Religion and Money

Religion and Money February 1, 2011

One of the points of division in the recent split in the Feri tradition of witchcraft concerns charging money for teaching, as Jason Pitzl-Waters describes in this very good, very neutral piece on yesterday’s Wild Hunt. The issue of charging for religious services and the larger topic of the role of money in religion can be just as volatile in Pagan circles as it is in more mainstream religions.

On one side is the idea that whatever we have learned (be it history, structure, lore or magic) was taught to us free of charge, therefore we have an obligation to teach others free of charge. A corollary idea is that our knowledge and power comes from the gods through grace (which is not an exclusively Christian concept) and so we have no right to sell them.

There is merit in those ideas, but there are some heavy implications behind them. None of us live in a tribal society where basic needs are met communally. If no one can receive money for religious work, then everyone must earn his living in the mundane world. And if everyone has to work a “day job” (in addition to home and family responsibilities) then everyone is severely limited in how much teaching, healing, divining and such she can do. This limits the depth of the individual’s practice – you can’t go as deep in an hour a day as you can in eight hours. It also limits the breadth of his instruction – someone with a regular job may be able to handle two or three students while a full-time teacher can handle 25 or more.

Some people are just fine with these limitations. They don’t like what they’ve seen and experienced in larger institutions and they prefer a more egalitarian religious community. If the inability to charge for services means their tradition has no religious professionals and therefore will grow very slowly if at all, so be it.

We know money can be a corrupting influence. We’re all too familiar with the televangelist who asks for money for “the Lord’s work” and spends it on a private jet or the New Age huckster who charges thousands for readings and treatments of questionable efficacy. Sometimes we let the few bad examples outweigh the many good examples of ministers who work long and hard for little pay and elders who serve their communities for none, as well as the good examples of those who are well paid and produce excellent results.

Beyond that, there is the idea that someone who teaches or practices “for the love of the art” is purer than someone who charges for it. But there is a subtle bit of classism in that concept. If you have a nice professional job, you probably don’t need to be paid for a Tarot reading or a training class. And if you can retire at 52 with a civil servant’s pension (like Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca) maybe you can be a full time religious leader who doesn’t have to dirty his hands with money. I’m not criticizing Gardner – if I could pull off that arrangement, I’d do it in a minute. But it is wrong to automatically assume that those who can afford to provide religious services for free are somehow better than those who need to be paid for their time.

If it is wrong to exclude potential students because they can’t afford to pay for instruction, it is also wrong to exclude potential teachers because they can’t afford to teach for free. An ethical religious movement should accommodate both.

From what I’ve read about the Feri schism, it appears that money is a secondary issue – the core issue is whether it should be a small, secluded, egalitarian community or whether it should spread its teachings to as many people as possible and live with the structural changes that requires. There are valid arguments on both sides and based on what I’ve been able to glean from all the reports and commentary, a split is clearly the right course of action.

In domestic disputes, arguments about money are usually not about money – they’re about power, respect and other deeper issues that are harder to recognize and much harder to address. The same is true in religion. In either arena, if you’re arguing about money, look deeper for the core issue.

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