How Large is the Religion Industry in America? August 25, 2008

How Large is the Religion Industry in America?

A recent editorial in the Colorado Springs Gazette referred to how atheists were not invited to the Interfaith Ceremony that began the Democratic Convention:

Democrats will nominate a Christian gentleman who respects others. It’s likely they didn’t invite atheists to their faith service because they didn’t want embarrassing guests. Atheists might bring pseudointellectual proselytizers, who are intolerant, self-aggrandizing and rude. Atheists should fund universities and hospitals. They should feed and clothe starving kids. They should act more like Christians and Jews. If they do some of that – if they contribute to a diverse humanity – they might get better party invites.

I’ve already commented on other aspects of that piece, but I highlighted a certain part of the excerpt because there’s a very good reason atheists don’t fund hospitals or build shelters or do a host of things that many religious groups provide.

We don’t have the money for it. They do.

By virtue of tithes or donations or guilt-trips, people give to their churches often. Some of that money just goes to keeping the church functioning — atheist groups need donations for that reason as well. But with atheists, at least, no one is obligated to give, and there’s very little left over for other projects. And while I may not like a lot of what churches do with the cash, no doubt they do some good things with it.

But there is a lot of excess money in the religious world.

Some of the nation’s megachurches easily take in over half a million dollars each week.

Reader Siamang made a comment regarding this on another blog and he raises another important question (emphasis mine):

… I want to refer to religion, for fr*ming purposes, as the “xxx billion dollar religion industry.”

I think it points out quite a bit. I’m working on it as a frame. I think it’s potentially very powerful, especially if we always refer to religion as “the 130 billion dollar religion industry in this country.”

So I want to find out how large a sector of the american economy this actually is. This is where it gets interesting.

I can’t seem to find out.

For example, look here:

I might be blind, but it’s not even a listed sector of the American economy. Right?

This is a sector of the economy potentially as big as real estate or transportation. And it’s tax-free.

But it’s not listed. Why?

So I’d like to enlist your help. Can you help me find the number I’m looking for? How large IS the American religion industry? I caught a boston globe article that said that in 2001 the Catholic Church’s revenue in the US alone was $102 billion. That is staggering.


What say, does this sound like a constructive frame to you? I think it’s potentially very powerful, and frankly I’m surprised that it’s an angle I haven’t seen. I’m not talking about just bringing up the excesses of any one evangelist or one pope or one leader of a megachurch. I want to lump everything together into one big pile of tax-free money, and say “this is it. This is the size of the religion industry. This is what it costs our society to save souls.” People balk at what Scientology charges for their religion. I think it’s time we shone a bright light on what everyone’s paying for their indulgences…

Can anyone shed light on Siamang’s important question?

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  • Jim

    This site seems like it might have some numbers, but it’s asking for money just to view them.

    I think, even if we don’t get the numbers, referring to it as “the religion industry” is probably a good way of consciousness-raising. Churches are businesses, not solely charities, so let’s shed light on them as such.

  • Siamang

    Thanks for posting this, Hemant.

    Here’s a part of an email I sent to Hemant that illustrates what brings up this question for me.

    Have you ever read James Randi’s account of seeing the giant money counting machines behind the scenes at Guadalupe, where the dirt poor and starving heave their humblest coins into the coffers of the church?

