If you want to get angry about the preferential treatment of religion in the U.S., read this new report by The Council for Secular Humanism: “How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States.” This piece, published in the June/July issue of Free Inquiry, is written by three academics who did extensive research: Ryan Cragun, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa, Stephanie Yeager, a senior business management major and a liability insurance broker, and Desmond Vega, a psychology major at the University of Tampa. Their goal was to estimate how much the American government (and state governments) subsidize religion by giving them tax breaks and other benefits. That is, what is the revenue lost to the nation through such subsidies?
The summary of revenue income to churches is on the left side of the following figure, and government subsidies on the right. Most of us already know that although churches garner considerable income from donations, fund-raisers, and even gambling activities like bingo games, they’re not subject to the taxes that corporations would pay—or many other taxes. To wit:
- Churches pay no taxes on the donations they receive.
- Religious institutions pay no property taxes, though those taxes (paid by property-owning citizens) go for public services like police protection and firefighting, which also benefit the churches.
- Religions, though many of them have investments such as stocks, pay no investment taxes (e.g., capital gains tax).
- When buying goods and services, religions don’t have to pay state sales tax.
- Ministers, unlike everyone else, can deduct the cost of their housing (mortgages, rent, furnishings, upkeep, etc.) from their taxable income. This can be considerable in the case of rich megachurch pastors like Rick Warren.
Here’s the flowchart (this and the following table from Free Inquiry):
So what does this add up to? The chart below gives the estimates of government subsidies to religion, which the authors consider conservative—especially because they couldn’t estimate several subsidies. The bottom line is that the U.S. government, i.e., the U.S. taxpayer, subsidizes religion to the tune of at least $71 billion per year!
As the authors note:
To put this into perspective, the combined total of government subsidies to agriculture in the United States in 2009 was estimated to be $180.8 billion. Religions receive at least 40 percent of the subsidy that agriculture does in the United States. Another way to illustrate the size of the subsidy may be to illustrate how much tax revenue would increase at the state level if religious institutions had to pay property taxes. In Florida, where the state government’s budget was $69.1 billion in 2011, the amount of tax revenue lost from subsidizing religious property was $2.2 billion or 3 percent of the state budget. The additional revenue would have mostly prevented the $1.1 billion cut to firefighter and police retirement plans and the $1.3 billion cut to public schools.
They conclude as well that while these subsidies may not encourage the growth of religion, they may still keep some small denominations or churches alive that would otherwise fold.
What about the counterargument that religions should be subsidized because they engage in charitable work? The authors show early on in the article that direct charity is actually quite small for many churches (the Mormon Church, for example gives only 0.7% of its annual income to charitable causes, while Methodists give 23%, but these are still considerably less than charitable organizations like the Red Cross. which gives 92.1% of its revenue as direct help to the afflicted). But for those who want religion given a break for its charity, the authors offer a solution:
For those individuals who argue that religions should receive subsidies because of their charitable work, there is an easy solution for that problem. If religions want to engage in charitable work, they should separate religious activities and finances from their charitable activities and finances. The charities run by religions could be tax-exempt, but the religious organizations would be treated like civic leagues or sports clubs or any other volunteer organization that exists for entertainment or the benefit of its members. Those groups are not tax-exempt and are not subsidized by the government.
And they reach a reasonable (and somewhat humorous) conclusion:
Finally, as the perceived “benefit” to society of religions becomes increasingly irrelevant as more and more Americans cease to utilize their “services” by disaffiliating, it will also be increasingly unfair for a large percentage of nonreligious Americans (almost 40 percent in some states) to subsidize the recreational activities of others. These subsidies should be phased out. But since that is unlikely to happen, we’d accept the following alternative: the ability to write off our annual entertainment expenses as “donations”; the subsidizing of all of our housing expenses, including utilities and maintenance costs; being exempt from paying taxes on businesses we start related to our primary purpose in life (say, a micro-brewery); direct cash transfers to us from the government for trying to convert people to our worldviews while claiming to provide social services; and, most important, the right to host games of bingo without reporting our income as gambling revenue!
I love the characterization of religion as a “recreational activity,” but of course that’s precisely what it seems like to an an atheist.
The more I thought about this piece, the more I realized how manifestly unfair it is for the state and national governments of a secular country to subsidize religion. Yes, in Europe there are state-supported churches (also unconscionable, in my view), but in the U.S. we have constitutionally mandated freedom of religion—and that includes the freedom to not be religious. To me, that means that nonbelieving taxpayers should not be supporting, however indirectly, religious organizations. In fact, nobody should be supporting the activities of religious organizations except through their direct donations. The United States government should not be in the business of propping up religions, many of which are wealthy and should pay their fair share for the government services they receive.
And it’s curious to me that nobody but atheists seem to question these subsidies. Perhaps some religious folks who favor secularism have done so, but I’m not aware of it.
We need to stop subsidizing Americans who purvey fairy tales.