Tag Archives: human rights

An outdated tax anomaly – charitable status of relgion

Here is a New Zealand Kickstarter project well worth supporting – a film which sets out to answer the questions:

  • Why do religions pay few taxes?
  • Why do companies owned by religions also avoid tax?
  • With more non-believers than ever – is this fair?

Pennies from Heaven – A Documentary about religion and tax. by Toby Ricketts — Kickstarter.

The tax-free and rates-free  charitable status of religions in this day and age is an anomaly which will eventually need resolving.  As the proposal says:

Despite this huge rise in the number of non-believers and increased focus on the importance of separation of church and state, most ‘secular’ governments continue to subsidise religious organisations; providing them with broad tax immunity (including any companies or corporations that they own), local rates exemptions and other entitlements. While the public expectation is that all religions are behaving as charities in the traditional sense (working to relieve poverty and advance the public good, etc.), the reality is that some churches are behaving more like corporations; stockpiling cash and buying external investments (putting aside for the moment the mansions, sports cars and diamond rings sported by bishops and ministers). The result of this tax break for the religious is that there is less money for education, healthcare, conservation and other core state functions that would benefit a nation as a whole.”

The problem is highlighted in this report - Religious financial privileges in New Zealand.

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Regarding women as animals

Credit: http://www.elle.fr/

This little shocker comes from the French magazine Elle   – Arabie Saoudite : les femmes pistées lorsqu’elles quittent le pays. Yes, the original is in French but here’s some extracts from the article translated by Google.

Saudi women are denied even a bit more freedom last week as the “Europe 1″ radio reported that the Saudi authorities have implemented an electronic system that can alert families when these women leave the kingdom. Their “guardian” – in most cases their father, brother or uncle – are now notified by SMS when they go abroad.

This initiative reduces women to the status of slave was criticized on Twitter by Manal al-Sharif, an activist who fights for his country women can drive, they do not currently have the ability do. She was informed by a couple who went on a journey. The husband, who was with his wife received a text message from the immigration informing him that his wife was about to leave the international airport of Riyadh (capital of Saudi Arabia). ” backwardness “” Authorities use the technology to monitor women “, denounced the AFP novelist and columnist Badriya al-Bishr. He added: “This is the technology for a mentality backward. They want to keep prisoners. Government had better take care of those subject to domestic violence,” she concluded.

How does this system work? Are all women implanted with an electronic chip? Or does their passport information automatically initiate the warning?

Whatever the system it just shows how religious extremism (and often the not so extreme) ends up treating women like non-human animals.

The “public square” myth

Here’s a graphic I used in a recent presentation on “Accepting Pluralism in a Secular Society.” (Presented at the Recent Interfaith Forum, Hamilton). It shows data* which sort of demolishes the “public square” myth argued by militant Christians. This is the claim that Christians are somehow being denied their rights to take part in public debate. It comes up when there is an expansion of the human rights of everyone – these militant interpret it as a loss of rights for them. When usually it amounts to a loss of privilege – like their privilege to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality or religion.

Often this sort of whining comes from evangelical Christians – which makes this data all the more ironic – it’s data collected by UK evangelical Christians! And it shows that evangelical Christians are actually more likely to take part in the “public square” than are  other members of the general public. They are twice as likely to write letters to a newspaper and five times as likely to lobby or demonstrate.

So why the concern? Why the newspaper articles and academic papers** implying some sort of restriction to Christian participation in the “public square?” Why all that whining we have seen in the UK lately about militant and “aggressive” secularism trying to eliminate religion from public life?

Loss of privilege?

Well – look at the details and you begin to see what motivates this. The Bideford Town Council has been ordered not to include Christian prayers in the official business of its meetings. (See Defeat for imposed prayer and Privileged whinging?) The Whanganui District Council here voluntarily took the same action (see Whanganui District Council comes to senses). Note that no-ones’ right to religious observance has been denied – just their privilege of imposing it on others. (In both cases the alternative of those so-inclined praying before the meeting was offered).

The truth is there are no unreasonable restrictions limiting Christian access to the public square. Where some restrictions seem to exist (eg. harassment of co-workers on the job, wearing religious symbols where there are uniform rules, etc.) these apply to everyone – all religions and none. The public whining about those issues, and attempts to get religious exemptions, are just another example of demanding special privileges.

