Monday, September 26, 2011

Should non-charitable activities be granted charitable tax exemptions?

This is a piece I wrote for the National Post. It was accepted for publication, then spiked (presumably because the editor did not agree with the conclusion).


Should non-charitable activities be granted charitable tax exemptions?

Revenue Canada recognized over $1 billion in charitable tax credits during 2007 for activities that had nothing to do with housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, or clothing the naked. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Ipsos Reid in September 2010, nearly two-thirds of Canadians believe these billion dollars support ventures that "promote intolerance, exacerbate ethnic divisions and impede social progress."

What endeavour is abhorred by so many Canadians yet receives so much money from the public purse?


In Canada, an organization must pursue at least one of the following four aims to be granted the designation of a charity:
  • The relief of poverty
  • The advancement of education
  • Other purposes to benefit the community that courts deem charitable
  • The advancement of religion
The first three items on the list are in accordance with a general understanding of the term "charitable activities". Whether and how the last would benefit society is far from clear.

Most of the $1,000,000,000 is used for "preaching to the choir," reinforcing the message of the church (or temple or mosque) to those that are already members. How do such activities improve the community as a whole? Some of these funds (at a minimum, $60 million) were claimed by organizations proselytising - actively seeking to convert people to Christianity - and nothing else. How does this benefit the public at large? Would the same societal gains be realized by convincing people to be devotees of Ganesh or Allah?

In 1891, the British House of Lords ruled on what constitutes a charity in a dispute between the tax authorities and the Moravian Church. They developed a common law test, based on the preamble of the 1601 Statute of Charitable Uses (also known as The Statute of Elizabeth). This ruling is the basis for the Canadian government's determination of which organizations are deemed to be charitable in nature. Perhaps it is time for Canada to reconsider whether a decision made in the nineteenth century, itself based on the introduction of a law more than four hundred years old, is the best foundation for taxation practises in 2011.

Though religious feelings have inspired generosity in some followers, the good works of international charities such as Médecins Sans Frontières demonstrate altruism is not found solely within the domain of believers. Conversely, many mainstream religions harbour tremendous antipathy to women, homosexuals, and/or members of other faith communities (and those that belong to none). There is also ample evidence that strong religious sentiment can have a significant detrimental effect on society (as recent decades in Ireland, India and Israel demonstrate, to pick among countries starting with a single letter).

At best, the advancement of religion, in and of itself, would have a neutral net effect on society. In other words, Canada is spending a billion dollars every year for absolutely nothing.

Of course, charitable status is well deserved for groups that run food banks or operate homeless shelters, including those that are faith based. But when barely one in three Canadians believes "religion provides the common values and ethical foundations that diverse societies need to thrive in the 21st century," activities that are strictly sectarian or evangelical in nature should not receive government subsidies. Why should Canada provide financial support to many groups that actively work against the principles of equality and justice spelled out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Today I accomplished what is certainly the acme of physical prowess in my life to date. I ran the Berlin Marathon, and completed 42.2 kilometres in just over four hours.

I have run a few half marathons, most recently in May. After each one, I was exhausted, and could not contemplate turning around and running back to the start line. This morning, I effectively did just that.

After spending the summer training for this event, I believed I could reasonably expect to run the race in 4:45, and if I had an exceptionally good day, I would achieve four and a half hours. Needless to say, I am extremely proud of my time. I managed to run the entire course without breaking stride, except at drink stations and when there was a glut of people in front of me moving at a slightly slower pace than I was maintaining.

There are two large differences between Toronto half marathons and the Berlin marathon. The sheer number of people running in this event means that one is constantly jostling against others and constant awareness of your surroundings is required to avoid colliding with fellow runners. In Toronto it is possible to pretty much run on autopilot after the first couple of kilometres. In today's race, there were people lining the streets for the entire 42 km, with music (drummers, live bands, and loudspeakers) keeping everyone's spirits up for the whole way as well, except for perhaps a total of 2 kilometres.

