“Tithing” is such a fun topic. It involves religion, which gets people excited. There are almost always charlatans involved. And there appears to be a germ of truth* in its success. So here’s a post on it.
*all the double entendres intended.

Should religion really be a free-market affair?


I’m just not convinced that peddling salvation is fair play in the world of free markets. It’s like a teacher telling her students* that there is a correlation between end-of-term-gifts-for-teacher and exam results. In a classroom setting, one might well call that an authoritarian abuse of the child’s fear of failure. And one would be right.
*After all, aren’t we all children in this context?

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 begs the question: why does tithing work though?

But before I get there, some background:

The Evolution of a Divine Business Model

Here’s a summary:

  1. The church begins small: perhaps 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. In response, 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 acquired, etc.
  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 give of 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 historical faiths had a practice of giving tithes to the Temple. And that 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 longing for acceptance and their deep fear of death (or hell after death).
  • Annuity income from those consumers.
  • And all that for the price of good lighting and some 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 moves toward becoming more self-sustaining and less demanding of the Faithful.

Serving rather than insisting on service.

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


But why is that?

And at least part of the answer is that there are good reasons why tithing works to keep people in the fold.

Why Tithing Works

Here’s a parallel: if your partner demanded nothing of you – neither fidelity, credit card nor attention – what kind of marriage would you have?

It would be perfect for some, I’m sure. Zero obligation and all that.

But for most of us, it would be empty 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 individuals. Suddenly, people in the Church appear more “blessed” as they benefit from exposure to a social network united in a cause of mutual obligation.
*For a fuller explanation, you should check out Richard Wiseman’s “The Luck Factor”. The luckiest people have the largest social circles. It’s not a coincidence.

Which makes tithing a small cost with great return.

The Bigger Question

But after all that, let me return to the schoolteacher telling her students that their grades are for sale.

If I were able to buy my exam results with apples and chocolate and floral arrangements, then that would also be “a small cost with great return”… But would you still want to hire me?

Probably not. Because you’d quickly establish that I’m not educated – I just paid for a grade transcript.

My bigger question: what if the congregation hits the Pearly Gates, only to find out that they’re not actually the faithful, but that they really just paid for a club membership card?

PS: for the record, I want to point out that I’m not a religious skeptic. I choose to believe in my God and His Church because that is what makes sense for me. But that doesn’t mean that one needs to be blind to unscrupulous and/or pharisaic church leaders that twist Faith.

Rolling Alpha posts about finance, economics, and sometimes stuff that is only quite loosely related. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, or like my page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha. Or both.