The question of religion and public benefit

(Photo: Unsplash/Aaron Burden)

Stephen Evans, CEO of the National Secular Society, has asked to respond to a recent analysis of its report, "For the Public Benefit? – the case for removing the advancement of religion as a charitable purpose", produced by David Robertson on behalf of Christian Today. It is published here in full in the interests of public debate around this important issue and a further response to his comments below has been written by David Robertson which can be read here on his blog The Wee Flea:

A polemic from David Robertson posted on the Christian Today site took aim at a recent report from the National Secular Society which argued for removal of "the advancement of religion" as a charitable purpose.

The piece was largely an ad hominem attack that sought to misrepresent the report and the motivation behind it. But for reasons I'll explain, there is now a real need to consider whether the advancement of religion should still be regarded as an inherent public good, deserving of being a charitable purpose.

For an organisation to be classified as a charity, its activities must align with at least one of the thirteen charitable purposes set out in The Charities Act 2011. The benefits provided by most of these charitable purposes is clear; relieving poverty, promoting good health, improving the environment, and saving lives are undeniably in the public interest. The advancement of religion, however, is far more contestable – based as it is on an outdated presumption that promoting religion is inherently a good thing.

Britain's religion and belief landscape is rapidly changing. Polling and academic research consistently show that most Britons no longer belong to any religion. As the majority drift away from Christianity, minority faiths and particularly Islam have seen significant growth. It cannot be denied that religion is no longer a core socialiser, or the exclusive source of our ethics and morality. Not only has religion ceased to be the force for social cohesion it once was, the rise of religious fundamentalism has also demonstrated how religion can exacerbate tension and conflict in Britain.

Worryingly, granting some organisations with registered charitable status on the ground of the advancement of religion has opened the door to extremists who wish to use charitable status and tax breaks to promote ideologies that undermine our democratic values.

One example is Miftahul Jannah Academy, a charity we referred to the regulator this month and which is now being investigated. The charity's aims and objectives include "to further the true image of Islam". On its website we found sermons praising the Taliban, encouraging Muslims to fund jihadists, and referring to the "dirty qualities" of Jews.

In recent years we've exposed the harms peddled by a myriad of religious charities. But this 'whack-a-mole' approach to tackling extremism in the charity sector is unsustainable and inefficient. We need a way to prevent organisations that promote extremist messages from registering as charities in the first place.

Whilst religious and secular organisations should both be able to register as charities, it is becoming clear that greater scrutiny is needed to ensure all charities meet the public benefit test. Advancing a religious worldview no longer does enough to reassure the sceptical public that their donations and government tax breaks are not being abused for nefarious activities.

If trust in the sector is to be maintained, it is paramount that only organisations that genuinely serve the public interest are registered as charities. Removing 'the advancement of religion' from the list of charitable purposes is a reasonable place to start.

Importantly, this approach would in no way prevent religious organisations from enjoying charitable status. But it would ensure that they demonstrate a tangible public benefit under one of the other charitable headings.

It is therefore erroneous of Robertson to claim secularists see no public benefit in religious charities or to dismiss the report as 'anti-religious'. We recognise the fantastic charitable work done by people of all faiths and none.

We have no wish to undermine the role that faith can play in communities in Britain today. Faith groups contribute greatly to social capital and have historically played an important role in the charity sector on a wide range of issues and these charities should be welcomed.

But the state should not be supporting religious extremism, misogyny, homophobia, and hatred through the charity system. Nor should religious groups that do nothing other than propagate their particular faith benefit from considerable tax exemptions. Only bodies that genuinely serve the public interest, rather than simply their own interests, should enjoy charitable status.

Gaining registered charity status is and must be an entirely secular endeavour whereby tax benefits are provided in exchange for the public good that a charity provides.

Removing the advancement of religion from the list of charitable purposes would require religious charities to justify their charitable status in exactly the same way that secular organisations must do. In this way, public trust in the charitable sector can be protected by giving taxpayers greater confidence that they are not supporting organisations that seek to sow division and undermine our democracy.

David Robertson's determination to wilfully misunderstand secularism and the National Secular Society is disappointing. Our work takes aim not at religion, but at religious privilege. Secularism provides a model for people of all religions and none to coexist peacefully as equals. One can't help wondering whether Robertson simply wants people of faith to be more equal than others.

Stephen Evans is the chief executive of the National Secular Society and can be followed on Twitter at @stephenmevans1.