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Privatization of Religion

Those who study religion in modernity frequently point to the growing significance of religious individualism and the importance of a self- defined world view. For many people, including those who continue to participate in established religious communities, this subjective outlook takes precedence over established religious doctrines (Hervieu-Leger 2000; Roof 1999; Wuthnow 1998). This individualized and self-directed interpretation of ultimate meaning comes in part as a rejection of traditional ways of believing. One base chaplain working in a predominantly Christian province explained, 'We live in a period of post-Christendom. So many people are very angry and uncomfortable with Christianity because of the many failings of the Church - and rightly so, I don't blame them. I meet post-Christians all the time in this job. They've come from a Christian background and heritage and, although they continue to be very spiritual people and they retain some of that heritage, they're not willing to express their beliefs in that context anymore because of the damage that's been done and the harm the churches have caused. They can no longer relate to the Christian churches. For them, religion is what is done to innate human spirituality. They continue to be quite spiritual but it's not formal - they don't want the religion.'

A homosexual member of the air force gave evidence of this type of thinking and the significance of religious individualism by saying, 'I am not a religious person. I believe there's something out there but I feel that religion is entirely human made. It's a bunch of rules for you to follow. I don't go to church - especially because of the way most churches deal with gays. That really turns me off. I don't like the way they label people. I'm more comfortable with the term spirituality. To me that indicates more of a way of thinking, having a particular attitude, being positive and hopeful, that type of thing.' A woman said, 'I believe there is something bigger than us. I don't believe in religion, especially organized religion because I think it often creates more problems than it solves. I believe in a God and that we have a purpose in being here.'

While people argue that anger at the churches makes them resistant to formal religion, they persist in having religious interests that are directed and inspired by their personal definition of what is important. This privatization of religion is not exclusively a response to anger at abuses by clergy in authority over children in orphanages, residential schools, and boarding schools; it is also a side-effect of the differentiation of social roles in modern society. Bramadat argues that today in Canada there is a 'fairly deeply entrenched general assumption in federal, provincial, and municipal governments, and in the broader society, that religious life should be considered private, as something the state and polite adults should consider off limits, like one's sexual proclivities' (2005, 6).

This idea that a person's religious interests might be 'none of your business' was made clear to me by a soldier I approached to request an interview. He responded angrily, saying, 'I feel that I'm not qualified to comment. You'd be better to direct your inquiries to one of the padres. I have NRE [No Religion] on my dog tags - my spirituality is a very private matter and frankly, I'd like to keep it that way.' His stated claim of having 'no religion' is not, in fact, an indication of nihilism. Instead, it is an indication that his beliefs are 'none of your business,' private, and not open to further examination or discussion.

The rejection of traditional religious authority as well as the very private nature of personal spirituality makes some of the 'old military traditions' distasteful experiences for many personnel. For example, within the CF today a number of traditions continue to impose formal Christian beliefs on personnel who are not always appreciative. Although religious parades and ceremonies are to be voluntary according to chaplain branch policy, there are still some instances when personnel feel imposed on by the presence of religious tradition at military functions. A sailor told me, 'We have this mandatory parade called "divisions"- it's a navy thing where you have to go on parade and a lot of times there are prayers and, even if the chaplain's not with us, the captain or first officer or someone will say the prayers and they're praying to Jesus. I don't like this and others don't like this because lots of people don't pray to Jesus and frankly, I think it's disrespectful. You're required to be at the parade and therefore you're required to listen to the prayers. I know that religious events are supposed to be non-denominational because I looked it up on the chaplain general's homepage, but they're actually not.' She continued, '[Jews and Muslims on board] were not happy about it! And I know they had problems with the predominance of Christianity on board - but even a lot of the Christians are bugged by the forced part of it. If they're going to involve religion, they better be respectful about it. When you enlist, you have certain expectations about what you're going to have to put up with, but even in civilian life you don't have to agree with your boss or co-workers. You don't have to worship with them!' She continued, 'Just recently at a mess dinner6 I was asked beforehand to say grace. I told my senior officer that I don't "do" grace but the officer pushed it and asked me again at the meal and I refused again - publicly.' She half-smiled. 'I was "spoken to" about that afterwards! Mostly because I had embarrassed him, I think, but I was spoken to. But yeah, it's the forced participation that bugs me the most.'

