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SocietyDecember 12, 2018

The Spinoff Hot Take Advent Calendar: December 12


Every day in the leadup to Christmas, open the door to reveal a Spinoff writer’s short, sizzling commentary on a weighty subject. Our arbitrary and strictly enforced word limit: 365. Today: Duncan Greive on why churches (and other religious institutions) should start paying tax.

It’s the season of giving, so when asked to nominate a long-simmering seasonal hot take I opted for one which would give New Zealanders the gift economists say is always best: money.

Specifically, tax dollars which are currently kept out of the IRD’s clutches by that one simple trick for living a tax free existence: being a religion.

It does feel slightly curmudgeonly, as we head into Christianfest ’18, to demand that the Church not be allowed to avoid income tax simply by nominating its charitable purpose as “the advancement of religion”, but I’m comfortable with this position.

Because there is no planet on which the advancement of religion alone should be enough to grant an entity exemption from tax. Not because they’re unequivocally bad by any means – just because they’re not good enough to justify it.

Religions can do many good things: provide community, foster social lives, create a behavioural code and a relationship to something greater than oneself. But so can being a fan of the Warriors. Occasionally.

To qualify as a religion for charitable purposes, according to the charities commission it must:

  • concern the place of humankind in the universe and its relationship with the infinite,
  • go beyond that which can be perceived by the senses or ascertained through the scientific method, and
  • contain canons of conduct around which adherents structure their lives.

The second one tells you all you need to know – that these organisations are explicitly organised around a rejection of science, with all the negative consequences which go along with that – the correlation between climate change denial and religion is strong. We also know that homophobia, misogyny and transphobia are often justified by reference to religious texts.

This is not to say that religion’s don’t do good, and shouldn’t be eligible for tax exemption on the work they do. Where they’re helping feed children, end homelessness, provide addiction services or anything else which is an unambiguous public good – by all means let’s encourage that through tax incentives.

But religion itself provides no more uplift than dozens of other human activities, and often actively does harm. As such, it deserves no special treatment under tax law.

Read the Spinoff Hot Take Advent Calendar in full here

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