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Home arrow Religion arrow Religion in the Ranks: Belief and Religious Experience in the Canadian Forces

Private Religion

The vast majority of CF personnel are young, nominally Christian males who have some interest in spiritual and existential issues although they are not necessarily active in a religious organization. Because they frequently have little appreciation for traditional religious authority, their thinking about these matters is individualized and self-directed. Despite a lack of data to clearly identify religious affiliation in the CF, my interviews suggest that many military members are living examples of the late modern trends towards secularization and subjectivization.

A Dearth of Statistics

One of the most significant hurdles for establishing the religious affiliation of CF personnel is that, although the information is collected, it is not compiled. Enlisting military personnel are required to identify their religious affiliation, or non-affiliation, when they join the CF. Personnel have the option of selecting 'no religion,' in which case the initials 'NRE' appear on their dog tags. Religious affiliation is marked on one's dog tags and compiled for unit padres and commanders when new personnel join a unit, but it is not compiled across the forces. Up until the mid-1990s, the CF did collect and compile this data until, as one senior chaplain told me, 'Someone decided the question [about religious affiliation] was irrelevant and had it removed from the form. We've been trying to get it back on ever since.' As a result, military officials have no accurate information on the religious makeup of the troops.

According to the 1990s statistics on religion in the military, the majority of personnel at the time were 'mostly Christian and mostly Catholic if they have any religion at all.' Since then, Census reports show significant growth among non-traditional religious groups in Canada. Simultaneously, the CF has been making efforts to incorporate greater numbers of minority personnel. As we shall see later in this chapter, ethnicity and religion frequently go hand-in-hand, implying that a greater number of minority groups in the ranks is likely to increase religious diversity in them too. Because of these changes, along with the fact that there is no evidence to show otherwise, both the DND and the Chaplain Branch posit that religious affiliation in the CF is similar to that of Canada. According to this reasoning, the CF should be predominantly Christian with a small secondary population of Muslims and very small numbers of other minority groups.2 Trends among young men and trends in Quebec require us to look more closely at what religion in the CF might actually look like.

Of all the regions in Canada, only British Columbia and the Yukon Territories reported greater percentages of people having 'no religion' (39% and 37% respectively) than those belonging to one of the Christian denominations (Statistics Canada 2004a, 2004b). While statistics show that 79% of enlisted personnel come from the regions of Canada that have predominantly Christian populations (Statistics Canada 2007),3

77% of those who join are young Caucasian males between the ages of 17 and 24 years (Auditor General of Canada 2006, 2.28, 5.51; DND 2004; Holden 2005).4 Studies on youth in Canada indicate that young men are most likely to report 'no religion,' despite having been raised in a religious home (Bibby 2002, 79-88; Bibby and Posterski 1985; Statistics Canada 2004a). In fact, Statistics Canada reports, 'On average, people who reported they had no religion tended to be younger than the general population. Almost 40% were aged 24 and under, compared with 33% of the total population. Their median age was 31 years, below the overall median age of 37 for the general population. Males were more likely to report no religion than were females' (Statistics Canada 2004a). This means that even though the majority of members enter from largely Christian provinces, their gender and age group make them far more likely than general Canadian society to disavow religion.

Another problem with assuming that military society reflects broader Canadian society is the situation in Quebec. While statistics show that the largest majority of Quebecois identify themselves as Roman Catholic, other research indicates that Roman Catholicism in Quebec has more to do with culture and heritage than active participation (Bibby 2002; Lemieux and Montminy 2000). Furthermore, one could easily speculate that religious groups with strong military traditions such as Sikhs and Aboriginals join the CF in larger numbers than are present in civilian society.5 These three trends indicate a need to test the assumption that religion in military society is similar to that of Canadian society.

Without valid data on religion, it is difficult to say what the majority of CF personnel believe. However, available evidence shows that most Canadian military personnel are young, Caucasian males from provinces that report Christian denominations as the primary religion. One lieutenant colonel explained, 'We take that information [on religious beliefs] when they come in, just in case something happens, and most will declare a religious affiliation. The ones that aren't religious aren't the majority, but they're a growing minority.' These types of speculations from personnel and chaplains at all levels and various locations throughout Canada suggest that the majority of CF personnel are what one person described as 'passively religious' and mainly Christian. One senior officer in a large urban centre remarked, 'I would say most people are passively religious - Christians that is. There are hardly any non-Christians.' A captain describing his regiment threw up his hands and smiled. 'We're all Christmas and Easter Christians here!' A Francophone pilot said, 'I'm Roman Catholic.' He gave a little laugh, shrugged, and added, 'We all are in Quebec... none of us go to Mass, but we're all Roman Catholic!' An air force mechanic describing himself as something of an agnostic told me that he occasionally attended church, 'mostly because it makes my father very happy.'

Speculation by those with access to members' personal records as well as statements such as these suggest that, even if they are not active in their faith, most personnel joining the CF bring with them some background in Christian principles and values, even if they have distanced themselves from traditional practices and formal institutions.

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