Religion in the Ranks: Religion in the Canadian Forces in the 21st Century
Benham Rennick, Joanne
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Religion in the Ranks offers insights into the role of religion in the modern bureaucratic institution of the Canadian Forces and the nature of religious identity among its personnel. This study of religion in a modern Canadian institution relies first on historical sociological analysis to identify the role that religion has traditionally played in the CF both in the institution of the chaplaincy and in the lives of individuals. However, given the broader social developments of the past century that have seen the authority of religious institutions wane in the face of individualism and secularization, this study goes further to examine the role religion plays in the lives of personnel in the Canadian Forces today. While traditionally religion in Canada was governed by religious authorities and institutions it now includes more diffuse, privatized, subjectivated and individualized forms that can only be studied by asking individuals about their beliefs. Consequently, this study also relies on field research in the form of in-depth interviews with both chaplains (those who represent traditional religious institutions) and personnel who may or may not affiliate with a religious tradition. This research provides three insights of particular relevance to understanding religion in late modernity. First, it demonstrates that religion persists in an individualized, subjectivated 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 the new social conditions that give rise to this new form of religious identity. 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. 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, Muslims, etc). 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. These three observations demonstrate that despite important changes in the structure and culture of religious identity and practice, religion persists in this putatively secular social institution. Despite the obvious signs of secularization, my interviews showed that this new form of individualistic and subjective forms of religion served a variety of purposes for 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 one’s purpose for existing. Moreover, for several of the participants in this study, religion played a mediating role between the alienating forces of modernity that effected people working in large bureaucratic modern institutions. This study also revealed 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 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. 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 the world’s various religious traditions. Whereas traditional Christian worldviews prevailed in earlier times, religion in Canada today is marked by pluralism, individualism and rapid change. Finally, my study found that despite the challenges posed by secularization, the transformation of religious identity and belonging, and the new religious pluralism, CF personnel remained loyal to the military chaplaincy. The transformation of the chaplaincy to these new conditions illustrates the adaptability of religious institutions in the face of modern influences. Despite requirements to fit their religious vocations into a system based on reason, 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 to ensuring “operational effectiveness” by keeping personnel fit for and effective in their duties, chaplains understand their role as being essential to helping personnel to order their experiences, providing comfort in the face of suffering, loneliness and fear, as well as interpreting some of the violence they see in their role. Furthermore, the transformation of the chaplaincy into a multifaith institution over the last fifty 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. The evidence of the continuing significance of religion for individuals employed by a highly-bureaucratic organization such as the military indicates the continuing significance religion can have in a secular Canadian institution. It is a clear indication that despite secularizing trends that have resulted in the privatization and subjectivization of religion, religion persists in its significance, albeit in new forms, for many people. Further, indications that people turn to religious resources in times of hardship and stress suggests that religion and religious resources may retain their significance as a source of comfort and consolation despite a resistance to traditional organized forms of religion. Religion and religious diversity in Canadian society, despite their changing forms, will continue to be important social and cultural reference points for present and future generations.