Another non-religious army member remarked, 'I really think that they need to have more of a sense of religion as something that's personal for people. I'm not sure there should be a place for public prayers in the military - at a memorial service, ok, because you're not forced to attend - where people attend because it's mandatory for them to do so.'

Resentment towards formal religion and preference for privatized notions of religious belief are not less evident in Quebec, despite the fact that statistics show that approximately 83% of Francophones continue to identify themselves as Roman Catholic (Statistics Canada 2004b). Sociologists of religion interpret this paradox as an effect of cultural and traditional affiliation rather than as an active and personal religious choice. They point to the fact that while only about 20% of Quebec Catholics attend Mass regularly, many go for important events such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals (Bibby 2002, 80; Lemieux and Montminy 2000, 69; Seljak 2000, 133). One senior chaplain explained to me that Francophones in the CF 'are almost all baptized [Roman Catholic]-more than 80% because they are baptized as a baby and they don't have a choice! In the CF about 50% [of all personnel] are Roman Catholic anyway and about 40% are French.' Those Quebecois who are Protestant tend to be evangelicals. Despite evidence of growth among Christian evangelicals in Quebec, Bibby notes that this movement is neither large nor widespread, as most Quebecois, even though they find few 'personal benefits' in Roman Catholicism, are 'adamant about the fact that they have no interest in switching to another religious tradition' (2002, 81-2).

Despite their unwillingness to switch, Francophones, like numbers of their Anglophone peers, harbour resentments towards the Church. A Francophone who 'rarely' attends Mass explained, 'In the French Canadian context, there is extreme discomfort with organized traditional religion because of the Roman Catholic experience but there is still a strong interest in spiritual experiences. People don't want to be denominationally pigeon-holed. The Roman Catholic experience in Quebec has made people very edgy and wary of traditional, organized religion.' A Francophone padre stated, 'In Quebec, they have a view of God that is associated with religion, the past, and pain... They're very bitter about the past, very frustrated about it, and they reject faith. They reject religion and, if they turn to something, it will be a spiritual experience which doesn't have religious connotations or Christian connotations . . . They have presupposed what God should be and since the reality doesn't match their idea of what God should be then [they believe] there cannot be a God. People can have a very emotional response to God. There is a type who defends God, one who rejects God, and one who talks to God - and that talking to God can be in anger, or frustration, but it's still talking. I think some people fear that God will reject them so people just leave.'

At the same time that they are angry with the church, however, they retain an association with it as a cultural indicator of Quebec identity. Lemieux and Montminy describe this as 'un catholicisme sans Eglise' and note that to this cultural identity Roman Catholics from Quebec add any number of esoteric and occult beliefs (2000, 98-100). A Francophone trauma counsellor said, '[Francophone] military personnel are very spiritual people. I think mostly their spirituality is connected to fear and death . . . They're talking a lot about how they see God, life. There's a lot of people who are into New Age - they take a little bit of this and a little of that to make their own religion. They are angry at the Church. There are not so many that are interested in the Church - probably not more than 5-10%; but they are very spiritual.'

Another chaplain described the Quebecois fascination for the occult, saying, 'French and English [people] don't look at spirituality the same way. English people relate spirituality with . . . religious faith. For most French people spirituality equals "mysticism" and mystical experience where you have occultism and all kind of esoteric approaches to the experience. New Age movements are part of that experience . . . French people are much more inclined to esoteric experiences and occultism. Much more than the English people - no doubt about it, I've seen that.'

Francophone personnel retain cultural ties to their Roman Catholic tradition while incorporating alternative religious thinking as well as interpreting their beliefs subjectively. Like their Anglophone counterparts, what we see among Quebecois is both a resentment of traditional religious authorities and a retained interest in spiritual matters. The result is a group of people whose beliefs are highly subjective, individualized, and private, even though the majority of them identify themselves simply as 'Roman Catholic.'

 
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