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Saturday, 16 February 2008

Equality or Hegemony: NZARH and Religious Trusts

Generally I am not a fan of Post Modern ways of thinking; frequently what I see propagated under that banner is irrational and incoherent but made to look profound through the use of sophisticated sounding intellectualised language. However, one idea often touted as “post modern” I find plausible, at least in some contexts. This is the notion that appeals to objectivity (in the sense of neutrality) are not neutral at all. They are rather concealed attempts to ensure hegemony of ones own position.

I was reminded of this recently when I was reading the webpage of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists (NZARH). The latest press realise on this page is as follows:
Ms McKenzie said that while NZARH would not oppose charitable work that directly
eases poverty in Melanesia, it is inappropriate for the Government of New Zealand to allow tax exemptions for that part of the Trust's work which is purely missionary or purely commercial. She said the politicians cited in today's New Zealand Herald report of the Trust's activities should understand that Parliament is not a church and elected politicians are not elected to advance the cause of any particular religion's missionary activities."Even the poorest people in New Zealand pay tax, yet this multi-million dollar trust doesn't want to pay tax like the rest of us. If religious trusts such as these paid tax and property rates like the rest of us, it would reduce the individual tax burden considerably. Tax privileges based on religion should be a thing of the past.""If Parliament was passing a Bill advantaging the Scientologists
or the Destiny Church in this way there would be uproar.

Elizabeth McKenzie is NZARH’s president and in this release she speaks on speaking on behalf of NZARH. Here argument is worth noting she maintains [1] that government should not advance the cause of “any particular religion's missionary activities” [2] to grant tax exemption to an organisation whose work is missionary is to give it a privilege not granted to “the rest of us” and constitutes advancing its causes. The appeal seems to be to some concept of impartiality or equality. Religious groups should not get tax relief that everyone else does not get unless their work is purely charitable.

What I found interesting about this is that a some months ago I picked up NZARH’s journal The Open Society (former called The New Zealand Rationalist Humanist) and on the back page where addresses of various “Humanist organisations” are listed there is reference to a “New Zealand Humanist Charitable Trust’. NZARH’s 2001 journal has an entire article on this charitable trust. It states that “The named beneficiaries in the Trust deed are HSNZ and the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists (NZARH)” [emphasis mine] This article also tells us that the trusts purpose is not purely charitable, one of its functions is to “Provide funding for seminars and other educational activities to promote public understanding and discussion of ethics and Humanism;” and the article tells us that NZARH could use it to fund visiting speakers.

So, NZARH apparently have no problem with Humanist Charitable Trusts, will gladly promote them and be the beneficiaries of them, and will use these trusts for promoting their own “particular secular missionary activities”. Despite the fact that “Even the poorest people in New Zealand pay tax,” despite the fact that “If humanist trusts such as these paid tax and property rates like the rest of us, it would reduce the individual tax burden considerably”. It’s interesting two that for all the rampant condemnation of religious charities on their site. NZARH is oddly silent about the New Zealand Humanist Society which, according to the March 2004 issue of the New Zealand Humanist, has tax exempt status and which had an article explaining what they needed to do to maintain this status. In fact NZARH appear on their site to promote the NZ Humanist Society.

The key phrase word in NZARH’s release is the word “religious trusts”. It apparently has no problem with the state giving tax credits to (and hence by their logic advancing and privileging) humanist organisations. It therefore appears to advocate a situationthe state advances the agendas of opponents of religious belief get state assistance but religious groups get no such assistance and are prohibited from getting it. Ironically it does this in the name of equality. However this is not equality it is rigging the deck in their favour. NZARH is advancing economic discrimination by the state in its favour and against its ideological opponents.


  1. The charitable heads of education and relief of poverty have always been quite separate from that of religion. So there is no inconsistency in being opposed to tax exemptions for religious propagation per se, but allowing a tax exemption limited to either education or relief of poverty carried out by religious groups. I don't know about the specific rationale of the NZARH for defending tax exemption for educational and poverty relief trusts but not religious trusts, but the difference could be rationally defended on these grounds.

  2. Deane

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    I guess the problem is how one can justifiably oppose tax exemptions to a trust promoting Christianity and yet support a exemptions to a trust promoting humanism.

    Suppose one argues that the Churches activity is religion and its inappropriate for the state to exempt the promotion of religion from taxation. The aim of the Humanist trust mentioned is to promote humanism. Now there is some controversy over whether humanism is a religion. Humanists themselves have promoted the idea that humanism is a religious view in the past and courts have ruled that humanism is a religious belief in certain free exercise cases. Moreover there are definitions of religion proposed by thinkers such as Dooyweerd, or Tillich under which humanism is a religion. However, even if one wants to claim that Humanism is not a religious view point. It certainly functions in a manner analogous to a religion. Which raises the question. If Churches should not be given tax exempt status for promoting religion why can NZARH get it for promoting something that either is a religion or the functional equivalent of one.

    Second, if promoting humanism can be defined as educational and supported on this basis. Why can promoting Christianity not also be defined as educational. If having a speaker come and assert that euthanasia is acceptable and there is no God constitutes education. Why does having a preacher say God exists and forbids suicide not also constitute education?

    I don't see how NZARH can have it both ways.

  3. MandM,

    Thank you for your reply. However, I still see the humanist case as justifiable.

    Undoubtedly, as you say, there are definitions of 'religion' wide enough to embrace secular humanism. The term 'religion' has been defined in a myriad of ways - and definitions as wide (and conversely as meaningless) as Tillich's would indeed extend to secular humanism. But there is one relevant limitation that springs to mind: the legal definition of 'religion' is not as wide as the general set of definitions. It is narrower than Tillich's, for example. I strongly suspect that secular humanism would fall under the legal definition of the 'charitable purpose' of 'religion', and so would not be eligible for tax exempt status.

    There is also a problem in comparing the teaching/propagation of humanism with that of religion. While 'education' could and arguably should cover both religious and non-religious ends - without distinguishing between the two ends - where a society or trust is set up for purposes that exceed education, this basis would be unavailable for achieving tax exemption. And it is quite clear that the purpose of religious groups falls outside the purpose of education. That is, a religious group is not only for education of people, but for community meetings, prayer, worship, spiritual growth, etc, etc. A religion has wider purposes than education. Therefore, if religion were to be specifically excluded as a basis for tax exemption, the activities carried out would exceed the other charitable heads of education and welfare. A church could still form a trust that took care of its education function (separated out from other religious functions), but without such separation it would then be taxable.

    The same applies to the humanist trust related to the NZARH. As long as its sole purpose is educational (or for welfare), it would continue to be tax exempt. Any activities carried out outside this purpose would cause it to lose its tax exempt status.


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