Natasha Moore's recent defense of the tax exemption for religion ('Churches aren't businesses and they still deserve a tax break'), published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 10 October 2016 is instructive. It is quite a contrast to Brian Morris' Daily Telegraph article of 8 May 2016 which detailed an IPSOS survey that found 64 per cent of Australians favour churches being taxed (It's time for churches to start paying tax').
Ms Moore's piece assembles briefly, in the one place, the usual back and fill defenses for the continuation of the centuries old tax privileges for religion.
Her defenses came be critically summarized as follows:
- Argument by omission and misrepresentation
- False analogy
- Selective use of minor detail to draw attention away from major facts
- A fear factor
- Appeal to a higher purpose
- Outright denial
I shall briefly analyse Ms Moore's six arguments in this order in which they appeared. They are not all distinct. Some are woven together as required to make her case.
Argument by omission and misrepresentation: Ms Moore's major omission is that she fails to distinguish between the genuinely charitable activities of religious organizations such as schools, hospitals and the various relief-of-poverty institutions religions maintain (which can entail attempts at indoctrination and/or recruitment of citizens who use those services) and the activity of religion itself.
It is the number one tactic of religious defenders of the tax exemptions for religion to muddy the waters between 'the advancement of religion', the four hundred year old law that religion itself is a charitable activity, and
religious organizations' various charitable institutions mentioned above.
Purely religious activity usually occurs in a place of worship by an organization that has as its purpose the conversion of citizens to its belief system. It usually relies on a sacred text, figures of authority who explain that text, rituals that are held to be necessary to express faith in a belief.
None of that need involve any activity outside a church/mosque/temple. The Pope himself once defined religion as 'supernatural charity.' The idea is that a supernatural being's delivery of 'his' message through his representatives on earth is a form of benevolent charity. You get the message, you convert, you are saved for the afterlife. That covers most, but not all, religious activity. Since 1601 'advancing religion' itself has been considered by law to be a tax-exempt charitable activity.
Members of a church need not do any work outside a church, in any other organisations, to qualify for tax-exempt status. Churches can tithe their members (10 per cent or more), invest the money in passive financial products such as bank accounts, bonds and shares, or get involved in active commercial businesses unrelated to religion, and all their income will be tax-exempt.
It is normal for the defenders of the tax exemption for religion to omit these facts, as does Ms Moore, just as she omitted any mention of the IPSOS survey cited above.
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Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.