Reading the Charity Commission's draft guidance on public benefit and religion was described by Tony Wright MP, chairman of the committee, as "like juggling jelly", and he was hungry for some intellectual nourishment from the panel.
Arguments for religion's public benefit focused on the happiness it gives believers and the good work it motivates. Andrea Williams of the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship answered virtually every question with eulogies about the joys of Christianity, and Don Horrocks of the Evangelical Alliance claimed the concept of spiritual benefit would have been universally understood 50 years ago. "Now people are spiritually illiterate," he grumbled.
The British Humanist Association's professorial representative, David Pollock, confined his fire mainly to the commission. He said its "confused, muddled and ambiguous" guidance was "remarkably indulgent" towards religious charities, failing to present a workable definition of religion or take account of human rights law.
It was left to the MPs to really get the foodstuffs flying. Labour's Paul Flynn probed a testy Horrocks on whether his organisation believed homosexuals were evil and all Muslims were bound for hell. "Why should the taxpayer subsidise groups with such utterly minority views?" he asked. He then reeled off a list of historical horrors he thought religion had caused, before suggesting that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster - a spoof religion set up by opponents of creationism in the US - could also register as a charity.
Kelvin Hopkins, another Labour MP, slashed away at the Gordian knot, saying that public benefit was too difficult to define, so charitable status should be abolished. Wright said the committee was not in a position to rewrite the Charities Act, but the remainder of the discussion about what kinds of "detriment" would outweigh religion's public benefit was no more instructive. On this evidence, the regulator will certainly need the gods on its side - Flying Spaghetti Monster and all.
- See Letters, page 13.