The case against priests, preachers and evangelists

By James Hervey Johnson | 1949
Positive Atheism

Billy Graham preaching in 1972.
Billy Graham preaching in 1972.

How long would religion last if there was no special profit in it for those who carry on religious propaganda?

Millions of priests, preachers, bishops, nuns, sisters, monks, secretaries, evangelists, and others of higher or lower degree derive their living from the continual life of the religions they preach. Most of these people have very easy lives. They are usually fat and well kept, wear good clothes, and have special benefits.

They work together like a vast political machine. It is to their personal advantage to work for the religion which supports them. They toil not, neither do they spin, yet their religious followers support them in comfort and even luxury. Many a country has miserable shacks for the people who provide ostentatious and costly temples, tabernacles, and cathedrals for the leaders who are able to influence them.

Besides the easy living, which priests and witch-doctors have had from the earliest times, they have obtained many special privileges.

They are exempt from the hardships, wounds, and death of war; they are free from military duty. In this case we have another instance of evolution. The priests and their workers have saved their skins while their followers were on the battle front. So naturally the priestly clan throughout the ages has survived in a larger proportion than the braver members of their congregations who have gone to war. But the freedom from going to war is an advantage enjoyed only by women and priests, religious students and other church hangers-on. This in itself is a reason why many preachers and priests stick to their profession. During the Second World War more than 150,000 of these parasites escaped military service.

Priests, preachers, nuns are entitled to special rates on the railroads, steamships, and other means of transportation, often half fare — which increases the cost to other travelers.

They receive exemption from taxes on their magnificent churches. Any man who would not have to pay taxes on his business institution would become wealthy beyond dreams. It is the greatest overhead expense of any business or profession. Freedom from taxes permits the churches to continue to grow wealthier each year at the expense of the taxpayer.

It is a form of subsidy by the government. But the freedom from taxes is another great reason why priests and preachers are able to, and why they continue to, stay in that business of teaching people to believe as they want them to.

During World War II, a Navy chaplain is said to have used the phrase, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” which among other things, shows that he had more confidence in bullets than he had in prayer. What he should have said was “Praise the Ammunition and Pass the Lord,” as is quoted in “The Freethinker.” But the most important clause in effect by the churches is “Praise the Lord and Pass the Collection Plate.”

The priest hearing confession and the preacher in his religious duties are also able to meet under the most favorable conditions the most beautiful women and girls and that may also be a contributing factor to the reason for liking their jobs.

All of these advantages and probably many more which the priest and preacher possess over the common man are contributing factors to the continued growth of religious institutions in all parts of the world.

It is a decided personal advantage for them to keep on preaching. The leaders make it worth their while to keep at their work, and so down through the centuries, the churches have grown larger and richer; they have attempted to eliminate opposition and competition. And whether the leaders believed what they preached or not, they have lived more abundant lives than their followers. From this mechanical and selfish natural fact, as it were, they have gained momentum with at a geometrical ratio, the bigger they grow the more special privileges they have, and the more special privileges they have the bigger they grow.

However, the largeness of an organization does not make it right. There may be more Buddhists in the world than adherents of any other religion, but no Christian priest would admit that as proof that Buddhism is the right religion. By the same argument, there may be more Christians than atheists, but the fact that there are does not prove the Christian religion is right. There are many more stupid people than intelligent people, but that does not prove that the stupid people are the better. Mere numbers of believers do not have any weight as to the truth or benefit of any religion.

Nor does repetition of any prayer or religious practice prove that it is right. The only advantage to the promoters of the religion is to keep fixing in the minds of their followers things they want them to accept. If the repetition of religious slogans, prayers, or fables meant anything, the meaningless phrase, “om mani pan” of the Buddhists, which is tied to water wheels so it can be endlessly repeated by the turning wheel and which has been done for thousands of years in India, China, and the far East, would prove that it was the most important religious statement. But no Christian preacher would admit it for a moment.

As a matter of fact, those countries are poverty stricken and disease ridden, victims of plague, poverty, invasion and oppression. Using the argument that numbers of prayers count heavier, any Buddhist monk or priest could say that all of the prayers, slogans, liturgies, doxologies, and all other oral paraphernalia of the Christian churches were worthless, because the Buddhists were saying more prayers than were the Christians.

The conclusion must be that the size of the church, and the oral and written propaganda are all of more benefit to the religious leaders than they are of benefit to the truth or the following of the various religions.

Take the profit out of religion and it would soon perish. Men would do something else for a living, and especially a fat living.

Another great advantage to priests and preachers is that they are almost worshiped in some countries and in most countries are honored and respected and given high social positions.

This is a great satisfaction to most persons; they like to be in the limelight and to have special privileges. Few priests and preachers are intellectual giants; they might be bartenders and ditch diggers, farm hands, and bakers if they were not connected with the church. They know this. They bask in the light of the church, and are not honored for their intelligence and research nor for their benefits to mankind. This basking in the limelight means much to most men. The reason for it is psychological, but the trait is very strong.

Religion is thus perpetuated and promoted because it reacts to the personal advantage of those individuals who promote and perpetuate it.

James Hervey Johnson (1901-1988) was an atheist and outspoken critic of organized religion. For nearly a quarter of a century he was owner/publisher and editor of The Truth Seeker from 1964 until his death in 1988. Through his efforts as an activist and benefactor, Johnson contributed significantly to freethought in the mid to late twentieth century.

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  1. We Quakers (of some branches) have no paid priests or preachers; ministry is the responsibility of all, the type of ministry to be made apparent to each. Some do speak in meeting. Others cook, or bake, or by general kindness make the world more difficult peasant. Some work against war, or weapons; some work for civil rights. This is not paid work. We all contribute.


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