by Ferlin Pedro
The Ministry of Education, under the direction of Minister Roopnarine, has recently announced its interest in abolishing Christian prayers from public schools. Since then, a debate has begun surrounding the practice and possible alternatives. Predictably, many Christians are dismayed by the idea of discontinuing Christian prayers in schools. However, many voices have raised their support for the Ministry’s initiative.
There are many reasons why Christian prayers recited in public schools should be abolished. Perhaps the most obvious reason is the fact that Guyana is a secular pluralist state, consisting of multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-belief and multi-ethnic peoples. Given such a diverse environment, it is fitting that no particular religion should monopolize public affairs, especially the education of children. People who are supportive of the Ministry’s initiative can see why Christian prayers is in conflict with the State’s duty to include and protect all its citizens, including minority groups. Why should a Hindu, Muslim, Baha’i, or even a non-believing person be coerced into saying a Christian-themed prayer? So, reasonably, it is in the best interest of persons of all faiths, as well as those who do not subscribe to a particular faith, that Christian-themed prayers no longer be sanctioned by the State through its Education Ministry.
It is also necessary that the State hold consultations with all members of society to effect change in a pluralist society. However, a challenge pluralism often poses when it comes to decision making is that the State must wrestle with its mandate and obligations, while fulfilling its democratic allegiance to the will of the people, including minorities.
Possibly foreseeing the backlash from the religious community, particularly the Christians, the Ministry is not proposing to do away with school prayers entirely – instead it has offered to replace Christian prayers with a different kind of prayer – an interdenominational or universal prayer. However, while this proposal is certainly more inclusive than the previous practice, it suffers several defects – not least of which is the fact that it is still unconstitutional.
Because Guyana has many different religious and irreligious perspectives, seeking commonality or universality could prove to be futile. To begin with, religion is not a monolithic entity. It is very diverse and some are divided on theological grounds. Some religions in Guyana are monotheistic, particularly the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity and Islam). But some are polytheistic and yet others are a merge of both. There are also pantheists, deists, and spiritualists. Furthermore, even within religions, there is diversity of opinion and viewpoints. Most religions, including Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, consist of various denominations, some of which conflict with one another. The disagreement within the Guyanese Hindu community regarding the date of Diwali is but one small example of this.
In praise of diversity
To simply take all of these diverse views and combine them for the sake of inclusivity is to create an entirely new religion. But what is even more troubling is that if we were to do this, we would be undermining what keeps us connected and interesting as a people, namely our diversity. It is diversity among ourselves that we should respect. Interdenominational prayers would not enshrine our cultural differences nor would it grant an opportunity to truly respect those differences if we were to prepackage uniqueness, diversity and dissent as one unrealistic, contrived offering. It is not only impractical but also unimaginative to attempt a ‘one size fits all’ treatment to Guyana’s panoply of religions and beliefs. Is this an informed resolution or bigotry to promote religions in public schools guided by, primarily, the Abrahamic faiths? The more we encourage privileging religions as the only means of addressing the world or finding an identity in society, the more we create an unwelcoming environment that’s unaccepting of difference of opinion or belief – the very beauty of plurality.
An inconvenient truth
Of course, irreligious people (atheists, agnostics, humanists, etc.) make up a minority in Guyana, but the number is not as small as some would believe. According to the US State Department’s 2014 International Religious Freedom Report, 4% of the Guyanese population professes no religious belief or affiliation. This figure, which is based on a 2002 census, translates to almost 30,000 people or 6 times the difference in votes in the May 2015 elections, or twice the number of Baha’is and Rastafarians in Guyana combined. That is a significant chunk of the population. And, given global trends, the figure is likely to have grown in the past 12 years. And yet, this community is rarely considered when it comes to national policies. Sure, some irreligious people may not care about the religious community’s constant interference in public policy, especially those on equality principles and corporal punishment in schools. But there are a few who do care. Today, there is an informal group called the ‘Guyana Secular Humanist Association’ which aims to provide a community for Guyana’s non-believing population, some of whom may have been discriminated against, persecuted and humiliated by their friends, family and even classmates, simply because they express no adherence to a particular religion or belief in a god.
