It’s not always easy being an atheist. Too often I get caught in religious debates. The same old stuff comes out; Pascal’s Wager1, Darwin didn’t prove life came from nothing, so evolution isn’t true2, our eyes are proof of intelligent design3, and so on it goes. As an atheist, I’m not one to jump down believers’ throats and shout at them to tell them they are deluded. It’s one of the fundamental human rights as laid down in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; people have the right to observe their religion.
I don’t believe religion is intrinsically a rort. However I do believe it’s protected by the Law more than secular belief such as humanism and is easily corrupted. Yes, believe in whichever deity you want and you should not be persecuted by the state for that belief. I say “the state” because it’s perfectly reasonable for any individual to question the integrity of such a believer; if such a believer is honest with nothing to hide, then the answers should flow freely, as any statement of faith should.
Yet this isn’t what really happens. The very well publicised Harold Camping said the rapture would occur on 21st of May 2011. He was (not surprisingly) wrong, and not for the first time on this matter, either. Conservative Christians in the US, UK and here in Australia oppose gay marriage using 2 common arguments as a basis; 1) it would undermine heterosexual marriage by removing rights from heterosexual marriages, and 2) the law (at least in Australia) defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Both these arguments are, to be fair, weak.
Now I wouldn’t personally mind this kind of debate if it were on a fair playing field. Dare I suggest most religious conservatives believe it is, or if not it’s slanted in favour of the “homosexual agenda.” If only it were! Organised religion is exempt from discrimination laws; religious schools can expel students and sack teachers on the basis of being gay, pregnant and unwed, or even being nonbelievers of the school’s religion e.g. a Buddhist can be sacked in a Catholic school. That wouldn’t be such a problem if governments didn’t give such schools no strings attached subsidies!
This is nothing short of hypocrisy.
For all that, my biggest beef is that religions don’t pay tax. Religions hold the cards here, because in nearly all democratic nations, religions are exempt from paying tax. They are assumed to be not-for-profit organisations.
(Now to be fair, most religious organisations are not-for-profit, but how do we know if the books are kept in secret, and religion is exempt from Freedom of Information laws?)
These exemptions have their basis in medieval law, when the church and state were cosy bedfellows. The church even had powers to tax. That may have changed since the French and American revolutions and the resultant separation of powers, but religion remains untouchable when it comes to tax. It’s unreasonable, and unjust.
To make things a little more fair, organised religions should be taxed like non-religious charities, trusts and companies. If a registered religious group is truly not-for-profit, then nothing changes; they won’t pay tax. If they do make profits, or accumulate wealth through property, gifts, bequeathments, grants and so forth, then they should have to declare their income, assets, fringe benefits, etc., and thus pay tax. Like anyone else. The same rules should apply equally to all.
To demonstrate the hypocrisy, the Church of Scientology was taken to task by a few individuals who believe the organisation is quackery and fraudulent, claiming that Scientology is not a religion but a philosophy. This may be true, and as an atheist I have little doubt that the accusations are true. However the means of attack against Scientology was about their tax status, not values or ideology. The High Court of Australia ruled that Scientology is a religion and therefore exempt from being taxed. Anyone can form a religion as long as there is a belief in a supernatural something, and cannons of conduct exist and are accepted by the believers. That’s all.
I’m not going to try to figure out how much governments – and therefore citizens – miss out by religious organisations not paying any tax, but as a guestimate the figure would be in he order of $1 billion.
In the meanwhile, approximately $600 million is being spent by the Federal Gillard government to place chaplains in all schools; private religious and government secular alike. The Victorian Baillieu government is injecting a further $200 million. These chaplins aren’t allowed to teach or proselytise, so what is the point of them being there? I can only see them as bargain basement counsellors with no qualifications at all other than to have a working with children check like this or this. Seriously, no teaching, psychology or any tertiary qualifications are needed at all; equivalent experience is enough. Far from being representative of the non-secular make-up of Australia, these chaplains are all Christian4. It’d be interesting if an atheist was appointed as a school chaplain under the NSCP.
Is it not galling enough that that secular entities don’t pay tax and yet many are given government grants, or paid contracts to provide essential services? How is it fair that a church can “syphon” off funds from government to build a chapel instead of, say, a computer lab for students? How is it fair that an organisation like The Salvation Army can purchase a vehicle tax free to provide for a Salvation Officer or employee in lieu of income? (In any other context this is seen as Fringe Benefits and is thus taxed.) This is a double dip that no other business can get away with.
I specifically mention the Salvos because they have many government contracts to provide services to the community, such as employment and food, clothing and transport. It goes without saying the Salvation Army don’t do it for nothing, but we won’t find out how much profit they earn from these deals because they are exempt from FOI because they are a contracted service provider (and a religion).
Why can’t a secular charity or organisation provide these services? Well, some do, but without the tax breaks afforded to them that religious organisations automatically get, secular organisations aren’t competitive in a bidding process.
All this makes me uncomfortable. I’m not suggesting all nonsecular organisations are corrupt, but they are certainly open to corruption and have more mechanisms at their disposal to cover up any corruption. It’s difficult to prosecute when wrongdoing is exposed, too. Such as when a private religious school principal and his brother were taken to trial for fraud, but they were acquitted on appeal despite the obvious rort.
It’s time to stop giving religious organisations a helping hand at becoming asset rich whilst they cry poor. Praying should not be conceded to be a public service. Religious charities should not be allowed to discriminate when they are contracted to provide a government service to all members of the community. Most of all, it’s time for the books to be open and tax paid in the same way, under the same rules, that secular organisations have to.
1. Pascal’s Wager suggests it’s a good idea to “hedge one’s” bet and believe in God. If God doesn’t exist, then no harm done. This logic fails because there is more than one god. Also, any god who chooses humans because of their gambling habits over their value as humans is vain and capricious and therefore not worth aspiring to be with.
2. Darwin’s seminal work On the Origin of Species isn’t about first life, rather how new species evolve from common ancestors by natural selection. It’s not just an idea, but a testable theory with observable predictions, just like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Further, debating anything in science using the premise “but x isn’t true” does not negate a theory in it’s entirety; just because science doesn’t explain everything doesn’t mean it can’t explain anything.
3. Human eyes are terrible at many things. They aren’t like camera at all, and only a small part near the centre of the retina, near the blind spot, can detect colour. Even then it’s not very good. If the eye were designed, then the designer did less than a half-arsed job.
4. This blog here does an excellent job of dissecting chaplains in school, and why the commissioned report (which I linked here) for Access Ministries should be viewed as propaganda, or the very least, extremely subjective and biased. Not one acceptable metric was used.