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John Shook vs William Lane Craig Debate August 2, 2008

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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This debate preceded the Craig vs Cooke debate in NZ this year but unlike that nonevent, is actually a thoroughly enjoyable debate.  The information from YouTube:

On Tuesday, January 22 2008, Dr. William Lane Craig (Theist) and Dr. John Shook (Atheist) debated the question “Does God Exist?” on the University of British Columbia campus.

Overall the debate is a fascinating one, and I particularly enjoyed Shook’s sections which were calm and very well phrased.  The videos are best found at the youtube user’s site. (they are the only videos published as of this post, and will be the first ones if others appear).  There are quite a few videos, formatted as a 20 minute opening each, followed by 8 minute rebuttals, followed by a Q+A session between the two debaters, followed by an audience Q+A.

Most of what Craig covered was the same as what he covered in NZ so I’ll leave those points but I did notice one small detail that irritated me.  He brings up the point several times that a psychotic person (i.e. some one with no moral guide) can’t be condemned by an atheist who believes there are no absolute morals because we must acknowledge that the murder was right to him (or her).  In that sense it may be true we can’t fault the personal moral reasoning of the psychotic person but we can still easily condemn the actions a psychotic person in a societal context.  Morality is a shifting equilibrium of opinions, reason, power and knowledge – we don’t need anything else to explain why we experience moral conscience, why we condemn actions, and why we argue about what is good and bad.

I found these videos via the Manawatu apologetics blog who in turn references this site.  Note the latter link lists all the videos but the last 8 or so are dead links when I watched them so it might be easier to go directly to YouTube.


1. Brian - August 3, 2008

The full MP3 audio of William Lane Craig debate with John Shook can be found at Apologetics315.

2. Ian - August 4, 2008

Thanks Brian

3. Ken - August 4, 2008

I think the arguments people like Craig us on morals is just wrong and actually very insulting.

As an atheist I actually do think we can make a case for objective or absolute values (and these are always manifested in a relative manner whatever one’s religious beliefs). This case will be far better than the sort of claim Craig makes.

Also, I think a far better case can be made that our moral value are secular in origin. Our conscious precedes any religious belief.

In reality religion, when it advances moral arguments, is advancing secular morality – even though it may, at times, give religious justification (as it will on many thinks – quite unnecessarily).

4. Ian - August 4, 2008

I agree entirely, well said.

5. Dale - August 4, 2008

Ken said,
“This case will be far better than the sort of claim Craig makes.”

Far better!!?? That’s quite an arrogant claim to make, isn’t it??? 😀


6. Ken - August 5, 2008

No Dale – I actually think Craig’s comment was the arrogant one. And I did make the point that it was my thought or belief. I’m quite aware I can’t speak for all other atheists on existence of objective values.

One way this approach is better is that it doesn’t rely a gods – without gods Craig’s objective values just don’t exist.

But – tell us why you think my assertion of “This case will be far better” is arrogant?

7. Dale - August 5, 2008

…it was my thought…

…and I’m sure Craig’s was his… 🙂

…without gods Craig’s objective values just don’t exist.

That’s what atheists are supposed to say! 🙂

But – tell us why you think my assertion of “This case will be far better” is arrogant?

My point was simply to demonstrate that we all think our case is best: If we thought it wasn’t we a) wouldn’t share it and/or b) would be looking for another one. The louder someone cries ‘arrogant’, the more they can be seen to be arrogant themselves… 🙂 So… rather than calling someone’s view ‘arrogant’, why not just say ‘I disagree’? 🙂

8. Dale - August 5, 2008

Wow – those are some large quote-marks! 🙂

9. Ian - August 5, 2008

Oh my, what big speech marks you have… 🙂

I am quite fond of the big blockquotes myself, they look cool

10. Ken - August 6, 2008

Actually, Dale – you were the one who introduced the word arrogant.

I agree, though, use of this word can often be a sign of arrogance in the user. It’s a charge atheists often have to put up with – they are charged with being arrogant – possibly because they dare to suggest there may be rational explanations for phenomena. Or maybe because they don’t just accept, unquestionably, the unsupported theist claims. Labeling like that is often a way of avoiding the rational discussion.

The real issue, though, is my claim that a better (than Craig’s) case can be made for the secular origins of moral values and that these precede any religious belief. Consequently we all share the same moral values whatever the philosophical beliefs that come on top (and which are sometimes used to justify the values).

This has social and political consequences.

11. Dale - August 6, 2008

Ken said,

the secular origins of moral values and that these precede any religious belief.


…we all share the same moral values whatever the philosophical beliefs…

You seem to be saying that ‘secular’ moral values are both historically and logically prior to ‘religious belief’ or ‘philosophical beliefs’. But I’d be curious how you would demonstrate how this could be. How can you have ‘values’ of any kind without having at least some kind of basic belief about the world?
For me, rather than saying that one came before the other, I’d want to say that values and beliefs are very hard to separate. They are mutually reinforcing.
And yes, I think ALL humans (not just some) are moral creatures, so whether we use the term ‘universal’, ‘all-encompassing’ or ‘secular’ that’s of little difference to me.

