Home Religion Religion in the Ranks: Belief and Religious Experience in the Canadian Forces
The Continuing Significance of Religion
Even as participation in traditional religion wanes among military personnel, we find that interest in religion remains significant in the Canadian Forces. As one soldier commented, '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.'
A study of religion in the Canadian Forces provides three insights of particular relevance to understanding religion in late modernity. First, it demonstrates that religion persists in an individualized, subjecti- vated, and diffuse state in the military (as it does in Canadian society), and even people who belong to traditional religious communities have to wrestle with this fact. Second, it indicates a new religious pluralism stemming from individual interpretations of belief that produce new ways of being religious (e.g., Pagans) in addition to the pluralism that comes from integrating immigrants from minority religious traditions (e.g., Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhist, and Muslims). Third, it points to the continuing relevance of the chaplaincy, an institution inherited from Canada's Christian past that has been able, more or less successfully, to adapt to these new conditions.
Despite the obvious signs of secularization, Religion in the Ranks shows that religious interests persist in individualistic and subjective forms among CF personnel. The personal religious beliefs of the people I interviewed offered them opportunities to examine the uncertain or unknowable aspects of life and death, morality and ethics, good and evil, as well as their purpose for existing. As we saw earlier, even those who continued to participate in formal religious traditions increasingly interpreted their beliefs for themselves. They often added elements of different religious traditions to the beliefs and practices of their own, while ignoring certain aspects of the tradition by which they identified themselves. Modern conditions make the rise of individualism and subjectivation of religion virtually inescapable, since even those who remain in traditional and authoritarian religious communities must now choose to do so. Moreover, for several of the participants in this study, religion played a mediating role between their personal lives and the alienating forces of modernity that affected people working in large bureaucratic modern institutions.
Religion in the Ranks also reveals the depth and breadth of the new religious pluralism that has marked Canadian society since the 1960s. This pluralism has several sources. First, Canadians raised in the Christian tradition have, thanks to the forces of individualism and subjectivation discussed above, adopted a variety of non-conformist religious perspectives, such as Wicca, neo-Paganism, and other new religious movements as well as that diffuse and poorly defined form of religious identity called 'spiritual but not religious.' Second, the rise of traditional Aboriginal spirituality among Aboriginal personnel has meant a 'return' or conversion to Aboriginal spirituality for many CF personnel - especially since Aboriginal people are disproportionately represented in Canada's armed forces. Finally, immigration has resulted in an increase in religious diversity, and the CF has had to deal with an increase in the numbers of its members who identify themselves as Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, or members of other religious traditions. Whereas traditional Christian worldviews prevailed in earlier times, religion in Canada today is marked by pluralism, individualism, and rapid change.
Finally, we have seen that, despite the challenges posed by secularization, the transformation of religious identity and belonging, and the new religious pluralism, CF personnel remain loyal to the military chaplaincy. The transformation of the chaplaincy to the conditions of late modernity illustrates the adaptability of religious institutions in the face of modern influences. Despite requirements to fit their religious vocations into a system based on rationalism, bureaucracy, and the requirement for 'acceptable' credentials, chaplains have been able to retain and even expand their place within the military. They have done this by adapting to aspects of military society while remaining outside the formal structures that govern other military personnel. Moreover, they have modified their role to accommodate new religious realities by taking on duties such as pastoral care and 'generic' ministry to all military members regardless of their faith tradition. While senior military officials see the chaplains' presence as a means of ensuring operational effectiveness by keeping personnel fit for and effective in their duties, chaplains understand their role as essential for helping personnel order their experiences, providing comfort in the face of suffering, loneliness, and fear and interpreting some of the violence they see in their role. Furthermore, the transformation of the chaplaincy into an interfaith institution over the last 50 years has been remarkable. This transition has not been without its contradictions, conflicts, and difficulties. While much work remains to be done, the chaplaincy has adapted to the challenges of pluralism with some degree of success.
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