Oct 22, 2021 Letters
The Ministry of Education recently responded to the concerns expressed by Swami Aksharananda regarding the matter of Christian-themed prayers recited at an organised event hosted by the Ministry of Education. In their response, the Ministry assured the Swami that no religion was favoured by the use of a universal prayer, reaffirming the belief that “no one religion, ethnicity, gender, etc. is or should be made to be seen as dominant over the other.” Instead, the Ministry adopted a “universal prayer” which it sees as in compliance with that belief. In his letter, the Swami critiqued the adoption of Christian-themed prayers citing its colonial legacy and our modern difficulty of ensuring a secular state given the influence of Christian values in public institutions. The Ministry seems to disagree with his perception of the universal prayer as a form of Christian-themed prayer, but if one were to dissect the prayer, it gives the impression of monotheistic worship. As such, I support the Swami’s call for religious neutrality in public institutions for reasons I will explain.
Public institutions such as public schools and government agencies contain many symbolisms of Guyana’s colonial history. From the mannerisms, which we practice in public office to the recitation of a prayer before commencing meetings, these are not unique to Guyanese political culture, but are remnants of traditions from our colonial ancestor—the former British empire. Customs are difficult to break away from because they are supported by the systems that propel the engine of society that informs the social sphere what norms are and are not acceptable. Public prayers, whether in schools or at any other public venue, is an example of a colonial relic that continues to impact the secular being of Guyanese society.
During the tenure of the former administration through its Ministerial official, Dr. Rupert Roopnarine promised that the Ministry of Education would remove any mandate or motive that would have schools compel students to recite religious prayers during school assemblies. According to him, “We are a multi-religious country and we have to realise that we have multi-religious children…” However, Dr. Roopnarine went further to hint at an alternative, saying “whatever prayer is used in schools should not exclude any of the religions.” Later that year, the Ministry of Education issued its interest in mandating a universal prayer that would encompass all religious worldviews in public schools. I produced an elaborate letter at the time responding to this proposal. But let us think for a moment. The Ministry of Education led by Dr. Roopnarine believed in the secular ideal of the state, reiterated the importance of religious neutrality by public institutions including public schools, and it opposed the idea of reciting any prayer that favoured a particular religion, and yet somehow thought it would be best to have the Ministry that represents the government devise a prayer of their own that would somehow encompass all religions. Does this sound reasonable? This approach as a resolution to religious privileging in Guyanese society is also the same approach, which the current administration through its Ministry of Education wishes to enforce. But such a proposal remains to be problematic for several reasons, which I will elucidate as follows.
First, whether it is called a universal prayer or an inter-denominational prayer, these terms are ambiguous regarding what they can practically encompass. Guyana consists of three major religions (majority faiths that people subscribe to) and within these major faiths, there are denominations or sects with orthodox and dissenting views. For instance, Christianity consists of Anglicanism, Catholicism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, and so on. Hinduism consists of Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism. Islam consists of Sunni (the majority denomination), Shia, and Sufism. There are faiths, which are non-theistic, such as Buddhism. There are also the non-religious ‒ people who do not subscribe to a religion. By now, you can tell that trying to utilise an “inter-denominational” or “universal” prayer poses a serious challenge, one that questions whether the government should have an obligation to address theological compatibility. Even if the government is guided by religious and non-religious scholars, it remains concerning that the government would want to take up a position of mandating what prayer(s) someone can or should say. While it is less worrying that religious organisations are insisting their versions of a prayer for all, it is more disconcerting that a government wants to be in a position of issuing memorandums prescribing what prayer people should use.
Secondly, for a universal or inter-denominational prayer to serve as a means of inclusivity, it has to be demonstrated that it can actually accomplish this. So far, it hasn’t. But given the diversity of religious views in Guyana, how could this practically be possible? Consider that were a prayer to be said, then who gets to prescribe what it should say and, on whose behalf, whose deity, and whose faith? Further, any proposal of inclusivity that narrows religious faith as a criterion seems to neglect, either inadvertently or intentionally, minority groups of people, including children, who do not have a religious view (atheists, humanists, agnostics, etc.). Therefore, it is reasonable to argue that any prayer that acts as a replacement to a privileged one behind the guise of a universal prayer would fail to meet the criteria of cohesion and inclusivity because not everyone would be included by its criteria that possess religiosity.
Religious people are assured constitutional protection: the freedom to practice or manifest one’s religion, and the freedom to be religious. This is further assured under the constitutional principle of freedom of conscience or belief and the profession of those beliefs. Additionally, the constitutional declaration of freedom of conscience also protects an individual from imposition or indoctrination of conscience against one’s will. These are secular principles that ground Guyana’s proclamation as a secular state. Since public institutions are funded by all members of society (religious and non-religious people), the government has only one obligation: to meet the demand of inclusivity in the interest of all its stakeholders. And because public schools are accessible to all children, regardless of religious convictions or belief, the government’s obligation to meet inclusivity is arguably best met with neutrality. Public schools should be free from religious mandates. Perhaps more importantly, the Government should not act as an institution of religion but of the people, which is a government that gets democratically, not theocratically, elected.
Ferlin F. Pedro
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