12. Ken - August 6, 2008

Precede in the sense that your computer’s operating system (or even hardware) precedes the installed software. It is there whether you use theist or atheist software. Perhaps the OS is the ‘basic belief’.

Of course this can be historical. Christopher Hitchens points out that claiming our morals are derived from Christian or Jewish religions is an insult to humanity in his comment on the Old Testament Ten Commandments: “.. however little one thinks of the Jewish tradition, it is surely insulting to the people of Moses to imagine that they had come this far under the impression that murder, adultery, theft, and perjury were permissible.”

Religion, of course, is one of the ways we codify our values. But there are other ways and we don’t derive our values from religion, any more than Soviet citizens derived their morality from Marxism (although some of there leaders may have claimed this).

13. Dale - August 6, 2008

Ahh… yet another OS/hardware/software analogy! 🙂 They’re quite common these days – probably because they can be quite good! 🙂

I’d frame the analogy a bit differently. I’d have humans themselves as the hardware, basic beliefs and/or worldview as the OS, and then values/ethics/etc. as the software that is run on the computer through the OS. In this sense, in the same way that, say, Word can be for Mac or PC, two people with different worldviews (an agnostic and a hindu – for example) can have the same values (feeding the poor = good). 🙂

My point, then (to return to the ‘precede’ issue), would be that (to use the analogy) software runs through operating systems. You don’t have values without beliefs. You don’t think that humans are worth more than keyboards unless you have certain ‘ideological’/’philosophical’/’religious’ views about the nature of humans and the nature of keyboards.

I take your point about morals not being restricted to one religion or tradition, etc., but that doesn’t mean that morals/values can exist apart from a philosophical/’religious’ viewpoint. In this sense (yes, I’m going to say it) every moral person is ‘religious’ (or has a philosophical/’religious’ view which gives expression to their values/morals).

14. Ken - August 7, 2008

I will accept you definition of religion when I have the same access to tax exemption (currently based on “supernatural beliefs”)! Unfortunately this sort of wide (loose?) definition does cause confusion.

Obviously we can have great fun with the OS metaphor and debate at length the intricate interweaving of beliefs and values. But we have come a long way (and usefully so) form Craig’s god-given objective morals.

I have the impression that any real serious discussion of ethics does have to get away from such simplistic definitions.

15. Dale - August 7, 2008

So now it’s ‘intricate interweaving’? What happened to ‘precede’? 🙂

…we have come a long way (and usefully so) form Craig’s god-given objective morals.

…well, it depends on how one understands ‘god’, ‘given’, ‘objective’ and ‘morals’… 😀
But seriously, I’m not interested in defending Craig, per se. I’m just arguing that we all have a philosophically-derived basis (a ‘belief-basis’ or ‘worldview’) for our values/morals/ethics. Calling yourself ‘non-religious’ may be misleading? Fine if you mean ‘I don’t subscribe to any organised religion’, but not-so-fine if you’re pretending that ‘I don’t have any philosophically-derived views about reality which form and inform my values > ethics > morals > choices.’ 🙂

16. Ken - August 7, 2008

Dale, are your prepared to argue for my organisations having the same tax exemption status as your organisations? Or will you restrict your understanding of religion when it comes to practical actions?

17. Dale - August 7, 2008

The tax-exemption status issue is one I can certainly appreciate, and yes, I’m quite happy with the notion of equality in that regard. I’m not out there trying to prevent Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu’s and Hare Krishna’s from having tax-breaks, so why shouldn’t you guys have it too?

Interestingly, if “your organisations” (but don’t you deny belonging to any such organisations?) did admit to their ‘religious’ nature (in the above sense), then you may actually be eligible for the tax-exempt status???

18. Ken - August 8, 2008

“Interestingly, if “your organisations” (but don’t you deny belonging to any such organisations?) did admit to their ‘religious’ nature (in the above sense), then you may actually be eligible for the tax-exempt status???”

Actually, no. One has to prove supernatural beliefs. That’s why atheist Buddhists or spiritualists get tax exemption but not humanists or rationalists. That’s how the legislation is interpreted by the courts (and described by the Charities Commission).

Wouldn’t it just be more sensible to remove such a category from the definition of “charity”? Then a religious (‘supernaturalist’) organisation or a rationalist organisation could get tax exemption for genuine charitable work (assisting the poor, for example). But neither would get exemption (and hence subsidy from the rest of the population) for the expenses of promoting their own world view.

I think that would be the more moral stance.

