Taxing Religion, Charity and Volunteering

Angela Shanahan of the Weekend Australia has got it in one. In her article, “Godless should tackle sport rort before religion“, she points out the very real social benefits of religious organisations in society. Religion is able to organise in ways that non-religious organisations have not yet been able, to manage a broad swathe of supports from networking, pastoral care and counselling to any number of ancillary services for the needy. Even governments in the wealthiest countries in the world find it difficult to emulate the efficiency and effectiveness which religions can provide support.

There are two other issues associated with this argument to tax religion:

  1. If secularists argue for tax on religion doesn’t this just show that, for all of the label, secularists are not arguing on behalf of secular society but just one component of secular society. For secular society, if nothing else, is the agreement by religions in that society to live in harmony under a government system which none of them will directly control. However this agreement implies that religion will be allowed to remain active in that same society. To the extent that a group can argue for certain limitations on religious activiy, such as how taxation law effects a religion, is the extent that secularism is working. Howewer the extent that any group, convinces society that they and they alone are speakers for secularism, is the extent that secularism may have failed. It may be time for some non-religious groups to rethink whether they are presenting themselves honestly to the secular society or not;
  2. The issue of whether donations to a religion for the operations of the religious institutions as against that organisation’s charitable works, is another question. My thoughts are this, that as taxes are raised by the secular government, for the purpose of providing resources and infrastructures that benefit of the whole society, then all charities, regardless of their specific purpose, must be open with equity to applicants who are not members of the charitable organisation or its parent body. Any organisation that does not fit that criteria, should not be allowed to be called charitable, and therefore donations not be tax deductible. Thus donation to religion is an offering from the wealth of the supplicants based on Faith that such sacrifice is truly giving away something lesser for something greater.

There is a further issue which often crosses paths with charity, and that is philanthropy. Philanthropy is a broader concept than giving to charity, however, for reasons of the stimulation that philanthropy provides the development of society, culture, arts, sciences, universities, etc, it is important that philanthropy is covered by the tax deductible donations law. However, in Australia, by far the biggest donations to society and charity are by volunteering. Both religious and non-religious people in Australia are big volunteers. They volunteer in running all sorts of organisations at local, regional, State, and national levels. They volunteer to coach sport, pick rubbish off beaches, help disabled or aged people.

Figures from 2005 showed Australia has 700,000 not-for-profit organisations. Only about 35,000 employ staff. The value of volunteering has been estimated up to 23% of total Federal Budget outlays. 41 % of the adult population volunteer. It is most prevalent in the 35 to 44 age group, but volunteers aged between 18 and 24 contributing on average 132 hours per year.

The relationship between taxation and social capital is a delicate one. However, because I see around me a great will among people to expend their lives and wealth on benfit for others in society, and not just working a simple trading system in the hope that the secular government will take their tax and use it to the greatest benefit of the community, I support a secular society with moderate government, straightforward tax law, strong regulatory authority on trade, and much encouragement on people adventuring towards increasing social capital. This latter requires that we have a culture in the nation which leaves the average citizen with some excess in their pocket that they might save for a rainy day, educate their children to maturity, and expend their dollars and their time on their fellow.

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