Time to bring policies on religion in line with public opinion

In his book The Greatest Show on Earth, Prof. Richard Dawkins recounts how he tried to register a foundation dedicated to promoting “reason and science” as a charity. His response from the Charity Commission said: “It is not clear how the advancement of science tends towards the mental and moral improvement of the public. Please provide us with evidence of this”.

Dawkins comments: “Religious organisations, by contrast, are assumed to benefit humanity without any obligation to demonstrate it and even, apparently, if they are actively engaged in falsehood”.

This is certainly true when we look at charity law. To become a charity, an organisation must demonstrate two things: that it serves a public benefit, and that it serves a recognised “charitable purpose” in law.

But while “the advancement of religion” is its own separate, recognised charitable purpose, science is buried within “advancement of the arts, culture, heritage or science” (often simply abbreviated to “the arts”).

As a result, an organisation which promotes a well-recognised, ‘mainstream’ religion will have its registration waved through. Because “the advancement of religion” is itself a charity purpose, religious institutions’ compliance with the public benefit duty is unlikely to be tested.

In contrast, organisations existing to promote science may find themselves subject to questions like those posed to Prof. Dawkins.

The implications of this are serious. Registered charity status confers tax benefits as well as public trust. But because charity regulators do not check whether religious charities truly benefit the public, we see dozens of charities promoting not only anti-scientific ideas, but also homophobia, misogyny and extremism. As recently as November, the National Secular Society had to report over 40 charities to the Charity Commission over concerns about antisemitic and anti-western sermons they were hosting. The sermons were all rooted in Islamic theology.

The pro-religion bias in charity law reflects the charity system’s archaic nature. Charity law has barely moved with the times – while the UK public’s opinions certainly have.

Research published in December found 50% of people in the UK agree that religion has more negative consequences than positive, compared with only 30% who disagree. The remaining 20% didn’t know, or neither agreed nor disagreed.

In contrast, 63% disagreed with the statement: “I think science often has more negative consequences for society than positive consequences”. Only 13% agreed with the statement.

In summary, Brits are generally positive about science but wary of religion. Yet our charity law reflects an opposite attitude.

Plenty of other studies attest to the prevalence of negative attitudes towards religion in the UK. They include successive studies by Ipsos, which found over 60% of Brits under 65 think religion does more harm in the world than good, 47% of Brits think differences ‘between different religions’ are among the most significant divisions in the country, and only 10% of Brits claim their religious or spiritual wellbeing can give them greatest happiness (the lowest proportion of any of the 27 countries surveyed).

It’s not simply a matter of attitudes. There is considerable evidence that high religiosity does not correlate with higher standards of living. Countries with less religious populations tend to be wealthier and more tolerant than more religious nations, while religious countries have higher rates of violent crime than more secular countries as well as lower rates of happiness. Gallup research published in October confirmed the latter, finding nonreligious people in the UK happier than religious people. Worldwide, it found people in less religious countries are happier than those in more religious ones.

And that’s before we consider the obvious examples of human rights violations, conflict and terrorism fuelled by religion around the world.

No wonder Brits are suspicious of religion and are, on the whole, leaving it in droves.

It’s not just charity law which is out of step with British attitudes to religion. The prevalent view in policymaking appears to be: religion is great, and wouldn’t it be even better to have a bit more?

That’s why we see initiatives such as the ‘faith new deal’, in which the government gave a total of £1.3 million to faith groups for ‘community initiatives’ (nonreligious groups were not eligible). Predictably the pilot project was a shambles, with the government having to terminate its funding agreement with one of the organisations over “hate speech” concerns.

It may also be why the government refuses to tone down religious imposition in our education, including legally-required daily acts of collective worship in all schools and the proliferation of faith schools.

Ultimately, the mismatch between public opinion and policy when it comes to religion lies at the heart of our state, which still isn’t secular. As long as our head of state and legislature remain in the Church of England’s grip, policies aiming to reel in religious privilege are unlikely to progress far.

Religion does have something in common with science – power. And like anything powerful, religion can be a force for bad or good. Blind faith that religion is inherently good conversely means it will more likely be used for bad. When pro-religion policymakers give religious institutions unfettered, privileged access to state support, abuse of that support is inevitable.

By taking a more critical approach to religion, and by refusing to give religious institutions the undeserved privileges they demand, politicians will not only bring policy in line with the views of the public. They will also limit religion’s ability to cause harm – which, surely, is something we can all support, whatever our faith or belief.

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