19. Dale - August 8, 2008

I think we’re in agreement as to how the tax-exemption legislation should work in the democratic society we live in. Indeed, the ‘supernatural’ distinction is an interesting one… Just checked the Charities Act page (http://www.charities.govt.nz), and the (apparently 400 year-old) definition of a ‘charitable purpose’ is as follows:

Section 5(1) of the Charities Act 2005 says that “charitable purpose”
“. . . includes every charitable purpose, whether it relates to the relief of poverty, the advancement of education or religion, or any other matter beneficial to the community.”

Wouldn’t this seem to be inclusive of a ‘non-supernaturalist’ organisation?
Also, I read at the humanist NZ site (http://www.humanist.org.nz) that “The Humanist Society of New Zealand has charitable status…” (which seems to have been in effect back in 2004?)…

But, of course, we weren’t talking about tax-exemption were we? 🙂 I was making the point that we all have a worldview (humanist, christian, buddhist, pantheist/spinozian, etc.) which forms and informs our values, morals and ethical choices in every-day (family, political, personal, etc.) life…

20. Ken - August 8, 2008

Dale – check further down that page:
“Generally, to be religious there needs to be –

* a belief in a supernatural being, thing, or principle, and
* an acceptance of conduct in order to give effect to that belief.

To “advance” religion, the faith must be passed on to others by promoting it, spreading its message, or taking positive steps to sustain and increase the religious belief. “

Seems to rule me out – both for tax exemption and for describing my world view as a ‘religion’.

21. Ian - August 8, 2008

This charities issue is a real problem. My main concern is that advancing religion is sufficient to warrant tax exemption but advancing an organisation with non-supernatural views is not. Religious organisations that help the poor and needy would get recognised without the supernatural requirement so at best the requirement is superfluous and at worst discriminatory.

22. Dale - August 8, 2008

But doesn’t the charitable status of the Humanist Society of NZ demonstrate that ‘non-supernatural’ organisations are included???

The (‘general’, mind you) definition of ‘religion’ may or may not sit well with you (or me for that matter), but if they include non-supernatural organisations, then you can’t really call them supernaturally-exclusive, can you???

And yet again, whist the tax-exemption issue is obviously a sore-spot for you (and possibly need not be? given the inclusion of NZ Humanists?), my point here has been that we all have a worldview (humanist, christian, buddhist, pantheist/spinozian, etc.) which forms and informs our values, morals and ethical choices in every-day (family, political, personal, etc.) life…

23. Ken - August 8, 2008

Dale – you confuse the issue. Humanists may well get tax exemption on (genuine) charitable grounds. They wouldn’t (don’t) get it as a religion because they don’t promote supernatural ideas. (I understand that NZ Rationalist & Humanists don’t have tax exempt status [they want to retain the freedom to lobby politically] while the Humanist Society of NZ does – presumably under one of the other charitable status provisions [“the advancement of education; the relief of poverty; . . . or any other matter beneficial to the community”].

I think this issue has been tested in court and, in fact, the supernatural criteria comes from case law rather the parliamentary acts.

To me, this provision is discriminatory and violates our human rights legislation. In that sense it is a moral issue (one the churches are silent on for obvious reasons). I think removal of the advancement of religion from the definition of charity would provide an honest level playing field and would in no way inhibit true charitable work.

The link with world views, of course, is that labelling all these as religious causes confusion.

24. Dale - August 8, 2008

Ken – I never said that Humanists attain their tax exemption ‘as a religion’, I simply pointed out that they aren’t being left out because of their non-supernatural beliefs. You can argue all you want that the word ‘supernatural’ or the phrase ‘advancement of religion’ should be taken out – that’s fine. But as long as –in practice– everyone’s being included (and therefore charitable work not being hindered or inhibited), then this is a less-than-urgent issue. It may be urgent concerning your non-supernatural beliefs, but not for the work of charities.

And further, while you see me as simplistically trying to slap a ‘religion’ label on all worldviews, I’m simply arguing that –in an admittedly broad (or inclusive?), yet very real sense (as real as the choices we make in every-day life!)– we are all ‘religious’ in the sense that (here we go again – cut/paste will suffice) “we all have a worldview (humanist, christian, buddhist, pantheist/spinozian, etc.) which forms and informs our values, morals and ethical choices in every-day (family, political, personal, etc.) life…”

25. Dale - August 8, 2008

…it’s only confusing if you want to pretend you have no worldview! 🙂

26. Ken - August 9, 2008

Dale – would you be happy to have the phrase ‘advancement of religion’ deleted from the act’s definition of charity?

