Most people are familiar with L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology, and his fairly radical public statements at Science Fiction Conventions à la:

“Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”

I am all for spirituality and finding your path and whatever makes you happy. But when I read articles about people like Bishop Edir Macedo, I find my own inner peace cracking under an onslaught of rage*. I’m just not sure that peddling salvation is fair – it’s like a teacher telling schoolchildren** that there is a definitive correlation between end-of-term-gifts-for-teacher and exam results. It’s an authoritarian abuse of the child’s fear of failure.

But somehow, when it comes to the fear of death and damnation (some might say: the Ultimate Failure), then there is no apparent problem with asking the freshly-converted to purchase their salvation for 10% of monthly income. Which brings me to my key question:

  • Why does tithing work?

But before I get there, I’d like to get some preliminary background out of the way***.

The Evolution of a Divine Business Model

  1. The church begins small: a backyard, underground community of the broken under the leadership of a likewise-broken founder-leader.
  2. The community grows, and begins to need bigger spaces and more formalised routines.
  3. The founder asks the community to help cover the cost of renting an auditorium on a Sunday, the cost of hiring lighting equipment, and the cost of organising a sound system. So the foundling Church begins to host bake sales and fund-raising drives.
  4. As more money comes in, nicer auditoriums are rented, better sound systems are acquired, and so on.
  5. More people are drawn in by this sense of community and its attractive sense of purpose.
  6. The Founder realises that he can’t drive the whole thing on his own. So he re-organises the church leadership into a group of elders, under the inspiration of the Book of Acts and a few choice verses from the Pauline epistles.
  7. The Founder tries to make sure that the congregation feel closer to God during his services. He appoints choir leaders and introduces instrumentation.
  8. The group of elders, chaired by the Founder, begin to take ownership of the fund-raising activities of the Church. They realise that all those bake-sales are continuously asking Church members to donate their time and resources (which some do more than others), and that this is beginning to cause resentment and tension within the flock.
  9. After this revelation, the Founder begins to make calls from the pulpit. He points out that the Jews had a practice of giving tithes to the Temple. He sees his congregation spending money on new cars, on new clothing, on fancy parties and big wedding celebrations. He asks whether they are really putting God first – because surely they should be gifting back just a small portion of the bounteous gifts that they have received? Say 10% of their remuneration. But no pressure – just whatever they feel they can offer. Be guided.
  10. Certain members of the congregation react with fervour.
  11. The Founder publicly thanks these initial supporters for their generosity, calling them “blessed” and “filled with the Spirit”. And expresses confidence that their generosity will be returned “a hundredfold”.
  12. The rest of the congregation joins in, longing also to be praised and named as blessed. Also, the hundredfold.
  13. The Church continues to grow as the money floods in.
  14. Suddenly, there are bookshops and radio stations, retreats and cell groups.
  15. The Church becomes missionary, requiring members to continue contributing to the spreading of God’s Word.
  16. Tithing is formalised into a required strongly-encouraged debit order. Servers begin to wander through the congregation during the services with credit card machines, in case anyone would prefer to avoid holding cash.
  17. The Church starts investing her spare money.
  18. The Founder, still broken, gets sued for tax evasion by the State.

What Happens Next

Once the Church becomes a haven for tax-free money (lest we forget, all non-profits get tax benefits), it can start to attract the kind of unscrupulous leader whose good intentions just “fortuitously” coincide with his ability to live like a Kardashian. And look at what he’d be blessed with:

  • A captive consumer base – held in check by their twinned longing for acceptance and deep fear of death (or, rather, hell after death).
  • Annuity income from those consumers.
  • All for the price of good lighting and lyrically-selective rock music.

Which is the kind of situation that is open to abuse.

And after that?

Well – at this point, you should ask the Catholic Church what happens. Because greedy spiritual leaders cause Reformations and schisms; which are the religious equivalent of rival brands entering the market, offering the same service at less cost. So selling indulgences becomes a bit of a no-go area. And the institutionalised Church begins to move toward a model of being self-sustaining and less demanding of the Faithful. Serving rather than insisting on service.

But that’s terrible for business – because attendance begins to dwindle, and the donations begin to dry up.

Why is that?

And I think the answer is that there are good reasons why tithing works.

Why People Tithe

A parallel: if your partner demanded nothing of you – not your fidelity, credit card or attention – what kind of marriage would you have?

It would be perfect for some, for sure. Zero obligation and all that. But for most of us, it would be emasculating and boring. What I want, when I want it, for free, no strings. There would be no reason to value the relationship, because it asks nothing of me. So why should a faithful relationship be any different?

Once I start tithing, I am invested in the Church. I have paid my membership fees, and I can be welcomed into the club with the self-surety of knowing that I have a right to be there.

Also: it will pay off.

When you’re part of a club, you’re part of the network. And when you’re part of a network, you’re in luck****. After all, the Church is now an expanding network of talented individuals: a network that helps and brings opportunity. Suddenly, people in the Church appear more “blessed” as they benefit from exposure to a social network united in a cause of mutual obligation.

Which makes tithing a small cost with great return.

That said, let me return to the schoolteacher analogy. Because here’s the point: if I was able to buy my exam results with apples and chocolate, then that too would be a small cost with great return.

But would you still hire me?

*It’s a strong word. It’s true.

**We are all children in this context.

***Based heavily on a post that I wrote in September 2012 – where the megachurches in Singapore were mentioned (news item 4, if you’re interested).

****For a fuller explanation, you should read Richard Wiseman’s “The Luck Factor”. The luckiest people have the largest social circles. It’s not a coincidence.