Does Might Make Right?
I don’t have to argue the merits of democracy. There is a reason that democracy is favoured by most nations as the best system of governance. However, most modern nations have historically suffered under the tyranny of the elite or privileged few. As most modern states are also discovering, there is an inherent danger in democracies that governments must be wary of and that is the potential oppression of minority groups. There are, as there should be, limits to majority rule since there is always the potential of tyranny of the majority, a phrase popularized by the philosopher John Stuart Mill. Minority groups in every democracy experience a constant struggle with the majority which enjoys greater power. If a majority, consisting of a group of people of certain characteristics, such as ethnicity, religion or race, seeks to impose or enforce policies which can either deliberately or inadvertently penalize another group of people of different characteristics, then the majority is tyrannical and must be reigned in. Majorities often feel that only their opinions or rights matter because they are used to being listened to or catered to. This is where leadership steps in. This is where battles over human rights and equality are fought. While governments have an obligation to the majority it also has an ethical duty to include and protect minority groups.
A Question of Relevance
The question to ask is whether there is sufficient reason to think religious prayers in state schools are a necessity. The education sector in Guyana is in a dismal state. There is a lack of resources, both material and human, and the children are the ones who are suffering the most. The religious sector is doing rather well and there is no lack of places to worship and pray or religious leaders to lead said worship and prayer. Accommodating religions in public schools, a dubious enterprise in and of itself, is of no relevance to education. Rather, improving the standard of education offered to the nation’s children is absolutely relevant to education. Given the fact that parents, particularly religious parents, are free to send their kids to a faith school according to their preference, there is no good reason why prayers of any sort should be institutionalized in public schools. Public schools are funded by taxpayers, consisting of a plurality of people, holding different views and beliefs. In my view, the proposal of an interdenominational prayer in public schools is both unnecessary and irrelevant, given constitutional declarations of freedom of conscience, religion, belief or thought.
According to Guyana’s Constitution, Article 145 stipulates the following:
- (1) Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience, and for the purposes of this article the said freedom includes freedom of thought and of religion, freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and both in public and in private, to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
Guyana’s constitution assures every citizen the freedom to hold and change a belief or thought, including religious belief, either in public or in private, unhindered. The Constitution of Guyana also provides assurance that individuals may interpret religious beliefs for themselves. There is no need for the Government to seek to impose its own view of what prayers should be tailored to include or whose faith(s) to suit.
Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience or thought are all we need to practice our religious belief or whatever else we may believe in; and to think without instruction through an entity. It is important to note that the removal of institutionalized prayers is not the removal of religious freedom. Indeed, one can exercise their religious freedoms in and out of public schools unhindered.
Canada’s new Prime Minister boldly declared that gender equality was a priority of his “because it’s 2015.” I think that in 2015, it is only expected that our Government should be moving towards greater inclusivity and equality. The Ministry of Education’s inclusivity project has made a step in the right direction. The removal of Christian prayers from school would be a milestone in the project of inclusivity, thereby assuring Guyana’s secular principles backed by the highest authoritative document in the land, the Constitution. However, the project’s vision is simply not all inclusive. Their project of inclusivity should also include respect for dissenting views, irreligious beliefs and other worldviews that may undermine or challenge the religious monopoly. In 2015, Guyana’s educational institutions should aim to be bedrocks of intellectualism, critical thinking and encourage Guyana’s children and future leaders to challenge the status quo.
Therefore, for the sake of genuine inclusivity and for our own intellectual progress, I submit that Minister Roopnarine abandon the project in its current form – the proposal of interdenominational prayers in schools – and take a leaf out of Minister Ramjattan’s book by firmly declaring the necessary but unpopular decision to retract all forms of prayers in public schools, and then get back to the business of rescuing Guyana’s schools from bigotry, intolerance and political interference.