Should religious organisations be granted charitable status?


What is a charity? Ostensibly, it's an organisation dedicated to the public benefit, one that does not seek to make profits, and that does not have political goals. So how the heck does something like the Catholic Church qualify as a charity?

In England and Wales, all charitable organisations with an income of more than £5,000 must be registered with the Charities Commission, which acts as a supervisory power. The core rule is that all charities must exist "for the public benefit". There exists a list of 13 purposes that a charity can subscribe to, including advancements of animal welfare, amateur sport, and environmental protection, but all these can be summed up as falling into four broad classes:

1. the relief of poverty
2. the advancement of education
3. the advancement of religion
4. other purposes considered beneficial to the community

My question is: aren't some of these classes mutually exclusive? Take for instance, the relief of poverty. I don't think it's controversial to say that provision of education is one of the most powerful forces for the eradication of poverty. As a society we agree that access to education should be free and universal, because we know there is no greater tool of social mobility. So it's easy to see that 1 and 2 go hand in hand for the definition of public benefit. Where does that leave the advancement of religion, which to an undeniable degree is contrary to the advancement of education?

Look at those places and times where the advancement of religion is at its zenith. The destruction of the great library at Alexandria, by either Christian zealots in 391 or Muslim zealots in 642. The decline of Islamic science in the face of the orthodox Ash'ari theology around the 12th century. In 1633, Galileo tortured by the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for demonstrating that the Earth rotates the sun. In 1925, John Scopes prosecuted for teaching science in Tennessee. The creeping influence of pseudoscientific notions on evolution in the USA under a conservative Christian administration over the last eight years. In 2008, girls' schools burned to the ground once more as the Taliban grows in power in Afghanistan.

I'm not claiming that all religion is inherently anti-science or anti-education (and of course schools of every major faith have made great contributions to science). But when those in power are able to make decisions based upon religious doctrine, society suffers. The United States' founding fathers recognised this, which is why they were so insistent on the separation of church and state. I'm in favour of the advancement of religion as a private form of spiritual pursuit, but not as a political power. Which brings us to our next point.

The Charities Commission states:

Charities can carry out political or campaigning activities to help achieve a charitable purpose, but a charity cannot have political aims.

This seems to be an internally contradictory statement, and it's hard for me to reconcile this with the political activities and intents of a great many religious groups. Christians are a diverse group, with representatives at every end of the scale, but it's ridiculous to try and claim that some churches do not have political goals. Opposition to abortion, gay marriage, extra-marital sex, and so forth are views that each person is entitled to, but when one seeks to impose this morality on members of other faiths, or no faith at all, it's indistinguishable from politics.

Take, for instance, the fundamentalist lobby group Christian Voice, headed by Stephen Green. It is registered with the Charities Commission as the National Council for Christian Standards in Society, with the stated aim of "re-establishing biblical Christian teaching throughout the nation". Ever the font of militant Christian righteousness, the organisation has built up a comprehensive reputation for intolerance, drawing criticism from secular and religious groups alike. In 2006 Green narrowly escaped prosecution for distributing homophobic leaflets at a gay festival in Cardiff. Christian Voice has also criticised a programme aiming to promote tolerance amongst children, opposes abortion, homosexuality, and safer sex education, and supports a reintroduction of the death penalty.

A special form of hatred, however, seems to be reserved for women. According to its website, Christian Voice would like to see a change in the law to allow a man to rape his wife, reasoning:

the promises given by a man and woman to each other establish a binding consent to sexual intercourse

Christian Voice also opposed the HPV vaccine (a prophylactic against cervical cancer), claiming that the jab causes infertility. The organisation also blames central aspects of the women's liberation - gainful employment and reproductive control - for rises in knife crime, drug use, 'illicit sex' and lawlessness. Even within the organisation, women seem to be allocated an auxiliary role:

So if you are a Christian man who wants to get stuck in to some exciting, energetic activity and see the Lord move in power, or a woman with the 'get-up-and-go' gene who wants men to be out on the battlefield - or maybe there is something of the Deborah or the Boadicea about you - join us today...

Christian Voice rails against politicians' failure to legislate according to biblical law, and appears to want some Christian-flavour of sharia law to be installed in the UK.

To me, it seems to be an organisation dedicated to hate speech with the stated aim of stripping back so many of the laws and customs that as a society we are proud to have achieved. For these reasons, it's very difficult for me to see how Christian Voice possibly qualifies as providing 'a public benefit' or an absence of political goals.

So how do we filter faith-based initiatives which promise a public benefit from bible-literalists who'd take us back to the dark ages? And why is someone allowed to operate a public-detriment organisation tax-free simply by sticking God's name on it?


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I suspect that "a charity cannot have political aims" refers to specific electoral outcomes, rather than the advancement of general principles. So a charity can (for example) campaign against nuclear weapons, but they can't suggest who you should vote for.

Personally, I tend to think that the whole "advancement of religion" purpose should be scrapped. All good religious charities (of which I realise there are many) would qualify on other grounds. But then I think the CoE should be dis-established and no state funds should go to faith schools...

Rape is allowed! Poppy is back ( which was eradicated according to UN during the Taliban) ! Corruption is at all time high. Osama is still alive. Can anyone please tell me why is Karzai still there?

