Friday, August 27, 2021

Time to end tax breaks for religious groups

This essay was published in the August 27, 2021 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press. A version of it also appears in the September 2021 issue of the Centre for Inquiry Canada's Critical Links newsletter.

Time to end tax breaks for religious groups

It might surprise Canadians to learn that many of our laws and regulations were not made in Canada, but were inherited from England and France. What the Canada Revenue Agency considers a charity comes from a decision by the British House of Lords in the late 1800s, itself based on the preamble of the 1601 Statute of Charitable Uses (also known as The Statute of Elizabeth).

To be a registered charity in Canada, you can either perform charitable acts (such as alleviating poverty or educating people) or you can "advance religion." It is long past time for Canadian rules to be made in Canada, and updated on a time scale that is not measured in centuries.

This may seem small potatoes, but the numbers are quite large. Canada treats religious organizations differently, and consistently preferentially, compared with other non-profit institutions. Of Canada’s 86,000 charities, more than one-third (32,000) exist to advance religion. Over 90 per cent of these are Christian organizations. Religious charities write tax receipts worth more than $3.5 billion every year, which has helped them accumulate net assets exceeding $38 billion.

The largest public subsidy of religion comes from the Ontario government, which continues to fully fund the separate (Catholic) school system through Grade 12. Such an arrangement has been condemned as discriminatory by the United Nations. Ontario spends approximately $10 billion per year on Catholic schools, and would save $1.5 billion annually if it followed the examples of Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, which merged their sectarian school boards into a single publicly funded secular school system.

British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Quebec provide subsidies (40-60 per cent) to religious schools that meet certain provincial criteria. Manitoba (under its Fair Funding Agreement) provides private religious schools with half the funding per student that public schools receive.

The list goes on. Religious charities — groups whose primary purpose is not to feed the hungry or increase literacy, but to advance religion — receive more than $1 billion every year in direct subsidies from the three levels of government in Canada. And there is a housing tax deduction available only to members of the clergy, which costs the federal government (and benefits houses of worship) more than $100 million annually.

It is true, of course, that some religious groups do good works. It is also evident from reading the headlines over the past several weeks that religious institutions have been responsible for horrific acts of inhumanity. Given their mixed record, it is not clear whether religious organizations are good or bad for society overall.

Let those that conduct genuine good works continue to enjoy charitable status. Those called to their faith by a strong desire to help others in need will continue to do so. Those organizations that exist to advance religion — that is, to proselytize or fund denominational efforts — are perfectly legitimate entities, but are not charitable and should not reap the benefits of being considered so.

Research has shown that societies benefit when religion is neither supported nor suppressed. Just about every socio-economic indicator is positive where governments are neutral in matters of religion: from GDP per capita and life expectancy (high) to poverty and crime rates (low). This is true both across countries and within them.

It is also time to remove the property-tax exemption for houses of worship. Advancement of religion should no longer be sufficient to gain charitable status. Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan should have a single publicly funded school system for each official language. Provinces that fund private religious schools, even in part, should cease doing so.

The clergy residence deduction should be eliminated. These subsidies amount to a massive transfer of wealth from the non-religious to the religious. Canada should treat all its citizens equally, regardless of their philosophical worldview, but does not do so.

Government should fund only those groups performing objectively good works, not those with the nebulous aim of advancing religion. Not only would adopting a neutral stance toward religious organizations provide over $7 billion every year for debt-laden governments (or nearly $200 per Canadian), but it would move Canada closer to the ideal of government steering clear of matters of faith.

Nations where religion dictates government policies are theocracies. Countries where the government runs faith-based groups do not have freedom of religion. Let us keep church and state separate, maximize freedom for believers and non-believers alike, and create the conditions for all Canadians to thrive.

Leslie Rosenblood is the secular chair of the Centre for Inquiry Canada, a not-for-profit organization advocating for a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Are there good reasons for faith?

Ross Douthat published an essay in the New York Times on August 15, 2021, entitled "A Guide to Finding Faith". I was hoping to read a well-argued piece that would give someone who does not think faith in the supernatural is warranted something to think about, perhaps providing cause for me to reconsider some of my own beliefs. 

