Cross Examined has a great post today entitled Religion: Billions into a Black Hole. It's an interesting piece that throws some light on a topic I've been thinking about lately-- what would a world without churches look like, and how much money would we as a society save if we weren't throwing a hefty chunk of our income toward church?
Religion does have its benefits, of course. Helping the needy is a big one, though as Cross Examined points out, it's impossible to know what percentage of money tithed goes to helping people. Since churches don't have to account to anyone, there's no real way of knowing. When I went to church, I was happy to think that my money was going to help people in need. Now I suspect I would have been better off donating to a charity.
Hands-on work is another big one. My daughter went down to New Orleans and helped with the cleanup after Katrina. So did lots of other Christians. Helping with disaster relief is something churches do that's very worthwhile. Like a lot of other mission work, it can be a way of spreading Christianity, so it's not done entirely out of a sense of selfless love. Nevertheless, it's certainly one of the more worthwhile ways in which churches spend their money.
Another one, as one of the commenters points out, is religious ceremonies, particularly weddings and funerals. These may be technically unnecessary (you can get married anywhere, and funeral homes will provide a funeral if you don't have a church), but they matter to the people involved, and thus provide value to the congregation.
And then there's music. I belonged to the choir, and it was a pleasant and enriching part of my church life. There was the cost of buying music, as well as the cost of buying bells (they had a great little bell choir there), the expense of buying a piano, and an eventual plan to buy a big pipe organ for the new sanctuary. All this costs money, but it's also a true benefit of church. Where else do people hear good music on a weekly basis? (I never liked the "contemporary" service much, so I'm talking here about good old Lutheran hymns as well as the excellent church music that's chosen by a talented music director.) If churches ever go away, maybe people will be motivated to come up with some secular alternative that allows them to play music together regularly. The one thing I really do miss about church is the choir.
Helping the needy and music are two places I didn't mind spending my money at the time. I also didn't mind contributing to the upkeep of the church (I figured they had to pay the mortgage and utilities just like me), but of the building of new facilities there is no end. I remember my own church, which had been built in the sixties (I called it "the Brady Bunch church" with affection, because it looked very much as if Mike Brady had designed it), grew out of its original sanctuary not long after I joined and had to build a new one. It was costly-- upwards of a million dollars-- and consumed much of the church's money and attention for quite a while. And this was only a relatively modest Lutheran church. I've seen some spectacular monuments to "God" (or possibly to the congregation's collective ego) among nondenominational churches. The Rock Church in Virginia is a good example, as is what I used to think of as the Pink Cathedral in Charlotte. There's a fine line between building a facility that's large enough and useful, and constructing a white elephant. Lately I see more and more nondenominational buildings that look like office buildings, and the cynic in me wonders if this is deliberate, so that in case the church fails, they'll be able to resell the building to a business.
It's a given, though, that if we weren't all going to church, we'd no longer need church buildings. Sometimes I look around at all the churches and wonder what would happen to them in a world without religion. Some of them (like almost any downtown church, or in Virginia the early Episcopalian churches) have spectacular architecture and historical significance, and we certainly wouldn't want to tear them down. But there are too darn many of the things to turn them all into museums. A church could be useful as a secular gathering place, but how about in downtowns where there are literally dozens of them? I honestly don't know what all those big buildings could be used for if the society went entirely secular. It's an interesting question I haven't found an answer to yet.