As reported last week, the headmistress of Central High School, Ms. Kamlawattie Balroop, responded to her critics which such passion that, given the nature of her topic, one could have quite easily accused her of zealotry (SN:30/03/2017). What gave rise to her indignation was the largely negative public response to her decision to allow Pastor Steven Anderson of the fundamentalist Faithful Word Baptist Church to proselytize among her students.
Pastor Anderson is one of those radical fire and brimstone preachers to whom progressive thought is anathema and modernization would best be restricted to the material realm. Among other things, he has been known to call upon God to strike down President Obama for his views on abortion and homosexuality, preaches that the Hindu God is Satan, dictates that women should not speak in church and that homosexuals should be killed! His church has been designated a hate group by some and has been banned from some jurisdictions.
I am aware that head teachers need to get clearance from the various education departments to allow these kinds of activities in schools, but such strictures always appeared to me quite incongruous. How could someone be given the responsibility for the daily physical and mental welfare of hundreds of children but be deemed unfit to determine who should speak in the school? Therefore, even if I consider her action wrong-headed, the lady must have had what she considered compelling reasons. What, therefore, possessed Ms. Balroop for her to indulge in such socially incorrect behaviour?
One of the first salvos against Ms. Balroop’s decision was social activist, Ms. Sherlina Nageer, who expressed dismay that in our secular state Christian missionaries were allowed to evangelize in a public school and wanted those responsible to be immediate sanctioned. After all, according to Ms. Nageer, ‘preaching has absolutely no place in any public school’ and ‘at no time should academic learning time be curtailed in favour of religious programming.’ What Guyana needs is ‘an educational system that develops critical thinkers’ (SN: 21/03/2017).
I believe that given the important role religion has played and continues to play in our individual and social lives there should be a place for the various forms of religious expression to be considered in public schools. So far as I am concerned people may or may not believe and I do not approach religion from a belief in a deity. I am closer to Karl Marx: religion is ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions … it is the opium of the people.’
Yet, whatever its narcotic effect, religion is not as socially dysfunctional but has provided mental and emotional support that has helped many to successfully chart our daunting world and its universality suggests that it is critical to human existence. Whether or not we still actually need religion to instill the virtues such as truth, honesty, love, self-control, discipline, communalism, philanthropy, etc.: it has over centuries played and is still expected by many to help in this socializing role. This alone makes understanding the various religions and their role in society a worthwhile activity.
So far as critical thinking is concerned, it appears to me that its development is less about the object of thought and has more to do with the nature and the context of thinking. Over the centuries, religious contestations have provided some of the most critical thinkers. For instance, Christianity has had to persistently defend its all-embracing and highly apolitical stance, and as the scientific approach began its assault the discourses became even more complex. As we speak, the works of Richard Dawkins (‘The God Delusion’) and Charles Taylor (‘The Secular Age’) provide insightful disputations.
Rather than succumb Ms. Kamlawattie Balroop doubled down and courted even more ignominy by deeming her critics ‘narrow-minded.’ According to her, she would have done the same for any other religion for we should accept God from whichever quarter. The pastor brought ‘the word of God in the most explicit way’ by sending a clear message to her children that hell existed and what they need to do to avoid it. This kind of contact, she believes, is of great ‘importance for building the moral fiber of students.’
Although I would not have entertained the Faithful Word Baptist Church, I am not going to be shrill about the action of Ms. Balroop for such are the vicissitudes of human agency, i.e. allowing or, as a matter of fact, not allowing the likes of Pastor Anderson, whatever may be my position. In my opinion, what we have here is an inevitable contextual problem, rooted in human agency and the wish to be radically inclusive and this can only be mitigated by a level of bureaucratization that is likely to be extremely exclusive.
What I do hope is that the experience provided Ms. Balroop with a better understanding of the limits of her social environment and suggested to her that, even if considered necessary, evangelizing should be a small part of the religious experience in which her school should indulge. Furthermore, Ms. Balroop comes over as a fire and brimstone kind of a believer who either has not yet come upon or rejects the view that at this historical juncture, the wrath of God is no longer pivotal to the socializing process. She should also note that appeal to our now more developed social conscience, inclusive of its religious and ‘self-interested’ content (‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’), should do the job.
However, I believe that the answers to what possessed Ms. Balroop to behave as she did lie in her direction to her critics to adopt the theory of religious ‘constructionism,’ in order to overcome, among other things, their narrow-mindedness.
As I understand it, at one level constructivism claims that ‘religion’ is an ideologically motivated social construction which emerged in an expansionist Europe in about the 17th and 18th century and was used to differentiate between European civilization and the un-civilized others who were open to exploitation. Some proof of this is that the concept does not exist in other cultures: ‘it is only modern European Christians who generalized or abstracted from their own practices and developed the word “religion” as a term for sorting a certain kind of activity ’(https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/asu/f/Schilbrack_Kevin_2012_Social_construction.pdf).
At a more practical level, constructivism holds that: ‘truth’ is social-constructed based upon communal experiences and different peoples construct their own truth about God or religion and we are continuously navigating through relationships adopting or rejecting perspectives. Like ours are, the position of the Faithful Word Baptist Church is only a concoction rooted in its own specific condition. Rather than quarrelling and killing each other over religion let us listen and take from its different explications what we believe is useful to us: what will enhance our ‘truth’. Therefore, a radical religious inclusiveness is at the heart of Ms. Balroop’s kind of religious constructivism and it is good that this is so; for it may help rather than hinder us from making meaningful our universal commitment to the brotherhood of all mankind.