Preaching does not belong in public buildings

first_imgDear Editor,There is a misapplication, if not a misunderstanding, of American philosopher John Rawls’ theory to justify preacher Steven Anderson’s freedom to attack Hindus, Indians and others in Guyana. Contrary to what Professor Henry Jeffrey may feel, Rawls’ theory does not lend support to the right of Anderson to attack people. The rights that Rawls felt citizens have do not extend to religious preaching in public buildings.As Political Science Professor Baytoram Ramharack would attest, Rawls’ writings were compulsory readings for those of us who did degrees in Political Science in CUNY and NYU. For simplicity, in short, Rawls wrote on rights and advocates for maximum liberty. Some analysts have extended Rawls’ writings to the field of religion (a Rawlsian theory of faith). They argue that Rawls supported a diversity of views, and as such, people’s views on religion should not be censored. Through a third-source interpretation of Rawls, Jeffrey feels Anderson should be allowed the freedom to preach in public schools, giving his opinion of other faiths irrespective of how caustic they are.That very broad generalised interpretation of Rawls is not supported in his extensive writings. Rawls’ Theory of Rights is not unlimited or infinite. For example, Rawls did not support the right of the dreaded Klu Klux Klan to attack Blacks in the United States. And Rawls did not endorse Jim Crow laws that segregated people on account of race or religion. For Rawls, a religious zealot or fanatic does not have freedom to attack people, because he disagrees with their religious practice. The preacher is not God to determine which is the best religious practice or whether his branch of Christianity is better than other Christian denominations. Regardless of the amount of freedom one should have, in the Rawlsian mould, one’s action is constrained and bound by laws as well as by morality, a sense of decency of what is right and wrong, and by not engaging in speeches that would create social disorder.Contrary to what Prof Jeffrey penned, Swami Aksharnanda’s interpretation of Rawls is not too narrow. Swami-ji’s writings do not object to the study of religion in the curriculum. Swami, like me, is opposed to an attack on people based on their religious belief or an attack on any faith. For Rawls, all speeches, including preaching, must advance knowledge and be in the public good. Nowhere in Rawls’ writings is there the freedom to derogate other people’s beliefs. The gist of Rawls’ theory behind unlimited rights of the individual is to create a peaceful and tolerant society. Attacking other people’s faiths would in no way promote peace and stability. So Prof Jeffrey errs in his invoking of religious freedom to Anderson. The issue isn’t one of freedom of speech or right to practice religion or to educate others about religious faiths. It is one of whether a pastor or anyone can go into a public building and attack people by race or religion. In the US, such attacks fall under free speech that are protected but not in a public building. And furthermore, they are repudiated by the media, the Government and politicians as hate speech and do not belong in a multi-ethnic, multireligious society.Swami-ji is right – the State must not take sides on religion as Rawls was of the view that the State should be secular or neutral in the sphere of religion. I don’t think Prof Jeffrey himself would support proselytisation in public (State) structures, but that is exactly what the pastor was doing in “his sermons” at the public schools. Religious proselytisation is different from religious discourse at educational institutions. Comparative religions can and should be taught at public schools and students should have an understanding of the basic concepts of the world’s major religions – after all religion does shape our (most of us anyway) lifestyle. Teaching and preaching are completely different activities; they are dialectically distinct, and they should not be mistaken for one another.In sum, in reading Rawls and interpretations of him by many eminent scholars, freedom of speech and academic freedom do not extend to freedom to proselytise in public institutions. The pastor cannot claim and Prof Jeffrey cannot grant him such a Rawlsian right as it does not directly exist. The pastor’s right to free speech in a public building, proselytising, and worse using hate speech against others, are indefensible.Yours truly,Dr Vishnu Bisramlast_img

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