The Problem with the Prosperity Gospel

In a piece for The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin asks, “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?

Many explanations have been offered for the housing bubble and subsequent crash: interest rates were too low; regulation failed; rising real-estate prices induced a sort of temporary insanity in America’s middle class. But there is one explanation that speaks to a lasting and fundamental shift in American culture — a shift in the American conception of divine Providence and its relationship to wealth.

Phil Ferguson, writing for a new site called Skeptic Money, explains some of the problems with the “prosperity gospel”:

This brings two terrible realities. The first is that people get into financial trouble by not investing wisely. They get expensive houses and expensive cars and they don’t save because God will take care of you. Then something bad happens, you lose your job or they just cut your pay a little or your hours. Now you can’t make the payments and the housing market falls 10 -20% (or more) and everything is lost. Years of work with no money saved, no investments and no house!…

Phil’s right. And Joel Osteen is wrong.

It’s irresponsible to think a god will provide at all and it’s even worse if you don’t do anything on your end because you think everything will just magically turn out alright.

Any pastor who asks a parishioner to give up some of their salary — when there isn’t much of it to begin with — is offering just the worst type of legal advice:

I asked [pastor Fernando] Garay why his parishioner Billy Gonzales, who earns barely $25,000 and has no money to fix his car, should donate 10 percent of his income. “Because it gives him a new mentality. It teaches him that money can breed more money, that you can have money in your pocket on Saturday morning even though you got paid Friday night. People who support the church week after week have a dedication. Those who just give $5 or $10 here and there, you’ll hear them have the same problems week after week.”

Ugh. It makes me sick to even think about it.

  • http://yamipirogoeth.blogspot.com Sakura

    IMHO, this is just as bad as them wanting to get prayers subsidized as part of medical costs. On both accounts it’s requiring you to put faith in a higher power that has never shown to provide any sort of physical returns. Sure it makes them happy, but it doesn’t take much to make sheeple happy so they, rather unfortunately, listen blindly to these sort of scams.

  • flatlander100

    “Lillies of the Field” is a movie. Not a financial strategy for achieving and maintaining solvency.

  • http://redheadedskeptic.com Laura

    When I was in the ministry, they required that we give 10% of our income BACK to them. We thought it was a ridiculous application of the tithing verses and we couldn’t afford to do it. We were taught that the more you give, the more God gives back. So we tried it a few months, and when we were forced under the poverty line with no way to pay our heating bill and out credit cards maxed, we told them to shove it.

  • muggle

    Agreed but I fear I can’t point any fingers.

    I’m terrible at money management. Of course, I’ve always also said to manage money, you’ve got to have some to manage. If you barely earn enough to cover food, clothing, shelter and minimal medical and entertainment (some entertainment is necessary to maintain mental health), there’s nothing left over anyway.

  • Colin

    On the other hand, I seem to remember seeing an academic article discussing how fundamentalist Christians have done better during the economic downturn due to an aversion to debt and a conservative approach to their money. I wish I could find the link!

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I remember a pastor once saying to the congregation that we were lucky the bible only says to tithe 10% (before taxes) because it could have easily said to tithe 90%. God was giving all of us a big break with just requiring the 10%.

    It did kind of make me wonder why God can’t just print His own money.

    Anyway, the guys that slipped the tithing lines in the bible were quite clever weren’t they.

  • chas

    A couple of good essays about the prosperity gospel at:

    Probing The Prosperity Gospel

    and

    Root of All Evil

  • Flah

    @ Jeff: exactly. An all powerful being would not need the tracks and rails of mere commerce. If you’re giving to your church in order to keep the roof patched, salaries paid, and the electric on, great, but at least know that that’s what you’re doing.

    It’s odd that we’ve gone from John Knox (“merchandise have I not made”), John Wesley (Make all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.), to the new prosperity gospel which is no different from The Secret. Wow, God loves me, I drive a Lexus!

  • Tony

    The whole concept of tithing in churches has its roots in the extortionist levitical shakedown described in precise detail in the Old Testament. By forcing superstitious people to pay up under threat of earning the displeasure of their maniacal sky-genie you are essentially engaging in the metaphysical version of “You have a nice store, it would be a shame if it were to be burned down by some psychopath like me…”

  • selfification

    Sorry to hijack this thread… but dude… whats with the new logo font? It’s not really readable. I am digging the new background color :)

  • Alien

    The new logo font rocks. Ambigrams are so cool. Furthermore, Friendly Atheist is written right beneath if you have a hard time reading the ambigram.

