Judging religion and charity

22 July 2010

Senator Nick Xenophon’s back-door approach to bring Scientology under scrutiny through an ill-conceived Tax Amendment Bill on charities has had the effect of alarming religious groups large and small to his unholy crusade. Now they too could be drawn into the strange vortex Xenophon is creating with his call for charities to be measured not only by public benefit (which they currently already are) but also by the criteria of detriment or harm.

These are murky and dangerous waters for a government to wade into, for who is to judge detriment or harm and how is this to be measured against public benefit? Indeed how are religious groups to be judged within the framework of contemporary society? The tiny Confessing Church founded in Germany in the 1930s protested against the Nazi racial laws. It plotted against the regime and conspired to assassinate Nazi leaders. The group was severely suppressed and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, their leader, was executed in 1945. Today Bonhoeffer is regarded as a hero of modern Christianity, not a violent cult leader. An interesting case where the cult got it right and the mainstream churches in Germany did not.

Go further back a few centuries and you will find the Quakers who opposed slavery, the Methodists who thought prisoners should hear the word of God and more recently in the Salvation Army who preached about the demon drink and temperance. Such is the evolution of religious groups, all once considered unpopular and heavily persecuted, but which today stand as accepted religions with a public benefit.

Perhaps to the atheist religion may sound like a tax break, yet this reveals an ignorance about why people hold to a faith if they so choose. Religion postulates creation from a super-natural source and adherents to these ideas believe in a relationship with their creator to make life more complete. Stemming from these beliefs is a genuine impulse to help one’s fellow man and to help create a more peaceful world. One only needs to turn to texts of the various religions or talk to their members to find this out.

Religious groups are part of the fabric of society and their good works within their own communities as well as the wider community probably save governments far more money than they might otherwise be taxed for. While volunteerism isn’t the sole domain of the religious person, it is far more likely that people who volunteer their time and effort do so through a religious conviction than any other. Organisations such as the Red Cross and Amnesty International had religious beginnings even though many of their volunteers now come from different walks of life.

Scientology has been receiving undue attention in the Australian media who appear to rely on a disproportionate amount of antagonistic sources with stereotyped accusations and heresay, choreographed for maximum effect. It is this bandwagon Senator Xenophon has climbed upon with a campaign that reflects more his profession as an ambulance-chasing lawyer than a politician. He has two former Today Tonight staff now working for him as advisors and a small band of aggrieved former Scientology members whom he brought before the Senate Committee to air their well-worn tales of woe.

The Church of Scientology representatives at the Senate hearing said they would contribute to the discussion about the possible formation of a charities commission in Australia. Why shouldn’t we – the Church is already charitable in Australia with a landmark legal decision defining what a religion is and the New Zealand Charities Commission Act 2006 uses the same precise wording from this decision in their definition of religion – Scientology is charitable there too.

With a relatively small number of adherents compared to the major religions of the world, Scientology’s public works are many and in some cases world leaders. Take for example the Drug-free World programme which is the largest non-government drug education programme. So too is our human rights education programme. Our Volunteer Ministers rank now amongst the world’s largest disaster relief groups and our Citizens Commission on Human Rights is the world’s largest mental health reform watchdog group.

Perhaps it is the latter that has upset the psycho-pharmaceutical and psychiatric industries and could explain why Australian of the Year, psychiatrist Patrick McGorry, and Ian Hickie of the Brain and Mind Institute, also appeared at Senator Xenophon’s side in May saying Scientology should be inquired into. Scientology is bad for their business they said, but closer to the truth is that CCHR helped lobby to get warning labels put onto antidepressants due to their adverse side-effects. Warning labels of “may cause suicidal thinking” isn’t good for anyone’s business, especially when you want the Government to chip in several million dollars to your latest mental-health campaign.

While Scientology is a spiritual journey for the individual it also addresses issues in the modern world with solutions that anyone can apply to help bring about a happier and saner world (www.scientology.org).

Mike Ferriss

Mike Ferriss is Secretary of the Church of Scientology of New Zealand and attended the Economics Committee Senate Inquiry into the Tax Amendment Bill 2010 as one of the Church’s representatives.

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