This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Sector Narrative.

The Centre for Inquiry Canada (CFIC) published two articles authored by Sandra Dunham and Leslie Rosenblood about the cost of religion and recommend eliminating advancing religion as a charitable purpose. You can download them here:

Download CFIC Exploring Advancement of Religion as a charitable purpose
Download CFIC Religious Charities Issuing Tax Receipts

There are three main points in these articles that need a response:

  1. CFIC asserts that “[I]t is no longer appropriate to confer charitable status…on organizations whose sole purpose is evangelism, the aim of ‘advancing religion’ is not an intrinsic good, and Canadians should not continue subsidizing organized religion.”1
  2. CFIC’s attempt to analyze the cost of the charitable tax credit for donations to religious charities is incomplete and therefore very misleading.
  3. The rationale for CFIC’s position is based on a faulty premise: “CFIC believes that Canada’s social safety net is better provided by organizations that do not require program participants to adhere to the tenets of a religion in order to participate.”2

CFIC: Advancing religion is not an intrinsic good

CFIC’s assertion that advancing religion is not an intrinsic good is indeed just that: a mere assertion. It is an opinion not grounded in evidence and research. It comes nowhere close to answering the volumes of peer-reviewed research showing the opposite. Just one Canadian example of this research is the 2020 book, The Status of Religion and the Public Benefit in Charity Law. It contains chapters on the public benefit of advancing religion by authors from several countries, replete with evidence of the numerous benefits of advancing religion.

CFIC: The charitable tax credit for advancing religion is an unfair cost to Canadians

CFIC’s approach to valuing the charitable tax credit for donations to religious charities is deeply flawed because it considers only the tax credit’s cost. Its focus is exclusively on the cost of religion to Canadians, and that’s fine if someone is merely curious about tax expenditures. However, it is woefully inadequate for any discussion about the tax credit itself. Public policy decisions must include a full analysis of the costs and the benefits. CFIC’s approach is akin to valuing stocks and bonds based only on the purchase price without regard to expected return on investment or risk. We wouldn’t use the Centre for Inquiry Canada’s simplistic methodology for personal investment decisions. Neither should Canadians use CFIC’s simplistic methodology when investing through the tax system.

The Centre for Inquiry Canada frames the entire issue as a cost issue, the cost of religion, without considering the value of religion at all. In fact, one of the authors of the report, Sandra Dunham, dismissed robust, academically rigorous research that examines value aspects of the tax credit as “offensive” and “drivel.” In the same opinion piece, Dunham castigated the media for reporting this research. Using these terms and tone is inappropriate in serious public policy discussion, greatly undermining CFIC’s claim to be scientific and rational.

Who really benefits from religion?

Fortunately for all Canadians, others have done a much better job than the Centre for Inquiry Canada of examining the socioeconomic benefits of religion. Every Canadian, even the most secularist or atheistic Canadian, benefits from the places of worship that the Centre for Inquiry Canada writes off so easily. One example will show what the CFIC has overlooked.

Every Canadian (religious or non-religious) who values—or who has benefitted from or might ever benefit from—organizations involved in the following initiatives, along with many other charitable causes, have places of worship to thank for transforming people into civic-minded, caring, generous neighbours who support Canada’s secular charities:

  • Wildlife and environmental conservation
  • Arts and culture
  • Education
  • Healthcare
  • International aid
  • Shelters and care for people who are homeless and those who are poverty-stricken

How do secular charities benefit from religion?

Evidence3 makes it clear that the health of the charitable sector rests on the health of the religious charitable subsector. Statistics Canada has shown that the 19% of Canadians who are very committed religious people fund 74% of all donations to religious charities and 22% of all donations to secular charities.4 The same relationship has been found by Statistics Canada in its surveys over the decades, so we can have confidence that the relationship between religion and generosity is consistent over time.5 The median donation by Canada’s very committed religious people to secular charities is almost double that of secular people.6 Overall, Imagine Canada reports 7:

  • that 47%  of weekly [worship service] attenders are in the top 25% of all givers in Canada, while only 12% of the non-religious are in the top 25% of all givers.
  • that the religious give an average of $1,284 to charity while the non-religious give only $313.

