Atheism in the military

The sermon was based on what he claimed was a well-known fact, that there were no Atheists in foxholes. I asked Jack what he thought of the sermon afterwards, and he said, ‘There’s a Chaplain who never visited the front.’ [Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus, pg. 182]

The long standing notion that there are no atheists in foxholes has special meaning for me. I am, if you were not already aware, an atheist. I am also a member of the Canadian Armed Forces. This presents special challenges in the face of the myriad ceremonies and traditions that all have some religious aspect to them. On my first day of training, I was given a choice between swearing an oath on the Bible or pledging a solemn affirmation. This was in front of the staff, my parents, my course-mates’ parents and anyone else who was there. If I were a closet atheist at that point, that would’ve been my coming out party. The officer in charge set down “the good book” and I gave him my non-religious affirmation.

I was the only one to do this of about 20 people. I thought I would be tormented for the next few months of training and “made an example of” by the instructors. Luckily I was wrong. Luckily I am part of the Canadian military and not the US.

While I did experience some backlash for my “heathenism”, it was mostly in the form of stories from recent history or the odd argument from religious comrades, but mostly, no one really cared. The one time it came up was during what is called the Padre’s Hour (which was more or less an introduction to the military chaplaincy than anything else) where I attempted to abstain due to the fact that I was not a Christian. One of my instructors reminded me that in the not so recent past, soldiers who refused to go to church or take part in the Padre’s Hour would be made to do extra work or be outright punished while their comrades partook in their worship. Regardless of their actual religious beliefs, most soldiers would simply go to church rather than face that kind of torment. This wasn’t that long ago either: my co-worker today, who is not that much older than I am, remembers when that was the case. He also remembers when any member who stated they had no religion received dog tags that said “Protestant” as a kind of default status. Now you can have “no religion” (NRE) stamped on them.

Again, however, that’s in Canada. In Canada, the second highest percentage of self-reported religion in the 2001 census was “no religion”. While it is a generic category and may include atheists, agnostics or even people who just don’t go to church, 16% of the Canadian population (about 26 million) do not consider themselves to be Christian. The Canadian Forces do not keep track of these kinds of statistics but one would assume this percentage would be similar (or even higher given that a true Christian should be a pacifist). Perhaps as a result of this, or because our government is EXTREMELY sensitive to the rights of minorities (including religious minorities) we “non-religious” types enjoy relative peace (ironically) in the military.

The US, however similar we in Canada are to it, is a very different animal. Perhaps due to their lengthy battle with Communism or because of other factors related to their education system, have embraced the Christianity of the majority of their population and has, naturally, passed that on to its service members. This flies in the face of everything their founding fathers planned… but that’s another topic. Soldiers who do not attend church are, to this day, given extra duties during that time or publicly ridiculed, if not by the staff, by their fellow soldiers. Most soldiers in this case simply keep their non-beliefs to themselves but others have attempted to bring their military out of the dark ages and staged minor protests and fought back against this oppression. Organizations like the MAAF and awards like the “Atheists in Foxholes” award presented by the Freedom from Religion Foundation to non-religious soldiers are assisting these people where they are able, but even they admit that the problem lies within the chain of command itself which requires policy changes.

From my own experience and from speaking of the US soldiers I have had the pleasure of working alongside, the contrast in how religion is treated in the forces of these two nations is quite obvious. Even if I didn’t know anything I had written above, I would still notice that Canadian soldiers, for the most part, do not “flaunt” their religion like the Americans do. An American officer once told me that during conversations with groups of people, US soldiers like to mention they go to church the same way someone would “name drop” a celebrity they know. For example, “The other day WHILE I WAS AT CHURCH I blah blah blah”. Through the odd cursory glance around the multi-national dining facilities I have noticed many more Americans saying grace before they eat than Canadians. I have also never noticed any significant number of Canadians, throughout my training, request time off to go to church. I have also noticed the availability of chapels or even worship services is more of an afterthought for exercises or courses. What I mean by that is when we are given tours or maps of facilities, staff members make special points of mentioning dining facilities, parking and even recreation facilities but I have never noticed any of them pay special attention to where one may attend their Christian services. In Canada we just don’t seem as preoccupied by religion as our comrades to the south.

