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Clockwise from top left: Lorna Dueck, Vettivelu Nallainayagam, Michael Higgins, Guy Nicholson, Sheema Khan, Howard Voss-Altman
Clockwise from top left: Lorna Dueck, Vettivelu Nallainayagam, Michael Higgins, Guy Nicholson, Sheema Khan, Howard Voss-Altman

Faith Exchange

Religion, the original NGO? Add to ...

Howard Voss-Altman: I think there is a loss of the philosophical rationale for giving. As a society, we seem to prefer to blame the poor instead of helping them. We do not seem to realize that our society is fraying at the edges because so many people feel they no longer have a stake in the society they live in. Why are we unable to have a philosophical discussion about inequality without attacking those who bring up the subject, e.g. Occupy Wall Street? Why are these people demonized? What has happened – not only to our compassion, but to our basic sense of decency?

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: You raise an interesting point here, Guy. In a multireligious society like Canada, sharing of wealth or redistribution of income becomes the responsibility of the government, too. It is because of the failure of our governments to reduce inequality in the distribution of income that we now see the occupy movements spreading across countries. Philanthropy is good and the rich are to be commended for it, but we also need a more progressive tax system and other means of redistributing incomes.

Michael Higgins: I think that a philosophical rationale has to be built on an anthropology that understands “giving” is constituitive of human meaning. In other words, to give is to be.

Howard Voss-Altman: We seem to be falling back on religious groups or secular charities – the United Way, etc. – to do the work that a progressive tax system used to do. Sadly, at least in the United States, an income tax system that was designed to create a social safety net has now been retrenched nearly out of existence. So-called religious people object to progressive taxation and then wonder why the social safety net is so strained. Our world is much too big for religions to play a major role in redistribution. For that, we should be depending on a government that is increasingly abdicating from that role.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: Howard, I am glad that we both have the same point of view.

Michael Higgins: The issue of philanthropy does raise the larger issue of social justice, social critique and the role of religion in the making of a rightly ordered commonwealth. To that end, the recent publication of a document on global economic responsibility by the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice is a significant event and reflects the important voice of faith in the shaping of humane economic policies. But the Vatican’s considerable public-relations challenges have muted, I wager, the impact of a worthy and reflective document.

Guy Nicholson: I could make reference here to a column by Tony Blair, published as part of the Giving Changed series. Among other things, the former British prime minister wrote about the limits of government and the power of directing help “to a cause [supporters]are passionate about.” A take in seeming opposition to what Howard and Nallai are talking about.

Howard Voss-Altman: I’m afraid the former PM may not be the most objective source regarding the power of government to redistribute wealth. He might be better served examining his own role in helping to create a society in the U.K. characterized by extreme inequality and, more important, a society that has failed to assimilate hundreds of thousands of new immigrants who do not feel they belong to mainstream British society. Why do you suppose the riots in England this past summer were so horrifying? Because not enough citizens believed they were part of the larger civil society.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: I myself read the column and was surprised by it. If we go back to the 1970s and 1980s, we will observe that Western governments played an important role in creating egalitarian societies through appropriate redistributive policies. It was with the ascendency of the right-wing philosophy in the 1990s that governments gave up this important social justice objective.

Michael Higgins: An excellent point. And a reason for our mounting disarray.

Lorna Dueck: The government-faith connection Mr. Blair commends us to for social good reminds me of the controversy Canada faced last year when Kairos, the church-backed aid agency, ran afoul for having a philosophy on justice and development that was viewed as out of step with the Conservative government. That takes us into another whole area – it’s not just about blindly handing over money, but about being in relationship with an ethic on justice that will always be driven by the philosophy of either religion or humanism. That’s one reason you see so many faith-based charities – they want that flavour brought to their work.

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