Why so generous?

What makes these religious Canadians so generous? According to Carl Juneau, who worked on the regulation of charities in the Tax Policy Branch of the federal Department of Finance, the teachings and practices found in places of worship inspire them to be better members of society. It is precisely the religious beliefs that are taught in places of worship (the very same places that the Centre for Inquiry Canada says have no public benefit) that result in the generous behaviour that funds religious and secular charities. In turn, these charities provide huge public benefit to all Canadians. The investment in places of worship has helped create the people who are most likely to give and to give generously. The small religious sector of Canadian society provides a large part of the social safety net that CFIC says it values.8

A global phenomenon

If Canadian research is not compelling enough for CFIC, the same objectively measurable generosity found in very religious Canadians is consistently found across the globe. After an extensive review of about 550 different studies from many countries, two Dutch professors confirm9 that a positive relationship between church membership and/or frequency of church attendance and secular and religious philanthropy appears in “almost any article in which this relationship was studied.” 

CFIC: Places of worship benefit only their members

Finally, the Centre for Inquiry Canada asserts that places of worship serve only members of their own religion. This is far from the truth. Such an unfounded and false claim only further undermines the credibility of CFIC’s work. According to an Imagine Canada report, “Perhaps contrary to expectation, religious organizations tend to serve the public, regardless of faith. Religious organizations are less likely than nonprofit and voluntary organizations in general to have membership restrictions or to serve a specific segment of the population.”10 A study of 46 Ontario churches supports Imagine Canada’s report with objective evidence. The study concluded that non-members were four times more likely to use a church’s community programs than the church members were.11

The tax credit for advancing religion is a great investment

If, rather than use the simplistic cost-only approach promoted by the Centre for Inquiry Canada, we use an investment approach involving both costs and benefits to assess the value to Canadian taxpayers of the donation tax credit for advancing religion, a peer-reviewed study found that for every public dollar invested in places of worship through the tax system (charitable tax credit, GST/HST tax reduction, property tax exemptions), the public receives a return on investment of more than $10.

This remarkable rate of return on tax support for advancing religion supports the wellness of our nation. Removing this 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. Advancing religion is truly a benefit, not a cost, to Canadian society.

  1. Exploring Advancement of Religion as a Charitable Purpose, pp 4-5. (See download above)
  2. Religious Charities Issuing Tax Receipts, p 10. (See download above)
  3. John Pellowe, “The Public Benefit of ‘Advancing Religion’ as a Charitable Purpose: A Canadian Perspective” in The Status of Religion and the Public Benefit in Charity Law (New York, NY: Anthem Press, 2020)
  4. At page 13 of the report.
  5. Statistics Canada’s Giving, Volunteering, and Participating Survey has been repeated every three years since 1997 and each new set of results has validated the previous results. Other regular surveys of Canadians were conducted between 1975 and the present by various pollsters including Statistics Canada, the World Values Survey, Angus Reid Polling, and Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby. Some additional studies in recent years are not part of a regular series but replicate findings from older studies dating as far back as the early 1950s. In only a few minor instances has more recent research led to questioning or at least nuancing the results of the older research, mostly due to improvements in methodology. However, nothing of significance was found in error.
  6. Kurt Bowen, Christians in a Secular World: The Canadian Experience (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), 174-175.
  7. At page 27.
  8. See Introduction to Cost of Religion 2021 download above at page 4.
  9. The authors are René Bekkers (Professor of Philanthropy, Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam) and Pamela Wiepking (currently Visiting Stead Family Chair in International Philanthropy, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI in Indianapolis). See pages 5-6.
  10. At page 53.
  11. Femida Handy & Ram A. Cnaan, ‘Religious Non-profits: Social Service Provision by Congregations in Ontario,’ in K. G. Banting, ed, The Non-Profit Sector in Canada: Roles and Relationships (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000).
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