By Sikander Hayat

By Sikander Hayat (not verified) on 31 Mar 2009 #permalink

This issue has been at the forefront of many discussions here in California after the Mormon church poured millions of dollars into campaigning and ads to repeal the rights of same-sex couples this past November.

In general, I don't see how advancing divisive classification can ever be seen as good for a community.

By Jo Problems (not verified) on 31 Mar 2009 #permalink

Hey, snarky answer! I guess that refutes any argument where I actually cited a reference.

Wikipedia was at hand and linkable. I'm using as reference the book Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel (which was based on the direct correspondence between Galileo and his daugher, the nun Suor Maria Celeste as well as other contemporary sources), and the Teaching Company Science and Religion Course No. 4691 by Lawrence M. Principe of Johns Hopkins University.

If you're claiming he was tortured, which no historical account I've ever read has claimed, you need to show evidence.

Siamang is correct, although this doesn't affect my argument. Blog corrected accordingly, thank you Siamang.


No, I agree, I was aware of the evidence against his torture. I had as much drummed into my head in liturgy as a child when I went through the full list of questions that no very elderly priest who is about to retire should have to answer from an 8 year old.

The use of Wikipedia itself was more the subject of my (sarcastic) retort, but perhaps a little out of context, where in my usual circles a wiki link is comically used between friends as the definition of all that is true, thus ending any debate ;-)

I understand that one must be skeptical about saying wikipedia is a final source, when rightly it should not be used as a source at all, but merely a convenient link to a condensed group of citations.

But clearly, it would not have been better for me to have merely asserted that Galileo was not tortured without citing a reference.

I think healthy skepticism has crossed the line into cynicism when the mere addition of information is attacked for citing an open source.

It begins to sound like Homer Simpson saying "Facts?! Pfft. You can use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true."

If it's just a joke that I don't get, I guess you'd have to be in your group of friends to get the context, and I hereby withdraw any implied pissyness.

I tend to agree with Dunc above. A total ban on any political involvement by charities would be impractical, so I'd agree that the aim is to prevent charities becoming overtly involved in party politics and electioneering. Of course charities should be able to join in political/social debates, you only have to look at the example of medical research charities such as Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation to see how hard they have lobbied politicians about smoking and food labelling, and that's before you even get onto narrower issues such as NHS funding of particular treatments.

Perhaps in order to differentiate between a charity and a lobby group charities should be obliged to prove that a certain minimum proportion of their funding goes to providing services associated with their aim, but I suspect that in practice this would lead to endless wrangling over the definition of what a service is.

I would agree that Christian Voice would stretch any definition of "charity". I wonder if anyone has ever mounted a legal challange to their status as a charity, or would that run the risk of seeming vindictive?

If nothing more comes out of our conversation than the fact that other readers may think twice before citing 'easy' sources such as wikipedia, then it has been worthwhile.

I run a research skills course at my university, started by myself and several other researchers from other faculties. The reason for it was the increasing use of wikipedia and other open/raw sources as the beginning (ok with that, within reason) and end (oh bloody hell) of research. Whilst I'm sure, like many of us, you have managed a successful education before wikipedia appeared on the scene, the same can not be said of the younger generation, for whom it has sadly become king.

When I mark essays by 18-21 year olds who cite wikipedia articles, which are themselves based upon a string of other internet-based resources, I realise that something has gone wrong somewhere in the information overload. You know why wiki isn't a good citation, and I know, but we are very much in the minority in this world where free, fast and easy information is preferred. Almost half of the attending undergraduates, and to be honest some postgraduates, have absolutely no idea how to find physical sources in a library, and this is a top rated research school in a high ranking university.

I'm sure some wiki articles are fantastically well put together, I know as I've authored a few myself, but the point is that there is no real way for Joe Public to discern between a well sourced article and a poorly sourced article. A wiki citing a list of books will be taken verbabim as people will likely never follow up on the books, thus assume that the material cited is reproduced in a contextually accurate manner. Here lies the problem, it isn't always so.

It's a tricky problem, but the key thing is to encourage all readers to critically examine all the material they read and employ a 'healthy scepticism'. If I were a true cynic, I would believe people could never rise to the challenge; I'm not though, I'm just a sceptic who wants everyone to do better.

So admittedly we've digressed from a very small sarcastic comment by myself, and perhaps it's labouring a point, but the contextual basis for my original comment is one of worry about the veracity of evidence and the loss of good scholarship. Continual questioning and a healthy serving of self-doubt forms the basis for 'good science'.

This is honestly not a dig at yourself, it's just an opportunity to hi-jack poor Frank's comments feed to air an issue that perhaps not everyone thinks about. I should probably save the subject for my own blog, lol. Sorry Frank ;-)

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I'm actually rather disappointed in this. The topic is interesting and your point is valid. But why did you have to start it off with the same petulant, trite atheist arguments? The same juvenile I hate Jesus crap.

Why is it that so many people insist on perpetuating this myth of science vs religion. Francis Bacon was a priest. I learned about evolution in church before I learned it in school. And frankly the church gave me the more in depth, valid instruction on the subject (till high school at least).

The more both sides generalize and obfuscate the more extreme each side gets, and the more pointless the argument gets. Those of us who don't believe and end up in the skeptical science camp can't win anyone over by preaching to the converted. Likewise belittling others only serves to make the general public distrust science more.