Mind you, I can understand that there may well be “perceived’ restrictions. This comment from Linda Woodhead, in her article Restoring religion to the public square, illustrates this. She describes “Being jeered by a lecture room full of academics” when commenting “after a lecture delivered by a notable and brilliant feminist scholar. “ She doesn’t detail her comment, only that it had something to do with explaining feminism’s global influence as due to religion.

“Restriction” self-imposed and tactical

This reminds me of the reaction of audiences in the old days when a certain dogmatic Maoist used to get up and lecture everyone during question time at political meetings. I can imagine his comrades trying to reign him in. Telling him to use language that was mere acceptable. And not to rely on dogmatic arguments which only his comrades accepted.

I can also imagine Linda’s brothers and sisters in her church telling her to try to use more secular language and to stop promoting arguments about region being responsible for everything, Christian Chauvinism, even though they all agreed that it was so. It’s a matter of communication.

In other words one should be tactical, recognise where the audience is at, when one attempts to communicate a message. But of course the dogmatists, whether they are Maoists or Christians, will see this as cowardice. That they have a moral and ideological responsibility to impose the stories and language they love on the listener – whatever their own beliefs.

It’s an old issue in political and ideological communication. But such a tactical issue is not a “restriction” on Christian participation in the public square. To see it that way is perverse. It is demanding the privilege that everyone else must accept the same stories, same language. Everyone else must think they way the Christian or Maoist prosletyser does.

They don’t – and they won’t. But in a democracy the Christians have the right to present their arguments. If they are able to use a language and stories that do not turn off their audience they will be successful If they insist on dogmatically assuming everyone will accept their own sectarian language and stories, and if they don’t they should, then so be it.

They won’t get their message across and they well be laughed at or even jeered.  But participation in the public square is a two-way street. The audience has the right to disagree, to object, to jeer or even ridicule. To demand that they don’t is not only demanding an unreasonable privilege for yourself. It’s restricting the rights of others to take part in the public square.

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*Data thanks to Christians active in the public square: survey – an article on The New Zealand Christian Network  -  which, ironically, actively campaigns against secularism.

** Religion in the “public square” does seem to get a lot of unwarranted attention from academic theologians and philosophers of religion.

Compulsory payments for advancement of religion – let’s get rid of that.

I read  recently how cynically humans use the word “freedom.” (I think it was in Jennifer Michael Hecht‘s Doubt: A History)  How often do you see a fascist or otherwise undemocratic organisation with freedom in its name or slogans?

This came to mind again when I saw this post Students: Free at Last. (At Say Hello to my Little Friend – a blog which has a smoking gun in its heading. The blogger justifies the graphic saying “it depicts the way I like to ruthlessly “whack” bad ideas.” Rather unfortunate use of gangster terminology – especially as he uses the blog to advance his own “bad ideas”).

This particular post is “whacking” the “bad idea” of compulsorily union membership. I agree that, in this case, it is a bad idea  – in principle. During most of my working life I supported unionism – and the union I belonged to was voluntary, a comparatively strong and active union because of that. In fact people of my “socialist” persuasion saw compulsory unionism as a right-wing fetter, promoting class apathy and, in most cases, ensuring a leadership complaint with employer interests.

But, in my experience, most of those who have campaigned against compulsory unionism did so because they were more opposed to the “unionism” part than the “compulsory” part. They had their own ideological reasons for their campaign and it wasn’t desire for freedom.

This is why I find this, and similar campaigns, by conservative Christian groups and blogs (as “Say Hello” is) hypocritical. Some of these groups don’t allow their own members to join unions, compulsory or not. And many of their policies are the very opposite of freedom.

For example – I oppose the classification of “advancement of religion” as a charitable purpose for purposes of tax exemption – and local body rates. In practice these means part of my taxes are used to subsidise the tax-free status of people, organisations and buildings whose only purpose is proselytization of ideas I find abhorent. I don’t see that a charitable purpose, nor would most New Zealanders. Yet provided these organisations or people are proselytising a supernatural world view they can get tax exemption. No real charitable work is required for this.

Sure, many religious organisations do genuine charitable work – and I have no problem with their receiving tax exemption for that part of their work. None at all.

