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How to make $71 billion a year: Tax the churches

While the desire to tax churches is not new, it seems as far from reality as possible at this moment. As has been commented, no atheist could possibly hope to win an election in today's political climate—a freethinking man like Robert Ingersoll would have no influence with the majority of our electorate. Our cultural dependency on the necessity of faith is affecting our society: According to a University of Tampa study, not taxing churches is taking an estimated $71 billion from our economy every year, and this fact remains largely unquestioned.


The general argument over why churches do not pay taxes goes like this: If there is a separation of church and state, then the state (or fed) has no right to collect money from the church. In exchange, churches cannot use their clout to influence politics. While this would seem to make for cozy bedfellows, it's impossible to believe that none of the 335,000 congregations in the United States are using their resources for political purposes, especially when just last week the Kansas governor called for a 'Day of Salvation' in his state.

Churches not paying property and federal income taxes (along with a host of others, including reduced rates on for-profit properties and parsonage subsidies) is filed into that part of our brain marked 'always been.' Never mind the conundrum that the most religious are often the most patriotic—what could be less patriotic than not paying your fair share for the good of the country, especially when church structures and those who work for them use the same public utilities as the rest of us?

As noted in the Tampa study, churches fall into the category of 'charitable' entities. This is often a stretch. The researchers calculated the Mormon church, for example, spends roughly .7% of its annual income on charity. Their study of 271 congregations found an average of 71% of revenues going to 'operating expenses,' while help to the poor is somewhere within the remaining 29%. Compare this to the American Red Cross, which uses 92.1% of revenues for physical assistance and just 7.9% on operating expenses. The authors also note that,

Wal-Mart, for instance, gives about $1.75 billion in food aid to charities each year, or twenty-eight times all of the money allotted for charity by the United Methodist Church and almost double what the LDS Church has given in the last twenty-five years.

Which brings us to the second category of giving, or 'spiritual charities.' Unfortunately, churches do not meet the requirement of a charitable organization for tax purposes. Here's why: Church employees pay taxes on their salaries (although clergy get a handful of write-offs that the commoner cannot, including their physical living expenses). Therefore, when they are doing things like praying for god's intervention or to heal sick children, that's not charity. They're doing what they are paid to do.

The most important distinction the study makes, however, is the difference between physical and spiritual assistance. There's an Internet meme of a pair of white adults handing bibles to African children, while the children ask how they can eat them. Prayers may make those praying feel good about themselves, but do nothing to eradicate poverty or feed the meek. I'm not sure what glitch in human psychology allows us to confuse the two, but the longer we do, the less actual assistance we can offer.

Yet this is the vicious feedback loop we've found ourselves in. Today's religious entities offer either a) abundance (in the style of Joel Osteen/Creflo Dollar) or b) salvation (the fantasy of heavenly return); we donate or tithe for such services; they grow bigger and wealthier while expanding their power, using a considerably small amount of revenue for real-world charitable work. More always wants more, because more can never have enough, regardless of the mask it wears.

A main GOP talking point against raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans is that it wouldn't raise enough revenue to put a serious dent in the deficit. But it's a start, despite their claims that it would ruin trickle-down economics. The same holds true with taxing churches. Seventy-one billion dollars a year would not wipe out the current total debt of $16.369 trillion. Yet it would hold church leaders accountable for their political participation, and bring them back to the same level as the 'rest of us.'

Our current Congress has passed a record number of abortion restrictions. Mormons may be light on charitable givings, yet they have deep pockets for opposing gay marriage. Such 'culture war' issues affect policy, and policy is the realm of the state. Telling a woman what she cannot do with her body and stopping two people from partaking in ceremony has nothing to do with charity. If anything, it's the exact opposite.

Church leaders have every right to express their opinions and help craft legislation while influencing public sentiment, so long as they play by the same rules as those they preach to. We have to understand the difference between real help and the imagined rules of gods. The world does not need more bigotry masquerading as spirituality. It needs actual charity, the kind that does not demand a reward. Taxing churches is one step in that direction.

Photo: Itsvan Csak/shutterstock.com

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

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Image source: Sereno, et al
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  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
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Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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