Inter-denominational prayers in schools are not the answer to Guyana’s pluralism

Dear Editor,

We welcome the government’s initiative to review Christian prayers in public schools. As secularists, we believe that religion is a private matter. When it comes to educational institutions, it should be a matter of public interest. The Ministry of Education acknowledges that government needs to uphold secular ideals given Guyana’s pluralism.

Before Guyana’s independence, British colonialism brought Anglican Christianity to our shores. One of their main interests in the Caribbean and other parts of the world was to spread Christianity as a global religion. The Ministry of Education realizes that the current institutionalized prayers in public schools are a relic of our colonial past and must be rejected since Guyana is not theocratically governed. As such, we support the government’s call to rid the colonial relics of our past from our public institutions. However, there is a problem with the approach the Ministry of Education is taking that we should confront.

The ministry proposes to have “inter-denominational prayers” to replace the currently dominant Christian-themed prayers; a sort of universal prayer that fits everyone’s religious convictions. It is our understanding that there is an intention to implement this. According to the ministry’s reasoning, universal prayers could “apply to all religions rather than to any single denomination”, a move they see as “the only policy” that balances plurality and reinforces Guyana’s integrity as a secular nation. We strongly disagree. This proposal is counter-intuitive for a number of reasons, but we will highlight two important concerns to consider. Firstly, the term “inter-denominational” is ambiguous. 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 irreligious ‒ people who do not subscribe to religion. By now you can tell that being “inter-denominational” poses a serious challenge, one that questions whether the government should have an obligation to address theological compatibility in order to come up with an inter-denominational prayer.

But how can it be practically possible to meld all of these different ideologies together and package it as a ‘one-fits-all’ prayer? Doing so is an unrealistic theological project by itself, since monotheistic faiths are incompatible with polytheistic faiths. Even non-theistic views, such as Buddhism may have compatibility issues with monotheism and polytheism. Furthermore, it would seem to neglect, either inadvertently or intentionally, minority groups of people, including children, who do not have a religious view. So we think this sort of approach would be very impractical.

Secondly, religious people are assured constitutional protection: the freedom to practise 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. Since public institutions are funded by all members of society (religious and irreligious) 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. That means public schools should be free from religious or government dictation, and let our afforded constitutional freedoms be practised without coercion or mandatory observances that would impede freedom of conscience. Institutions of religious practice (churches, temples and mosques) have the freedom to instil religious doctrines in those who voluntarily desire to have it so by attending these institutions of worship, and quite interestingly free from government dictation.

How, then, do we address this complexity of pluralism? We would like to suggest two possible solutions: 1) A moment of silence without a particular religious preference; or 2) government neutrality, which implies that government would exclude itself completely from mandating allotted time to pray or observe in the interest of religion. (We feel that this translates to state promotion of religion and would therefore privilege religion above other worldviews, including non-religious worldviews.) The former suggestion has been implemented in many countries, although we would like to emphasize that it is not the only approach to reconcile religious pluralism. The latter suggestion has been manifested as a constitutional declaration under the principle of the ‘separation of Church and State’ in countries such as the United States of America, where religious plurality is best recognized and safeguarded under secular principles.

We therefore would like to encourage the Ministry of Education to carefully think through its proposal. Institutionalized prayers of any form in public schools may be detrimental to the government’s sincere intention of promoting social cohesion in Guyanese society. It is important to keep in mind that any consideration of inclusion should also extend to children who may not hold religious views or parents who may not want their child to be coerced by religion through state sanctioned religious practices. Respecting pluralism means to respect difference, including our diverse worldviews. We believe that plurality in our society is what contributes to our collective Guyanese identity.

Yours faithfully,

Ferlin Pedro

Mahendra Doraisami

Nastassia Romanova

Lisa Sharma

Raul Mohan

Brittanny Singh

Derek Gomes

Guyana Secular Humanist