Leslie Rosenblooddollar sign with religious symbols

The Canadian Centre for Christian Charities (CCCC) published a blog post commenting on the first two reports in CFIC’s Cost of Religion series. Perhaps not surprisingly, the CCCC took issue with the series’ thesis that advancement of religion is not an inherently charitable activity.

The CCCC claims “volumes of peer-reviewed research” show advancing religion is a public good, but offers only one example: a 2020 book that describes itself as “an apologetic for maintaining the presumption of public benefit for the charitable category ‘advancement of religion’.” Thus the book is a work of advocacy, not one of scholarship.

In fact, research demonstrates an inverse relationship between a country’s religiosity and most sociological indicators of well-being (for example, see selected works from Greg Paul and Phil Zuckerman). Note that this correlation, while well established, says nothing about whether a lack of religion causes prosperity, having a thriving society leads to a reduction in faith, or some other factor contributes to both. It is also possible that religious influence in society contributes to human suffering.

The purported benefits of religion are well publicized, and trumpeted regularly from the pulpits of the land as well as from organizations such as the CCCC. The extent of favourable tax treatment and direct governmental subsidies to religious organizations comes as a surprise to many Canadians, demonstrating the need for such research and commentary. It is curious that CCCC chose to criticize CFIC’s Cost of Religion in Canada report series for focusing on… the cost of religion in Canada.

The CCCC then makes a completely unsubstantiated claim: that “places of worship […] transform people into civic-minded, caring, generous neighbours who support Canada’s secular charities” such as environmental conservation, healthcare, and education. The best response to this declaration is Hitchens’s razor: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

Their next argument is that religious people are more generous, with those attending worship services weekly donating approximately four times as much to charities as those that do not attend at all. This is misleading, because the statistic combines donations to churches (and other religious causes) with contributions to other charities. Are churchgoers more likely to contribute to secular causes, such as education and healthcare? Not according to Statistics Canada, which came to the underwhelming conclusion in a 2004 report that “The 19% of Canadians who attended religious services weekly gave 74% of the total value of all donations to religious organizations and 22% of the value of all donations to other organizations.”

Even Ray Pennings, Executive Vice President of the faith-based think tank Cardus implicitly undermines the apparent benevolence of the observant. In a 2010 article, he touts that in “the purely secular donations sector, […] 32 per cent of believers donates 42 per cent of the $2.1 billion raised [for charities] annually.” He acknowledges that those with “a non-theist belief system contribute […] 35 per cent of Canada’s total contributions.” A 2008 Harris-Decima survey estimated that 23 percent of Canadians did not believe in any god. Thus, while the observant punch above their weight in secular charitable donations (by 31 percent, according to Pennings’ figures), nonbelievers do so to a considerably greater extent (by 52 percent).

The conclusion of their article is revealing. The CCCC argues that removing advancement of religion as a charitable purpose “would have serious undesirable consequences for all Canadians by reducing the dollars the religious among us have available to donate to secular charities.” This is only true if you assume that churches have “first dibs” on money from the faithful — remove the tax credit on religious donations, and secular charities will get less of the leftovers. Were this to be true, it hardly paints religious Canadians in a favourable light. If the faithful are truly as civic-minded as the CCCC claims, the tax treatment of churches and other religious charities should have a minimal effect on their contributions to noble secular causes.

The CCCC’s objections are natural for an institution that is protecting its own interests. However, these objections further highlight the need for a national conversation about whether advancing religion in Canada is a truly charitable activity, and one that benefits society as a whole.