Instead, his essay shows the intellectual bankruptcy of the arguments for God. It does a reasonable job (with notable omissions) of summarizing some of the arguments against faith; it then proceeds to an extended exercise of two common logical fallacies: God of the Gaps and special pleading

Douthat's argument rests on three main pillars: 

  • "The world in which you found yourself had the appearance of a created thing"; 
  • "your consciousness also seemed to stand outside it, with a peculiar sense of immaterial objectivity, an almost God’s-eye view"; and 
  • "baseline feelings of oneness and universal love to strange happenings at the threshold of death to encounters with beings that human beings might label (gods and demons, ghosts and faeries)". 
None of these place one's faith on a solid foundation. 

The first two points are far more convincingly explained with evidence for evolutionary theory.  Douthat is correct that the world seems designed (or "created") - but this is because evolution, over the course of billions of years, has blindly selected for highly efficient and interdependent ecosystems. But life is no more designed by a Creator than the sun revolves around the Earth (which is also superficially plausible, and was previously commonly believed to be the case). 

Humans evolved to be able to create "what if" scenarios - placing ourselves in imaginary situations to predict what consequences would ensue. But we hardly have a "God's-eye view" - our imaginations, in addition to engaging in flights of fancy, are subject to all sorts of cognitive and perceptual errors. Douthat proposes that the mere fact of the universe being comprehensible is proof - or at least a strong indicator of - the God hypothesis. He does not provide any alternative explanations, such as properly perceiving the world we live in would help our ancestors survive, and was therefore selected for. This is why scientific discoveries at the scale of humans are generally intuitive, but learning about cosmology or quantum mechanics is challenging for most people.  

Douthat's third argument in favour of faith rests on the assumption that in the moments before death - when some crucial portion of the body is failing catastrophically - people have a special insight into the nature of the universe that we are generally blind to. Douthat's contention  - that these phenomena point to the existence of an anthropomorphic Deity - is indeed possible, but he does not provide a shred of evidence for it (nor, to my knowledge, does any exist). That people's brains might tend to fail in broadly similar ways, and thus they report similar near-death experiences, does not warrant a mention in his piece.

The "hard problem of consciousness" and the multiverse hypothesis are indeed open questions in science. This stuff is complicated, Douthat argues, while the God hypothesis is simple - so isn't the materialist view less "reasonable" and "parsimonious"?  He leaves the answer hanging (Douthat is clever or at least experienced in this type of argument), because an honest appraisal would not go his way. This is a misapplication of Occam's Razor, which states "entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity". Yes, "God did it" has the virtue of being easy to understand, but it requires assuming, without evidence, the existence of a omnipotent being existing outside time and space. A more honest and humble approach to the hard problem of consciousness would be, "We don't fully understand this phenomenon. Let's work together and try to figure it out." Instead, Douthat is implying that God of the Gaps - God exists where we lack understanding - is  a reasonable argument in favour of belief. 

The rest of Douthat's essay is extended exercise in special pleading - many people still believe, or have weird or unexplained desires - and therefore God. It is, in my opinion, very weak. 

There are also some howlers - including "the strange fittedness of our universe to human life" - that can only resonate with those ignorant of the universe or are incredibly myopic in their perspective. The universe is an incredibly hostile place for humans. In the entire cosmos - consisting of over 3,200 observed or inferred planets in our galaxy of at least 100 billion stars, itself only one of billions of galaxies - we know of only one place that can support human life. This is hardly a "strange fittedness". We might yet discover a second planet where we could live, but that simply makes planets capable of supporting human life incredibly rare instead of unique to Earth.

At least Douthat is mostly honest in his conclusion. Even if one grants all his arguments, they go no further than Deism. His essay says nothing about which faith might be true. He glosses over the many contradictory claims of various religions. He's right that unbelief should address (on a philosophical level) constructing a moral framework, "practices and demands [...] and metaphysical complexities". He is completely wrong that atheists whisper, "at least you don’t have to spend time thinking about that." That is a pure straw man attack on non-believers. 

If this is the best the Theists have to offer, we can expect the continued decline of participation in active religious life in the US and elsewhere. I hope that the waning of influence of religious institutions will soon follow.