But this subsidy for the “advancement of religion” is undemocratic on two grounds:

  1. It is available only to those who hold supernatural beliefs;
  2. We all pay for it through our taxes and rates, we have never been asked if we wish to and most people are just completely unaware of this imposition on their earnings.

I think it is hypocritical for conservative Christians to argue on the one hand against compulsory unionism, or deduction of union fees or their equivalent. Then, to argue on the other hand that the compulsory payment of taxes to subsidise their specific supernatural beliefs is somehow OK.

It is not.

If we want to talk about freedom lets not be hypocritical about it. Let’s recognise that this compulsory deduction from our earnings to subsidise the advancement of supernatural ideas also violates our freedoms – specifically our freedom to be treated equally, irrespective of religion or belief. And our freedom of, and freedom from, religion or belief.

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Popes cunning straw mannery?

Thanks to DavidD's Blog

One would have thought Pope Bennie would be on his best behaviour during his visit to the UK. After all, it’s not exactly as if the people are keen on squandering such money on an unnecessary “state” visit. Nor is his standing very high at the moment with the role he played in covering up child abuse in his church.

But he is hardly off the plane than he makes extraordinary remarks suggesting that atheism was the key factor in Nazism. Well we all know how that tactic is used in internet discussion, don’t we. Godwin’s Law states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.” Mike Godwin formulated this in his sarcastic observation that, given enough time, all discussions—regardless of topic or scope—inevitably wind up being about Hitler and the Nazis.

But Bennie must be so desperate he actually started by invoking Goodwin’s law!

Of course he is well known for attempting to get a campaign going against the “evil secularism” he sees in Europe. He was helped in this by the Islamic leader King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (see Interfaith dialogue to fight against human rights).

However, perhaps Paul Kirby has a point when she suggests this silly statement is an attempt at a tactical diversion (see Calling all Pope Protestors). After all, Bennie is no fool and he has presumable worked hard, together with the UK government, to limit the embarrassment this visit will cause. Paula says:

“My conclusion is that the Nazi remarks were a deliberate attempt to deflect the anticipated protests about the scandal of the child sex abuse cover-ups in the RCC.

We know from comments made before the visit that both the Vatican and the UK govt were deeply concerned that the visit might be overshadowed by the sex abuse issue; so what could be more natural than that they would have put their heads together to try to find a way to prevent that happening? And what better method could they possibly find than to launch an attack on the likely protestors – an attack of such grotesque obscenity that we would be immediately deflected into protesting about that rather than the real issue?

It is inconceivable to me that the UK government didn’t know exactly what was going to be in the pope’s speech at Holyroodhouse this morning. Not only that, but had that Nazi comparison been made about ANY other group in British society, government officials would have been falling over one another in their rush to distance themselves from it. The fact this hasn’t happened suggests very strongly to me that this was a put-up job, an indicator of their determination to prevent the visit turning into an embarrassment to the pope (and therefore the government), as well as of the depth of their fear that it might.”

Paula is appealing to demonstrators not to be distracted. She warns “If the protests during the rest of his tour focus on his comments about Nazis and valueless secularists, rather than the issue he fears most, then he will be chortling all the way back to the Vatican on Sunday.”

And that issue is child abuse.

Image credit Pope Godwin

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Religion in public life – two approaches

Two different approaches to the problem of religion in public life were in the news recently. I think they are worth contrasting.

1. Copenhagen Declaration

This was a document accepted World Atheist Conference: “Gods and Politics”, held in Copenhagen from 18 to 20 June 2010. Some people worry about atheists organising and making declarations. it seems to them a bit too much like religious dogma. However, I think this declaration is great. One could quibble at the edges, change a few things, ask for a few deletions or additions. But, I think as as a general declaration it really accords with the Universal declaration of Human Rights. I can’t see why any reasonable person could disagree with it. You can download the Copenhagen_Declaration as a pdf file.  It reads: Continue reading

Avoiding tax – supernaturally

Jokes about money, tax, death and religion are common. For example – we often say “you can’t take it with you!” Well some of my workmates used to say – perhaps there is a way. After all our colleague, who is a very smart cookie and also a devout evangelical Christian, started intensively studying financial theory in his retirement.   We used to joke that perhaps he know something we didn’t.

