#NexusAust Debate About Religion and Charity

Here is the text of my comments as part of a debate on religion and charity at the Nexus Australian Youth Summit. I don't have strong opinions on this topic (the opposing case was compelling too). I simply thought it would be good for me to explore this side of the debate and I am strong in my opinions about the need for creativity and exploration within spirituality and religion:

I want to open my comments, rather unusually for an affirmative speaker, by taking issue with the debate question. But bear with me because this is not an act of self-defeat. I’d just like to broaden the topic a little. You see if you if I take the question at its word, a person could start an institution in the name of their religion – say, a religious institution that promotes aspects of culture or cares for the aged – and, given the way we’ve posed the debate question, this institution could not be a charity because it is not pursuing the alleviation of poverty. On the other hand a person who starts an organisation without that religious intent CAN have that institution deemed a charity for pursuing such purposes. I’ll assume those who framed the question were not necessarily intending that kind of discrimination against the religious. And I’m still arguing that religious institutions should not be charitable unless their primary purpose is one of the various other planks on which charities can be established – not just alleviation of poverty. But religion alone should be removed as one of those planks.

Including the pursuit of religion as a plank on which to establish a charity, set us up for a very technico-legal debate about what religion is. That’s a very unhealthy space to be in with some really limiting consequences. Religion should have really rubbery edges. I’m not a great scholar of comparative religions but when I look at the best mystical, mythical and metaphoric pursuits of the World’s religions, I see religion as an attempt to answer the following question….. How do beings that have developed conscience or consciousness to a level of self-talk and reflection – how do those beings avoid seeing themselves as “God” – as the source of all life and hence avoid atomising into pits of self-absorption with disastrous consequences? Now I doubt you’ll find that definition of religion in too many places but the very word – re – ligio (to rebind) suggests it. And there are numerous creative ways we can respond to that question – that is, ways that we can practice religion -  that fit within the other  definitions of charity.

The Christian tradition emanates from the Hebrew tradition, and both have a significant following in Australia. The Hebrew tradition has gone to some length to keep the basis of faith flexible. In fact there is even a hesitancy – correctly in my opinion – to name the mystery that that religion is pursuing, such is its ineffable nature; its fluidity. If you do try to name it, it will sound something like “Yahweh” – there is my very inappropriate attempt at it – “Yahwey” – the sound of breath. The other Abrahmic faith, Islam  – also with a significant and growing following in Australia – is equally gentle about naming the unnameable – All’h. With some very basic etymology you can find out that means “The very hhhhhhhhh” – the very breath that courses through my body.

Contrast this generous flexibility with the process of placing religion inside the laws of charity. I receive a very small proportion of my income “tax free.” Apparently I receive this perk because I “promulgate belief in a higher or supernatural being.” It’s time for a TOC: Tax Office Confession  ….I DON’T  promulgate belief in a higher or supernatural being (and that word “belief”, by the way, has been so corrupted in a mechanical way – but that’s a topic for another time). What I do is curate and foster and encourage conversation and questioning and wonder and exploration of “the very hhhhhhh.” And I try to bring as much creativity as I can muster to that pursuit, and that involves a whole range of pursuits that are charitable according to the other definitions of charity – advancing education, purposes beneficial to community, support for the aged and so on. A special place for religion in the definition – with all of its resultant legalistic limitation – is not necessary.

We enter a space of limitation when legal and technical minds are turned to the definition of religion in order to be able to give it a tick as being a charity – and given that our central question is how to de-atomise and reconnect, we don’t need limitation, we need boundless creativity. Some of the “creativity” we get now comes in how we can exploit the limiting definition of religion to run a tax free business. Like tax free pizza joints run by a church which I remeber hearing about several years ago. But “no matter” - because the pizza’s were being sold in the promulgation of belief in a supernatural being. It takes “my very hhhh” away  to think that that financial advantage was being gained in the name of religion. I’m sure it took "the very hhhhhh" away from the other pizza joint operators in town.

Good religion can be charitable because it encourages people to undertake all of those other good reconciling actions that are charitable anyway. We don’t need to prop up bad limitations and bad behaviour by making it a charitable activity in its own right.

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