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Should Canada tax its houses of worship? - with Ryan Jespersen

Earlier this week, I was a guest (representing the Centre for Inquiry Canada) on Ryan Jespersen's Real Talk program to discuss whether houses of worship in Canada should continue to enjoy tax-exempt status. I maintained that as a secular nation, Canada should not favour religious organizations over their secular peers via tax policy; Brian Dijkema of the Cardus Institute argued that directing money to churches is a good investment that benefits society. 

Our ~40 minute conversation starts shortly after the 16:15 mark in the video below. 

Some thoughts about the discussion: 

  • I find it interesting that Brian led off with criticizing the topic of the segment as an attack on religion, when instead we should have been talking about taxing venture capitalists. A few minutes later, he sounded like a VC himself when he defended investment in churches as having a great ROI. I was pleased that Ryan called this out as "whataboutism".
  • The implicit assumption Brian makes, which I wish I had mentioned during the discussion, is that churches would cease doing their good deeds if they lost their tax exempt / charitable status. Either the good works of houses of worship are integral to their existence, in which case their good works would continue, or they only do it because of / in order to maintain beneficial tax treatment. If the former, there is no loss to society. If the latter, Canada would be better off if the additional tax revenue went to fund more (secular) food banks, counselling services, poverty reduction initiatives, and so on.
  • Upon further reflection though, "good works" in this context is a red herring. Advancement of religion is assumed to be a social good in and of itself. Objective good works make for better PR, but are not relevant to qualify for charitable status. That religious organization can gain charitable status for evagelizing, while those seeking to gain adherence to other ideologies cannot, is the injustice CFIC is seeking to remedy. In principle, this can be addressed by granting charitable status to all proselytizers, or none. This is where Brian and I diverged. I believe those seeking to convert others should do so on their own dime. He clearly stated that he thinks all such organizations should be recognized as charities. Brian's position has the merit of consistency, but I believe it is poor public policy. (Those houses of worship that actually do good works like feeding the hungry should keep their charitable status - but for alleviating poverty, not for advancing religion. I did mention this, but could have emphasized it more.)

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Centre for Inquiry Canada Responds to the Canadian Centre for Christian Charities

The article below appeared in the June 2021 edition of the Centre for Inquiry Canada's monthly newsletter, Critical Links.

The Canadian Centre for Christian Charities (CCCC) published a blog post commenting on the first two reports in the Centre for Inquiry Canada's Cost of Religion series. Perhaps not surprisingly, the CCCC took issue with the series' thesis that advancement of religion is not an inherently charitable activity. 

The CCCC claims "volumes of peer-reviewed research" show advancing religion is a public good, but offers only one example: a 2020 book that describes itself as "an apologetic for maintaining the presumption of public benefit for the charitable category ‘advancement of religion’". Thus the book is a work of advocacy, not one of scholarship. Research demonstrates an inverse relationship between a country's religiosity and most sociological indicators of well-being (see, for example, selected works from Greg Paul and Phil Zuckerman). Note that this correlation, while well established, says nothing about whether a lack of religion causes prosperity, having a thriving society leads to a reduction in faith, or some other factor contributes to both. It is also possible that religious influence in society contributes to human suffering. 

The purported benefits of religion are well publicized, and trumpeted regularly from the pulpits of the land as well as from organizations such as the Canadian Centre for Christian Charities. The extent of favourable tax treatment and direct governmental subsidies to religious organizations comes as a surprise to many Canadians, demonstrating the need for such research and commentary. It is curious that CCCC chose to criticize CFIC's Cost of Religion in Canada report series for focusing on... the cost of religion in Canada.  

The CCCC then makes a completely unsubstantiated claim: that "places of worship [...] transform people into civic-minded, caring, generous neighbours who support Canada’s secular charities" such as environmental conservation, healthcare, and education. The best response to this declaration is Hitchens's razor: "What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence."

Their next argument is that religious people are more generous, with those attending worship services weekly donating approximately four times as much to charities as those that do not attend at all. This is misleading, because the statistic combines donations to churches (and other religious causes) with contributions to other charities. Are churchgoers more likely to contribute to secular causes, such as education and healthcare? Not according to Statistics Canada, which came to the underwhelming conclusion in a 2004 report that "The 19% of Canadians who attended religious services weekly gave 74% of the total value of all donations to religious organizations and 22% of the value of all donations to other organizations." Even Ray Pennings, Executive Vice President of the faith-based think tank Cardus, implicitly undermines the apparent benevolence of the observant. In a 2010 article entitled Religion not the only source of division, he touts that in "the purely secular donations sector, [...] 32 per cent of believers donates 42 per cent of the $2.1 billion raised [for charities] annually." He acknowledges that those with "a non-theist belief system contribute [...] 35 per cent of Canada’s total contributions''. A 2008 Harris-Decima survey estimated that 23% of Canadians did not believe in any god. Thus, while the observant punch above their weight in secular charitable donations (by 31%, according to Pennings' figures), nonbelievers do so to a considerably greater extent (by 52%).

