Should faith groups receive the benefits of being a charity?

The National Secular Society (NSS) has release a report called For the public benefit? In it, they argue that around 12,000 charities in the UK exist solely to promote religion. This, they aver, is something of a problem.

The chief executive officer of NSS has written to the chair of the Charity Commission and stated, ‘we believe there is a clear need now to consider whether the advancement of religion should be regarded as an inherent public good, deserving of the status of a charitable purpose.’ He went on to say, ‘religious organisations that wish to be registered as charities should be required to demonstrate that they serve a genuine public benefit under another charitable heading.’

Now, it is worth taking a quick glance down the list of the ‘Honorary Associates’ page of NSS before going on. Some of the standout names include Prof Peter Atkins, Dr Evan Harris, Prof Richard Dawkins, Ricky Gervais, Prof A.C. Grayling, Stewart Lee, Phillip Pulman and Polly Toynbee. All of them are outspoken Atheists. Many of them have been actively involved in the promotion of Atheism and have expressed a keen desire to see the eradication of religion. It is worth noting this because the report is not coming from a neutral entity. Many of those supporting it hold all religion in contempt and thus the report comes from a position of bias both against religion in public life and against religion qua religion.

It is also worth noticing that several of these names listed above (along with a good number of others I haven’t included but who are listed on the NSS website) are also members – some of them erstwhile and current serving Vice Presidents – of Humanists UK (formerly the British Humanist Association). It is quite interesting to do a comparison of NSS supporters and Humanist UK members to see just how much cross-pollination exists between the two organisations. It is most interesting because the Humanists UK website states, quite clearly:

Humanists UK is the operating name of the British Humanist Association. We are a charitable company (no. 228781), formed in 1896 and incorporated in 1928, and registered in England and Wales. 

Humanists UK website

Similarly, the Humanists UK Articles of Association – their governing charitable document (accessible on their own website) states as their first point detailing their charitable objectives:

The advancement of Humanism, namely a non-religious ethical lifestance the essential elements of which are a commitment to human wellbeing and a reliance on reason, experience and a naturalistic view of the world

So, not only must we contend with the fact that the NSS report is not coming from any sort of neutral position, we must also recognise it is coming from an entirely hypocritical one. Apparently, it is simply unacceptable for religious groups to exist principally for the advancement of their religion but it is entirely legitimate for Secular Humanists to exist principally for the advancement of theirs.

Leaving all that aside, however, is there a legitimate point to be made here? Should organisations be able to gain the benefits of charitable incorporation if they cannot show any specific public benefit apart from the advancement of their beliefs?

First, we should ask the question whether it is, indeed, a public good to advance religious belief. Clearly NSS don’t think so. However, I do think there is a case to be made for saying ‘yes.’ Teaching and advancing religious teaching is recognised as an inherent good even within our education system, given that we have Religious Education lessons. As such, religious believers advancing the teaching that they actually believe is a public good. It adds to our collective knowledge and understanding of faith subscribers.

As a former RE teacher, I am well aware that the curriculum rarely allows for the nuance of divergent belief. Most children are taught something roughly equivalent to there being two basic Christian views, Protestant and Catholic, and even those are not fleshed out in great detail. In reality, the curriculum cannot do much else. But charities existing to promote and advance their actual beliefs does have genuine public benefit as we seek to understand what faith subscribers really believe rather than what our curriculum, in a slightly unnuanced way, tells us they broadly believe (which sometimes ends up being so broad it deviates from what they actually believe at all).

I genuinely think it better for Humanists UK to advance their Secular Humanism by teaching what they actually believe rather than expecting potentially non-Humanist RE and Philosophy teachers to adequately explain their views within the constricting confines of a curriculum that only allows investigation into it during one hour per week of RE (presuming they even focus on that particular view). But just as I think it is legitimate for Secular Humanists to advance their own view – and for them to be afforded charitable status as a reflection of the societal benefit that it is for us to properly understand what they believe – so I believe the same is true for religious charities too.

The societal benefit is not in the advancement of the religion per se (though, of course, everybody of all faiths and none believe society would be better if we all held to their particular beliefs and philosophies). The societal benefit is in the more fulsome and proper understanding of the belief that we gain. I will understand Islam better, for example, if I hear from those who believe in it rather than if a Christian RE teacher is trying to explain it to me. The same goes for any belief – those who subscribe can better explain their beliefs and worldview than those who don’t. This gives us genuine insight into the mindset of those who hold different beliefs and philosophies and it is this proper understanding that leads to community cohesion. As we learn to have less fear of those who hold different beliefs to us and, even where we sincerely disagree, we learn all the better how to interact with such people so as to avoid the kinds of conflict none of us wish to see. As a firm believer in the teaching of RE, I similarly stand by the fact that RE alone will not do this for us. Charities dedicated to such ends will help.

As a Christian, I am aware that being a charity is a privilege and not a right. I have no long-term expectation that my church (which exists to advance the Christian religion but also engages in lots of other things that most would deem ‘properly charitable’) should maintain its charitable status. I am grateful that the government considers us to be charitable enough to receive the benefits of such status. But should the government remove such a privilege, they would be entirely within their rights to do so. I would only hope they would apply such measures equitably and determine that the mere advancement of any religion, philosophy or belief would be revoked. Such will not happen, however, because there are plethora of groups advancing beliefs, attitudes, philosophies that those currently calling for the advancement of religion to be stripped of its charitable status would be appalled to see have the same measure applied to them.

In the meantime, however, if the members of NSS – many of whom belong to the established charity Humanists UK – wish to maintain charitable status for the advancement of their beliefs, I’m sure we can all agree it is only fair that I – and people of other religions – should be permitted to keep theirs.