Rethinking Religion’s Role in Money

Catie Hogan
April 12, 2024

I was born and raised in a small, bucolic western New England community. There is much to love about my small town, its natural beauty and the people are among the several reasons I plan to one day retire and move back there. Most of my family still resides in my hometown. The people who reside there generally earn lower to middle incomes, own modest homes they’ve lived in for decades, and spend their spare time hiking, bowling, or having a beer at the local Polish/Irish/Italian clubs (yes, these still exist). There’s a lot to love about this lifestyle and where I grew up. The people are hardworking and cherish each other. There is a real sense of community and a willingness to take care of one another. I’ve had a hard time finding that since I left for not-always-greener pastures at age eighteen. 

This small New England town was a quintessential 20th century blue collar success story - a large factory which employed thousands, a bustling downtown of mom and pop shops and restaurants, close knit townspeople with an unrelenting faith in a higher power. While most of the folks who lived here weren’t rich by any means, the city was firmly middle class. People owned their homes, raised families with multiple children, and took a vacation each summer, usually down to Cape Cod. This theme rang true until the late 1980s. This was back in a time when a pension was a given, folks worked the same job for 30-40 years, and a one-income family could make it. People lived simply, but comfortably. Religion played no small part in their daily existence either.

Unfortunately for my town, the manufacturing industry evolved. The factory closed down, thousands left town, and those who remained were largely underemployed and desperate for a new industry to find our small mountain village. The pensions were gone. The well-paying stable jobs were gone. Life became increasingly difficult. Through these difficult periods, I saw family and friends cling to their faith via their churches. Everyone I grew up with attended mass, the majority of the town belonging to one of the five Roman Catholic churches. It is no wonder my hometown was nicknamed “Steeple City”. To this day, the local collegiate summer baseball team is proudly called the Steeplecats. 

I personally grew up Episcopalian, or “Diet Catholic” as we jokingly used to call it. I absorbed a lot of lessons growing up in a church and I really am grateful for the way I was guided as a young person. I believe my religious affiliation made me a better person in so many ways. I was part of my church’s youth groups which focused on community service and helping those less fortunate than us. I served as an altar girl which taught me responsibility, respect, and patience (not easy for a 14 year old to sit quietly through a long mass!). I was also taught lessons on strength, unconditional love, and generosity of spirit. I still hold these lessons in my heart today. But that’s not what I’m writing about today is it? I also believe the messages I received involving money generally did more harm than good. I’ve spent most of my adult life reevaluating my deeply held beliefs about money, how it operates in my life, and also the world at large. Furthermore, over the past few years I’ve started to really reflect on the ways in which religious teachings have crept into our money mindset and decision making. Ultimately, I believe these messages hurt a lot of people - including my own family.

If you had a similar Christian-based upbringing like myself, you probably know the Biblical saying “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Wow. Those words are powerful when you’re a kid and fear nothing more than not getting into Heaven. That particular passage really sticks with you. If you then believe accruing wealth is inherently evil, are you likely to pursue a higher paying career? Start a lucrative business? Take your family on an incredible trip around the world? Absolutely not. And if you do happen to do those things, you will feel immense guilt for having “more” than you need. So what do you then do? You begin to make your life smaller - lowering your expectations of yourself and what your life can be. You develop a poverty mindset because this is the only way you’ll get into Heaven, after all. If you aren’t sure what a poverty mindset is, I describe it as saying not going after things you truly want, that are aligned with your values, or that’ll make you happy because you feel you either don’t deserve it or it’ll make you less of a “good” person. You believe living a minimal life is holier than others who have more.

Throughout my childhood I was taught that saving your money is prudent, spending frivolously or on luxury was sinful, and if something was deemed opulent it simply was “not for us.” This is while we were simultaneously encouraged to give ten percent of our income to the church. Ten percent is an extraordinarily high number, and is sort of the golden standard for Christian-based churches. I have nothing against giving to churches and causes we care deeply about. If ten percent is truly part of someone’s values-based spending and isn’t preventing them from providing for their family, then I have no issues with it. But, if the ten percent tithing rules are being followed due to shame, guilt, and fear - then I feel that is detrimental and down right predatory. I don’t necessarily think it’s controversial to say you shouldn’t be giving away ten percent of your income when your basic necessities aren’t being met and you have no safety cushion in case of an (inevitable) emergency.