There were minor differences, as well. Runners and spectators from Denmark were everywhere - there was never a point where there was not a group of Danes in front of me. In addition to water and Powerade, there was also fruit (bananas and apples) available at most stations. At one station about 25 km in, there were gel packets given to runners. I don't know what is in them (I am in no way a professional runner), but based on the effect it had on me I would guess some combination of analgesic, heroin, and amphetamines. (I suppose that the right mix of proteins, carbohydrates, and sugars might achieve similar results, though until today I was rather skeptical of the efficacy of the numerous running products hyped at the booths when I pick up my chip and bib.)

Right now, I am sore and tired, very proud of my accomplishment and enjoying a glass of red wine. I'm off now to enjoy dinner with my family and look forward to sampling numerous German beers in the days to come.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Speaking up to defend free speech

In December 2010, the Kamloops Centre for Rational Thought announced they would be placing ads on public transit in January 2011 that stated, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." It caused a strong reaction from some members of the community.

The following editorial was read on a local radio station about the public transit ads:

The Grinch comes in many forms....and this year, he appears to be masquerading as the Kamloops Centre for Rational Thought. The centre is a group of self proclaimed atheists looking to tap into ever diminishing public donations so they can run bus advertisements proclaiming..."There probably is no God. Now stop worrying, and enjoy your life."
They don't expect to launch this campaign until next month, but the discussion at this time of year is inappropriate and undermines what for many is a season of joy, and faith. Bill Ligertwood is the director of the Kamloops group, and insists this is not an attack on religion, but rather a way to provoke thought, and increase the profile for this perspective.  He also suggests it may give those still in the closet about their non belief a bit of a nudge to come out into the open, and join other like minded individuals.
While atheists may not be applauded wherever they go, they are no longer labelled heretics, nor do they have to hide. So it's hard to understand the point of their exercise. Debate about all issues is always positive, but we're not sure this is the best way to engender that discussion, if it’s necessary at all.
Like those who pester people at the doorstep, or try to shame others into accepting their beliefs, ticking up a rolling billboard on transit buses will do nothing to add anything positive to the sum of human knowledge.
So for the atheists the message is "Do what you want, believe what you want" as long as it’s within the law…..  But please…don't shove it in my face.

The station allowed the Centre for Rational Thought the opportunity to read a prepared statement. I volunteered to write it, and the following was read on air by the Kamloops Centre for Rational Thought:

The most astonishing aspect of the response to the Canadian Atheist Bus Campaign has been the reaction of religious community in the media.
People riding public transit are bombarded daily with advertisements containing messages about homeless shelters, laser eye surgery, impotence treatments, biblical verses, television programs, divorce and injury lawyers, debt counselling, and numerous other causes. But none of the these topics has raised hackles like a mildly phrased statement raising the possibility that no deity exists.
"There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." This is hardly the tone of an inflexible dogmatist.
Most atheists are passionately in favour of free speech and freedom of conscience. The overwhelming majority favour government neutrality in matters of religion, meaning it gives no special treatment - positive or negative - to anyone proclaiming a particular religious belief, or to those who profess none.
If someone states, in all solemnity and with utter seriousness, something that goes against everything you know about the world, isn't a reasonable response, "Prove it?" There is an old expression that truth is stranger than fiction, but that does not mean everything strange is therefore true. As the astronomer Carl Sagan put it, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." In fact, the next billboard campaign by the Centre for Inquiry Canada will feature this slogan, which examines the evidence for several extraordinary claims, including Allah, Bigfoot, UFOs, homeopathy, Zeus, psychics, Christ, and many others.
A billboard is just that - an advertisement, an idea, a way to transmit a small amount of information to a large number of people.
Let's avoid censorship. Let's refrain from belittling those who think differently. Let's avoid permitting discussions only at certain times of the year.
Let's continue the conversation. Let's hear contrasting perspectives. Let's allow proponents of contrary viewpoints to state their case. Let's look at where the evidence points. Let's evaluate the positives and negatives of each position. And let's allow people to make up their own minds.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Trinity-Spadina Candidates speak

I was at yesterday (September 14, 2011) evening's candidates debate for Trinity-Spadina. It consisted of a 3-minute speech from each candidate, followed by 1.5 hours of Q&A from the audience.

