Home Religion Religion in the Ranks: Belief and Religious Experience in the Canadian Forces
The Late Modern Approach to Religion
For our purposes, 'religion' and 'religious thinking' indicate people's efforts to pursue what they define as transcendent ideals as well as to investigate the 'big questions' of life (such as notions of an ultimate reality, the existence of the divine, their purpose in life, and efforts to reach higher states of being). Adopting a relatively straightforward definition of religion risks hiding the complexity and ambiguity of the phenomenon - especially in the conditions of late modern, globalized society. Our definition of religion then attends to both the public and the private views, considers the beliefs, practices, community, and institutions, and recognizes that some views are based in tradition but have taken on a private form and interpretation. It is understood as both contingent on the experiences and interpretation of those I interviewed and dependent upon some underlying aspect of the established social norms and values of Canadian and military society. It is one means by which personnel define and understand themselves, establish their values, and develop a sense of purpose in life, as well as relate their individual interests to their military career. I identify religion variously as 'formal or institutional religion,' 'private religion,' and 'personal spirituality.' Where people participate in a particular religious institution, as in the case of military chaplains, I use the term 'formal religion.' Where people identify with a formal religious tradition but do not participate in an organized community, I use the term 'private religion.' Where people describe a vaguely defined sense of a power or force beyond themselves or reject the term 'religion' or 'religious,' I use the term 'personal spirituality.'
Military members I interviewed had a tendency to pit the term 'spiritual' against 'religious.'4 They understood 'religion' to pertain to formal religious groups and organizations and 'spirituality' to connote personal ideas and practices relating to the transcendent. When I asked individuals why they were uncomfortable using the term religion, they made comments such as, 'Well, I don't go to church,' and 'Religion is about rules,' and 'My spirituality is my own. It's not something someone else made up and then forced on me' (Benham Rennick 2006d). Being 'religious' implied an association with and acceptance of a formal, institutional, communal creed and formula, whereas being 'spiritual' implied reliance on internal and self-directed exploration of existential and transcendent issues. Despite this differentiation between 'spirituality' and 'religion,' the importance of being free to choose one's religious perspective was evident in every interview I conducted, whether people associated with traditional and formal religions, had only a vague sense of their spiritual identity, or rejected religion entirely. This trend demonstrates the pervasiveness of modern forces such as individualism and subjectivation and demonstrates a need to go beyond statistical information to personal interviews, since, even within communities with highly developed doctrines, individuals today increasingly interpret religious traditions for themselves. In all of my interviews I asked participants to define and explain their religious or spiritual beliefs to me in their own words. By allowing individuals to provide their own definitions of spirituality and religion, I could let those who might otherwise fall into what the Canadian Census calls the 'no religion' category have a voice here.
Unlike those who see the current context as 'postmodern,' that is, a new era separate from that which has been defined as 'classically modern,' I view the present milieu as a second wave of modernity where much of what was established during the industrialized era (e.g., scientific rationalism, progress, and bureaucratic efficiency) remains within a society now dominated by globalized interests, scientific and technological advances, greater information exchange, and a more relativistic - even cynical at times - outlook towards any one claim to 'the truth.' I employ Hervieu-Leger's term 'late modernity' to identify the present sociological and historical situation (2000).
Late modern trends towards pluralism, shifting identities, and greater individualism have significant consequences for CF members and the military institution. While many traditional forms of religion persist - and others are lost - religious activities increasingly occur outside of traditional sacred spaces. Late modern individuals may find community in a traditional church or synagogue, an on-line 'virtual community,' or a course dedicated to alternative healing. Members of a religious community might live in close proximity or far apart, connected only by satellite television and internet resources. Whether spiritual pursuits occur in communities or in solitude, individuals' desires for self-improvement and growth as well as alienating aspects of late modern society frequently push them towards religion. Even as these pursuits focus mainly on the individual, they are shaped and influenced by one's inherited traditions and values. Furthermore, individual interests that focus on late modern concerns such as environmentalism and health crises establish social cohesion among otherwise disparate individuals by identifying a baseline of shared values.
Like Canadians in civilian society, Canadian Forces personnel are products of, and participants in, late modernity. They are self-directed and self-governing even though the majority share a common Christian heritage and commitment to military objectives. Moreover, they are all members of an organization whose structure and ethos developed out of a Christian social context and which retains many of the markers of that Christian influence and interest. Because the past two decades have witnessed the privatization of religion in Canada, many people have developed a sort of cultural amnesia that obscures the Christian origins of many of the Canadian interests and values (such as duty, honour, respect, loyalty, integrity, and self-sacrifice) so firmly embedded in military society. Even non-religious military personnel understand these Canadian values as central to the 'honourable' responsibilities of military service and, without necessarily recognizing or valuing their origins, they are united in the shared military ethos that is formed by them. As a result, although many in the CF are not religious, they participate in the traditions and uphold the values of the Canadian military in such a way as to establish and maintain a social cohesiveness that results in a distinct military culture.