    This is from Randi’s October 11 2002 commentary

    >> Reader George Paz writes:
    >> While reading your article on the Virgin of Guadalupe, I felt compelled to write you. When I was thirteen years old I went on a vacation with my sister to Mexico City. It was a year after the massive earthquake of ’86. One Sunday morning we boarded a tour bus and headed to Guadalupe. Though it was a full year after the disaster, the town looked as if the earthquake had hit just the day before. There was not one structure standing in the town, except for the basilica.
    >> We arrived at the basilica about twenty minutes before mass. As we stepped off the bus, we were swamped by poverty-stricken children. All of us American tourists were touched and devastated at the sight of all the children who were clearly sick and malnourished. The dollars were passed out en masse. As we made our way through the crowd, we ended up in front of a gift shop off to one side of the basilica. We entered the gift shop to partake of humanity’s greatest invention — air-conditioning.
    >> I browsed among the many statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe and numerous saints, while my sister searched through a bin of T-shirts with silk-screened images of the “miraculous” painting. The church bells began to toll, calling the parishioners to mass. We walked outside to a scene which I believe I will never forget. The entire town was emptying into the basilica, most of the parishioners crawling in on their knees, over the cobblestones. We walked in behind them.
    >> Right inside the main entrance was what looked like a large fish tank, with a solid-gold statuette inside. As the parishioners filed by they dropped the meager contents of their pockets into this tank. Much of what was dropped in was US currency, the money that we tourists had given them just minutes before in the belief that we were helping to feed at least a few of these starving families. There were easily tens of thousands of dollars in the tank.
    >> I was unable to go any further, and had to wait outside while I tried to process what I had just seen. My sister continued on inside and when she returned she described a scene very similar to what you did.
    >> On board the bus, as we drove away from the town, I looked back at this mammoth, pristine structure among the ruins. It vaguely seemed like something from a sci-fi movie, like a massive alien ship sucking the life out of that dying harvest of humanity. I left my lukewarm Episcopalian upbringing and any notion of deities or religion, behind me in Guadalupe. It was an eye-opening and life-altering experience.
    >> Thanks for letting me share.

    James Randi then wrote:

    > George, my own experience with this cruel farce was far more serious and shocking, but I do appreciate that you shared yours with our readers. Though I’ll someday write up my account, I’ll only tell you now that during the filming session there, I wandered down a flight of stairs — not unintentionally — and found the vast counting room where currency of many nations was being busily and noisily sorted and counted. The amount of cash I saw there was staggering. The stark contrast between the tiny copper coins the stricken poor were dropping into the many collection-boxes upstairs, and the gold-clad altars, figures, and ornaments that were set up to glorify this stupid painting as one of divine origin, stays in my mind like a scar. Just thinking about all this depresses me and re-affirms my determination to fight this sort of flummery. Thanks very much for your contribution.

    Siamang again:

    So again, I wonder… how much are we paying for saving our nation’s souls? My stepmother, ever the credophile nevertheless balked once upon hearing about some group (perhaps scientology) who wanted to charge for their services. “My soul doesn’t take money to be enlightened” she haughtily replied. It’s ironic, because at the time she belonged to a “prosperity theology” Unity Church, which wound up fleecing them for thousands that they still don’t recognize as being stolen. You see, it was THEIR fault that the (1980’s version of ) The Secret didn’t work for them.

    Yet, I do think she’s in essence right. My soul doesn’t take money to be enlightened. We should bristle at the thought of it. Yet here it is, and here we are, still buying stairways to heaven.

  • Dave Haaz-Baroque

    “I highlighted a certain part of the excerpt because there’s a very good reason atheists don’t fund hospitals or build shelters or do a host of things that many religious groups provide.”

    Well, the other thing to consider is that the non-religious do do those things, they just don’t feel the need to advertise themselves as being an ‘atheist charity’…

    In fact, I would go so far as to say that many religious-founded organizations actually get credit for work done by secular employees. Let me explain…

    I manage supportive housing shelters in San Francisco, and since I’ve started working in this field, I’ve worked with two separate organizations that were originally founded by Catholic organizations. In both of these organizations many of the case managers, outreach workers and site managers (including myself) were non-religious. The Catholic founders (when they weren’t away on long ‘sabbaticals’) just sat around at head office avoiding phone calls. They were CEOs that raked in money, cut unprofitable programs and never ever had to deal with the population we were trying to serve.

    But people only look at things from the outside. They look at charities and services that were set by with religious-funded money sixty or seventy years ago and say, ‘Oh, look at all the wonderful things that the Christian organizations are doing for the community! You don’t see any atheists or agnostics doing charity work” not knowing that many of us are doing most of the work without any of the credit.