Most of the questions were about transportation, municipal-provincial relations and jurisdiction, and the environment.

I asked the following question (all of the below is from memory, and represent my best recollection, not a transcript):

Leslie Rosenblood: Hello, my name is Leslie Rosenblood. I moved into Seaton Village a little over seven years ago and am a policy advisor for the Canadian Secular Alliance. Given that Ontario's discriminatory education system has been condemned by the United Nations, twice, given that the extra costs of the separate school board cost the province 500 million dollars, at a minimum, every year, given the extreme homophobic behaviour of the Catholic school boards in the province, including banning a student from bringing his same sex partner to the prom, banning the symbol of the rainbow, and banning the existence of Gay-Straight Alliances, and given that just two weeks ago the Toronto Catholic District School Board passed a resolution stating that when Catholic dogma and human rights conflict, Catholic dogma must prevail, what will you do to change your party's stance on the separate school board and move to a single publicly funded secular school system in Ontario?

Sarah Thompson, Liberal candidate: A waiver first - twenty years ago, Leslie worked for me at one of my service stations [true - when I was in high school she had a Sunoco franchise where I worked] and so this is payback. This is a very interesting question, and one that was dealt with in the last election. [I shouted, "No, it wasn't!" then immediately apologized for interrupting.] Personally, I am in favour of moving to a single school system, and hopefully we can move to that over the next ten years or so."

Tim Grant, Green candidate: The Green Party pushed for a single school system in the last election, and the media paid no attention to us then even though it was a major issue in the campaign. The Green Party supports a secular school system in Ontario, for most of the reasons outlined in the question. I would take issue with one aspect of the questioner's assertions, however. I looked at the costs of running a separate school system four years ago and the $500 million figure assumes amalgamation of school districts. They're already too large, so we shouldn't take actions that will make them even bigger. But we certainly can save at least a couple hundred million dollars, and put that money right back into the education system, with smaller school districts. And I say this as someone who came through the Catholic school system.

Rosario Marchese, MPP and New Democratic candidate: We wouldn't actually move to a single system by this proposal, because we have the English public school board, the French public school board, and English and French for the separate school system as well. [I nodded in agreement.] But I would not support removing support for the separate school system, because I think the current system is working very well. And I say this as an atheist. I am dismayed that the government has not enforced its own equity policy. It is my belief any group that has the support of the students and principal support should be allowed to form. Eliminating the separate school board wouldn't solve any problems, because the system is working pretty well overall, though it does have some issues, the way it is today.

Mike Yen, Progressive Conservative candidate, declined the invitation to participate in the evening's event.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The best excuses for bad behaviour are found in religion

A piece entitled Secularism and its Many Excuses for Bad Behaviour in the National Post religion blog called out for a response, which was published a few days later. I was a contributing author, along with two others from the Centre for Inquiry Canada. I particularly like the last paragraph, which was my largest contribution.

The best excuses for bad behaviour are found in religion

There was no excuse for the bad hybrid of tired anti-secular tropes 
and self-congratulatory jeering that characterized Charles Lewis’
 recent piece “Secularism and its Many Excuses for Bad Behaviour.”

article managed merely to misrepresent both secularism and religion.

The first gross mischaracterization is delivered right at the outset,
 with the assertion: “The most popular objection to religion is that it
 replaces thinking with sets of unprovable truths …”

This is simply
 incorrect. First of all, the most popular objection to religion is 
that there is insufficient evidence to support it, and much to 
contradict it. This is the reasoning of most atheists, and also of
 most religious people regarding all faiths other than their own. The
 phrase “unprovable truths” shows both bias and ignorance. Rationalists
 deal with claims, not truths, and with evidence rather than “proof” in 
empirical matters.

