Lindsey Crittenden on the wastefulness of Curiosity.

I was poking around Patheos the other day and came across the Good Letters blog where…

Every weekday, one of the gifted writers on our blogging team will offer a personal essay that makes a fresh connection between the world of faith and the world of daily life, spanning the gap between theology and experience and giving language a human shape.

A fresh connection between the world of faith and the world of daily life?  Cool!  So I checked the post they had up in which Lindsey Crittenden talks about the Curiosity rover.

So I’ll look at the pictures from Curiosity. I’ll read the stories of Pasadena scientists who have been suffering a kind of odd jetlag while living on Mars time (where a day is called a sol and lasts thirty-nine minutes and thirty-five seconds longer than here on Earth) while they “drive” Curiosity.

I’ll wonder how many people could be fed and schools funded with the zillions being spent by NASA. I’ll float between fascination and ambivalence, tethered by hope and skepticism and, yes, gravity.


Has she seen our military budget?  We could use that to feed people on Mars.

Lindsey, you’re worried about feeding people and the first place you want to cut is from something that adds to human knowledge?  You know, there are a scarcely calculable number of buildings around the world that are functionally derelict that contribute nothing new to humanity (in fact, many of them actively hinder our scientific pursuits).  They’re called “churches.” Why don’t we trim the fat by cannibalizing a few of those to feed the poor before ditching the quest for knowledge?

Let’s do the math.  The Curiosity rover cost us about 2.5 billion dollars.  Compare that to the Vatican.

Bankers’ best guesses about the Vatican’s wealth put it at $10 billion to $15 billion. Of this wealth, Italian stockholdings alone run to $1.6 billion, 15% of the value of listed shares on the Italian market. The Vatican has big investments in banking, insurance, chemicals, steel, construction, real estate. Dividends help pay for Vatican expenses and charities such as assisting 1,500,000 children and providing some measure of food and clothing to 7,000,000 needy Italians. Unlike ordinary stockholders, the Vatican pays no taxes on this income…

Hooray on the charity work they do, but you also have to weigh that against the money they spend elsewhere.  For instance, the Associated Press estimates the total from settlements of sex abuse cases from 1950-2007 to be more than $2 billion. Add in the last four and a half years and letting child rapists go to jail could’ve paid for the rover!

Even modern day churches are swimming in opulence.  Take the First Baptist Church down in Dallas, which is one church out of FSM-knows how many doing the same thing.

Recently, First Baptist Church in Dallas unveiled plans for a 130 million dollar capital campaign for their new worship center which would include the whole enchilada: a 3,000 seat worship center, 6 floor education building, glass concourse, parking garage, sky bridge, the preservation of their current historic building, a fountain plaza, two side by side gymnasiums, an outdoor patio, and the all important oval pool with a stone water tower topped with a cross.

I scoured the Good Letters blog for other suggestions on how to feed the hungry, but there were none.  Perhaps if NASA had dumped the extra bucks to build a gymnasium so Curiosity could exercise before going to Mars to greatly increase the sum of human knowledge, Crittenden would’ve turned her search for cuts elsewhere.

Or, if you must keep these monuments to human ignorance with all their bells and whistles, how about taxing them?  I mean, the deal for churches was that they stay out of government and they wouldn’t have to pay taxes.  But churches are endorsing candidates and thumbing their noses at the IRS while doing it.  If we started taxing churches, could they really come back with “Yeah, well we’re going to start endorsing political candidates?”  Of course not, because they’re already doing it.  What they would do is whine about being taxed as though they were holding up their end of the bargain.

So how much could we make by taxing churches in the United States alone?  $71 billion.

We know churches get tax exemptions, but how much money does that actually come out to?

University of Tampa professor Ryan T. Cragun along with students Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega ran some calculations and figured out a number:

While some people may be bothered by the fact that there are pastors who live in multimillion dollar homes, this is old news to most. But here is what should bother you about these expensive homes: You are helping to pay for them! You pay for them indirectly, the same way local, state, and federal governments in the United States subsidize religion — to the tune of about $71 billion every year.

This comes out to 28.4 Curiosity rovers every. fucking. year.  Also, if the message of churches is that they’re using their money to feed the poor (instead of on bibles, playing politics, building ostentatious modern castles, etc.), it’s rather curious that so many poor could be fed just with their tax exemptions.  This is almost certainly more than they currently feed.

It takes a very short-sighted cynic to look past the lavish wastes of the church to gripe about how much we “squander” on exploring the cosmos.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Timothy (TRiG)

    Your link to Lindsey’s post is broken: there’s a stray space in the URL.


  • Ken

    Check out the Crystal Cathedral the Catholic Church recently bought in California for more than $57 million:

    And it looks like they will be pumping an additional $50 million into renovations:

    Now that’s money well spent for humanity! Or a church with a massive inferiority complex…

  • Art Vandelay

    That letter would make NDT’s head explode.

  • Umlud

    I see that you didn’t leave a message on her site – or maybe it’s waiting for approval or already got scrubbed. Her response to the one comment there about the size of the NASA budget was … odd:

    These facts and figures anchor my admittedly unresearched speculation. Yes, easy (sloppy) answers can be dangerous and reductive. Those questions a seven-year-old asks, and an adult recalls, are in my mind a starting point not a conclusive answer. Thanks for chiming in.

    • invivoMark

      I saw John Yum’s reply to this comment.

      John Yum, you have won the Internet.

  • Jason

    It’s not like NASA sent big bags of cash to Mars with the rover. That $2.5 billion kept many people employed, either directly through NASA or through the many companies that contract with NASA. In the end, much of that money did go to feeding people and paying for schools, it just went through someone’s paycheck first.

