Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist

One of the arguments for forgiving taxes on religious organisations is that they may actively engage in charitable work. It is true that some of them do so. However, it is only a partially true claim as others do not. Despite that, it is used as a blanket argument to benefit all religious groups, charitable or not.

The Salvation Army is well known for providing food and lodging for disadvantaged people and they are sometimes the major source of support for homeless people who, for one reason or another, are unable to obtain support through the state’s social assistance program, or whose benefits are not enough to completely provide for both food, shelter and other necessities.

Evangelical churches are not as likely to provide the same level of support to indigent citizens but are more likely to engage in and financially support missionary activity, often in other countries, and may well provide a level of social amenities in the process of doing so. The situation is often not clear cut.

There is also the question of the state’s responsibilities in this area. There are many who believe that the state itself should be providing for its own indigent citizens, rather than relying on private religious organisations and voluntary donations from other citizens to take care of its responsibilities? The state reserves to itself the right to enact laws which apply to all members of society and, because it does so it takes responsibility for deciding what the limits are for all those members of society with respect to what they may say or do. Due to that, it makes itself the final recourse for all members of society. It must surely be evident that part of that final recourse is an obligation to ensure that all members of society are protected from harm. That includes the harm that comes from not having adequate shelter, sufficient food and clothing, or other necessities of life.

Not all charitable work is of the same nature. Certainly, some of it has the goal of supporting those in society who, for one reason or another, are incapable of supporting themselves. Some of it, however, has as its goals the promotion of the religious organisation involved and increasing the number of its adherents. Missionary work is of this kind. While some social support may be given, it is often directed towards those who show an interest in becoming adherents, and the fundamental purpose of the missionary work is to gain converts. There is nothing particularly improper in that, although the religious organisation to which the targeted individuals are currently adherents, may object strenuously. The improper component is that it is being done with tax exempt money, that a particular religious philosophy is gaining converts with funds that have been subsidised by atheists, among others. That should not be. Money spent with the aim of gaining converts, even when that is an oblique effect of providing social amenities, should not be tax exempt in the country of donation. Increasing the number of adherents of a religion should be funded by members of the religion alone, without any assistance from the state and most certainly without any form of subsidy, no matter how oblique. The churches and the state should be separate, yet allowing tax exemptions for donations which are used for this purpose clearly crosses the line of separation and intermingles tax support with religious dogma.

Not all charities are religious, of course. Some quite prominent and well known charities are secular in nature, Oxfam, for instance. The vast majority of the money they raise goes to providing assistance without any ulterior motives, such as religious conversion. Atheists might well prefer to donate to these kinds of charities rather than those with a religious undertone, and those donations should be tax exempt.

To make it clear, I do not object to religious charities. However, I strongly believe that anything done with the aim of finding converts, including charitable works, should be paid for out of donations that are not tax exempt. The person donating to charities with this aim should not be able to claim their donation as a tax deduction. The reality is that the religious charity would benefit religiously from the donation in some way, including by an increase in the number of members or an increase in the property owned and used for religious purposes. Religious aims, including gaining converts, should be financed by after-tax donations, not tax-exempt donations.

Religions which want to do both religious and social missionary work could easily enough set up two organisations, ensuring that systems are in place which ensure there are no funds transferred between them, and seek tax-exempt donations for the charitable work and after-tax donations for the religious work, although they would have to ensure that no religious inferences are made when providing the social services and that no credit accrues to the religious organisation for work done by the charitable organisation. As Jesus said in Matthew, chapter 6, verse 3, “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.” That may be difficult, given the likely religious bent of those providing the assistance and their undoubted desire to improve the welfare of the religious organisation to which they give allegiance.

A similar situation arises with businesses that are owned by religious charities or churches. These are sometimes set up to raise money to support a church or its buildings and the work it does. If the business venture is strictly restricted to the members of the church, then I do not see that it is anyone’s business other than the members of the church. The money raised is merely an alternate way to obtain funds from its members. This could be argued to be so even if more than one church is involved, as long as it is restricted to the members of the involved churches. In most cases, however, this is not the case. Many church members already donate as much as they can afford, so there may be a desire to seek support from those who are not members. When this point is reached it becomes a profit making business venture, even if it involves just one person who is not a member of the church. When that is the case, then all applicable laws governing commercial businesses should apply, including wage rates for employees, labour and safety standards, licenses, taxes, warranties and human rights.