Lewis writes, “What religion teaches is that the dignity of each 
person is paramount. It also teaches that with this exalted state 
comes responsibility.” The various religions of the world (and
 denominations thereof) are far from being in total agreement on any one subject, and personal responsibility is no different.

The article continues to make such generalizations: “As Western
 societies have become more secular, they have become even more 
self-pitying and more likely to blame their travails on amorphous

The attribution of a negative personality trait to entire
 societies is both ridiculous and a tacit rejection of individual

 While no mechanism is given to explain how secularism in itself leads
 to excuses for bad behaviour, it isn’t hard to see how religion might 
have a few.

Consider Article XI of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1571), 
considered the defining statement of Anglicanism: “We are accounted 
righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior
Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings.”

prioritizing of belief in what many atheists might consider an
 amorphous entity over actual good works is the heart of Protestant 
theology in the form of the doctrine of sola fide, or salvation “by
 faith alone.”

As another example, a strict believer in Catholic dogma need not lead
 a virtuous life to go to heaven – he can sin all he wants, as long as 
he makes a good, full and heartfelt confession before dying. How this
 translates into personal responsibility is a mystery: if no mechanism of action is offered, neither is any evidence for the
 supposed relationship between secularism and bad behaviour.

On the 
other hand, much evidence is at hand for a competing pattern.

According to a 2005 study by sociologist Gregory Paul focusing on 18
 democracies, those with higher levels of atheism and secularism had
 lower levels of murder, suicide, abortion and teen pregnancy. The U.S.
 Bible belt contains higher levels of violent crime than does the more
 secular regions of the country. 

 Atheistic secularists take more responsibility for themselves and 
their actions because they believe that this world is all there is.

There is no excuse that “The Devil made me do it.” There is no excuse that suffering is “all part of God’s plan.” There is no recourse that “you will be rewarded in Heaven.” Secularists demand we take
 responsibility for our impact on our society because our sole legacy 
will be the world that we leave to our collective descendants.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Religion is a major source of division

The Centre of Inquiry Canada and Canadian Secular Alliance (I am a proud member of both organizations) were asked to respond to two articles in July of 2010 - Religion not the only source of division and Canada, taxpayers, and religious liberty. I volunteered to write the piece.

Unfortunately, the Holy Post (the National Post's religion blog) decided after the reponse was drafted that the essay should stand on its own, so the published version was renamed Religious groups have no claim on tax dollars and the edits made the piece significantly weaker, in my view. 

Here is the original response written on behalf of the Canadian Secular Alliance:

Religion is a major source of division

A judge in Quebec recently ruled that teaching a world religion course from a secular perspective (that is, examining the tenets of various faiths without upholding any particular one as exclusively true) is a "totalitarian" infringement on the freedom of religious schools to entrench their dogmas in the minds of their students.

Should the judgment be upheld, the natural extension would be to apply the same logic to all religious factions. This would pit Jesuit against Lutheran against Sunni against Jew against Hindu, and so on, all fighting for larger grants and subsidies from the public purse.

The true offence for secular-minded Canadians (which include some religious, doubting, and non-believing citizens) is that such schools are in violation of provincial education standards while happily accepting public funds.

Some have argued that public money is not secular money. Yet it absolutely should be the case. Public money should not be spent supporting only its left-handed citizens or those with red hair. Private citizens, of course, may dispense their accumulated wealth as they see fit. But public money should be used to maximize the well being of all Canadians, not just those who adhere to a specific sect. This is a key property of a secular state - no individual is granted special treatment based on his or her particular faith, or the absence thereof.

Yet in a curiously argued piece entitled, “Religion not the only source of division,” Ray Pennings laments the slow and steady decline of active theists in Canada.