The conclusion of their article is revealing. The CCCC argues that removing advancement of religion as a charitable purpose "would have serious undesirable consequences for all Canadians by reducing the dollars the religious among us have available to donate to secular charities." This is only true if you assume that the Church has "first dibs" on money from the faithful - remove the tax credit on religious donations, and secular charities will get less of the leftovers. Were this to be true, it hardly paints religious Canadians in a favourable light. If the faithful are truly as civic-minded as the CCCC claims, the tax treatment of churches and other religious charities should have a minimal effect on their contributions to noble secular causes. 

The CCCC’s objections are natural for an institution that is protecting its own interests. However, these objections further highlight the need for a national conversation about whether advancing religion in Canada is a truly charitable activity, and one that benefits society as a whole.

CFIC report examines direct government subsidies of religion

The following brief article appears in the June edition of Critical Links, the monthly newsletter of the Centre for Inquiry Canada

The Centre for Inquiry Canada has released the third report of its Cost of Religion in Canada series, looking at transfers from all three levels of government to charities with the primary purpose of "Advancement of Religion".

In total, Canadian governments give more than $1,000,000,000 to religious charities every year. Some organizations receiving subsidies, such as the YMCA of Greater Toronto, clearly serve the entire community. Others are focused on providing services through an explicit Christian lens. Christian Horizons receives over $150 million annually from Ontario and Saskatchewan, while the federal government gives over $20 million every year to the Kelowna Christian Center Society (“Where People belong and Jesus matters.”).

Read the full report about government transfers to religious charities, or read the whole Cost of Religion in Canada series of reports. 

Saturday, May 01, 2021

Quebec Superior Court rules (mostly) in favour of Bill 21

The article below appeared in the May 2021 edition of the Centre for Inquiry Canada's monthly newsletter, Critical Links.

On April 20, 2021, the Quebec Superior Court released its ruling on the constitutionality of Bill 21, Quebec's "secularism" law, which (among other things) bans the wearing of religious symbols (such as hijabs, yarmulkes, and turbans) for many government employees including lawyers, judges, teachers, and police officers. 

The ruling largely upholds the provisions of Bill 21, with two notable exceptions: The bill would be "inoperative" for English school boards in the province, and restrictions would not apply to sitting Members of the National Assembly. 

In his 240-page decision, Justice Marc-Andre Blanchard found "the evidence undoubtedly shows that the effects of Law 21 will be felt negatively above all by Muslim women". Those targeted by the law are "faced with the following dilemma: either they act according to their [...] beliefs, or they work in the profession of their choice. It is easy to understand that this is a cruel consequence which dehumanizes those targeted." The law imposes significant costs (in terms of rights and freedoms) with a questionable justification: "the denial by Bill 21 of the rights guaranteed by the Charter has severe consequences for the persons concerned. [...] On the other hand, the beneficial effects appear at least tenuous." The judge had harsh words for the National Assembly: "The use by the legislature of the notwithstanding clauses appears excessive, because it is too broad, although legally unassailable in the current state of the law." The government displayed an "indifference toward the rights and liberties of those affected," he wrote.

When applied, the notwithstanding clause exempts legislative compliance with Charter sections 2 ("fundamental freedoms" including freedom of religion and expression) and 7-15 (which enumerate legal and equality rights). However, the notwithstanding clause provides no protection to challenges under section 23 (minority language educational rights). 

Most reactions to the judgment were negative. Supporters of Bill 21 were disappointed that the ruling carved out exceptions, while opponents were upset that the bill will continue to apply in most of the province. Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette seemed to capture the common sentiment: "Quebec’s laws have to apply to everyone on Quebec’s territory." Or as Premier Fran├žois Legault put it, "I don’t understand why the judge said anglophones in English school boards can have different values than the other Quebecers." On the other hand, the English Montreal School Board said it was "elated" by the decision. 