There is a pervasive culture of poverty disguised as “humility” churches promote. The teachings of the church promote living as minimalistically as possible in the name of living a holier life. There is nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you actually want out of life. Still, I fear for most, they are adhering to these teachings out of fear and guilt. It also begs the question - are these money teachings true and within the correct context? Are we taking away the right money lessons? Or are they a form of manipulation and control? My real issue is the absolute subjectivity of the matter. At what dollar amount does God begin to love us less? What level of vacation is considered gluttonous? Is a quiet weekend away in a cabin on a lake too luxurious? Those living in abject poverty might think so. Is buying organic vegetables to feed your children a good thing or bad because there is hunger in the world? Is aiming to retire at 65 considered greedy and gluttonous if you’re still able-bodied and those around us may not be able to afford the same option? Why should I avoid accruing wealth when religious organizations, who are famously exempt from all taxes, have billions in the coffers? 

I understand that the nature of religion is subjective in its interpretation. We each have our own relationship with the higher powers that be, and with the religious organizations with which we’re affiliated. So I don’t think there’s necessarily a black and white answer to all of these questions. I do, however, always believe it’s prudent to at least ask the hard questions of ourselves and the organizations to which we dedicate so much of our lives.

In my view, many, if not most, organized religions are promoting hypocritical and toxic money beliefs to their followers. While telling parishioners to live minimally, humbly, and to give ten percent to the church, religious entities are amassing billions, completely untaxed. There is a lot of good when it comes to the works and teachings of faith organizations, I believe that from the depths of my soul. I am a better person because I grew up with the teachings and love of the church. I have a deep gratitude for the many Biblical lessons I’ve internalized throughout my life, but when it comes to money - I’m choosing to leave religion out of it. The main takeaway from this article is that religion is not all good or bad. I’m also not trying to tell folks to completely change their belief systems to adhere to my worldview. Instead, I would simply encourage any readers to audit the lessons they’ve learned from their religion. Particularly the lessons involving money - are they really serving you well?

Money Scripts and Religion

Morality and money have been tied for centuries. It would be impossible to argue against the fact that those with great sums of money have inflicted immense pain and suffering on those with less throughout history. It’s hard to look at a wealthy and all-powerful King and not think if his wealth was diminished so would his ability to be cruel. Real life examples of the rich and evil further perpetuate the myth that money itself is bad. However, throughout this essay I contend that money is simply a tool which magnifies both the good and bad of its stewards. In so many ways, money has been mischaracterized, misconstrued, and used to manipulate throughout history. Particularly in organized religion, the messages these entities are conveying regarding money in society are then morphed into “money scripts” which are internalized by the person hearing the messages. This translates into real life financial decisions being largely influenced by religious organizations. 

The manner in which religious entities impart their influence on our finances is sometimes subtle, sometimes not. First, there are the seven deadly sins which are widely taught in Christian religions - pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. We are taught from an early age these sins will lead to eternal damnation and must be avoided at all costs. While there are various avenues in which one can be greedy, envious, or gluttonous, the easiest examples we’re given have to do with monetary wealth. Religion often vilifies those with significant means as “greedy”. We are told not to want what they want, because that’s envy. And spending extravagantly (even though that’s subjective) is absolutely gluttonous.

These teachings are consistently applied throughout our lives so it’s no surprise that a “good” Christian doesn't want to be seen as greedy, envious, or gluttonous, especially in terms of their money. This in turn manipulates people into living lives where money is a topic approached from fear (I don’t want to go to hell!), shame (I spent too much on this thing I love but I know I shouldn’t have), and a limiting mindset (I don’t deserve to have more. I’m holier for having less.) These ‘money scripts’, or the consistent stories we tell ourselves about money, become the standard for how we manage each and every dollar. When we are deathly afraid of going to Hell, we are far less likely to invest our money, take career risks, or do anything financially beneficial that may be misconstrued or mischaracterized as “greedy” or “gluttonous”.

Again, it’s not all bad. Religious folks are often also encouraged to live well within their means, save their money instead of spending it, and to avoid taking on debt. These principles, for the most part, help us live financially stable lives. On the opposite end of the seven deadly sins are the seven virtues - prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and charity. Particularly the virtues of prudence and temperance have been pushed in personal finance. Practicing humility and self-restraint with your money is useful in that you won’t succumb to the temptation to spend more than you make and you’re less likely to take on damaging debt. On the other hand, too much restraint and you’ll miss opportunities to spend in ways that could enhance your life with joy and terrific memories (travel comes to mind).

There is another extreme we haven’t yet discussed and that is the prosperity preachers who have gained immense popularity over the last few decades. The most famous of the prosperity preachers is Joel Osteen out of Texas. I find these teachings which tie spiritual beliefs and monetary blessings to be equally problematic. There is something that feels completely misconstrued and misunderstood by teaching folks that God either blesses us with monetary prosperity or punishes us with a life of mediocrity or poverty. That’s a hard pill to swallow. Does the girl born into extreme hardship in a war-torn and unequal country not deserve the blessings and opportunities provided to the lucky few born in a country where the chance to make a lot of money is ample? Do we really want to measure God’s love in terms of income and assets? If we fail to reach a seven figure net worth, are we less then also valuable in God’s eyes? 

