Mon | May 29, 2017

Let us be honest about school prayers

Published:Monday | January 26, 2015 | 1:00 AM


Michael Abrahams
Online Columnist


I remember attending devotion at St. Hugh's Preparatory School. We would all stand in the assembly hall and sing nice Christian songs about God and Jesus being love.

Well, I wouldn't actually sing, but I would lip-sync while the other kids sang, as I had little confidence in my ability to hit the right key and remain there. They sang songs like 'Morning Has Broken' and 'Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam', which some boys in my class corrupted into 'Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeeps' ('beeps' was slang for gay), which would evoke partially stifled snickers from myself and several of my classmates.

Everybody in my class attended devotion except for Opal, who used to sit on a chair outside Mrs. Brady's grade six classroom. Opal was a Jehovah's Witness, and apparently her religion forbade worship with persons of other denominations. Because of this, some of us thought that she was a bonafide weirdo. I mean, how could you not attend devotion?

Our Ministry of Education has announced that it supports schools that make it mandatory for students to attend devotions and mainly Christian activities except on religious grounds. The National Parent-Teacher Association of Jamaica, however, has not settled on an official position.

I was raised as a Christian, so the views being expressed in devotion were by no means alien to me, and served to concretize the dogmas that I mindlessly gobbled up in Sunday school; that Christianity is the right religion, that Jesus died for us wretches and our wretched sins and that if we do not believe in Him we are screwed.

And this is the problem that I have with forcing children to repeatedly listen to these doctrines. Religion is about beliefs, not facts. But religious views are often imparted to young and impressionable minds as factual information, and after years of constant theological bombardment, which is tantamount to brainwashing, their ability to think critically and objectively process evidence that challenges their belief system becomes compromised.

Our Minister of Education, Ronald Thwaites, said that religious exposure is important in reinforcing values, building ethical structures and keeping the society together. According to Mr. Thwaites, "Exposure to religious education helps with discipline, order, cooperation, tolerance and other good virtues like sacrifice and postponement of instant gratification, and so generally I am in support of this".

Mr. Thwaites raised some good points, but I cannot agree that religion helps with tolerance and cooperation. Religion can be very divisive and definitely does not promote tolerance. Some of the most intolerant people I know are Christians, and if you inspect the helms of global human rights organizations, you will often see secular activists who are either atheist or agnostic, but demonstrate the 'Christian' values of love, empathy, compassion, humility, kindness and forgiveness more than many Christians.

One does not need religion to learn morality, ethics and values. Atheistic Japan's educational system has no use for school prayers and their crime rate is lower than in all other developed countries. Also, having children out of wedlock is rare in Japan, with a rate of just two per cent in 2005. On the other hand, in 'Christian' Jamaica, with the most churches per square mile, according to the Guiness Book of World Records, our murder rate is consistently in the top 10 globally and over 80 per cent of us are born out of wedlock.

It is time for us to be honest about ourselves. Jamaica is not a Christian country, but a nation of hypocrites. We have a high church density, our national anthem is a prayer, prayers are institutionalized in our schools, we have an annual National Prayer Breakfast, meetings, conferences and events often commence with prayer, but the statistics do not paint a picture consistent with Christian living.

I believe in freedom of religion, but if you want to pray you can freely do so in your home, at your place of worship or in your automobile, as long as you do not close your eyes and drive while you do it. I concede that many of our schools are church-based and I do understand why school administrations would want to retain devotions. All of my children attend such schools and I was aware of their policies before I enrolled them, so I cannot reasonably demand that they change their cultures.

But I cannot support a policy of mandatory prayers in schools. Instead of this traditional ritual, I would much rather a secular approach to teaching our children to be moral and ethical citizens without religious bias. Look at the state of our country. With all the praying, where has religion gotten us?

Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.