  • Randy

    It reminds me of what George Carlin once said of God. “Here’s what we know about God: He created the universe, he’s omniscient, he’s omnipotent. He holds life and death in his hands. He has no beginning and no end. But he has one shortcoming: he’s really bad with money. Wouldn’t ya know it. Brilliant guy, but can’t seem to learn to balance his f’in check book. Nobody’s perfect.”

  • Ben

    Money is the new animal/human sacrifice. People don’t own goats anymore, so the church can’t ask you to slaughter and burn them on the altar. If you’re not willing to sacrifice your dowry to earn God’s favour, then you don’t want it bad enough I guess.

    Australian money is made of plastic and gives of noxious fumes when burned, so we can’t burn those, but I wonder if God likes the smell of burning Greenbacks?

  • Tony

    Money is the new animal/human sacrifice. People don’t own goats anymore, so the church can’t ask you to slaughter and burn them on the altar.

    This is my point.Take this bible verse:

    Lev 23:18

    Present with this bread seven male lambs, each a year old and without defect, one young bull and two rams. They will be a burnt offering to the LORD, together with their grain offerings and drink offerings—an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Jeff the priest…er… I mean the LORD. Um.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    It teaches him … that you can have money in your pocket on Saturday morning even though you got paid Friday night.

    Saturday morning, sure. But after Sunday morning, it’s gone! Why should the man work for one day a week?

  • MH

    Laura said “the more you give, the more God gives back.”

    This could be fun to test. I promise to give God a penny if he miraculously gives me two back. I’ll given him two back if he gives me four. In a few round trips we’ll split it and be so rich that he won’t need to ask anyone else for money!

    I’ve heard the Chinese burn spirit money as offerings. It looks sort of like money but is printed in huge denominations and is supposed to be spent by your ancestors in the afterlife.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    If you want to make a true offering to the Lord, you should burn or otherwise destroy the money. Giving it to some institution (like a church) to spend or use isn’t really making an offering to the Lord. Its making an offering to the other institution. If the Lord then wants that institution to get the money, He can simply re-create the money (and even add some) and make it appear to the institution. He is God after-all.

  • http://asad123.wordpress.com Asad

    Of all the myriad ways people go broke – losing jobs, shopping too much, investing poorly, gambling, and so on, giving charity is probably low on the list. Religions don’t just encourage people to give to the clergy. They also encourage feeding the poor, helping orphans, assisting in disaster relief, contributing to hospitals and many other noble endeavors. I will concede that many religious groups do manipulate worshippers into giving over ridiculous amounts of money, yet I think it’s only fair to point out that a good chunk of the money donated by the religious does end up in the hands of the truly needy.

  • MH

    Asad, that aspect of religion is fine.

    What I don’t like is seeing someone like Benny Hinn preaching the prosperity gospel over the public air waves. Telling people to send him a check with the words “cancellation of debts” written in the for section, and implying God will make them whole. The guys is a ghoul feeding off the bad economy while using a public resource to do it.

    Jeff, I like my idea better because as a middle man I get to keep a fat commission.

  • http://feveredintellect.blogspot.com Viggo the Carpathian

    Funny that I never see a poor preacher driving a beater… they all have an endless closet of fine suits (tacky and poor taste but well made) and drive BMWs and Mercs… and all for never doing a single useful thing.

  • Jer

    Asad you’re mixing up standard mainstream religions with “Prosperity Gospel” con men. They are different animals entirely (though there are con men among the mainstream religious as well – for example not all of the money that the Catholic Church takes in goes to charity. A good more than should goes to maintaining a lifestyle for the Bishops and Cardinals that is frankly unwarranted for a “charitable” institution. If it were the Red Cross people would be screaming bloody murder and calling for audits.).

    The advocates of the Prosperity Gospel are con men – every single one of them. They have found a good con, one that is protected by the US government, and a lot of gullible marks who want to believe that God will give them money. The best part is that their marks will blame themselves when the promised financial gains never come – it’s built into the system. If God doesn’t answer your prayers with money its because your belief was weak. Or, even better, because you didn’t get ENOUGH to the con man running the scheme. You only gave 10% and you should have been giving 30% – it’s all your own damn fault.