27. Dale - August 9, 2008

At the end of the day, as a Christian, I think/hope/pray the Church could get by just fine without any help from any government (it sure as heck did originally in the 1st-3rd centuries – with more than the lack of support, but heavy persecution), so (to put the tax-exemption issue to bed?) yes, I’d be willing (though not ‘happy’) to lose that phrase…

Now… Again…

We weren’t talking about tax, but rather I was making the point that we are all ‘religious’ in the sense that we all have a worldview (humanist, christian, buddhist, pantheist/spinozian, etc.) which forms and informs our values, morals and ethical choices in every-day (family, political, personal, etc.) life…

28. Ian - August 9, 2008

I think to be religious you have to adhere to an organised worldview with a supernatural element (i.e. a religion). There may be other religion-like belief systems with no supernatural element, or with no organised element, but IMO religious views require those elements. General usage seems to support this view (e.g. here and here).

I don’t think it helps much to try and conflate being religious with being alive 🙂

29. Ken - August 10, 2008

Thanks, Dale. I’d be interested to find out how acceptable such a deletion would be amongst NZ’s religious leaders in general.

Perhaps to reinforce the fairness question. It’s really not a matter of “help from any government.” The help actually comes from all tax paying New Zealanders – whatever their personal beliefs.

30. Dale - August 10, 2008

Thanks, I’m well aware of popular definitions of religiosity. That’s why I qualified the sense in which I was talking about being ‘religious’ (see my repeatedly-copied comments at the end of my last few posts) – namely, the sense which concerns the intimate relationship between beliefs/worldviews and values, ethics, moral decisions…

I’d hoped to put to bed the tax-exemption issue and continue to engage about the relationship between beliefs and values/ethics/morals (and my suggestion that we all are ‘religious’ in a qualified sense), but your last comment warrants a rejoinder. Are you saying that NZ-ers actually ‘help’ charities – in terms of actual funds from taxes being given to charities? I’m not aware (and happy to be shown otherwise) that this happens? In my limited understanding, the ‘help’ is from the government, in the form of not having to pay taxes (as opposed to actually receiving funds from tax-payers via the government?)…
And (just to prod the issue further), I’m curious how happy we tax-paying NZ-ers would be with the amount of $$ spent on all kinds of things – for example, the recent (and admittedly enjoyable) luxurious upgrades to queen street (Auckland) sidewalks???

31. Dale - August 11, 2008

And further… even if the NZ govt does give literal funds (from NZ tax payers) to charities; we should remember that the charities list is a diverse list of all kinds of organisations – including (as far as I know) the Humanist Society of NZ. So, in the possibility that some atheist taxes may be going to a church, that would mean that some christian taxes may be going to the Humanists?
Meanwhile, the government spends (likely) probably exponentially more on things probably not all agree with?

32. Ken - August 11, 2008

Tax/rates exemption does mean wealth transfer even though many people are oblivious to it. I have seen an estimate that each US family effectively pays US$1000 per year via tax exemption for purely religious activity.

I think taxpayers have the right to scrutinise, and determine, what their taxes are spent on – and that includes transfers via tax exemption. We actually do get extremely angry with people who avoid paying tax – especially via illegal actions. And, I agree that some of us (especially Auckland ratepayers) may feel decisions like Queen street refurbishment are an unwarranted use of our money.

I think most New Zealanders are happy with wealth transfer via tax and rates exemption for genuine educational and charitable purposes. At the same time they are probably unaware that the legal definitions enable tax and rates exemption for purely the advancement of religion (but not the advancement of humanism). Or that this sometimes provides a commercial advantage for businesses own by religious organisations (e.g., I understand, Sanatarium).

Payments by governments (contracting) to organisations for their social and charitable work does raise another issue. Logically this should require careful financial separation of the organisations’ contracted work and their advancement of ideological, religious or humanist beliefs. I am aware that some churches resist the rigid financial accounting this requires but this should be seen for what it is. Taxpayers should, surely, demand that systems should prevent the siphoning away of funds meant for social and charitable work.

I’m all for assisting charitable work via my rates and taxes. But when it comes to financing the advancement of ideology, world view (religious or secular) I think it’s only fair (and moral) for this to be the responsibility of adherents alone.

33. Dale - August 11, 2008

I’d be careful using the word ‘transfer’ with regard to tax-exemption. Again, I’d be happy to be shown otherwise, but tax-exemption (the exemption from having to pay/give/transfer tax-funds to the government) involves the lack of a transfer, rather than the presence of one. I’m not denying that tax-exemption has a positive financial effect, but –for example– the quote that “each US family effectively pays US$1000 per year via tax exemption for purely religious activity” seems factually wrong. If this quote refers to the specific payments for charity work (contracting) then that’s one thing – but ‘tax-exemption’ in and of itself is not a ‘payment’ by anyone – it is the absence of any payment by anyone.

On systems to keep payments to charities in check:
I see your point here, but I’d be nervous about adding unnecessary levels/layers of red-tape and paperwork? Such extra measures would apply to all charities, and that would be (in my view) unfortunate.

