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Religion: Billions Into a Black Hole

Religion is a hugely costly machine, but what does it produce? Let’s compare religion to a big corporation since we know how those work.

Take General Motors (on the left of the red revenue scale in the figure above). In 2010, U.S. sales were $73 billion, and that bought three million vehicles. Pretty simple—$73 billion goes in and three million vehicles comes out.

We can peek inside to see where the money goes. Of the incoming revenue, 87% went to automotive cost of sales—manufacturing and materials purchasing. Next, 8% to sales/marketing and G&A (General and Administrative)—the cost to sell the vehicles plus overhead. The final 5% was profit.

Compare this to religion (on the right side of the revenue scale above). In the U.S. for the same year, donations to religion were $101 billion. But that isn’t the only input. Few GM employees spend their free time selling or manufacturing cars, no matter how much they love the company, but religious believers do the equivalent all the time. They volunteer in all sorts of ways for the benefit of religion: evangelizing, serving as deacon or pianist, doing repairs on the church structure, making food for potlucks and bake sales, and so on. How much is this worth? Multiply by a couple hundred million American Christians and we get an extra 50% of income (a very rough guess).

Where does the church’s income go? We don’t know for sure. The IRS grants tax-exempt status to qualified organizations in return for those organizations opening their books to show the public how they spent their money … except for churches and ministries. All we know is that every year about $100 billion (plus a lot of volunteer effort) goes into a black box.

(I’ve written a series of posts about the problem of churches’ non-accountability here.)

Obviously, personnel must be a huge cost—there are roughly 600,000 paid clergy in the U.S. Buildings, land, and other capital outlays are another biggie—megachurches don’t just build themselves.

So, what’s the output? This black box gets twice the input of GM; what’s religion’s equivalent of six million vehicles?

Nothing goes back to society through taxes. Maybe 10% passes through to good works outside the church—or maybe it’s just 2%. We can only guess since churches’ books are closed. Maintenance of the congregation is another expense, and to some extent this is worthwhile—counseling those in need and providing a community for the members.

The rest is the church’s equivalent of marketing—recruiting new members and keeping current members within the fold. General Motors knows that customers of Buick and Cadillac vehicles won’t remain customers without ongoing marketing, and churches know the same.

And maybe that’s the best way to see religion. Religion is a very inefficient route to charitable giving (imagine a charity with more than 90% overhead), and religion isn’t necessary to get the social benefit of community. Those benefits could be provided without the inefficient machinery of the church. Religion must be propped up with marketing as is done with Chevy and Cadillac (with an imaginative dose of fire and brimstone thrown in) to remind customers that they’ve backed the right horse.

GM doesn’t need faith to stay in business, but it’s the only thing keeping religion going.

Inspiration credit: Richard Russell suggested this comparison.

Everybody’s got to believe in something.
I believe I’ll have another drink.
― W.C. Fields

(This is a modified version of a post originally published 11/18/11.)

About Bob Seidensticker
  • RichardSRussell

    Thanks for the mention, Bob. As I remarked when you published your original essay on the subject, what preachers are selling is mainly companionship with their own wonderful selves, which I believe meets the definition of the world’s oldest profession.

    • Y. A. Warren

      Love it!

    • RichardSRussell

      In fact, since Bob’s original essay on the subject, I have learned how to do kinda fancy blogs myself and am now running one for Atheists and Agnostics of Wisconsin, where I took advantage of this memory jogging to haul out my old essay on “Churches and the Corporate Org Chart” and post it there. It’s directly related to what Bob has above.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        Lookin’ good.

    • Greg G.

      Yes, but if they accumulate enough gold on Earth, I’m told they can use it for pavement in heaven.

    • Mikail2

      Well said, Richard. Hell, pimps and drug dealers are in a more respectable profession than the clergy. At least pimps and drug dealers sell tangible goods! What do the clergy sell? Myths and superstition!

  • Y. A. Warren

    Anonymous individuals have no real accountability; neither do corporate executives. I believe in teaching accountable, teponsible communities to dig their own ponds, raise their own fish, cook and clean the kitchen. They can incorporate for protection from outsiders, if they like. Mega churches are as big a pox on responible compassion as are corporations and the politics they support.

  • Rain

    (with an imaginative dose of fire and brimstone thrown in) to remind customers that they’ve backed the right horse.

    With an offer they can’t refuse…

    /badbrandoimpersonation

  • Lewis C.

    Secular totalitarian regimes think a lot like you. They don’t see the value of religion either. After enough bloodshed and killings they can generally stifle it.

    Got some big plans up your sleeve?

    • Greg G.

