The National Secular Society (NSS) have released a 'report' entitled "For the Public Benefit? – the case for removing the advancement of religion as a charitable purpose". The fact that the NSS want to remove religion from charity ranks alongside news that the Pope is a Catholic and Greta Thunberg wants to protect the environment as a shocking revelation. But do they have a point? Having read the report, the answer is clearly no. It reads more like a political propaganda leaflet with a list of demands based on a series of allegations and smears. And it reflects the rather sad, illogical and intolerant pettiness that the militant secularists have become famous for. The report is also revealing in that it shows the kind of tactics the NSS use in their war against religion.
1. Misinformation and distortion. For example, 'For the Public Benefit' relies on the selective use of statistics – there are lies, religious lies and secular statistics. One of the reasons that they offer for removing religion is that "a majority of Britons no longer belong to any religion". Yet the latest official statistics from the 2011 survey have no religion as 25%. Doubtless it is higher today but not as high as the selective use of opinion polls by the NSS suggest.
These should always be taken with a pinch of salt – not least because it all depends on sample size, methodology and the questions. A poll in The Guardian in 2006 asked 'Which religion do you yourself belong to?', with 64% saying 'Christian' and 26% saying none. In the same poll 63% claimed they were not religious with just 33% saying they were! I wonder which figure the NSS would use?
The logic behind their position is somewhat skewed. Are they saying that if a majority of people profess some kind of religion, they would be happy for religious charities to exist? The arrogance of the report is shown in that it states that the views of the NSS are the views of UK public opinion (whilst again offering no evidence for that).
2. Fear and demonisation. The report also seeks to stir up prejudice and hatred by instilling fear of religion and labelling all religions as responsible for the wrongs of any one particular religious group.
"There is some justification in prevailing apathetic or negative attitudes towards religion. The UK has suffered significant acts of religious terrorism, resulting in mass loss of life," they write.
This reminds me of the accusation that I used to hear from the more fundamentalist atheists – repeated ad nauseum because someone somewhere told them it was witty: "Atheists don't fly planes into buildings." To which the response was "neither do Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics or Charismatics!" The NSS use the concept of harm – as defined by themselves – to argue that those who do harm should be banned from being charities.
3. Exclusivism and narrow-mindedness. The NSS are also frightened that some religious charities might oppose some of their fundamental values. In the report they warn that some religious charities oppose abortion. They warn of the dangers of charities like the Evangelical Alliance, CARE, Living Out and Affinity who do not share the sexual doctrines of the NSS. The NSS want to ban 'extremist' political religious charities, but the NSS definition of 'extreme' seems to be 'anyone who disagrees with our point of view' - which itself seems to be a somewhat extreme viewpoint.
One example of this is their attack on the British and Foreign Bible Society. They reveal the shocking information that the BFBS exists to distribute Bibles – much of which is done in foreign countries (the NSS don't seem keen at all on British religious charities helping foreigners).
"How does the British public truly benefit from the mass distribution of bibles both in the UK and overseas?" the NSS ask.
Apart from the fact that Christians don't share such a disdain for 'foreigners', the statement presupposes that distributing the Bible does no public good. Yet as Vishal Mangalwadi demonstrates in The Book that Made Your World, the Bible has been the source of most of the Western liberal values that the NSS say they want. It's Christianity that turns the world upside down. I suspect that the British public would benefit greatly if the Chinese and North Korean regimes became more Christian!
4. Mockery and abuse. Another other tactic is to mock and belittle. For example the report criticises the Charity Commission for not accepting Jedi as a religion.
5. Intolerance and blind faith. The report tells us: "If religion was abolished as a charitable purpose, then the effect on society in the UK would be positive."
The NSS have faith that if only everyone adopted their position then we would live in a secular paradise, despite having no evidence for this.
"For the Public Benefit" is filled with this kind of intolerance, irrationality and self-righteousness. And the NSS say they are 'religiously neutral', which makes about as much sense as arguing that communist or fascist parties are politically neutral.
It is interesting that the NSS cannot see any public benefit from religious charities. They cannot grasp that religion, which has been the basis for community for most of humanity's history, can 'deliver tangible outcomes for communities'. Try telling that to the builder who told me that his firm would be prepared to build a church in the midst of any of their new housing estates because it helped to create community and added to the value of their houses!
How should the Church respond to such intolerance and prejudice? We should be aware of what the NSS are doing and make sure that we counter their lobbying. But arguing with the NSS is a bit like arguing with a conspiracy theorist – they are impervious to reason and counter argument because everything we say must be part of the conspiracy. The NSS exist for one purpose only: to attack religion. Therefore, in their eyes, nothing good can come to the wider community from religion.
The only way to overcome that is to go back to the original meaning of the word 'charity'. In 1 Corinthians 13 what is translated in the KJV as 'charity' is in modern translations more accurately translated as 'love'. We overcome hatred by love. When the NSS argue that there is no benefit to the community in religious charity, we must prove them wrong by our actions. We are salt and light in our communities. Without that they will become tasteless and dark. A bit like the joyless and miserable society the NSS-inspired one will be.
David Robertson works as an evangelist with churches in Sydney, Australia, where he runs the ASK Project. He blogs at The Wee Flea.