Monday, July 26, 2010

The Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life - Part 10

A member of the studio audience has asked that I comment on the Copenhagen Declaration on Religion in Public Life, a product of the World Atheist Conference: God and Politics.

Today: Proposition 10:

We reject any special consideration for religion in politics and public life, and oppose charitable, tax-free status and state grants for the promotion of any religion as inimical to the interests of non-believers and those of other faiths. We oppose state funding for faith schools.

It seems to me to be inconsistent to say that religion ought not to be allowed to have any special benefits, but that it is permissible to impose on it special burdens.

Unless reason can be found for an exception, non-profit religious institutions ought to be allowed to function under the same rules as non-profit non-religious institutions. If there are provisions in the law for non-profit charitable or educational groups to obtain tax-free status, then non-profit religious groups should also be free to obtain the same type of tax-free status.

A specific instance of this is that there should be no lines on the tax code giving any special benefits to members of the clergy - allowing them to claim income without having it taxed, for instance.

However, where such a line exists, we have two options. We could either vote to repeal that special consideration. Or we can vote to expand that consideration to cover all non-profit charitable and educational organizations. If a priest's income can be tax-free, then so can a physican working for Doctors Without Borders, or a scientific researcher working for the World Wildlife Federation.

In an earlier post, I argued that atheist and secular organizations should start to put together Community Resource Centers. These institutions would serve to collect the best scientific information on issues relevant to a number of social issues and to put them to practice dealing with concerns such as drug and alcohol abuse, crime, poverty, education, family counseling, child abuse, prisoner rehabilitation, and the like.

The idea was to build the Community Resource Center into an alternative to the maga-churches that exist in some communities. It would have to be built up slowly. However, if it provides a valuable community service - if it truly does do a good job, then it should be able to convince contributors in the community to donate to its cause and grow as an organization.

If a secular group were to form such an organization, then it would be better to argue that its directors be granted the same tax benefits given to priests, then to argue that the benefit given to priests be taken away. Such an organization would be providing a community service, and it just makes sense that the community has reason to promote and encourage its success.

This issue ties in with the free-rider problem that justifies other government expenditures. A "free-rider problem" exists when the list of people who will benefit by an act is greater than the number of people who pay for an event.

For example, the benefits of crime protection cannot be limited purely to those who contribute money to its cause.

Assume that we lived in a community where all police force was private. If you want to be able to call the police to respond to a crime, you must be a paying customer in good standing with one of the various private police companies.

If such a society were to exist, there is no way to limit the benefits of crime prevention - including the capture and imprisonment of criminals - to just those who pay for the service. People outside the company client base will also benefit. However, they benefit without paying. If people can obtain a benefit without paying, they tend to under-pay. The amount of money that the industry can receive is significantly less than the value of the social benefit it provides.

Law enforcement, military, and education are three clear examples of areas where a free-rider problem exists. A private military cannot defend three customers on a city bock without defending the city block. The benefits of having an educated public extend not only to those who are educated but to everybody who must interact with an educated person (or suffer the interaction with an uneducated person).

Because institutions that suffer a free-rider problem tend to be under-funded, it is reasonable for the state to get involved and subsidize those industries, so that society can then obtain their benefits. This is one argument for having the state pay for such things as a police force and criminal justice system, a military, and a system of education (so long as the education system is teaching fact rather than fiction - the latter provides no social benefit).

A community resource center dealing with such things as drug and alcohol abuse, crime, poverty, and the like is going to provide benefits outside of the group that actually receives the services. So this, too, will fall into an area where there is reason to provide such an organization with special benefits - so that society can obtain the social benefits of such an organization.

One of the things it can do is to allow that the executives of non-profit educational and charitable organizations - such as a church or a Community Resource Center - be tax free. Its property and income can similarly be tax free.

There are naturally going to be disputes over the merits of different organizations. Some are going to accuse others of "teaching" myth and superstition or of using charity to promote a doctrine that others do not agree with. We have two ways that we can respond to this.

One is to refuse to have the state give any type of subsidy to charitable and educational organizations (whether in the form of a government payment or a government immunity from particular burdens). The other is to allow the government benefits, but to be tolerant of the fact that some of the benefits will go to organizations whose work one does not approve of.

I suggest that the former option - the option of barring any government support for an activity as long as there are citizens who disapprove or question its validity - would be socially ruinous. There would be no activity that qualfiies. The latter course, then, represents the better option. I may object to what you are doing, but I will not support legislation that bars government support merely because there exists somebody who objects. The objection has to come with good reason, and the merits are to be discussed in the open forum.

Previous Episodes:

Proposition 1: We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one’s religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.

Proposition 2: We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.

Proposition 3: We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.

Proposition 4: We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favoring none and discriminating against none.

Proposition 5: We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.

Proposition 6: We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.

Proposition 7: We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce [6]. We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.

Proposition 8: We assert the principle of one law for all, with no special treatment for minority communities, and no jurisdiction for religious courts for the settlement of civil matters or family disputes.

Proposition 9: We reject all discrimination in employment (other than for religious leaders) and the provision of social services on the grounds of race, religion or belief, gender, class, caste or sexual orientation.

1 comment:

anton kozlik said...

If you want to be able to call the police to respond to a crime, you must be a paying customer in good standing with one of the various private police companies. If such a society were to exist, there is no way to limit the benefits of crime prevention - including the capture and imprisonment of criminals - to just those who pay for the service.

This was the very method used by our world's fire insurance giants who operated their own fire departments in the 1800s in England and would only "put out your fire" if you had the appropriate "shield" displayed prominently on your home. If you didn't -- tough luck -- your home burned down. Our current "shield" is our passport. If you don't have a US Passport, don't expect US justice or protection -- especially from criminal acts by US citizens. It also helps not to have an Islamic name on the passport.

As we attempt to deal with the inequities suffered by segements of society, we should also include the inequities experienced by nationalities and minorities.