Allow me to give you a practical (and hopefully helpful) example that I know, of a payment to a ‘church’ (trust) for community work. A church I know, has received funds from city council (which, I understand to be from paid rates, not ‘taxes’?), for community work. This ‘community work’ is diverse, ranging from salaries for a community-worker(s), etc., supplies for all kinds of events and processes, including neighborhood parties, helping kids with school work, marriage/family crisis intervention, substance abuse counselling, budgeting services, child-care, and on and on. Here’s the crux: At various points, throughout all of this ‘community work’, the (to use your word) ‘ideology’ of the church comes through – either implicitly or explicitly. In some cases it is easy to distinguish between ‘work’ and ‘ideology’, other times not so. You could look at it in terms of community HOURS worked, or in terms of DOLLARS spent on resources for the work.

The thing is, regardless of what ideology the church has (and comes through the community work at times/points), this church-based organisation/community is doing HEAPS of good things for struggling people in the community around it. Is it wrong for the City Council to give them funds to support this work? I think not.

Now, you, being an atheist, might want some clear-cut way of distinguishing (perhaps even with detailed paperwork outlining what is time/resources and what is ideas, etc.?) between ‘community work’ and ‘the advancement of religion’, but it’s not so simple as that. For this community of Christians doing the work in the community, struggling to make ends meet for the work they’re doing, the help they get is a life-saver (not only for them, but more so for those they’re helping), for them to have to spend hours filling out forms, it would really hurt what they’re doing.

It’s simple. You can choose to see it as public funding of ‘the advancement of religious ideology’, or it can be viewed as public funding of community work (by people who happen to be “religious”).

(it should go without saying that if an organisation is doing no actual ‘community work’ – i.e. only communicating their ideology – then yeah, the may not be deserving of funds, but likely they’d be denied anyway?)

34. Ken - August 12, 2008

“but likely they’d be denied anyway?” – not if they are “advancing religion.” They will then qualify for tax exemption despite doing no proper charity work.

It’s easy for those who currently receive a benefit via tax exemption to waffle about problems. The fact is that many organisations involved in charity work (including some religious bodies) set themselves up as trusts and thereby separate the different parts of their activities.

The tax payer should not concede to those who talk about the problems involved is separating the different finances. I understand that part of the logic for setting up the Charities Commission is to enforce greater accountability. Churches, in particular, seem to have been very lax in this accounting.

You might complain about form filling – but the rest of us have to do it. And it’s surely a right for the public to demand accounting where their money is being used and where there are opportunities for such funds to be siphoned off for other purposes.

Whatever the real or imagined problems – these are ones that have to be faced by the non-supernatural agencies. Why should the religious ones be exempt?

35. Dale - August 12, 2008

“but likely they’d be denied anyway?” – not if they are “advancing religion.” They will then qualify for tax exemption despite doing no proper charity work.

“…but likely they’d be denied (the paymentnot tax exemption status) anyway…”

The distinction between a) tax-exemption status and b) direct payment (contracting) is a key one to keep in mind. I think the public, of course, should have a say in everything the government does, but it would make sense (to me) that they (the public) would have more of an interest in b) direct payments (of their tax-money!) to organisations than a) the tax status of an organisation. In one case, money is being given (and that which is from the public), and in the other, they are being given (not money) a break.

And of course, you (like anyone else), have the right to argue/vote/persuade against these tax-breaks being given to certain kinds of groups. But this is different from a financial gift.

And by the way, the christian organisation (i used the word ‘church’ a bit loosely) I mentioned is actually a christian ‘trust’, created specifically so they can more clearly/honestly receive funds from the government – and they do heaps of paperwork. 🙂

36. Ken - August 13, 2008

Dale, your debating of breaks vs payments is just waffle – simple arithmetic surely shows what happens. However, we have agreed that “advancement of religion” should be withdrawn from the legal definition of charity used for tax purposes. I think that provides a ‘level playing field’ from both an ideological and commercial point of view.

Accountability is surely a requirement of contract payments and tax breaks alike. I can understand the hassle of paperwork (bureaucracy is, alas, a human problem). The professional answer is to employ accountants, etc., to take that labour away from those working at the coal face.

37. Dale - August 13, 2008

Dale, your debating of breaks vs payments is just waffle…

And a waffle I’ll happily eat (don’t blame me, YOU used the word ‘waffle’!) 🙂
But seriously, the ‘simple arithmetic’ should show that one (contracting/payments) involves the transfer of money and the other (exemption/tax-breaks) involves the LACK of a transfer of money. 🙂
Again, I’m not denying that tax-exemption/breaks are a positive benefit to the organisation – that’s obvious. What I AM saying, however is that since tax-exemption/breaks involve no actual funds from public tax-paying citizens being paid to these organisations, then the interest/concern of the public is at least somewhat differently framed. Among other things, the one thing the public cannot say is “They’re giving our money to advance religion”…

And I’m not suggesting that some organisations should be accountable and do paperwork and others don’t have to – that’s silly.

