Me and the Mormons and Baroness Warsi

Assorted correspondence

Rt Hon Baroness Warsi
Minister for Faith and Communities
Eland House
Bressenden Place
London SW1E 5DU 21 May 2013

As you must have seen, the Church of the Latter Day Saints have capitalized on the attention given to their sect by the musical The Book Of Mormon (which I recommend to you) by mounting a major advertising campaign in search of converts. This activity benefits from the charitable status accorded to that Church and contributions towards it are eligible for Gift Aid. In effect, they are being subsidized by non-Mormon taxpayers.

I shall be asking you shortly to give your views on this situation on behalf of the government, but I would first like to put some general questions about your ministerial role.

Why do you and the government believe it necessary or desirable to create a ministry specifically to represent people who hold religious views? Why should they be paid special attention in the framing of public policy? How does this fit with the concept of equality of representation, which is at the heart of our modern democracy? The evidence of history and of many contemporary states suggests that religious politics are a scourge: why does the government want to encourage them in our country? Why does the government assume that any religious faith represents a coherent interest group and that all its members have a common view on any political, social or ethical topic? When you meet a religious delegation, even one composed of the hierarchy of the faith concerned, how do you know that its members represent anyone but themselves? When you do meet such a delegation, almost by definition it excludes the many members of the faith concerned who do not believe that it should take part in politics and who do not wish themselves to be identified by their faith on any political or social question. For that reason, such meetings are almost automatically biased towards the more fundamentalist members of any faith community. But they also encourage those who are even more fundamentalist to accuse them of selling out to the government.

In order to spare me the trouble of submitting a Freedom of Information request, or badgering one of my friends to put down a Parliamentary Question, I would be grateful if you could publish a list of all the religious organizations you have met since you became Minister for Faith, and the subjects discussed. Have you met the National Secular Society, the British Humanist Association or other pro-secular groups?

As to the present Mormon campaign, I realize that you are not directly responsible for the scope and operation of charity law. However, in spite of recent changes in that law, this remains an area where faith groups receive special preference, and your views, or those of your officials, would be of great interest.

I have had extensive and helpful correspondence with the Charity Commission on this matter. I think that the following is a fair summary of its main conclusions. The promotion of religious faith is no longer in itself a charitable object, for there is now also a requirement that the faith concerned is of benefit to society as a whole. The Commission has rejected several applications from religious groups because their beliefs do not constitute a “religion” and it has rejected others because the benefits of their activities are too confined to members of their own faith. It has not yet rejected any religious group because it regards its views or practices as harmful to society.

Since the government of the day, rather than the Commission, has responsibility for the current state of the law and public policy, I would be interested to know your views on the benefit to society of proselytizing activities by any religion. Why is our society better off if it contains more Mormons, or for that matter more Christians of any kind, or more members of any faith group which seeks or accepts members by conversion? Since the government is neutral between religious groups, it cannot believe that there is any net gain to society if the Mormons convert a Roman Catholic or vice versa. That has the irresistible implication that there is a gain to society if the Mormons convert an atheist, like myself, and a loss to society if (as I hope) any Mormons are converted to atheism.

I would be grateful to know why the government takes that view.

As to the Mormons, I made a considerable study of that faith last year due to the Presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney. I did not like what I found, so much so that I wrote the enclosed pamphlet Hi! My Name’s Richard And I Am NOT A Mormon. It sets out reasons why I believe that faith to be harmful to all its members and to society in general. These may be summarized as follows.

It compels its members, including children, to study the Book of Mormon and other “scriptures” which are a fraudulent farrago, purveying as history events which are totally fictitious and often preposterous, and with numerous passages based on racism or sexism. It has suppressed criticisms of its narratives, and encourages members to obey the authority of its “prophets” and ignore normal standards of reasoning and evidence.

