Recent Ministry of Defence statistics reveal that the number of non religious personnel is growing. Atheists and agnostics will outnumber Christian personnel by 2032. The military losing its faith is no bad thing. Indeed, it is a reflection of our changing society and move away from the knee-jerk reaction of many to list ‘C of E’ as their religion on joining the forces. The UK as a whole has growing number of non-religious people. The British Social Attitudes survey shows 48% of the UK population is non-religious, so these figures are not surprising. The military should be a cross-section of society. This should be the case in other areas such as race, sexuality, and gender. Indeed, the military has taken steps to recognise other faiths but continues to drag its feet where non-religious needs are concerned. The prevailing attitude seems to be that the non-religious do not require recognition. Perverse myths prevail in the forces, such as you will be last to be considered for time off at Christmas if you are not religious, or an unpleasant duty will be arranged for you if you refuse to attend a church service. Such attitudes, combined with a “cultural” link to Christianity mean the numbers of personnel listing their religion as Church of England will invariably swell. This is indicative of the military’s general ‘it’s just what you do’ desire to fit a uniform, overtly conservative pattern.
But this is changing. Service personnel no longer chose religious affiliation by default. The number of atheist and agnostics is not just a growing trend, it reflects the number of personnel who are making an actual informed choice. The number of non-religious in the forces is likely greater than reported, for the reasons stated above. Church of England dominance as the state religion, from school onwards, influences our identity to the detriment of society, creating a false bias. The military loves uniformity, and encourages homogeneity, leading to an erroneous pull towards Christianity as a default setting, rather than an informed choice.
The forces need to adapt and cater for the non-religious. This matters because there are several issues a lack of faith affects. Pastoral support is provided invariably by padres and chaplains. They do an excellent job, but if an atheist civilian would not turn to a reverend in time of trouble, why should the atheist soldier? Denying oneself support in what is undoubtedly a stressful profession is a disgrace, and the MoD should be providing pastoral support that accommodates the full spectrum of beliefs represented in the forces. There is a pressing need to provide impartial humanist ‘chaplains’ for secular support.
I’m a former RAF officer and I served from 2008 to 2011. It was a short career but I’ve had over a decade of forces involvement. When I joined the regular forces I chose the non-religious oath which raised some eyebrows; I’m fairly certain I was the only cadet out of 120 who didn’t swear on the Bible. Apparently ‘it’s not what you do’. I chose to serve my country without a need to serve god, and the promise I made was a solemn one.
The Defence Humanists has campaigned for the past five years for humanist, non-religious representation at the Cenotaph this, and every, Remembrance Sunday. Everyone who has served our country deserves to be recognised. The service should be a secular one, with provision for all religion or belief groups. The growing number of non-religious personnel has already made a Christian service redundant. The military cannot continue to sit on its hands and say, ‘we’ve always done it this way’. These latest statistics demonstrate our case is a valid one, and all other elements of service life need to reflect the growing non-religious population.
The Defence Humanists was established in 2011 and is an expanding section within the British Humanist Association, with over 300 members and supporters, outnumbering Sikhs and Jews combined in the services. The number of non-religious personnel is significant. Matters of faith and belief are personal, and should be respected. But above all, the most important defining characteristic is the choice our armed forces personnel made to join up and serve our country. Whether you serve a god or not is arbitrary. The change in the military demographic reflects our dynamic society. This is progress. This is a positive change, and the military needs to recognise it.