And (to be even MORE picky!) 🙂 I didn’t say that ‘advancement of religion’ should be withdrawn – I said I don’t think that the church should need the help (breaks, payments, endorsement, etc., etc.) of any government…

38. Ken - August 13, 2008

Actually, Dale, you did say “yes, I’d be willing (though not ‘happy’ 😉 to lose that phrase…” (The phrase being advancement of religion in the definition of charity). But clearly you would be unhappy to lose this (who wouldn’t?). And if (or when) this is discussed at a political level I imagine we will see all sorts of arguments aimed at confusing the issue. (Just as we would if changes were made to tax exemption claimed for rental house owners).

Tax exemption is actually a negative tax payment . Others must pay extra positive tax to ensure the same government services. If the ‘advancement of religion’ term was deleted from the definition then others would need to pay less tax for the same goods and services. (And those wishing to advance religion would have to pay more for their activity).

So, do your arithmetic. The clause actually does mean a transfer of funds from one group of taxpayers to another group.

Or are you suggesting that conservation principles don’t apply.? Are the religious really able to create something from nothing?

39. Dale - August 13, 2008

Ken, I expected better from you… 🙂

Do you not understand the difference between ‘willing’ and ‘happy’? or ‘should be removed’ from ‘would want it removed’? This one’s not complicated. 🙂

And again, I understand (and have repeatedly conceded) that a tax-break is a positive benefit to the organisation. Yes, there is an indirect positive result; but this is not (I repeat) a ‘payment’ of tax-payer dollars in a direct sense. So the concern of the public is indirect, rather than direct.

In the states, by the way, the really troubling tax-breaks are those given to multi-national corporations, not religious (or other) groups. I’d not be surprised if we found similar trends here in NZ (which seems to be following the toxic American capitalistic model more and more these days)?

40. Damian - August 13, 2008

But Dale, tax breaks to multi-nationals “involve no actual funds from public tax-paying citizens being paid to these organisations”. The one thing the public cannot say is “They’re giving our money to advance multi-nationals”.

Going by your previous statement tax breaks to multi-nationals shouldn’t be troubling or toxic at all.

Look at it this way:
The government needs X dollars to operate which it generally raises from taxes. If someone is exempt from paying tax the government needs to take more taxes from the rest to ensure it still gets X dollars at the end of the day. I end up paying a portion of the tax of some organisations so they can advance their religion. Seems pretty direct to me.

41. Ian - August 13, 2008

I’ll throw a different (although very similar) slant on it to add to Ken and Damian’s points. Each and every entity (person, organisation, business etc) is required to pay a certain proportion of their income/expenditure as tax representing payment for services that allow that entity to operate on a day to day basis. All entities consume these services ranging from roads to health to energy to trade and many other things. One can argue (often compellingly) that the cost of services is not proportional to what is paid but that argument is not really relevant here – the costs have to be divided somehow and for better or worse we have a tax system to do that.

This means that any entity that gets exemption from paying these taxes is in effect getting those services for free. It follows then that tax exemption literally means other entities have to take the burden for providing those services to the exempt entity. Therefore if a religious organisation is advancing religion without paying tax, it is doing so subsidised by all other tax payers.

42. Dale - August 13, 2008

Thanks boys,

I don’t disagree with any of what you’ve said. As I’ve repeatedly conceded, tax-exemption is a positive benefit. My (quite simple) points were that a) there is a difference in directness between exemption and payments/contracting, and that b) tax-breaks for multi-national corporates are (likely) far more burdensome to tax-payers than churches…

43. Damian - August 13, 2008

Soooooo…. in your opinion, should organisations receive tax breaks on the basis that they advance religion?

44. Ian - August 13, 2008

Tax breaks are generally given as subsidies for things that are beneficial to society – so it makes sense for society to take the burden because the thing being subsidised is in itself a service. Thus a tax break for a charity is effectively a contract for that charity to give society a service. It really is no different to paying the organisation the equivalent of their tax burden (but a lot easier lol).

So the real guts of the debate (which I see Damian has snuck in ahead of me with) is whether advancing religion is worthy of being subsidised in this way or not. In my opinion it is not because it is not a service that enough New Zealanders want to justify everyone paying for it (and some of us would take it a step further by arguing it is actually a disservice but that’s a whole other debate lol).

A separate and quite different argument would be whether subsidising large multi-nationals is also beneficial to everyone. This is quite a valid discussion and potentially (given scale) a more significant one but nonetheless an utterly irrelevant point regarding whether or not advancing religion should qualify.