And they say there are only two certain things in life – death and taxes. But Max Wallace, author of the book The Purple Economy asserts: “The religious tail is wagging the dog of the body politic. The religious believe they can avoid death. They know they can avoid tax!”

This is certainly true in New Zealand – and it’s all tied up with the definition of “charity” for purposes of tax exemption. Here’s how the NZ Charities Commission defines it:

Continue reading

Libel Reform campaign continues

For the back story to this photograph have a look at Suppressing science, A victory for Simon Singh and BCA libels Simon Singh? For the article that upset the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) see Beware the Spinal Trap. Better still, have a look at the original article which is now back up on the Guardian web site.

Simon Singh with 2-week old son Hari - like the T-shirt

Twitter erupted with messages of congratulations last night when news started coming through that the BCA had thrown in the towel. This has been  a high profile case which has highlighted the danger of UK libel laws to science journalists and others.  But as Hari’s T-shirt, and the story below from The Libel Reform campaign (BCA drop libel case against Simon Singh) show this isn’t over yet. There will be legal action to recover costs and the libel laws have to be changed: Continue reading

New Zealand has bigots too

I actually thought this wouldn’t happen in good old New Zealand. We are a tolerant lot and seem quite happy with our largely secular society. But there’s always some die-hards wanting to spoil it, isn’t there?

This press release from the NZ Atheist Bus Campaign describes how the NZ Bus company has reversed their approval of the adverts because of public complaints.

The NZ Atheist Bus Campaign, which late last year raised in excess of $20,000 from public donations, has met a set back in their plans. Nationwide bus company NZ Bus, who had tentatively approved the campaign’s ads on buses in major city centres, have now rejected them.

NZ Bus stated that they have received a number of complaints from the public about the proposed ads, which read “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Spokesperson for the Atheist Bus Campaign Simon Fisher says “It’s concerning that peaceful atheist messages are not allowed on buses while religious messages are often seen on buses and in public. Messages of atheism are rare in New Zealand and we aim to raise awareness for the one-third of New Zealanders who are unconvinced by the claims of religion.”

Organisers of the Campaign tried to reach a resolution with NZ Bus, and later attempted mediation sessions through the Human Rights Commission. NZ Bus refused to participate in these mediation sessions. Because they are refusing to discuss the matter and reach an agreement, the organisers of the Campaign are now investigating the possibility of taking this case to the Human Rights Review Tribunal.

Simon Fisher says “we’re disappointed at the response from NZ Bus and plan to look at options going forward. We owe it to the thousands of Kiwis who have supported this campaign with donations and messages of support.”

Advertisements with identical wording ran in the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and Spain. Similar campaigns also ran successfully in Croatia, Finland, Holland, Italy, America and across the Tasman in Australia.

“We are gravely concerned that in New Zealand we’re unable to present an atheistic message, showing that we do not have the same practical freedom of expression as in other first world countries. It highlights why this campaign is so necessary.” said spokesperson Simon Fisher.

The Campaign will continue to accept donations for advertising, see http://www.nogod.org.nz for further details.

Why don’t these complainants identify themselves? Let us hear their arguments. A complaint to the Human Rights Review Tribunal might provide us that opportunity.

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Saving the planet with condoms

condoms-webA recent study suggests that condoms can help us combat anthropogenic climate change (see Condoms save the Planet). I guess it’s obvious really. Fewer people, fewer problems.

But I think this illustrates that many of the solutions to humanity’s problems come down to human rights issues. In particular the rights of women in many countries. If  women in these societies got the human rights they deserve, including reproductive choice, we would probably see a decline in excess population growth, terrorism and civil wars. Religious and cultural intolerance, which victimise many women, could be reduced. We could tackle problems of disease, water quality and standards of living with more chance of success. And the proliferation of human rights would no doubt improve the economies of these countries.

Nobel prize winner Murray Gell-Mann made these points in his excellent book, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. Perhaps I am showing my own bias here (after all I am not a woman) by drawing attention to another aspect of human rights Gell-Mann discussed. This is the rights of the aged. Particularly the provision of social security for the aged.

Social provision for income for the aged would take that responsibility away from their children. This would be another factor restricting the need for large families.

Download the report (pdf): Reducing Future Carbon Emission by Investing in Family Planning.

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