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Last weekend, my youngest son invited his best friend to come over and play. They had a great time. They played video games, built some Lego creations, and somehow made enough slamming and banging noises throughout the house to make me think we invited his entire first-grade class over.

But when they took a break for lunch, my wife overheard an interesting conversation.

Image source: Unsplash

My family lives in a small rural-suburban town in Western NY, outside of Rochester, that neither of us grew up in. In this town, you’ll find a decent mix of residence types, from farms to horse stables, to apartment complexes, to quiet suburban tracts. One thing is for certain though—there are a lot of churches here. If this town was a city, it would be in the top 10 list of religious institutions per capita. And all of them here, to my knowledge, are Christian.

So it probably goes without saying that in this community, you’re assumed Christian, much like in the South, where the first question new acquaintances ask you is, “What church do you attend?”

Ok, back to the lunch convo. While my two boys were eating lunch with the friend (we’ll call him “Joey”), Joey asked my youngest, his classmate, to come to church with him next week. Obviously, kids don’t exactly gauge the appropriateness of such a conversation, which I always find fascinating. My wife was nearby and, instead of intervening, wanted to let the chat play out and see what the response would be. I don’t think I would have been able to do that and probably would have shut it down right there, but I’m glad she waited to hear what would happen next.

Point of clarification: Our kids have been raised without religion. They’re learning what religion is and have some books about different religions, but we’ve communicated to them that we’re not raising them religious or atheist. We’re raising them without religion and allowing them to choose their own paths when they’re old enough to understand it all and make their own decisions about it. We will support whatever decision they make regarding religion, and our only requirement is that they be able to explain to us why they chose what they did. We will not debate (as they know we’re nonbelievers). We’ll just listen and respect their decision. Of course, we hope that by then, they’ve acquired adequate critical thinking skills to realize religious beliefs are way too far-fetched to be taken seriously.

So when Joey asked my son to accompany him to church, there was silence. So Joey continued. He then explained to my kids that when he brings someone new, his church awards him with “Bible Bucks” as payment. He then cashes in those Bible Bucks for prizes, like fidget spinners and other toys. Apparently, there’s a fidget spinner Joey had his eye on, so he thought he’d extend the invitation and get some of that cool Christian kiddie-cash.

Joey explained to my kids that when he brings someone new, his church awards him with “Bible Bucks.” He then cashes in those Bible Bucks for prizes.

Setting aside my immediate rage over the predatory nature of such an arrangement, what interests me most is how this reward system is likely viewed very differently depending on the perspective of the onlooker. To someone who belongs to this church and thinks it’s a great place to be, dishing out Bible Bucks as a recruiting tool probably seems like a great idea—possibly even benign.

What’s the harm? Church is good for kids! It’s a tool to bring new people to Christ.

I’ve heard all of these rationalizations before, and I’m sure you have, too. But to someone who’s nonreligious, atheist, or especially antitheist, this behavior is super sketchy. It’s a bribe, or at the very least, a really poor-paying job involving child labor. An organization run by adults is incentivizing kids (who are trained to obey church leaders because they’re somehow wiser than the rest of us) to expand the reach of their church through a system of toys-for-recruits. These children have become mini-marketers in a scheme that sells a cure for a disease that church leaders convince people they were born with, all so the church can eventually cash in on donations when the children have grown up. It’s a long con, and one that can cause irreparable psychological/emotional damage, depending on how close to fundamentalism the sect operates, among other things.

This “Bible Bucks” thing has been on my mind for about a week, so I did what any other red-blooded Homo sapiens would do: I Googled it.

I thought I was angry before.

I had no idea what an epidemic Bible Bucks is. It seems like every church in the US is doing some type of reward system that includes these things and recruiting kids to church. There are printable PDFs of Bible Bucks, articles about how to set up “stores” for the redemption of kids’ messiah money (that’s my term, and I’m trademarking that sh*t), and even one about how to get rid of the whole system from your organization, because it’s evidently a financial drain on churches when it gets to be too popular.

Image source: Kids Money Farm

How I did not know about this, I have no idea. But it certainly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

So secular parents, consider yourself warned. The incentives for other kids to drag your unindoctrinated children to church are aplenty. All I’d like to know now is how many Bible Bucks my kid’s soul is worth. (Just kidding, souls aren’t real.)

Kevin Davis is a columnist and activist focused on topics associated with life as a nonreligious American. He's a father of two boys in a predominantly Christian town in Western NY and writes about the...