A provocative report from the Council for Secular Humanism examined the subsidization of religion by all citizens via tax exemptions. The authors wrote:
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.
Religious institutions receive revenue through personal and corporate donations, fund-raisers, volunteer labor, direct subsidies, and corporate profits. Donations result in tax deductions for those making the donations. Religions do not pay income, property, investment, or sales tax.
Mark Rienzi, from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, countered by arguing that ”Whether it is the Quakers opposing slavery, Reverend King arguing for equality, or a Catholic soup kitchen feeding and sheltering all in need, our history is full of examples confirming the great public benefit of our religious diversity.”
What Mr. Rienzi ignores in his brief and unsatisfactory summation of religion’s supposed benefits to society are, to be similarly brief about it, preaching against homosexuality, bankrolling campaigns for anti-gay legislation, colluding with Nazi Germany, harboring child rapists, declaring that the use of condoms could make the AIDS crisis worse, and other assorted nonsense and bigotry.
Religion’s ultimate effect on society is immeasurable, which is, in part, why it’s ludicrous to assert that churches deserve tax exemption for the purpose of public charity. Whatever genuinely beneficial charitable acts and goodwill come from religion also come with “baggage,” to be politely euphemistic about it. Perhaps subsidizing religion yields soup kitchens, homeless outreach, and communal bonding. But it also, undeniably, can provoke hostility towards those deemed “immoral” by ancient texts. Surely the benefits of compassion can come without the expense of the protection of child rapists or the denial of marriage equality.
Perhaps most frustrating about tax-exempt status for churches is that these same institutions, granted so much undeserved leeway already, ceaselessly insist that they are under attack. They claim, amongst other things, that a religious organization being ordered to pay for contraception is a violation of both religious liberty and the moral conscience of the faithful. But what about the conscience of gay couples unable to marry or adopt? Or the conscience of the victims of clergy sex abuse? Or the conscience of the health workers watching people die from AIDS because condoms are considered immoral? Or those who object to the moral teachings of the Bible? Or those who find it revolting that women are shamed for having abortions? Or those who object to religion’s insistence that its holy texts offer realistic depictions of the universe? The moral conscience of these people are, in effect through the subsidization of religion, totally ignored and disrespected.
If Mr. Rienzi would like Americans to help fund an abolitionist organization or a civil rights group, or a soup kitchen, I’m sure many would be happy to oblige him. But he has no right to demand that everyone subsidize organizations that often preach highly objectionable moral and political views.
More and more people are declaring themselves spiritual but unaffiliated with any particular religion. They are, in the words of Thomas Paine, declaring their minds to be their own churches. In light of this trend of independent thinking, the subsidization of religion seems increasingly unjust and antiquated.
Television hosts make millions by demonstrating their supposed ability to communicate with the dead or predict the future. These extraordinary abilities are often presented with general life advice about “moving on” from past relationships or seeking out new relationships to fill voids. Due to the sensitive nature of such topics, it is sometimes considered insensitive or offensive to state the obvious: anyone who claims the ability to know the future or correspond with deceased human beings is either deluded or a liar.
We have many laws in this country protecting consumers from fraud and false advertising. One cannot sell a container labeled as a gallon of milk if it is in fact a gallon of poison. Most people generally trust that when they pay for something, they will receive exactly what was advertised. Without oversight and regulation of products, consumers would likely be constantly deceived by businesses small and large that are eager to make a quick profit. Indeed, history shows that such snake oil salesmen run rampant before authorities crack down on their schemes.
In principle, most people would probably agree that fraud should always be punished. Society can’t function properly if we have to view every sales transaction with paranoid suspicion. And yet, the frauds of fortune telling and communicating with the dead are ubiquitous. It is a multi-million dollar industry of deceit, preying on the fear of death and the sorrow experienced after a love one has died. It largely escapes criminal repercussions because it can be difficult to prove that psychics are knowingly deceiving their customers. But when such criminal acts can be proved, and it must be provable in many instances, it should be aggressively prosecuted. Psychics and mediums simply should not be able to claim to have a supernatural ability that can be (and has been) debunked.
This proposal, despite how it might appear at first glance, is ultimately a mild one. People can still have a “fortune telling” experience but it must at least be called something else (perhaps something that connotes a ritualistic but not realistic experience) to prevent false advertising. The distinction is a semantic one but it’s important. To charge a customer for a service that doesn’t exist is clearly deceptive, if not a case of outright fraud.
There are some honest people who rely on pseudoscience to make money. I don’t doubt their sincerity, just as I don’t doubt that some salesmen really did believe in magical cures for baldness and impotence. Self-deception is a powerful force but it shouldn’t be tolerated in a country that values justice, truth, and fair play. We can’t expect our fellow citizens to be scientifically literate if we allow superstition to be sold to them.