It extorts from members, rich or poor, a tenth of their gross income, as a condition of full participation in their church and of entry into the highest grade of heaven in the next life. (I believe that such conditions should be outlawed, in any faith). Members are not allowed to devote their tithe to any other good cause. Almost all tithe money is spent within the Mormon faith. It also requires members to contribute free labour.

While professing admiration for family life, its activities eat into family time. It disparages certain kinds of family which do not conform to its model of family life, particularly those with two working parents and those raised by choice by single parents. It still promotes sexism and regards gay people as sinful or afflicted (who should not raise children).

The Mormon faith induces its members to store large quantities of foodstuffs, which, if practised on a larger scale, would cause harm to our economy and to global society. It makes intrusive demands on the personal life of its adherents. It requires them to wear strange undergarments and to forego many normal and lawful pleasures.

I invite you and the government to consider the above points, and the pamphlet itself, because they have a bearing on public policy towards all faith groups.

Do you and the government think that my pamphlet is inaccurate and unfair to the Mormon faith? If you do form this judgment, may I ask you first to consult some of the many ex-Mormons in our country, and the United States, as well as the Church’s hierarchy?

If you think that my pamphlet is accurate, do you and the government think that other aspects of the Mormon faith are valuable to society and outweigh the harm it might cause? If you form that view, perhaps you could enumerate those other aspects.

I suspect that the government believes that any religion whatever is good for society so long as its views and practices are not actually unlawful. If so, it would still be useful to have this stated publicly, and to hear some reasons for it.

Richard Heller

2nd letter to Baroness Warsi

Rt Hon Baroness Warsi
Minister for Faith and Communities                              20 June 2013

I have received no reply or acknowledgement to the enclosed letter.

I realize that you may not wish to comment specifically on the Mormons and their activities, although they have a bearing on a crucial question: how is it determined whether any faith group, and its doctrines and practices, are beneficial to society as a whole? Perhaps you and the government believe that any religion is good for society unless and until it actually breaks the law. If that is so, I invite you again to confirm this, and explain why.

However, I do not believe that is your position, or the government’s. That implies that you might determine that some faith groups provide no benefit to society or are positively harmful, even though they stay within the law. Clearly you would not make such a judgement on the basis of prejudice or caprice (the courts would strike you down if you did). It must be grounded in some kind of reasonable test. That is what I was asking you, as the first Minister of Faith. What is that test? To help elucidate your position, I would appreciate an official response to the following excerpt from an article I published just under a year ago, which proposed ten issues on which any particular faith group might be judged harmful to society:

1) seeking or demanding money, free labour or any valuable consideration as a condition of participation in worship, or the acquisition of religious or spiritual status in this life or any future life, or with the promise or threat of any form of supernatural intervention or judgement in this life or any future life;

Any such demand verges on extortion, particularly when applied to poor and vulnerable people. Any religion seeking to benefit from charitable status should be open to all those who believe in its doctrines, whether or not they contribute to its coffers. Many faith groups enjoin their members to contribute to charity, for example through tithing, but the members should be free to contribute to the registered charity of their choice, rather than exclusively to the church in question. Such a ruling would not disqualify organizations which provide religious education and give qualifications in it;

2) soliciting or demanding money in exchange for seeking supernatural intervention on behalf of any person;

This is another common means of exploitation of poor or vulnerable people.

3) any doctrine which, although lawful, is likely to encourage prejudice against any section of the community or against non-believers;

4) without prejudice to the generality of 3) any doctrine which displays or is likely to encourage any form of discrimination against girls and women or against gay people, and any form of encouragement to gay people of any age to suppress or amend their sexuality;

Some faith groups actually offer “therapy” of various kinds to gay children. I believe, on the basis of abundant evidence from the United States, that all such “therapy” is useless and abusive, and I have urged Michael Gove to outlaw it. Do you believe that faith groups should be allowed to continue to offer such “therapy”, or to threaten gay children with hellfire and perdition? The law now allows this, so long as faith groups avoid actual coercion.