It is the last of those mentioned, human rights, which usually causes concern. Many churches have moral and ethical restrictions on the behaviour they will tolerate from their members. Penalties of one kind or another are not infrequently applied to members who violate these expectations of behaviour. Usually there are strong attempts to convince the transgressor to change their behaviour, but recalcitrant transgressors may be subjected to public reprimands, excommunication and shunning in some cases. This is, of course, between the church and the member and is only mentioned because when a church engages in commercial business to raise funds, it may be placing itself in a situation where it must accept some types of behaviour from its customers, while punishing its own members for doing the same or less.

For instance, churches who strongly oppose homosexuality and same sex marriages may rent their church halls to non members for wedding receptions. Canadian human rights acts forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, so lesbians getting married in a same sex union may want to rent the hall, since it has been made available to other, heterosexual, wedding receptions in the past. The church would have no legitimate basis for refusing if a heterosexual couple is allowed to rent the same hall under the same circumstances, or if the lesbian couple were first accepted as customers then later their rental was cancelled when it became clear that it was for a same sex wedding. There have been several cases where this kind of situation has arisen.

The overriding consideration is that if it is a business, not a religious service, then business laws apply. These include the obligation not to discriminate against others, so if a church does not want to respect the human rights of those other people because they disapprove of their behaviour, then they must simply not engage in the business and raise money in some other way which does enable them to comply with the law.

There should be no leeway in this, no exceptions to our human rights laws, no wriggle room. Rights may not be withdrawn, overruled or given away. They are fundamental to our society and immutable. Everyone must respect the rights of others no matter what their personal beliefs are or what their religions teach. If they cannot do that under certain circumstances, then they should not engage in whatever the practice is that causes them difficulty and do something else so that the situation does not arise. The onus is on the individual and their church to ensure compliance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and our human rights laws, not on the possible victims of their discrimination, and it is certainly not the responsibility of the state to grant exemptions from those laws to religious organisations. Doing so, in fact, would be a blatant violation of our constitution.

I am disappointed that so much of Canada’s social safety net is based on charitable groups, both religious and secular. In particular, I find the growth of food banks quite appalling. Providing access to nutritious food is one of our most fundamental obligations as a nation, yet governments all across Canada leave it to organisations staffed by volunteers to find and distribute food to those Canadians who do not have enough resources to properly provide for themselves. This is not just those who for various reasons are incapable of managing their lives, such as those with alcohol and drug dependencies, developmental problems or mental illnesses, but also previously well functioning, responsible individuals and families who for one reason or another no longer have enough money to buy food for their families, single parents for instance, or those whose employment collapsed and whose employment insurance expired. The dependence on food banks of those last two groups really does highlight the inadequacies of governmental support programs in place with regard to the degree of financial support allowed or its duration. Canada is one of the richest countries in the world and inadequate social support for the poorest among us is more due to a lack of commitment by our society and governments than to its affordability. We can afford it, we just don’t want to do it.

In Canada about half, or slightly more, of our governments’ incomes are derived from taxation of various kinds. The other half comes from royalties, fees and licenses related to the exploitation of natural resources, such as lumber, mining and fisheries. These resources are owned collectively by the citizens of Canada, so the money raised by governments from their exploitation actually comes from Canadians’ financial interest in their own property. This point is important because it means that the unemployed, the single parents, the mentally disabled and all other disadvantaged Canadians are equal sharers in contributing to government funds from natural resources that they own. This means that when social services are provided to Canadians the money used is their own. Why make this point? It is necessary to emphasise this fact because so many people decry the provision of social services to disadvantaged Canadians, accusing the recipients of being lazy and not wanting to work, living off the public teat, wasting taxpayers’ money by abusing the welfare system, and so on ad nauseum. The reality is that disadvantaged Canadians who receive support from Government agencies are being supported from money coming from the resources they own. They are themselves taxpayers even if those taxes come in the nature of royalties on resources, and I do not understand why others object so strenuously when these taxpayers receive some of their own money back.

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