  • Siamang

    I also just think that religion is a sector of the economy that should be recognized as a sector of the economy and not kept “off the books.”

  • Your last comment says it all, Siamang. Even though churches are nonprofit entities, they are not required to file any kind of report with the IRS. If a nonprofit of any other type makes over a set amount of money in a year, it has to file Form 990 with the IRS. This form has been updated for 2008 and will now ask very tough questions about the governance of organizations, in addition to financial questions. Churches never receive this scrutiny, which is why they can get away with scamming people. When nonprofits of any other stripe take in donations, they are required to prove that they are responsibly using those donations to further their stated missions. Churches don’t have to prove anything to their congregants, so if the minister has a personal jet and a multi-million dollar mansion and 10 fancy cars, he can get away with it – and if his congregants note the discrepancy, all he has to say is that it was God’s will that he have all this prosperity and if the congregants aren’t prosperous, well, that’s God’s will too.

    What needs to happen with churches in this country is some independent financial oversight.

  • David D.G.

    I want to thank Siamang for his powerful insight. I think that framing religion as an industry for purposes of discussion is not only perfectly legitimate, but very sorely needed, and I will do my darnedest to begin referring to it as such as often as possible in my discussions of it.

    I also want to thank Siamang for passing along the experiences of George Paz and James Randi as related in that portion of Swift. Both revelations are appalling, but the one George relates is such an especially obscene tableau that I am practically reeling in shock over it. The one thing not explicitly addressed is not just that the people in that situation were victims, but that even in that post-apocalyptic devastation, they remained willing victims, fervently impoverishing themselves further while enriching an alleged God (who needs no money) and his alleged mouthpieces (who had supposedly taken vows of poverty themselves). The situation is sickening beyond belief, and it leaves me absolutely burning with indignation and, frankly, righteous anger.

    ~David D.G.

  • Loren Petrich

    Let’s not forget that there are lots of secular charities, ones that are not explicitly atheist or agnostic or nonreligious, but that nevertheless operate outside of any religion.

    Would they count?

  • Anne

    I do fund hospitals and schools. I do feed and clothe and educate and provide medical care for the needy. I do it by making financial contributions to SECULAR charities that are already in place to serve these functions. You can find a list of some secular charities here.

  • Anne

    Great topic, by the way. We were also horrified on our trip to Europe by the obscenity of the wealth on display in the churches.

  • Siamang

    Sorry, Loren, I’m not looking to count the sector of the economy taken up by charitable donations or services.

    I’m specifically trying to figure out the gross revenue of the religion industry.

    Yes, there are charities where religion doesn’t enter into it. I give to religious and nonreligious charities alike. The recipients of my donations do not know my beliefs.

    I do think it would help, when we talk about religion, to remind people that we’re talking about a BIG business here. One that pulls in billions in revenues and produces no goods or services.

    Now, perhaps its me, and perhaps this information is easily available and I just can’t find it. But right now I have the impression that this sector of the economy isn’t being tracked.

  • monique

    A good book about the religion industry is the one I’m wading through right now — “Shopping for God: how Christianity went from in your heart to in your face” by James B. Twitchell. It’s interesting reading. On pg 267 he writes, “After all, the Lakewood enterprise in Houston brought in $55 million in contributions in 2004, four times the 1999 amount.” He mentions a couple articles from Business Week (Earthly empires: how evangelical churches are borrowing from the business playbook) and Economist (Onward, Christian shoppers) from 2005 that might have some good numbers.

  • Yoo

    The editorial is pretty offensive, considering that I have made donations to charities, and I’m far from the only one (very, very far). I feel like admonishing people like the author to focus more on actually helping out with good works and less on advertising how much their religion is supposedly helping out.

  • Siamang

    For example, look at this amazing article from 1997 in the New York Times archive. They specifically say that “billions of dollars” are given… but never give an actual number.