    • Alexandra

      Yes! This is a point that I always see people missing, and just don’t understand. I’m a grad student, and I hear people criticizing the sizes of the grants we get from NSF and it amazes me. Do they not understand that a huge portion of that grant is going directly to pay the salary of the woman in purchasing? Or the guy at environmental health and safety? That universities are huge job creation centers? And that we get super cool and useful knowledge out of it?

  • eric

    For 2011, the DoEd budget was $70 billion and NASA’s was $19 billion. Also, federal spending only supplements education, which is primarily paid for by state and local government.

    Do these people even bother to check facts before opining on subjects?

  • iknklast

    NASAs an easy target; it’s big, it’s well known, and everything just plain looks expensive. And most people don’t have a brother/uncle/father/sister/mother working for NASA, but a lot of people have a relative in the military, so they wouldn’t dream of cutting the budget. Plus, the military spends a huge amount of money on PR; NASA doesn’t do nearly the PR, and there isn’t a pink/yellow/blue/camo ribbon for NASA. Plus, telling people that military and/or the churches have a lot of waste is unpopular. A lot of people like to be popular.

    In addition, it’s cool to attack intellectual (particularly scientific) pursuits as wasteful, because it’s done by pointy-headed elites, but the military and the church is all about the common man. Schools are also perceived as being about pointy-headed elites, and people forget that they’re so important for the common man (along with libraries, art galleries, museums, and everything else that gets cut first).

  • ACN

    Why do I get the feeling that the author of this piece is one of those people who, when asked about the relative size of various US budget items, tries to claim that NASA DOES NOT take up ~20% of the total budget…

    “The American public perceives the NASA budget as commanding a much larger share of the federal budget than it in fact does. A 1997 poll reported that Americans had an average estimate of 20% for NASA’s share of the federal budget, far higher than the actual 0.5% to under 1% that has been maintained throughout the late ’90s and first decade of the 2000s”

  • invivoMark

    I’m not really a big fan of the “Oh yeah? Well, you guys are even worse!” argument against an attack like this. NASA’s space exploration is a wonderful thing in and of itself, we shouldn’t have to make excuses for it! The direct and indirect research-related benefits we might get from this particular mission are unknown, and there’s a chance (a very tiny chance, in my opinion) that it might not have any direct impact at all.

    Yet even if we assume, unreasonably, that there will be no benefit from the research done with Curiosity, it’s undeniable that investing in space research has direct, tangible benefits for the rest of us Earthlings (even the ones who really don’t care about the geology of other planets). The employment of NASA scientists has already been mentioned, and of course we inspire other investments in science. Science is the one investment we can make that is guaranteed to give payouts many-fold higher than what we invest. It enhances our economic prosperity, it empowers the poor and uneducated (think Internet), and it generally improves quality of life.

    And let’s not neglect the spinoffs. I’m lukewarm about the merit of the spinoffs when discussing NASA with other space enthusiasts, but for any doubters like Lindsey, I always send them to this page:

    • Nate Frein

      I don’t really feel that comparing NASA’s budget to other agencies is necessarily saying “Oh, well, you guys are worse”, but rather saying “Well, yes, it sounds like a large amount but lets put that in perspective”.

      Other than that, I completely agree with you.

      • invivoMark

        No, I meant comparing NASA with the Vatican, church tax exemptions, etc.

        • Nate Frein

          Oh, yeah. I definitely get you there.

  • Glodson

    Nah, NASA is just dead weight. They don’t produce anything besides the pictures we get to see. It isn’t like they have to advance technology, and then advance our knowledge of our universe, or inspire kids to get interested in real science, or anything else like that. If only that 2.5 billion dollars was put to something useful… like science.

    Oh, right.

  • smrnda

    The problem with these arguments about where money ought to go (to some immediate need) is that sometimes you have to invest a little in research and development so that, in the long run, more needs get taken care of.

    If they are really concerned about people being hungry, seriously, we produce plenty of food but because we focus on food profitability rather than feeding everybody, we end up destroying food to boost the prices. It’s another case where we do have amazing technology for food production, but because of bad ideas in people’s heads it isn’t doing the good it should.

    I’m also wondering about other wastes – I doubt the author who is criticizing NASA for wasting money is optimizing her own budget and giving away the surplus.

    • TychaBrahe

      Let’s talk about how satellites launched by NASA are being used in India, Africa, and South America to find subterranean water to support human agriculture.

    • eric

      Sometimes? Try all the time; basic research is like seed corn. You need to keep producing it, every generation, because its what produces the next generation’s applied/developmental sciences. Without it, we could coast for maybe 10 years or so.

      One interesting thing that’s happened in the last 20 years or so is that, with the ongoing privatization of biotech and drug research, we are starting to get an idea of the ‘market value’ placed on basic research by veture capitalists. We can directly compare, for example, what % of their research money a drug company puts towards basic research vs. what % the government puts towards basic research (through things like DOD and DOE labs, NSF, NIH, etc.). Remember, this is research that venture capitalists expect to receive no immediate gain from; it is a long-term, strategic investment. And guess what? Drug companies spend significantly more on basic research than the government does. The numbers I heard were 10-15% vs. 2-5%.
      So, conservatives have it reversed. If we want to have a more corporate government, we need to increase our % spending on basic research by a factor of 3-4 – not decrease it.

  • Ilaria

    Just one little thing: I’d like to know where Time Magazine got this figure: “providing some measure of food and clothing to 7,000,000 needy Italians.”
    Being italian, my first reaction was: “WHAAAATTTT??? More than 10% of the population of my country is clothed and fed by the church???”
    I think i’ll try to check that. I REALLY DON’T THINK SO. :)

    • IslandBrewer

      “providing some measure”

      I think that just means communion wafers and bad wine once a week.

  • IslandBrewer

    Hah! My comment on her post is still awaiting moderation. It was not flattering.

  • Anonymous