Quebec has announced its intention to appeal. The case will almost certainly be heard eventually by the Supreme Court of Canada. In the meantime, however, Bill 21 remains in effect for most of the province's teachers, police officers, and other government employees in a position of authority. 

  • "Secularism" has several definitions, and confusion can result if people do not have a common understanding of how it is being used. CFI Canada supports political secularism, defined as government neutrality in matters of religion; that is, the state should neither support nor suppress religious expression. 
  • The author is a native English speaker. The ruling is written in French, and an English translation was not available at the time of publication. Quotations from the ruling are sourced from the English-language media articles linked to above.

Centre for Inquiry Canada publishes the first two reports in its Cost of Religion series

The article below appeared in the May 2021 edition of the Centre for Inquiry Canada's monthly newsletter, Critical Links.

Did you know that Canadians subsidize religious organizations to the tune of billions of dollars every year? The Centre for Inquiry Canada, in its Cost of Religion in Canada series of reports, quantifies the cost of one type of religious institution: charities with the primary purpose of "advancement of religion".

Using information submitted by the charities themselves for their 2018 fiscal year (the most recent full dataset available at the time of writing), CFIC analyzes the favourable treatment religious charities receive with respect to tax credits, various exemptions, and direct subsidies. The first two reports in the Cost of Religion series have now been published. 

The Introductory report defines the scope of the series, describes the benefits of being a registered charity, and provides examples of religious charities from across Canada. 

Some highlights from the Introductory report:

  • Religious charities are free to discriminate based on religious faith in their government-funded charitable efforts.
  • Over 32,000 registered charities in Canada exist primarily to advance religion. 
  • Religious charities in Canada have used their favourable tax treatment to amass over $38,000,000,000 in wealth.

The second report examines the cost of religious charities issuing tax receipts for donations. When Canadians make donations to charities, they receive receipts that can be used for an income tax credit. CFIC looks at donations to organizations that exist primarily (or solely) to advance religion and amongst its findings:

  • Religious charities received donations worth nearly $7.5 billion in 2018.
  • Applying a conservative set of assumptions, this translated to over $3.2 billion in tax credits.
  • There are alternatives to maintaining "advancement of religion" as a valid charitable purpose. 

CFIC will continue to publish additional reports in the coming weeks and months, including a summary of direct government subsidies to religious charities and the tax breaks religious charities enjoy. Bookmark this CFIC page to see the entire series as it's published. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Centre for Inquiry Canada quantifies the cost of religion in Canada

Canada, like most countries, treat charities very favourably, granting them many privileges and tax breaks not available to other organizations. To register as a charity with Canada Revenue Agency, it must declare one of four charitable purposes:

  • Advancement of Education
  • Relief of Poverty
  • Advancement of Religion
  • Other Purposes Beneficial to the Community
The Centre for Inquiry Canada analyzed data about all Canadian charities with a purpose of advancement of religion. The results are being published in a series of reports entitled The Cost of Religion in Canada. The first report (PDF) was published last week; others will follow in the weeks and months to come. 

Among its findings:
  • Over 30,000 organizations that exist to advance religion have been granted registered charitable status in Canada.
  • Religious charities in Canada are overwhelmingly Christian (more than 80%).
  • Over the decades, religious charities have accumulated nearly $48 billion in assets and have a net worth of over $38 billion.
I am one of the lead authors of this report. Please read and let me know what you think.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Secularism in Canada with the Centre for Inquiry Canada

I had the pleasure to reprise my Secularism in Canada presentation for the Centre for Inquiry Canada at the end of January. The presentation and subsequent Q&A session were recorded. The presentation is much the same as the one I gave to the Humanist Association of Toronto last year. If you watch the presentation, let me know your thoughts. I'm happy to answer questions from my readers.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Secularism in Canada with the Humanist Association of Toronto

Last month, the Humanist Association of Toronto invited me to give a presentation to their members, as a representative of (and secularism chair for) the Centre for Inquiry Canada. Overall, the presentation was well received. The Q&A session lasted over an hour but was not recorded. If you have any interest in the state of secularism in Canada, I encourage you to invest 45 minutes and watch. Let me know what you think.