    Read it specifically to find out how much money we’re talking about and you’ll notice a conspicuous absence of the one key fact of the article. Instead they write about how much each individual family gives. Ain’t that warm and fuzzy?

    Just look at this paragraph: “Still, a study released yesterday of financial data in 29 religious denominations, titled ”The State of Church Giving Through 1995,” concludes that while total dollars given to organized religion has been rising, the amount churchgoers give as a proportion of their personal income has been gradually declining.”

    Okay, they tell the second number… personal proportion, but they never EVER tell the first.

    Notice that the study was conducted by “Empty Tomb, a Christian research and service organization in Champaign, Ill.”

    That fills me with the feeling that this was an unbiased, scholarly study, and not just a PR piece. Empty Tomb.

    Empty Tomb did have this to say, back in 1997:

    “The organization has also found that only 16.6 percent of each dollar donated to the local church in 1996 went to ”benevolences” — charitable work, missionary activity and various denominational causes — down from about 21 percent in 1968. The balance paid the cost of such in-house expenses as ministerial salaries, building maintenance and utility bills.”

    Whooo. And they’re COUNTING missionary activity in that 16%.

    Right about here’s where I’m going to bring up Saddleback Church’s palacial Lake Forest grounds… some of the most prime real-estate in the US.

  • James

    I’m surprised the Catholic Church hasn’t made it on the Forbes 500 yet. =]

  • Diane G.

    FWIW, here’s an old but interesting American Atheists page that gives a different perspective on atheists (secularism, anyway) and hospital building:

  • Good question and a good idea. The figures for religious donations must be recorded by the government along with anything else that is tax deductible. Also donations out should be traceable.

    Here is a link to an article that shows Christian donations to the developing world at $8.8 billion in 2006. It mentions that the University of Notre Dame Center for the Study of Religion and Society conducted the survey.

    It says nothing of running costs or donations elsewhere but I think you could safely double or treble it.

    I makes me seriously consider starting my own religion where we follow the teachings of a space faring alien race from the distant past….oh wait, someone’s done that already.

  • Even as a youth pastor, I agree that churches need to be forced to a higher level of accountability. There should be no aspect of the finances hidden. Our church publishes our budgets/finances publicly on a regular basis so our members know what’s coming in, and where it’s going/not going.

    I make less than most people, but I make enough to live off. And I’m embarrassed by the pastors ( ) who would use “Jesus” as an excuse to buy their own leer-jet.

  • Siamang

    Hi Wick.

    I think that examining this issue can actually get people to think about attending a smaller church.

    When I talk about the “religion industry” I’m making a point that religious organizations, if they grow, can grow in different directions. One might grow into more of a service organization, such as the Midnight Mission:

    Whereas one might grow into a larger and larger and more and more impressive building:

    I start thinking about Saddleback, for example, on that huge compound, and I start to wonder: What did that waterfall cost? What about that building? This land alone must be worth hundreds of millions. But then I look around Lake Forest… it’s a wealthy area… and I think: “Well of COURSE the church here has to be fancy for these rich people. The SUPERMARKETS here are fancy. They wouldn’t go into any ordinary church… because they wouldn’t FEEL rich.”

    And then I think about Las Vegas, and the psychological studies that if you make people FEEL rich, they spend more freely… which is why shopping malls and casinos are so visually opulent.

    Saddleback has a policy of tithing. I know many, if not most churches in America frown tying giving to a religious commandment… but not Saddleback. (Gotta pay for those plasma screens!)

    Listen to this shameless passage from Saddleback’s website, where they use the authority of God to command their members to donate 10 percent of their earnings BEFORE TAXES, to a GOD WHO SHOULDN’T EVEN NEED MONEY:

    “The practice that Christians have always carried out is the giving of 10 percent back to the Lord of ALL that the Lord has given to you – your gross. It’s not really a tithe to subtract out our largest payments and then give 10 percent out of the remainder.