Let me be clear, I am not demonizing your religion, or anyone’s for that matter. I ask that we all simply question and think critically about what we’re taught and the motivations that lie behind.

How Religious Money Beliefs and Our Daily Lives

My paternal grandmother was a devout Catholic. She was also the best, most generous woman I’ve ever known. Her life was dedicated to family, community, and church. When she passed away at age 85, I was shocked at the number of people who turned out to say their goodbyes. She was beloved and the Godliest of women. Still, her beliefs about money always stuck with me.

My grandmother was generous to a fault. She would absolutely give you her last dollar. Money meant almost nothing to her. She thought it a sin to want more than one needed. She was uncomfortable at the thought of anything too “luxurious” - even if that luxury was as simple as a night at a nice restaurant or Cape Cod house rental that was “too big”. 

Her money beliefs were colored by an upbringing in a blue collar town, shortly after the Depression, and then later, raising a family with six children. Frugality wasn’t just commendable, it was necessitated. What little money she did have was to be spent on loved ones and giving back to her church. She would often treat her grandchildren to lunch or ice cream and my oldest cousin, Matt, would say half-jokingly, “Gram, you won’t have enough money left for food!” My grandmother never treated herself, only others. Still, I can’t help but see how her devotion to her Catholic faith made her never want more than the bare minimum. Overall, it seemed to me my grandmother led a happy life. But I wonder if she hadn’t been so persuaded to live the most humble life, if monetary stresses would’ve been lessened throughout her life.

My belief system has evolved over the years, which is a totally normal part of becoming an adult. In fact, I think it’s imperative to investigate and reflect upon your own spiritual and religious beliefs. Ultimately, the lessons I learned through my Christian upbringing were positive and made me a more conscious community member, a more forgiving woman, and someone who generally knows right from wrong. However, the lessons I absorbed about money and the way in which it operates in my own life, as well as society, left much to be desired. I was taught to believe money was the root of all evil. I was taught rich people can’t and won’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I was taught that wanting “more”, however it's ambiguously described, is both selfish and unbecoming of a Godly woman. I think a lot of these internalized lessons come to light when I feel guilty over buying the expensive seltzer water, the new sneakers, or really anything that’s in the “want” column more than the “need”. It doesn’t matter how much joy or use the purchase brings, if I don’t “need” it, then it is wrong in God’s eyes and I just made my chance of getting into Heaven a little smaller. From what I’ve gathered, my Grandmother felt the same way, too.

A Lack of Context and Abundance of Hypocrisy

Did you know the camel through the eye of a needle story has actually been completely taken out of context? According to an interview with Pastor Lance Ralston from Enduring Word:

“Jesus wasn’t just saying that it was hard for a rich man to enter heaven. He’s saying that it’s impossible to get to heaven by our own works. That is, by the route which the rich young ruler had just tried to make for himself, it would be easier to pass a camel through the eyelid of a sewing needle. Now, I guess you can get a camel through the eye of a needle; you just have to grind it up really small, and then use a very tiny funnel. The disciples’ reaction is really a major clue to what Jesus meant. They were stunned by what he said. Because till they started following Jesus, they were of the same mind as this rich young ruler, like all Jews of their day. They thought that eternal life was something you prove that you were worthy of, by doing good works, and God showed his approval that you were indeed on the path to heaven, by blessing you with material prosperity in this life.

The rich were assumed to be already heaven bound, to be set up to inherit eternal life. But Jesus utterly nuked that idea, when he said that it was hard for the rich to get into heaven. If it was hard for them, then everyone else was out of luck. But Jesus doesn’t describe entrance into heaven as merely hard. No, he ramps it up to the impossible category when he speaks of the camel and the needle.

What Jesus wants his disciples to understand is that they’ve got salvation all wrong. It’s not a reward for doing good works. Heaven isn’t the destiny of those that have lived a holy life. In short, it’s impossible for a man or woman to earn salvation. But what’s impossible with man is supremely possible with God. 

This was the time in Jesus’ ministry when He was headed to Jerusalem to die. He is making sure that his disciples understand that salvation isn’t a reward that God gives for our work. It’s a gift that he gives, because of Christ’s work. We don’t do the work that earns eternal life. Jesus did the work that earns eternal life. And the reward that God gave Him is to give us eternal life.”

