Home Religion Religion in the Ranks: Belief and Religious Experience in the Canadian Forces
Stigma and Anomie
Although the CF is a modern bureaucracy, it retains a formal religious institution in the form of the chaplaincy. This is partly because it retains a number of elements from an earlier era (for example, the notions of honour and self-sacrifice). Similarly, the chaplaincy and other religious resources - which allegedly represent non-rational elements - are helpful in dealing with irrationalities within the system by mediating between the bureaucratic and hierarchical elements of military society and basic human needs for familiarity, community, and support.
An example of religion's contribution to the effectiveness of the CF is the role of chaplains in assisting personnel suffering from the negative effects of stress and trauma. Although Canadian Forces policy-makers as well as senior commanders insist that efforts to increase treatment options and increase knowledge about operational stress with the aim of minimizing stigma are working, the personnel at the grassroots level to whom I spoke disagreed. Their recognition of this stigmatization caused them to turn to alternatives, including religious outlets, before seeking assistance from mental health professionals. The resources they pursued included personal religious practices (such as prayer and meditation), physical symbols (such as crosses and medallions), 'sacred spaces' (such as the chapel), and the person of the chaplain.
The person of the chaplain remained significant even for personnel who rejected formal religion because padres were able to maintain confidences and bypass the chain of command to resolve issues. They were considered 'safe' to talk to about personal problems because they play something of a neutral role in the competitive and hierarchical military environment. Other resources such as religious objects, the chapel, and various contemplative and meditative practices played a similar role by giving physical evidence to spiritual concerns as well as establishing 'neutral zones' separate from military life. The chapels provided a space of quiet respite; practices such as meditation, prayer, silent reflection, and group worship restored people's confidence and courage as well as providing them with a sense of equanimity; religious objects such as religious texts and medals created a visible indicator of protection, hope, and courage. In relying on these resources rather than the help of social workers, health care professionals, or mental health counsellors, personnel got their human needs met while avoiding the criticism of their peers and superiors as well as the stigma associated with needing mental, emotional, or physical help.
Along with helping to address mental health concerns, religious resources can be helpful for addressing moral anomie during a mission. Missions in regions where human rights abuses, genocide, and other forms of radical violence challenge a Canadian military member's sense of right and wrong may cause a profound sense of anomie or emotional, spiritual, and psychological chaos. Former Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire's experience with post-traumatic stress disorder following his mission to Rwanda during the genocide that occurred there is a prominent example of the potential damage attributable to such anomie (Dallaire 2003). Under these conditions, many people turned to the chaplains and religion to help them 'make sense' of their experiences. The evidence that individuals might turn to religious resources when their personal values were at odds with their experiences on a mission was significant in that it indicated a desire for moral and spiritual assistance even among those who were secular and individualistic in their religious outlook. Under such circumstances religion had the potential to influence moral and ethical decision-making at the same time as it could restore hope, give meaning to difficult but seemingly meaningless tasks, and create opportunities to 'do good' by helping others.
Although not all personnel are religious, there is evidence that they might still rely on religious resources at some point during their military career, as in the case of the atheist serving in Afghanistan who had some 'good discussions' with the padre. Although more research is required to determine the types of resources personnel value, it is clear that members appreciate opportunities to reflect on and discuss religious issues. If religious resources are not available to personnel, it is likely that many will refuse alternative sources of counsel that carry a stigma and will continue to bear the burdens of stress alone.
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