What follows is a compilation of the data presented in such a way as to protect the identity of those who participated - an express stipulation of both UW ORE and DHRRE ethics clearance. The Canadian Forces are both insular and highly integrated. The principle of universality of service means that military members can be posted anywhere they are needed by the CF. This means that personnel are posted to a variety of locations and work with others from across the country. As a result, many people in the CF know each other and could easily identify another member with only a few, key pieces of information such as rank, location, or service. This is particularly true for women, homosexuals, and visible and religious minorities, as well as for chaplains, who number less than 200 in the regular forces. In order to avoid exposing participants' identities, where it does not confuse or distort the data, I have changed or obscured the location of an interview, unit, mission, or rank. For example, instead of identifying someone as a lieutenant colonel, I might refer to him or her as a senior officer. A few of the people I interviewed are truly unique in the forces and it is with great difficulty that I can refer to them at all without making their identity obvious. In the cases where I provide a name or other information about personnel, that information is available publicly elsewhere and I have cited the source.
Despite being unable to identify personally the many people who assisted me in this research, I am deeply indebted to the chaplains, senior officers, and personnel of the Canadian Forces. They were generous with their time, resources, and insights. They assisted me by sending documents and reports that, as a civilian, I could not otherwise have easily obtained. They welcomed me on bases and introduced me to members of all ranks and backgrounds, referred me to various resources that could further my study, shared their own research with me, and were willing participants themselves. Similarly, personnel gave freely of their time and insights and directed me to other potential participants.
Having started this project with a particular and not altogether flattering stereotype of the military, I come away from it with a far deeper understanding of the diversity and depth of character of the people who commit themselves to matters of national security at the expense of their freedom, relationships, safety, and sometimes their lives. What I learned is that many people in the rational, disciplined, and resilient world of the CF have faith. Many more have a basic knowledge of the Christian principles that undergird Canadian society and a tendency to interpret (and in some cases reject) them according to their own interests and values. The religious beliefs and values of military personnel are not always well defined or doctrinally specific and they often have little to do with organized religion. Not surprisingly perhaps, beliefs become most poignant in times of hardship and stress. I also found that CF personnel have a genuine attachment to their chaplains. Unlike civilian ministers, who have little to offer most people that fit the military stereotype, chaplains are highly valued as mentors and counsellors, as well as sources of courage and consolation - even among people who claim no religious affiliation.
Although military members participate in a modern, secular institution, some people rely on religious identity and experience both to confront and conform to military life. This study demonstrates how the structural trends of modernization, specifically secularization (especially as an element of differentiation), the rise of individualism, the emergence of a greater ethno-religious pluralism, and bureaucratization (including the rationalization of the chaplaincy and the rise of credentialism in the process of recruitment and promotion of chaplains) have influenced the way religion operates in the CF today. Despite modern influences such as deinstitutionalization and subjectivation, religion retains significance for many people; especially in dealing with questions of values, meaning, and morals as well as issues relating to operational stress. For the CF as a social institution, religion also remains an important feature, not only as a means of maintaining the 'operational effectiveness' (that is, efficient and effective operations at the individual, group, and institutional level), but also, ironically, by providing a system of meaning, belonging, and communication outside of the rational bureaucracy of the military.
I sincerely hope that Religion in the Ranks will benefit military personnel and their families by alerting policy-makers and military leaders to the continuing significance of religion in the CF. Furthermore, I hope to make a contribution to the sociological study of religion, particularly with respect to how religion continues to operate in institutions and individuals' lives in largely secularized societies.
The book is organized in such a way as to demonstrate the connection between the socio-historical religious developments in Canada and modern-day conditions in the CF. Chapter 2 makes a close examination of the civilian and military influences that helped shape the official and formal face of religion in the CF: the Chaplain Branch. In chapters 3 and 4 I examine religion among the rank and file in both its private and public forms. I examine the relationship of the religious identities and practices described by personnel in the context of the themes presented here; namely, secularization, privatization, and the subjecti- vation of religion. Further, I look at the alienating and inherently stressful aspects of military life as an influence on religious activities. Finally, in chapter 5 I present a summary of the data, indicate the significance of the research to military and religious studies, and offer some recommendations for future research in this area.
As I have already stated, there is virtually no research on the role religion plays in the secular, late modern institution of Canada's military forces. While this is not a book about military culture per se, it does offer some insights that military sociologists might find useful to apply to studies on military culture. No doubt those better versed in the field of military studies will make those connections, identify gaps in this study, and draw further connections that I may have missed. Hopefully, however, this exploratory study of the role of religion in the Canadian military makes a meaningful contribution to both military and religious studies that will inspire future research examining the ongoing influences of religion in late modernity, religion in Canada, religion as a source of values, religion in secular institutions, and the relationship between stress and religious interests.
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