The Church Is A Burden, Not A Benefit, In Social Life
I have no doubt that many persons — a minority but a zealously vociferous group — would have so little feeling of humor and anachronism as to claim that churches should be exempted from taxation because they are “houses of God.” It does seem that it would be hard on a God, if any God there were, to learn a different set of manners, beliefs and tricks in each of his denominational “houses.” But this “house of God” claim is not the reason generally alleged for church tax exemption. The average man or woman, making pretensions to intelligence and fairmindedness, would say that the churches should be free from the obligation of taxes because they have a communal usefulness of a moral and enlightening and refining nature. Churches, these apologists would argue, have a vital place in the social fabric and help hold men together in the texture of civilized ethics and behavior.
This claim on behalf of the churches is not really a thin shade of a degree better than the claim of supernaturalism. It may have an appearance or an intention of reason, but it is easily seen to be untenable. We have only to inquire, with specific seriousness, what the church (taking it in general as to the institution of religion) contributes or has ever contributed to civilization. In what field of life, for example, does the church usefully instruct or guide men?
It is not necessary to have a broad understanding of history to realize that the church is the foe of knowledge. One realizes this intellectual obscurantism and tyranny of the church more vividly when one sees it against the background of dramatic centuries; but, history aside, one can See this church antagonism to knowledge operating today. The attacks upon the teaching of evolution, culminating in several states in laws forbidding this scientific instruction, show very clearly what the church thinks of knowledge: it thinks that knowledge is very bad for religion and, therefore, it sets all possible obstacles in the way of knowledge. An uproar such as that occasioned by the sex questionnaire at the University of Missouri reveals the hand of the church and the influence of narrow church morality striking against the modern scientific effort to learn soundly and sanely the art of living. The church is compelled to compromise a good deal with the modern spirit; but, given half an opportunity, it springs forth as the enemy of culture.
It would be impossible for any one to maintain with any show of plausibility that the church is beneficial in the broader cultural life of mankind. Whatever subject the church touches, that subject the church inevitably obscures and corrupts and reduces to nonsense. Concerning science, concerning history, concerning ethics, concerning literature, concerning the affairs of government — in one field and in all fields, the church is engaged in the promotion or the artificial bolstering up of decadent, empty, luridly false notions. In every branch of learning, our gains have
been made through secular agencies; and, naturally, this has been so, for the church has never been interested in the development of knowledge, regarding (in this showing its shrewdness of self- interest, at least) the spread of culture and free thought and realistic curiosity as unfavorable to the purposes of the church.
As a moral influence, the church has been notoriously lacking and indeed marred with definite viciousness and error. It has supported all the social evils (monarchy, slavery, intolerance, the oppression of women, and the like) that shame the record of man — and some of these evils the church has not merely supported but has inaugurated: the appalling slaughter and vileness of bigotry and the punishment of heretics must, as a red-splashed feature, be laid at the door of the church. The moral notions of the church have been at once brash and puerile. Ethics, in the view and preachment of the church, have been subordinated to theology. No institution has done less good and more harm in the moral sphere than has the church. The student of history cannot avoid the conclusion that, had it not been for the distorting influence of the church, mankind would today be immeasurably farther advanced along the Path of a progressive, humane, intelligent code of behavior. The church’s pronouncements on morality have always been corrupted (that is to say, weakened and broken and rendered futile) by its refusal to understand that morality is solely a consideration of human, social adjustments and is, from first to last, a worldly concern. The church’s preoccupation with “sin” has disabled it from approaching moral questions sensibly.
The church has contributed nothing to civilization. It has progressed somewhat, and it has become a little more decent, in reflection of the movements of civilization that have taken place outside of the church and usually in the face of the strong opposition of the church. But the church has always resisted the process of civilization. It has struggled to the last ditch, by fair means and foul, to preserve as long as it could the vestiges of ancient and medieval theology, with all the puerile moralities and harsh customs and medieval styles of belief.
Our gains in culture, in humanity, in social law, in scientific achievement — in all the practical and in all the gentler sides of life — have been impressively due to the efforts of secular thinkers and workers laboring outside the church. The church hasn’t led in civilization. It has always lagged behind the march of civilization. It has been a burden to mankind. It is a burden today, so that to speak of its social usefulness is to express notoriously the opposite of the truth.
There is no valid, not even a faintly plausible basis, for any sort of claim in defense of the exemption of churches from taxation. When the last church disappears, civilization will be relieved of a serious and sinister burden. Meanwhile, the churches should be made to pay their honest share of the cost of public services which they, now enjoy freely and to which they contribute nothing.
Why should an atheist pay more taxes so that a church which he despises should pay no taxes? That’s a fair question. How can the apologists for the church exemption answer it?