Pennings claims that “32 per cent of Canadians who are active in their belief make 65 per cent of the nation’s direct charitable donations,” but that only “42 per cent of the $2.1 billion raised annually” can be considered “secular.” Therefore, according to Pennings, nearly a quarter of all donations - or about half a BILLION dollars - are for purely evangelical and proselytising activities that have nothing to do with the relief of poverty, disease, or distress.

Pennings also asserts that non-theists "are responsible for 35 per cent of Canada’s total contributions.” This is impressive, given they make up approximately 23% of Canada's population, according to a Harris Decima poll conducted in May 2008. So while "theists punch far above their weight when it comes to contributing to charities," non-theists do so to a considerably greater extent. According to Pennings’ own figures, theists contribute $81 each on average to genuinely charitable causes, while the average non-theist donates $94. Perhaps those concerned about the well-being of Canadians most in need should embrace Pennings' observation that active believers are “declining by 1 to 2 per cent annually.”

Religious voices have a place in public discourse, but they must be earned, not automatically granted. They should not be funded with taxpayer money, nor should public institutions be proclaiming the inerrancy of any creed. In other words, just like everyone else, believers must make their case on their own time, on their own dime.

Interestingly, Pennings grants a key argument made by secularists of all backgrounds – that "religion can be, has been, is and will likely continue to be a subject of division between people." No one has argued that religion is the only source of friction between human beings; but why should government perpetuate and subsidize an acknowledged fractious and anti-social force?

Thursday, September 01, 2011

"Civic Oxygen" or "Poison Gas"?

This was originally written in June 2010.

Ray Pennings' recent opinion piece, "Religious faith is the civic oxygen of our social ecology," concludes that "the secularizing experiment of the past 40 years has been a failure." Many Canadians must wonder if they live in the same Canada as Mr. Pennings.

Secularization has allowed Canada to enjoy a standard of living that ranks among the highest in the world. Secularization has altered social norms so that whereas in decades past religious authorities were able to successfully cover up systematic child rape, today members of the clergy (just like any other citizen) are arrested for possessing child pornography. The secular ideals contained within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has led to greater enfranchisement for all - including, among many other examples, the right for same-sex couples to marry.

While imperfectly implemented, and acknowledging there is much progress yet to be made, secularization has been a boon to all Canadians. Secularists welcome "the social contributions of those who practice religious faith", just as we welcome the social contributions of those who are left-handed, and those who have red hair. It is the contribution to the betterment of Canadian society that matters. Secularists come from all backgrounds - religious, doubters, and non-believers.

Revenue Canada includes "the advancement of religion" in its definition of charitable endeavours, resulting in over $1 billion in tax credits in 2007 for activities that had nothing to do with housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, or clothing the naked. Donations from the religious and non-religious are roughly the same when looking at contributions to genuinely charitable causes.

The article contains the accurate observation that there are a "growing number of Canadians who see faith not merely as a private good, but as a public bad." Canadians increasingly realize that the public sphere should be filled with myriad voices from all walks of life, and public policy should be designed for the improvement of all Canadian citizens, not just those who adhere to a particular sect.

What results when sectarian religious perspectives dominate public policy? It is true that "Christian faith and practice were essential elements in the construction of Canada." It was precisely this myopic view of who could be considered a true Canadian that led to our country's horrendous treatment of its aboriginal peoples (for which Canada's Prime Minister officially apologized only two years ago).

Mr. Pennings claims secularization "has been a failure," yet he provides no reason why anyone should consider it so. Given the numerous harms that have arisen repeatedly in Canada's history when religious figures are not accountable to secular authorities, it is reasonable to conclude that the "civic oxygen" Mr. Pennings so strenuously defends is in fact "poison gas," corroding Canada's societal and cultural well-being.

Welcome to Opinions and Questions

I will be starting this blog by posting opinion pieces and other writings from the last couple years, then proceeding with more current commentary and queries.

I hope you enjoy these pieces, and that some of the posts will cause you to question various opinions you currently hold.