The Business of Religion

One of the things that bothers me about organized religion is the preferential tax treatment. Churches are treated like non-profit organizations and therefore are exempt from income tax. This is widely accepted to be OK. But really it shouldn’t be.

Religion is business. It’s a big business. Church is in the business of selling faith, spirituality, and a bunch of other bullshit I don’t believe in. But if you do, fine, good for you.

There are lots of people that need help to manage their mental well-being. Many can get by with the personal relationships that they have with their family and friends. Others turn to professional help, like therapists. So why should a doctor have to pay tax while the church remains exempt? I’ve thought this unfair for awhile, but a couple recent things have really crystallized this for me.

Pam and I recently watched Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. The documentary is mostly about how wacky Scientology is. (Side note: I told Pam halfway through the viewing that the stuff they believe didn’t sound that much crazier to me than any other religion.) There’s also a lot about how Scientology gained church status with the IRS. Basically they muscled, intimidated, threatened and annoyed the IRS into capitulating. To hear the director describe it, you would think he was talking about the mafia.

The other thing that left an impression on me was John Oliver. On Last Week Tonight he recently took a page out of Stephen Colbert’s playbook. Colbert created a Super PAC to prove how ridiculous campaign finance laws are. Oliver created a legally recognized church. The video below starts at the part where he discusses the exemption, but the whole show is worth watching. (The first 8 minutes are about sleazy televangelists.)

The only requirements in IRS regulations to qualify as a church are that “beliefs are truly held and are not illegal”. Oliver captures the ridiculousness of this by saying “truly held beliefs that are not illegal is almost every belief”. So if every belief can be a religion, then they’re all nothing. And if they’re all nothing, then the tax exemption should be repealed.