and Desmond Vega, senior psychology major, all at the University of Tampa, did the research.

Their Figure 1 summarises religious finances and subsidies in the US. Many of these are similar in this country. I know the theologically inclined try to argue that there is no subsidy because tax exemption does not involve providing direct revenue to religions. However, religions do not pay taxes that they would otherwise be required to pay, purely on grounds of supernatural beliefs and their promotion. But they get all the same advantages as the normal taxpayer gets from publicly funded benefits and necessities. This means that honest taxpayers are paying more than they should – they are subsidising religions.

More than $71 billion subsidies

The authors attempt to quantify these subsidies for the USA. This exercise is far from simple and clearly their final figures grossly underestimate the true subsidy. However, even that underestimate is an incredible US$71 Billion! Their Table  2 shows the breakdown. Have a look at the report for details of the different subsidies.

Alongside these privileges of subsidies, regulatory authorities treat religions with kid gloves. This means that while they are supposed to keep financial records they are not required to report the sources of donations, and may be exempted from actually reporting donation totals or proper auditing.

As the authors say “donations to religions are largely unregulated.” This lead them to the realisation that:

“religions would be an ideal way to launder money if you were engaged in an illegal enterprise. . . . Drug money could be laundered through the church’s bank accounts with little risk of being caught by authorities. If drug cartels and the Mafia aren’t already doing this, we’d be surprised.”

The report makes the case that while genuine charity involves “the giving of something,” and not providing a service for payment this is not so for “spiritual charity.” The later involves payment to a religious executive (their wages, accommodation, pensions, etc.) for the spiritual service they provide. “If someone is paid to address spiritual concerns, it is not charity when they do so.”

In fact, in their “spiritual” and “supernatural” roles “religions are more like for-profit corporations providing entertainment (such as movie theatres or  amusement parks) rather than charities. . . .religions largely provide entertainment for their ‘consumers.’”

I think that’s a useful way of looking at the situation. So I really like the cheeky conclusions this enables them to draw in their closing remarks:

“These subsidies should be phased out. But since that is unlikely to happen, we’d accept the following alternative: the ability to write off our annual entertainment expenses as ’donations’; the subsidizing of all of our housing expenses, including utilities and maintenance costs; being exempt from paying taxes on businesses we start related to our primary purpose in life (say, a micro-brewery); direct cash transfers to us from the government for trying to convert people to our worldviews while claiming to provide social services; and, most important, the right to host games of bingo without reporting our income as gambling revenue”

Incidentally, I think any similar subsidies to “spiritual charity” performed by atheist and non-theist organisations should be looked at in the same way.

Thanks to: Council for Secular Humanism.

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