The concepts of charity and selflessness underpin the teachings of the world’s largest religions, yet as in many other areas, it is not always the case that they practice what they preach.
In fact, says international tax consultant and atheist author Harry Margulies, whose new book Why Is It? We are Afraid of Being Descendants of Monkeys but Not Incest is out now, our religious institutions may well have more in common with the corporate sector than the word of God. Where they differ, however, is in respect to taxation. He asks the question, is this acceptable?
By Harry Margulies
A Brief History
Money is the medium through which everybody can transact, and which makes the world go around
It did, however, take us a very long time to get to our current economic structure, and from the earliest days religious institutions have been a key player in this system. They have a hand in most temporal things, after all, and this, alas, includes the cookie jar. To give religion its due, the roots of our current financial systems can be traced back to faith-based systems. Around 2000 BCE, the biblical prophet Abraham was told by God to get up and accomplish things. Linear understanding was introduced. That included an understanding of population growth. This shift towards long-term planning allowed our economic system to evolve away from a circular formation, in which case investment was unimportant.
Fast forward a few millennia and we find the renaissance Italian banking family, the Medicis, seeking permission from the pope to wrap lending into forex transactions. This was granted and thus modern banking was born. One may choose to assume that the pope took a cut.
Money rapidly became a vehicle for political control, even in God’s name. Money allowed taxation to be efficient and became a very good means for religious institutions to extract contributions. This, however, is not a two-way street.
Churches as Businesses
The Mormon Church is estimated to be valued at approximately £75billion. The Vatican is valued at around £25billion. It is impossible to add up the total wealth of the Catholic Church, internationally, but it would be fair to say that this venerable institution is most likely wealthy to a point far beyond our imagination. Let’s just note the wealth of the televangelist Kenneth Copeland Ministry, which clicks in at about US$1billion.
Historically, churches have occasionally been forced to contribute to the State, such as when Henry VIII left the Catholic Church to use the funds as he pleased. This could be seen as a heavy, ad hoc tax on institutions that, to this day, essentially remain tax-free.
The Church of England (COE), for instance, is estimated to be worth around £9billion. As a charity, it has an income of more than three times the size of Oxfam. Its income from these endowments is tax-free. It makes money from collections, also tax-free. It also receives government contributions for church upkeep and, you guessed it, it is tax-free.
But where does the lion’s share of this wealth go? Straight back into the Church. If we take Oxfam as an analogy, it would be akin to the charity’s main area of focus being the creation and upkeep of charity shops rather than the benefit of the needy.
That being said, it should be noted that the bedrock of the COE—its clergy—don’t necessarily reap the rewards. While those at the top don’t go without, it’s been widely reported that hundreds of clergy are struggling with financial hardship—in some cases having to resort to high-interest loans to survive.
Apart from the tremendous wealth that churches have amassed, they are also supplying services (in the name of God) such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. All of this comes with a fee to the church and probably a nice envelope for the officiating cleric.
For comparison, a YouTuber whose followers pay contributions to them via Patreon is required to pay taxes. Churches, whose followers also pay contributions, are exempt from tax.
Church Interference In The Economy
Yet while our religious institutions have not been expected to contribute to the economy through taxation, reducing the available pot for economic investment and growth, they have been allowed to influence it, again to the nation’s detriment.
For instance, religious prohibitions over time have resulted in women not being allowed to participate in the workforce. When half of the workforce is excluded, it clearly has a negative impact on economic growth. Just look at Muslim majority countries today.
In another example, the Church of England, while criticising zero-hour contracts—calling this practice the “reincarnation of an ancient evil”—has previously been discovered to engage in exactly the same practices. Hypocrisy rules. Then there is the questionable for-profit motivations of religious organisations. Pope Francis says that he is eager to move away from the “pure profit” motive while at the same time the Vatican invests, not to lose money but to make it. If the Vatican bank were not run for profit, it would not be able to pay its depositors. In pursuit of profit, the Vatican bank has been involved in several well-documented scandals.
The Vatican is eager to have us look the other way but it is just too easy to use the Catholic Church as an example because they have one leader for so many followers. In the US alone, Forbes estimates that the tax-free Catholic Church received somewhere between US$1.4-3.5billion in Covid relief aid which was intended to support businesses and their employees.
Let’s paint a picture with these numbers. The lower number, US$1.4billion, would have given around 116,500 people US$1,000 per month for a full year. The higher number, US$3.5billion, would have given about 219,500 people US$1,000 per month for a year. That, in effect, is taking money from the needy. In the world of finance, the term ‘reverse split’ is used when, for example, 10 shares trading at $1 each are accumulated into one share trading at $10. Let us borrow that term to describe the handout the Church has managed to wrest from the American taxpayers as reverse income distribution. This it has done while it preaches that the rest of us should give away more money!
Yet at the same time, the pope is eager to have us be generous with people who cannot pay their debts. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, teaches us about lending. If you lend money to somebody who cannot pay it back because he is starving, one might for a second think “OK, why not forgive the debt”, but, if you do, all lending will cease because you don’t know when that excuse will arise again.
The pope is probably the world’s most influential religious leader. The fact that he is allowed to preach hypocrisy on not only economics but also on the environment when discussing theology, even human rights, while allowing exorcisms and stipulating the dead continue to pray for us, is contrary to the scientific approach the pope claims the Church stands for.
Can you imagine another organisation but the Roman Catholic Church, with all its sex scandals, that might have survived with such policies? The CEO of an international corporation would have likely been the last CEO for that institution and the shareholders would have been left with nothing.
Church and Equality
While churches around the world claim they want us to be equal, they do ensure their own privileges.
God did not create us equal or we would have been. The fact that he didn’t speaks volumes. In the financial crisis, Greece could stand as an example. The austerity measures did not cut into the holy parts of the economy.
Could Churches Just Practice What They Preach?
I have only touched upon the tip of the iceberg when it comes to organised religion’s problematic relationship with Mammon.
Money is a human construct, the same as a corporation. It only works as long we have faith in it. A non-believer might say the same about God.
Suffice to say, though, that wouldn’t it perhaps be a sign of good faith if all religious organisations gave all their wealth to the needy? Wouldn’t it be a sign of true faith if they then prayed for Jesus to give them what He thought they deserve?
Why Is It? We are Afraid of Being Descendants of Monkeys but Not Incest by Harry Margulies is published through Why Is It Publishing AB and is out now in hardcover, paperback, and eBook formats, priced £19.95, £12.95, and £9.99 respectively. It is available online from Amazon and all good book stores.