That said, there are still very apparent reminders that this military has a hard time letting go of old religious traditions. In the navy, for example, the chaplain, despite technically only being a rank of Lieutenant, is saluted by the highest rank (Admiral). The chaplaincy per se is a very strong reminder of the military’s sense of the importance of religion. Despite their pledge to assist and council members regardless of their religious beliefs (which they do), they wear a Christian cross on their rank insignia. Actually, there are a few Rabbis and even one Muslim cleric who are employed as military chaplains in Canada, but the fact that it has to be a religion at all… and not simply a trained therapist, speaks volumes about the pedestal religion has been placed upon. As mentioned earlier, new members are sworn in on Bibles (if they choose). Lastly, almost every single ceremony involves some mention of the Judeo-Christian God or Christianity in general. Clearly, despite the leaps and bounds ahead of the US we are with regards to outward religiousness, there is some room for growth.

Currently, the Canadian Forces is in the midst of a conflict with a devout, militant Muslim enemy. The sensitivity surrounding the issue of religion in the forces is even more apparent in this light but is beyond the scope of this article. Actually… the mutual disrespect towards atheists may be the one thing both sides can agree on! :)

Thanks for reading everyone!

6 responses to “Atheism in the military

  1. Well worded and expressed. I too am a atheist member of the Canadian Forces and intend to pursue more rights and recognition for our atheist brethren. Specifically in matters of ramp ceremonies and repatriation of our fallen. I am pursuing through my CoC some sort of amendment that permits an NRE to specify the exclusion of Chaplaincy at such occasions. I personally would be mortified to have a man of the cloth participate in any ceremony in the unlikely event of my death overseas, or even worse be part of the party that notifies my NOK. Rest assured there are others of us out there putting up a good fight.


    Name withheld given nature of employment.

    • I’ve been to several ramp ceremonies and cringed at the thought of having those heavy Judeo-christian prayers said for me. Only once was a ceremony completely devoid of any prayer or mention of god. I assume his file said atheist or NRE as the reason, although of course no mention of this was made.

      I’d love to hear how the NRE thing goes. Twice I’ve put Atheist on my dogtag form and both times it’s come back NRE. Maybe I should try again though – it’s been a few years!

  2. Hi just to add, I am happy to see more Canadian atheists/agnostics coming out of the woodwork. I work with many armed forces personnel, and I can say the number of times I have discussed religion with any of them would number less than the fingers on one hand, we just don’t do that here! Thank Randi! (I prefer that to thank god). But we were living in the UK until this past summer and one British army captain was going to move to the US on an exchange posting and when he had gone for a recce trip, the first thing almost all the US soldiers/officers asked him was what church he was going to join! Like most of the UK he was not religious and hadn’t attended any church in years. He was so taken aback he didn’t answer the question at all. I hope we continue to maintain the status in Canada of allowing all faiths/belief systems to do what they want without judging folks for doing so or not…..

  3. I wish I could have your email address as I am currently fighting our gov’t over religion and would love to share your story!

  4. I am the president of a civilian organization called Secular Connexion Séculaire (SCS) and the topic of non-believers in the military and non-believing veterans has come up on several occasions, usually in reference to the “no atheists in foxholes” nonsense.

    The question is whether there is a need or any interest in having a atheists in foxholes group (veterans or active military people) such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation has in the US.

    For example, our non-believing members face a dilemma every Nov. 11 when we want to remember all the men and women who have served in our forces, but feel uncomfortable with the religious nature of the ceremony. Some of have suggested we have our own ceremony, but we certainly would not do so if non-believing military people didn’t support the idea.

    In short, is there some way we can support or need to support non-believers in Canada’s military community and veterans community?

    Doug Thomas
    Secular Connexion Séculaire (SCS)

  5. dear mojo…you stated that “a true Cristian should be pacifist”. Jesus said He didn’t come to bring peace but a sword. He came to cause people to make a decision about Him. His great commission was to GO! and preach the word, not sit passively while souls are lost to the darkess. The bible is constantly evoking a war theme…the entire company is called the host of God. Thank you so very much for your bravery and committment in serving this great country and keeping us strong and free…xo