Against the grain
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By Akola Thompson

Religious superiority and the public school system

A FEW months ago, I was a journalist attached to Kaieteur News, with most of my work being focused on education. Frankly, there is not much one can do with an education beat, unless interviews are set up and questions are asked.

So there I was, three weeks on the job and no idea of what I should ask the Minister of Education. Thinking of things which had affected me during my years in high school, it was not long before I came up with a list of questions for Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine. At the top of my list, was this question: “Seeing that most public schools across the country recite Christian prayers to the exclusion of others, what are the implications for religious tolerance with respect to the government’s commitment to social cohesion?”

Many are of the opinion that changing the prayers in schools to a universal one is “silly”, as they cannot fathom why children cannot continue to say the same prayers they have been praying all along. It is interesting to note that the people opposed to the removal of Christian prayers in schools are Christians.

When I first brought the issue up, there were several persons who branded me a “heathen” and accused me of having the sole motivation of trying to remove prayers, because of my position of being an atheist.
Honestly, while I have felt annoyed at having to listen to people pray in school or in social settings, I must say that prayers have not negatively affected me, and I realise that in a country where the majority of the population are religious, people will want or need to pray.

My problem with it is that too often people fail to realise that we are a multi-religious country, and while Christianity is the most popular religion, we are not a Christian state.

Many are of the opinion that the removal of Christian prayers within schools is an encroachment on basic human rights and an attack on religious freedom and free speech. I believe this reasoning to be highly ironic, as the Christian prayer constitutes religious indoctrination, as it promotes the absence of religious choice in the “one-size-fits-all” school system.

Prayers in schools seem to be a matter of relevance as regards education. It often leads critical thinkers, believer or non-believer, to wonder about the purpose that praying serves, especially in schools, where prayers seem to have become a mere recitals rather than meaningful dialogue with a deity.

I understand that religion has its benefits, as it is effective in creating communities, giving insight into the meaning of life, and aids in the belief of goodwill. However, religion still remains a private matter, while education remains a public one.

Despite our Constitution stating that the practice of having Christian prayers in public schools is in contravention of laws set out in relation to the separation of church and state, in Article 145 (3), I still see persons from other religions having to mutter their prayers under their breaths while the Lord’s Prayer is loudly recited.

There are a fair number of persons who are in support of the removal of Christian prayers within schools. Both religious and irreligious persons interviewed stated that having to participate in praying and singing hymns in school often resulted in feelings of isolation and confusion for them as children. The practice was said to make them feel as if their freedom of belief/disbelief had been compromised; and due to the fact that they are a minority, would ultimately be taken away.
This feeling of alienation can often foster depression, as it can cause the minority religions to believe they do not belong in public society, as their beliefs are not given the same credence in the public sphere.

While the minister’s acknowledgement of the problem must be commended, there remains cause for concern, as there cannot be a true representation of faith in interfaith settings. The practice will most likely cause a never-ending cultural and religious debate, ultimately abandoning the purpose it was supposed to serve.

Decades after, and while it is time for our country to move away from colonial religious imperialism, it is also time to treat all aspects of society the same when it comes to religion and lack thereof, regardless of whether they are a minority or a majority.

I do believe that a suitable alternative would be a moment of silence; or, as I like to call it, structured personal reflection, as the private voluntary student prayer does not interfere with the school’s mission with regard to education.

While the initial anger must be expected, Guyana, if left unattended, will soon no longer see the importance of keeping apart church and state. As such, we may very well become a permanent victim of the practice of religious superiority.

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