45. Dale - August 13, 2008

‘should’?? Depends on whether a person thinks advancing ‘religion’ (however it is defined) is worth supporting. It’s a judgment call, and we live in a democratic society, so majority rules (democracy isn’t the perfect form of govt, but it’s better than many others?)…
For example, I don’t think (and here’s a tough-to-define thing…) ‘convenience’ abortions should be paid for by the government willy nilly – but I live in a democratic society, so if I feel this way, I’ve got to do the hard (or not-so-hard?) work of being persuasive until a majority agrees, etc. In the same way, people who think ‘religion advancing organisations’ should NOT receive tax-exempt status, have to do the hard (or not-so-hard?) work of being persuasive until a majority agrees…

You’re spot on. It’s not just that some things ‘are’ beneficial – they are judged (or thought, or deemed, or considered, etc.) to be beneficial. You’ve got your opinion. I suppose if enough people in NZ share your opinion, then things can be changed, no? 🙂

And I think the multi-nationals example IS relevant. It’s worth saying that (yes, because of the scale) a far greater burden is (most likely) being put on (at least U.S. ) tax payers from these corporations than churches… True, noting this contrast in scale won’t help us judge whether ‘advancing religion’ is beneficial to society, but it’s not ‘utterly irrelevant’… 🙂

Again, my perspective has several points:
1) I think that the best forms of ‘religion’ are indeed beneficial to society (and that obviously raises the question of ‘what is religion’?)…
2a) …yet I would feel strongly that the church isn’t ‘dependent’ on any government…
2b) …so therefore would be ‘willing’ (not ‘thrilled’, not ‘happy’) to lose tax-exemption status, etc…
3) …however, I think our tax payers should be more concerned about greater mis-uses of their tax dollars.

46. Ian - August 14, 2008

1) The first part of this is a fascinating discussion probably worth a new post. Yours or mine? 🙂 The second part I presume is answered by common usage (in terms of the charitable organisations regulations).

2a) From what I’ve seen that’s probably true although one has to wonder about the likes of Tamaki.

2b) I guess the real issue is not so much whether you’d enjoy losing it, but whether you think that advancement of religion alone should be sufficient reason for tax exemption. For example should the activity of promoting scientology be tax exempt purely because it advances a religion?

3) It is actually a very easy thing to fix. Noting that low cost/low impact changes have the same return on investment as large cost/large impact changes, I think it is worth looking at. Also I think you’ll find there are different agencies working on charitable organisations to those working with multinationals so fixing both isn’t out of the question 🙂

47. Damian - August 14, 2008

Dale, you’re a slippery, slippery customer! You should be in politics! I’m going to simply repeat the question: in your opinion, should organisations receive tax breaks on the basis that they advance religion?

48. Dale - August 14, 2008

1) go for it – good luck defining ‘beneficial’ and ‘religion’! 🙂
2a) are you saying Tamaki is ‘dependent’ on the government?
2b) good question! (and again, the problem of defining the word ‘religion’ rears it’s head)
3) go democracy!

You can see it as ‘slippery’ if you want – but obviously, what’s truly slippery is the definition of ‘religion’.

49. Damian - August 14, 2008

Ahahaha! You’re incredible!

In your opinion, should organisations receive tax breaks on the basis that they advance religion?

50. Dale - August 14, 2008

I do my best! 😀
In MY opinion, some forms (obviously, and not surprisingly the ones I agree with!) of ‘religion’ are indeed worthy of receiving tax-breaks…

Happy!? 🙂


51. Dale - August 14, 2008

edit: the advancement of… some forms…

52. Damian - August 14, 2008

Cheers Dale (finally!),
Can you see how silly that statement seems from an outsider’s point of view? Presumably there is something special about advancing your religion when compared to, say, someone else’s religion and it’s that distinctive feature that you think should be advanced free of tax? What is that feature?

If you can define that then you should be able to quite happily state that no advancement of religion should be tax-exempt but that causes that promote [insert your distinctive feature here] should be encouraged.

53. Ian - August 14, 2008

I don’t see where the issue is with defining religion – I did so earlier and I don’t see any problem with that definition. Pretty much everyone including the Charities Commission use that meaning. Defining beneficial isn’t hard either, or at least not in the sense of awarding tax exemption – it either delivers a useful service or it doesn’t.

So now it seems the real question is whether or not advancing a religion can provide a useful service to society in and of itself. I’ll try and post on this question today or tomorrow…

54. Dale - August 14, 2008

Again, the problem is the word ‘religion’. (and maybe this brings us back to the conversation that got left back at comments 15, 19, 22, 24, 27…?) If there is one theme of this entire thread it is judgment. We all make judgments about what is beneficial, what is good, what is worthy of tax-exemption, etc. There are (to refer – yet again – to my broad-yet-realistic sense of the word) ‘religious’ judgments. In the sense that we all make these kinds of judgments about how society should or ought to be ordered, etc., we are all being ‘religious’. I know, you’ll not be happy at all with that use of the word – dictionary definitions, supernatural, beliefs are subjective, evidence is not, yada yada… But it remains that we all engage in the subjective process of working out (by whatever means) the best way of life.