    Don’t kid yourself into thinking that the Prosperity Gospel guys are “charitable” – the only “charities” these guys run are non-profits where their kids and spouses and friends sit on the boards or in executive positions to get a paycheck. And mostly these non-profits don’t do actual charitable work – their purpose is to expand the ministry itself. All tax-free of course. Only in religions can the acquisition of donors as an end in itself be considered “charitable work” – any other non-profit whose only going concern was to find more donors would quickly find themselves on the end of a massive IRS audit and a revocation of their non-profit status. We’d call it a “pyramid scheme”. It’s a great scam, and as long as they make sure to keep the accounting straight it’s all perfectly legal and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it.

  • Jer

    Funny that I never see a poor preacher driving a beater…

    I have. Not poor, but middle class. And definitely driving beaters.

    The couple I’ve known were in mainstream Protestant religions – one Methodist, one Baptist. Both of them had families to support – a couple kids, a spouse who was expected to stay at home instead of getting a paycheck (not necessarily by choice either – apparently it’s a mini-scandal in some places if the pastor’s wife works and people get upset and can get the pastor fired. Very odd in my mind). Neither of them were well off salary wise, though each of them had a house where they lived rent-free and that definitely bumped them into the “middle class” range.

    Now I’ve never known a Catholic priest to drive a beater – and I’ve known a LOT more Catholic priests than Protestant pastors in my life. Almost every Catholic priest I’ve known has had a very nice car, a hobby that could be considered pricey (one collected motorcycles, if you can believe it), and rarely any family to take care of (I know one who takes care of his elderly mother since he’s the oldest and his siblings are all married). And they get their housing, a food allowance, and at least at one time they also got a clothing allowance (they may not do that anymore – that was decades ago). All on top of their salaries.

    And I’ve known a few of “non-denominational evangelical” preachers in my life as well. None of them was worse off than the Catholic priests I’ve known. They had at least one nice car, had a nice house in a good community and never had problems with sending their kids off to private schools if they needed too. And they had fairly sizable families to take care of, so they had to be doing better than the Catholic priests. Or they were maxing out their credit lines, I guess. (They were the smarmy ones too – I’ve never met a “non-denominational evangelical” preacher who didn’t seem like he’d be equally at home at a used car lot than in a church. They really do tend to give preachers on the whole a bad name, I think.)

  • the friendly christian

    the ignorance among atheists is surprising to me, tbh.. that aside:

    -joel osteen’s preaching is unbiblical
    -christians believe everything comes from god, including money – it’s ours to lend. thus, we don’t really give him anything but what was his to begin with.
    -as children of god, we also have access to whatever funds our father wishes to give us. ever wonder how missionaries seem to get the exact amount of money they need when they do? god’s provision is shocking even to me, who believes in that stuff :)

  • Mark Greene

    The only ignorance posted here is from the friendly christian. He just had to start his comment with an insult. Typical, and not friendly.
    Missionaries are merely given what they need. The rest lines the pockets of the church leaders.

  • Jen

    Hemant, don’t you secretly love Joel Osteen?

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    Hemant, don’t you secretly love Joel Osteen?

    Love watching him on TV. But he’s still wrong :)

  • Baconsbud

    I find it odd that unless you give god his cut of your money at a church he doesn’t seem to want it. Try leaving your 10% on the kitchen table or on a small table. It either goes no where or it finds its way into someones pocket there at the house you live in. I always took that to mean it wasn’t needed by god so I just spent it on something wasteful.

  • Siamang

    Baconsbud, there is awesomeness in that post.

  • http://www.skepticmoney.com Phil Ferguson

    Hemant,
    Thanks for the blog link!

    @ the friendly christian… unbilical? Thanks for the laugh.

  • chas

    Creflo Dollar sold his $280,000 Rolls Royce, but still has his private jet aircraft.

    Apparently Joyce Meyer still has her Mercedes and and private jet aircraft N7JM.

    Senator Chuck Grassley wrote letters to Creflo and Joyce about possible misuse of tax-exempt donations.

    I wrote Senator Grassley, Ranking member of the Committee on Finance, to commend him on his investigation of Prosperity Gospel Televangelists. If anyone else wishes to do so, the senator’s address is:

    Senator Chuck Grassley
    135 Hart Senate Office Building
    Washington, DC 20510-1501

  • Loren Petrich

    It’s very significant that those prosperity theologians don’t pray for God to rain the money down on them like manna from heaven.


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