      Pssst. Keep this under your hat. Our secret plan is to use our secret weapons, logic and reason, to point out to the smarter elements of the society that religion is an illogical and unreasonable position to hold, and the less smart will follow along. Religions are defenseless against our weaponry.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      This isn’t the flabby “more blood was shed by atheists than by Christians” argument is it?

    • Derrik Pates

      The difference is, no one is trying to use this as an argument to abolish churches, just to encourage people to think. Unless you think thinking is bad too?

    • smrnda

      I think religions are fading in influence on their own and require no real ‘attack’ from anyone. The real measure of declining value is declining interest.

  • Henry Clemente

    Well I would think most of it goes to religious ceremony. Masses, church service, weddings, baptisms, funerals, etc. Difficult to measure how much those things “contribute” to society. Wholeheartedly agree with your premise though.

  • avalon

    Comparing religion to GM seems irrelevant. They’re two entirely different industries. Everything you said about religion (in comparison to GM) could also be said of other equally different industries. For example, compare sports to GM. What does sports produce? What’s it’s output? Nothing substantial, because sports aren’t intended to manufacture anything. It’s entertainment.

    You once compared religion to sports. A good comparison since both fail to produce anything tangible, both rely heavily on emotion, etc… Another comparison would be your book (Cross Examined). While a book is something tangible, paper and ink or data, what you’re really selling is ideas. Same with religion, they’re selling ideas. Religion has about as much to do with GM as your book does. Some industries sell tangible things like cars and food and clothes while other industries sell intangible things like ideas and emotions. Religion is clearly in the second group. Yes, charity is tangible but it’s a secondary industry; like selling clothing with a team logo is secondary to sports.

    The main ‘product’ of religion is ideas and emotions, not tangible goods like cars.

    • Brandon Combs

      As an atheist I completely agree with you because I am also a nonprofit Executive Director. Comparing a tangible product with someone intangible is ridiculous. It is like comparing the monetary value of an MBA with a PhD in Biology. Which is more likely to produce something as tangible as a car?

      • Derrik Pates

        Sure, but your organization has extensive oversight, by virtue of being a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Sports teams don’t, but they have owners who expect to see a profit for their investment. Auto manufacturers generally have shareholders who have a similar interest. The people who pour their money into religion have no such insight into where their money goes or what’s done with it, and they get the equivalent of 501(c)3 status *and then some* with no requirements for transparency. Unless you count the recent Catholic Church scandals (and others) as a mile marker for them, which seems like a pretty bad one to me…

        • Beth Clarkson

          This is dependent on the religion/church. While it is certainly true for large institutions, such as the Catholic church, other churches do things differently. For example, I belong to a congregationalist church which is run as a democratic organization. The budget, both income and expenses is developed by elected representatives (board of directors) presented to members for a vote, so oversight and transparency is part of our institution, at least for the church members (the primary source of funding).

          I share the opinion that a comparison to GM is inappropriate. A comparison to sports teams is better.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      compare sports to GM. What does sports produce?

      Sports don’t get nonprofit status. (Sports is also a smaller industry–$25 billion for spectator sports.)

      You once compared religion to sports.

      Individual teams seem to me to be comparable to religions or denominations. You tend to be passionate about the one you grew up with (not always, of course), and you root for your home team in any contest.

      I agree with you. Religion is more like an entertainment industry than a manufacturing industry.

      • busterggi

        Yeah but neither the NFL or HBO threaten to torture you for eternity if you don’t give them money.

  • smrnda

    Organizations stay in line when there’s transparency, accountability and oversight.

    Religious organizations tend to escape all of this because somehow, actually asking to know where the money goes is seen as some huge infringement on ‘religious liberty’ (I missed the part of the constitution where ‘religious liberty’ entailed all these financial perks.) Any other non-profit is going to be scrutinized.

    In terms of what religions offer, their assistance tends to come with strings attached – if you’re down on your luck, you can get inferior help from bumbling amateurs in exchange for signing over time to some church and maybe participating in a group where total strangers will ask you very personal questions. Give me government aid over that any day.

  • Justin

    Most of the money goes to paying for the staff’s salary. In the church that I attended when I was a Christian, the Pastor and the various ministers got upward of 40K a year, with the pastor himself getting 60K. On top of that, you’ve got the money that goes to the ‘sanctuary’, which is spent on several sets of 1000$ speakers and expensive microphones to get the best ‘experience.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      If you see the church as analogous to a country club, you need to pay for the experience. That’s fair. The problem is when Christians want the (expensive) experience and then brag about the church being a good works organization.

      Yeah, and country clubs have bake sales.


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