To come back to your comment, Damian, my point is that ‘religion’ is not so easily separated from some ‘distinctive feature’ of it. Distinctive features don’t exist in a vacuum – they are firmly attached to people with values which are come out of beliefs about reality. And – whatever values which give rise to those ‘distinctive features’ are (in my opinion) worth communicating or ‘advancing’.

55. Dale - August 14, 2008


Defining beneficial isn’t hard either, or at least not in the sense of awarding tax exemption – it either delivers a useful service or it doesn’t.

beneficial >>> useful >>> ???
Your comment actually gets no closer at defining ‘beneficial’… Sorry! 🙂

56. Ken - August 14, 2008

The issue is not whether religion is beneficial It’s whether ‘advancement of religion’ should be included in the legal definition of charity.

If (when) it happens, removal of ‘advancement of religion’ from the legal definition of charity in this act will obviously upset some people (although this removal of subsidy will provide tax relief [and tax diversion to real charities?] to the majority of the population). It’s inevitable that all sorts of red herrings, emotional arguments and diversionary tactics (not to say faulty logic) will be advanced to prevent it happening. That’s inevitable when people see a personal economic disadvantage – and, Dale, I can understand your desire to confuse this issue. (I suspect that may also be my initial reaction in a similar situation).

Of course, such a step will result from a democratic decision. It may, or may not, be politically acceptable now (after all about 56% of the population claim to belong to a religion and therefore may see themselves as somehow benefiting from the current arrangement. Given the census trends, though, this is likely to change in the near future – and it might be that nominal declaration of a religion may be insufficient for people to see a personal benefit).

On the other hand – very few people are aware of the current arrangement. It’s in the interest of democracy that they should be made aware – especially as there is current interest in tax relief and it should be a central issue in the coming election.

Dale, I also think your attempt to capture everybody under the definition of religion is also just a tactic of confusion. It doesn’t help on the taxation issue, or any other.

When you are confronted with dictionary definitions, scientific usage and understanding of almost the whole population, insistence of your own confusing personal definition is really just a way of opting out of rational discourse.

57. Dale - August 14, 2008

Good comment , Ken – but (there’s always one, isn’t there? 🙂 ) it’s not either or: the issue of whether ‘advancement of religion’ (AoR) should be in the legal definition of a charity is (quite obviously!) linked (and linked directly) to the issue of whether religion is beneficial…

On my ‘tactic of confusion’ (nice one):
I’m not trying to add confusion where things are simple. I’m just pointing out that things aren’t as simple as they may seem. Sure, it’s convenient to use the ‘religious’ label (those people over there are ‘religious’ – and those people aren’t, etc.), but for serious interaction concerning the nature and practice of morality, such a label ceases to be fruitful.

58. Ian - August 14, 2008

Well said Ken. I am also reminded of a wonderful statement by Richard Feynman:

“We cannot define anything precisely! If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers, who sit opposite each other, one saying to the other, ‘You don’t know what you are talking about!’ The second one says ‘What do you mean by know? What do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you?’, and so on.”

We know what religion means (and no, it doesn’t mean moral decision making), we know what beneficial means (even if calculating it is hard), and we can use those concepts to determine if advancing religion is beneficial. If there is any confusion we look to legal definitions and the dictionary. I still don’t see any problems here.

59. Dale - August 14, 2008

Nice try, Ian! 🙂

We know what religion means (and no, it doesn’t mean moral decision making)

You can say that after the Feynman quote? If it’s so obvious that ‘we know what religion means’, then why do we need your immediate qualifier “and it doesn’t mean moral decision making”? 😀

And (this is quite funny) if we are to look to legal definitions for help, how about looking to the legal definition (which, of course, Ken wants changed!) of a charity to get our meaning of that? 🙂 Problems everywhere. The more seriously we talk – the more we move away from un-thinking chat-room-level quips, the more we see how important words are, and what people mean by them – then we quickly realise just how much judgment (and therefore values) are involved in these things. That’s not a ‘tactic of confusion’ that’s just how things work.

60. Damian - August 14, 2008

You know what Dale? I reckon that you are using intentionally confusing tactics and I reckon you are doing it because it’s an issue that cuts too closely to something you struggle to justify. If we were discussing whether people should be allowed to run red lights or steal from the poor you wouldn’t go off on tangents trying to define what we mean by “red” or “poor” and so on.

The title of Ian’s blog isn’t intended as an invitation 😉

61. Ian - August 14, 2008

The title of Ian’s blog isn’t intended as an invitation 😉

Brilliant 😀

62. Dale - August 14, 2008

Very funny, Damian. 🙂
I’m not sure what you think I’m trying to ‘justify’??
If it’s tax-exemption for churches you think I’m prepared to die for, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Why not actually admit that some subjects and conflicts are detailed?

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