So as we can see, our current interpretation of the camel through the eye of a needle is completely out of context in modern times. What’s bothersome to me regarding religion’s role in money is the cherry picking of words and messages. I know folks are going to read this essay and say, “But Catie, what about this thing Jesus or God said. Or what about this that’s in the Bible/or any other religious text?” And to that I reply, “Let’s keep the cherry picking for the trees.”

Lastly, in some religions more than others, there seems to be an underlying hypocrisy when it comes to money and how it is to be used in one’s life. For the Catholics in my family and friend circle, there is a culture of shame, guilt, and minimalism when it comes to one’s own money. But, the Catholic church itself is one of the wealthiest organizations in the world. In fact, the Catholic church is reported to have more than $70 billion in assets. In the US, religious organizations also don’t pay taxes. They are, however, allowed to have investment accounts which keep their coffers growing. The Mormon church was recently fined more than $5 million by the SEC for hiding up to $32 billion in assets. The members of the Church tithed more than $7 billion over eleven years to support the non-profit religious organization, but the funds leftover were invested and grew tax-free to more than $100 billion. 

To be clear, it’s estimated to cost about $40 billion per year to end world hunger by 2030. That’s just six years away, a total investment of $240 billion. Is it not up to the religious entities of the world to use your funds to help solve a fixable humanitarian crisis? The interest and dividends from these massive investment portfolios alone could make a massive impact. It truly begs the question, how much money is too much money for a religious organization? Why do they need this much money when so many of their parishioners live in modest or poor circumstances?

From Wikipedia, here is a chart of the very conservatively estimated assets of the world’s religions. This is just the money we know about.

"List of Wealthiest Religious Organizations." Wikipedia

Why do these organizations get to accrue limitless money, but we’re taught to be humble, frugal, avoid spending lavishly and building wealth for ourselves? I’m sure millions, perhaps even billions, are being spent on humanitarian causes, but that doesn’t change the fact these religious entities are sitting on literally hundreds of billions collectively. One walk through Vatican City and you’d be shocked by the opulence and grandiosity. We know at least some of the Catholic Church’s fortune has gone to the interior decoration of that incredible place! 

What Should We Do Instead?

Do I think you should abandon your religion and say to every priest or preacher you meet “Hey, sorry, I can’t listen to you, this random financial lady on the Internet told me not to”? No, I don’t think that at all. I completely understand that for billions of people around the world, their faith, religion, church, synagogue, mosque, what have you - provides a deep sense of belonging and purpose. For many, religion is what is holding their world, and the world around us, together. Religion has a role in our society.

What I don’t love is how the teachings of religion are mischaracterized and manipulated in order to control people. I don’t love how everyday good folks are left to feel guilty or ashamed for wanting to build a better life for themselves and need to use money as a tool to get there. What can we do instead?

First, I believe we need to begin to untie money and morality. Money has no human characteristics. It is a tool. It is how civilized societies created a system where goods and services can be bought and sold. Any ethical issues related to money are because of the human attached, not the money itself. Money is not alive, it has no emotions or inherent ethicality.

Untying morality and money, seeing them separately from one another, is not easy if your entire life has been hearing the message that money is evil.

Secondly, I want you to think about yourself and what you value (your time, family, friends, hobbies, causes, etc.) and really get very clear on what your ideal life would look like if you could actually focus on these things. How would you ideally spend your time if money was of no issue? The more clarity you can get around your ideal life, the more you can then understand how money can be used as a tool to achieve this. If you are a good person who wants to donate more, volunteer, or use your skills to help your community - you’ll begin to really see that accruing money to be able to do more of this is a good thing, not bad. Again, if you’re a terrible human and want to spend all your time and money making the world a worse place, then you can do that as well. It is the human behind the money, not the money itself that makes all the difference.

Thirdly, I want you to question everything and I want you to really ask yourself, “why not you?” When you see folks living great and comfortable lives, I want you to examine everything you’ve ever learned about money with this one question. Do you believe you don’t deserve it? Why or why not? What do you believe about money and why? Who taught you this? Is it true? How did your upbringing, in and outside of your religion, color the way you manage money? Ask questions. Write down your thoughts. It may just help you reframe your relationship with money.

Conclusion

Whatever you believe spiritually or religiously, I hope it guides your life in the most positive direction. All I ask is that you examine the ways in which money is messaged to you through your religion. Are the messages serving you or the church? Are things being taken out of context? Mischaracterized? Manipulated? Ask questions. Evaluate your relationship with money and, for the sake of society, separate money from the human characteristics we put on it. When we use money as a tool and strip it of its emotional power, we can be more efficient and effective with how we use it for good. I’m pretty sure that’s what any loving higher power would want.

Citations

  • Image from a Reddit thread in the r/midjourney subreddit, showcasing an AI-generated image of the Pope. See the full thread here.