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Subjectivization and the Religious Quest

For military personnel coming out of a Christian heritage, an individualized search for meaning appears to be the new norm. While numbers of people continue to believe in aspects of a religious tradition, they may reject the denominational label or reinvent beliefs in accordance with their own interpretations. This subjectivization of religious belief is noted by a number of scholars who examine religion in late modernity. For example, Hervieu-Leger argues that when people link religious tradition with new ways of interpreting meaning they retain the symbolic, ideological, and practical benefits of belonging to a community of believers without diminishing the significance of their personal experiences and interpretations of the meaning behind the beliefs (2000, 82). Lemieux and Montminy, describing Catholicism in Quebec, state that this individualized faith is a religion that lacks a church body, a faith community, or even its own proper identity (2000, 88), yet it retains meaning for Quebecois in the ways Hervieu-Leger has described. Robert Fuller describes these people simply as 'spiritual but not religious' (2000).

Military personnel provided numerous examples of the awkward relationship people in late modernity can have with formal religion as well as giving evidence of efforts to interpret meaning for themselves. An infantry sergeant told me, 'I was raised Anglican - that's my background, but I wouldn't described myself that way. I'd probably describe myself as "none of the above"!' A soldier in his early thirties said, 'I see my spirituality as a different way of rationalizing stuff that's going on in the world.' A Francophone Canadian remarked, 'My spirituality is best identified in my sense of good and evil. I've moved away from the idea that most Christians have of God being someone you ask for things like protection and good tidings. I no longer find that understanding credible.' The subjectivation of religion to personal interpretation illustrated here seems to go hand-in-hand with the notion of religious 'seeking' described by Roof (1999) and Wuthnow (1998).

Of the people I interviewed, almost every practising believer and several of those with 'no religion' described seeking and choosing as an important part of their spiritual development. Although some elected to stay with the faith in which they were raised, these people remarked that they had examined other possibilities before returning to their family tradition. Others described their personal religious beliefs as a reaction to the religious beliefs with which they had been raised. A number of people expressed their spirituality as a vague and ill-defined search for meaning and purpose. A woman who claimed to have 'no value for religion' but believed humanity is 'here for a purpose' remarked paradoxically, 'I go to church sometimes - actually, I go to a lot of churches. I don't hate them all - sometimes I get a lot of peace from being in a church.' A Francophone soldier commented that although many people in the CF reject formal religion, 'Religion, faith, and spirituality are still very important for many people. Almost all of us want to believe there is something above us giving purpose and meaning to our lives and experiences - even if we don't know what that something is.' Another person said, 'Sure I'll pray that something happens or doesn't happen if I'm worrying or frightened, but I don't know who I'm praying to!' He laughed. 'But I do pray . . . I just pray to . . . whatever!' He laughed again, then shrugged. 'When I think about [the attacks of 11 September 2001] and things like that, I wonder, if there was a God, would he or she really let that kind of thing happen?'

Along with evidence of spiritual seeking and religious thinking, openness to spiritual opportunities was also evident among personnel. One woman with no religious affiliation described a difficult personal situation that inspired religious thinking and a religious quest as she struggled to cope with it. She said, 'Several years ago my ex-husband and his family were murdered. That was really hard for me. That was definitely a spiritual time in my life. I spent a lot of time jogging and working things out in my head. I talked to myself and I meditated [but] I definitely would have appreciated some spiritual guidance and support during that time. That would have helped me. I would have appreciated the contact - even if they just said "We heard and we're sorry, is there anything we can do?" But I didn't get it - not from anyone I knew at the time.'

A petty officer with no religious beliefs told me, 'My last boss was very spiritual - he was a Buddhist. He always tells me to be happy and leave work behind. He says that what is important in life is your family - that's a pretty unusual attitude in the CF because you're supposed to put Canada and Canadian values before yourself and your family. Buddhism and his sense of spirituality appeal to me because of the meditation aspect. I wish I had some resources like that.'

A young female soldier who had grown up in a Christian home but does not affiliate with any religious group explained, 'I might call myself more of a Wiccan because I'm open to the idea that there is more than one god and I love the idea of Mother Nature and anything about nature really.'

Those who participate in formal religious traditions made similar statements regarding the search for and selection of their personal religious values as well as the authority of subjective interpretations over formal doctrine. One man told me he had grown up in a Christian home and finally converted to Islam after 'a long spiritual journey.' Paradoxically, a soldier raised in a Muslim home said, 'I didn't always buy into Islam. I had to do a lot of research and comparison before I was convinced. First I had to decide if I believed there was a creator and when I felt sure of that, I went out looking at all kinds of religions trying to see which one fit best with what I believed. I had my doubts - everyone does - but I went all out to try to understand and see if I could believe. I needed to find a religious perspective that made sense to me.' A convert to evangelical Christianity who was very active in his denomination nevertheless argued, 'I don't really like the word religion; I prefer just to call myself a Christian.'

Even after finding a sense of spirituality that 'made sense' to them, a few people continued to struggle with uncertainty and personal interpretations of their faith. A Muslim explained that, since his initial conversion experience, he had grown less fastidious in his religious practice. He said, 'I've become more lax since my initial conversion. I don't pray as much. I'm not too hung up on Halal meat and that kind of thing. My core beliefs in Islam are still there but I'm less attached to the dogma. Some of that has come from minor conflicts with my family. Islam is not about creating conflict so I let some of those things go that were upsetting my relationships with my family. I think being in university has caused me to think more critically about a lot of my beliefs and now I find that there are a number of aspects of Islam on which I prefer to reserve judgment. Before I would just have looked at things - like take Shari'a family law for example - and I would have said "Yes, this is good, this is the way it is supposed to be." But now I find I reserve judgment on that.'

A practising Protestant described similar struggles with his continuing efforts to make sense of his religious beliefs. He said, 'I have difficulty with the whole notion of divine intervention when I see so many other heinous things happening around the world ... Why no intervention there? It's a real questioning point for me. I don't know how to rationalize that whole concept. Is it luck? Is it natural influences? I don't know. I can't answer that, but my rationalization process makes it hard to jump to the idea of divine intervention [saving us from bad situations] . . . I've talked about it with my minister. He says that if you don't have questions, you're probably not really seeking in your spirituality, so I'm ok with having some questions about what I believe.' One can see this individual's application of scientific rationalism embedded within his individual and subjective efforts to 'make sense' of his spiritual ideas.

The lack of data on religion in the military makes it impossible to state definitively the nature of religion in the ranks. However, existing statistics on military society and religion in Canada allow us to piece together information that suggests a relatively homogenous environment of 'passive' or non-practising Christians who elevate personal interpretations of spirituality above denominational authority and atheism. There are also those who resist formal religion while remaining open to spiritual experiences and still others who continue to seek understanding and insight into the traditions they have embraced. Regardless of their religious point of view, the individualized and subjectivated nature of their beliefs is evident. These qualities are key indicators of human experience in late modernity. Whereas one variety of modern thinking would dismiss religious beliefs out of hand as impossible to test, prove, or quantify through scientific means, the late modern appreciation for personal interpretation and a variety of experience allows individuals to examine religious issues through both a rational and a subjective lens. This commingling of modern tendencies to apply scientific reasoning and late modern tendencies to elevate personal interpretive authority above traditional authority gives us striking insights into the way religion is re-made in late modernity.

 
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