    I know that this is a tremendous challenge. That’s the idea! The Lord could have asked us to give 50 percent to him, but he chose 10 percent. I believe that this is because that is an amount large enough that it takes a real act of faith and trust to give it to Him. God is not interested in our money so much as he is interested in what it represents: our heart and priorities. The beauty is that when we give out of a good heart, God uses it to bless us and many others.”

    Read the whole thing, where pastor Tom Holladay tells the reader that God will show His power in their finances eventually! Behold the Power of God is like unto a Mighty Pyramid Scheme!

    How much does salvation cost, brother Tom?

  • I really think we should start referring to religion as an industry even if we do not know the numbers.

    In fact, one could argue that not knowing the number kind of proves the point, doesn’t it?

  • Siamang

    “In fact, one could argue that not knowing the number kind of proves the point, doesn’t it?”


  • About the whole “atheists should fund hospitals…”

    Maybe if atheism was a religion (like so many theists like to claim), and we had a lot of churches etc, we could do that. We wouldn’t ask for 10% tithes or pass around collection plates, but we probably would try to solicit donations for such causes. But we don’t have that, so its not possible.

    They act like none of us do anything charitable. That’s a bunch of BS, from what I can tell. Personally, I’ve volunteered for charities. I’ve also donated to a few charities so far this year. I’m only one person, and can’t afford to fund an entire hospital, university etc. But I do my best to help out. The thing is, when I donate or volunteer, they don’t ask if I’m an atheist (it’d be quite strange if they did) so I guess its hard to be aware that atheists do what we can.

    The point is we don’t have an organization capable of providing that kind of funding. Even if we had the amount of people the religions have, we don’t all belong to a group.

  • A few more comments: I once knew someone who was getting a PhD in church history from Northwestern, and took me to Willow Creek a few times. I didn’t learn much about religion, but they did mention that they were a really big church. (Granted, I could tell just by looking they were a big church, but they still mentioned it more than once.)

    Also: The editorial seems to commit the common fallacy that if you are religious, you are therefore a good person. Religion == Morality. This is just not true. Some people will take those tax-sheltered donations and build a homeless shelter, or a hospital, while others will buy themselves a big house.

    Religion doesn’t “give people morality”. It gives people excuses to do whatever they want.

  • Russ

    From my own experience, atheists are, on the whole, quite a caring, compassionate and generous group. Beyond my personal acquaintances, I’m aware of tens of billions of dollars given for philanthropic purposes by atheists Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Also, the people of Sweden have one of the lowest rates of religious belief, and yet the Swedes are one of the world’s most generous nations on a per person basis. In fact, per person, they are far more generous than the citizens of the US who ooze religiousness from their pores.

  • Russ: Actually, when you count private donations per capita by country, Sweden comes in at #16 to the U.S.’s #7, at least as of 2003:

  • Julie Marie

    the church I went to was based on the Saddleback model, and their financial advice for their parishoners was the 10-10-80 plan – tithe 10%, save 10%, and live on 80%. And that is the model they followed for allocating church donations. 10% to the community, 10% to missions, and 80% to the church. At the time it sounded reasonable, and they are always in the news for the large $ amount of their community donations. But really, its a fraction of their total take — 80% of the tithes from upper middle class congregants adds up to a big pile of moolah. When I left the church membership was around 10,000.

    Counting couples as a unit rather than individually, if 50% tithed, @ $9000 per year, (probably a low estimate, actually, for this area)that is twenty two million five hundred thousand dollars tax free income per year.

    Using the 10-10-80 plan, that means the church needs eighteen million dollars per year to tend to its flock?

    Wow. And that was several years ago, they’ve grown since then. I can only imagine what the balance sheet would look like now.

  • BTW, the only statistics I’ve seen suggest that the religious are more generous than the secular, even if you disregard donations to churches.

  • Most atheists are liberals who support various social service programs, ranging from welfare to universal health care. I willing support such things and gladly let the government take money from my paycheck in order to fund such things.

    We do give to others, we just prefer to have a government in charge rather than a church. Although with all this faith-based funding going on, I’m starting to even distrust the government.

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