5) discouraging any adherent from marrying outside the religion in question (other than by denying recognition for such a marriage);

6) encouraging adherents to employ only other adherents or to conduct commercial relations with them only;

7) encouraging adherents to deny themselves or their children the full benefits of any publicly funded education or health care;

8) suppressing or distorting currently accepted knowledge on any topic to promote any religious doctrine, and teaching to children any matter in any manner or in any context which would be prohibited to providers of any publicly funded education;

(for example, teaching Creationism as science);

9) applying or attempting to apply any kind of financial or social sanction against adherents who depart from the faith or fail to observe its obligations;

10) demanding any form of conduct or observance which makes it difficult or impossible for adherents (particularly children) to take part in lawful activities which are commonly enjoyed in British society, and punishing or attempting to punish adherents for failing to comply with such a demand, particularly by putting them in fear of supernatural disfavour.

I believe that each of these tests reflects current public policy and would be supported by a clear majority of public opinion.

None of them would prevent any religious organization from advocating a particular belief or maintaining any particular practice or observance. They would simply ensure that it cannot claim the tax and other privileges of charitable status for doing or saying things which offer no value to British society or the world’s.

Richard Heller

2nd letter crossed with reply to first, from Mr Warwick J S Hawkins, Head of Faith Communities Engagement in Baroness Warsi’s department

Dear Mr Heller,

Thank you for your letter of 21st May to Baroness Warsi, Senior Minister for Faith and Communities. I have been asked to reply.

The Government recognises that faith communities make a vital contribution to national life: guiding the moral outlook of many, inspiring great numbers of people to public service and providing help to those in need. Across the country, people from different faiths are working hard in countless churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras and synagogues, and in charities and community groups, to address problems in their local communities. The Christian Churches, for example, have an extensive national framework of buildings, experience and volunteers that can put them at the very heart of service delivery to the homeless and others in need.

That is why the Government engages with representative bodies for faith communities, and is sponsoring a number of programmes, such as the Near Neighbours programme with the Church Urban Fund, designed to celebrate the social action of faith groups and encourage local faith communities to pool their resources and experience to benefit local neighbourhoods in deprived inner city areas.

Of course, this is not to say that people without religious beliefs are not equally committed to the public good. This team has a good working relationship with the British Humanist Association for instance.

Letter to Mr Hawkins, Midsummer’s day 2013

Thank you for your letter of 20 June, which unfortunately crossed with a further letter of mine to Baroness Warsi.

I notice that you title her Senior Minister for Faith and Communities. Is there also a junior minister with Faith responsibilities? With great respect to the Near Neighbours programme and the Church Urban Fund, their scale and the public expenditure involved would not seem to require the attention of two paid ministers. If there is indeed a second Faith minister, I would be grateful for a list of the faith organizations he or she has met, and the subjects discussed, as I have already requested for Baroness Warsi.

I take note of your second paragraph, but I hope that you and ministers would agree that faith communities also have the power to harm society – and in ways which may fall short of breaking the law. For example, they may encourage social division, or prejudice on grounds of gender and sexual orientation, or make unreasonable demands on their adherents, particularly on their money, or put bad ideas in the minds of children.

I am assuming that your unit, and ministers, do not “engage” indiscriminately with all faith groups which do good works in the community, still less support them with words or public money. If so, that implies some kind of scrutiny over the total impact on society of the beliefs and practices of any faith group. In my second letter, I proposed ten tests which should form part of such scrutiny, which I have also urged on the Charity Commission and the Minister for Civil Society, and on the official opposition.

Do any of these tests influence the work of your unit? As you will see from my letters, I am concerned with three in particular. I believe that whatever else they may do in the community, the government should give no kind of encouragement to faith groups which:

a) promote any kind of inferior status or expectations for girls and women;
b) encourage gay children in any way (including preaching and exhortation) to amend or suppress their sexuality; or
c) demand regular contributions from their adherents as a condition of participation in worship, or with the promise of heaven or the threat of hell.

21. June 2013 by rkh
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