An Atheist in the Army

by Roy Arnott

Roy Arnott is the Treasurer of Australian Skeptics Victorian Branch.(Vic)

Roy enlisted in the CMF (later the Australian Army Reserve) in 1959 retiring as a Warrant Officer Class 2 in 1996.

His civilian career was in the Australian Public Service, mainly in Defence related departments. In the latter years Roy transferred from Defence and his terminal posting with the APS was a six year term with the Australian National Audit Office.

No Religion

badgeIt started on Day 1. When I enlisted back in 1959, we got to the question on the form about religion. I said that I did not have any. The Attestation Officer said, “You have to be something, I will put down Church of England”. Later, when I knew a bit more about things than the average recruit, I had my file corrected to read “No Religion”.
The Army personnel system does not have a classification of “Atheist”.
I think the descriptor “No Religion” is fair enough. We do not need to coin a word for other non believers – in, for example, fairies, ghosts, or Easter Bunnies

Institutionalised Christian ritual is the default condition for Army culture, traditions and ceremonial. This paper provides a commentary on this from the perspective and experiences of an atheist member of the Australian Army.

I am quite comfortable with being described as an atheist. It is not an “admission”; it is a statement of fact.

A changing society

In the 1921 Census, 96.9% of Australians described themselves as Christians and only 0.5% as having no religion. This was the cultural environment just after the Great War in which ANZAC Day and other commemorations commenced.

A question on religious affiliation has been asked in every census taken in Australia, with the voluntary nature of this question having been specifically stated since 1933. In 1971, the instruction ‘if no religion, write none’ was introduced. This saw a seven-fold increase from the previous census year in the percentage of Australians stating they had no religion. Since 1971, this percentage has steadily increased.AustReligCensus

In the 2011 census 22.3% stated that they had no religion and 16.6% declined to answer the question on religion. That is, one third of respondents declined to state an affiliation with any religion. It might be noted that the total for “Christians” included 2.2 million babies and children under 14 whose parents answered the question for them on what they believed.

Atheists in Foxholes

It is often said by Christians, usually without much evidence being offered, that there are no atheists in fox holes.

A recent example is from Military Bishop Max Davis:
“Bishop Davis said Defence Force staff tended to be more religious than the wider population. ‘As they said in the First World War, there are no atheists in the foxholes’, he said.”

The claim is absolute – “There are no atheists in fox holes” To prove it wrong would require only one example.

Historian Michael McKernan puts a different view to Davis:

“Yes, you’ve got to remember … that this is in France, in probably 1917, so a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. The AIF has now its settled ways of thinking about itself, its own spirit and ethos. And this clergyman who’s come from Australia without any, if you like, indoctrination into that ethos, happily turns up at his battalion (and there were usually two chaplains to each battalion, one Catholic and one of another Protestant denomination) and says to his batman who he’s only met for the first time, ‘Now tell me, my man, what is the religion of the other chaplain attached to this battalion?’ And the batman looks at him in complete confusion and says to him, ‘There’s no religion out here, sir, we’re all brothers’. And that I think is an indication as to how wrong the churches back home in Australia were getting the message. They were saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, that war will turn people to Christianity, that in times of great stress and national concern, you need God. And what in fact the AIF was discovering was that in those circumstances, what you need most of all are a few mates, on whom you can rely, in a situation that is without any meaning at all.”

Moving forward to World War 2, Peter Brune describes an incident in his account of the Papuan campaign:

“The date was 22 January 1943. The last bastion had fallen and, with its capture, the Japanese invasion of Papua which had been halted at Milne Bay and along the Kokoda Trail, and all but smashed on the beaches of Gona and Buna, was brought to its final and irretrievable conclusion here at nearby Sananda.
One of the wounded digger’s mates went to a church parade a day or so later. He knelt down and quietly observed the ritual. But after a while he stood up. The priest looked at him with a disapproving stare, but the soldier merely shook his head and walked away. During that split second the soldier had lost his faith, and had come to believe that there was no one out there to help him and care for him but himself”

Major General Paul Cullen served with distinction during World War 2 in North Africa, Greece, Crete, and on the Kokoda Track. He was raised in a Jewish family but after the war he lost faith in Judaism and a belief in a God and became an atheist. Paul Cullen spent a lot of time in foxholes.

When one is told by a believer, “You might say that you are an atheist, but one day when you are in danger you will find God”, it can come across as smug arrogance.

The official line has not changed much in the past 100 years. To quote from a recent address by General Peter Cosgrove:
“There is an old saying with which many of you will be familiar, ‘there are no atheists in foxholes”. This comes from one of the great World Wars of our troubled past and continues to have great relevance to the men and women we send in harm’s way today. At times when the question of their own mortality is writ large in their minds, their thoughts will turn to that axiom of faith for us all, the conviction that there is a higher direction, purpose and safeguard to our existence.”

The above is from a speech at a prayer breakfast and was taken from the Defence web page. On wonders that if a future non-believer Chief of the Defence Force were to give a speech to, say, the Humanist Society, if it would get a similar airing on the Defence site.

Army policy on the practice of religion

The Army has identified a battle purpose in the fostering of religious practice, the argument (possibly true) being that those with a strong religious faith make good soldiers (except perhaps: Quakers, Scientologists, Exclusive Brethren and Mennonites).

“The personal qualities of character that can ensure high standards of conduct and which inspires courage and self-sacrifice in a crisis can be developed by religious faith. Religious worship is an important part of the development of such faith. Defence will make every effort to allow members of any faith group to practise their faith according to their own particular observance. Care should be taken to ensure that any constraints, which would restrict particular religious observances, are minimised.”

Australian soldiers of a strong faith demonstrate courage and self-sacrifice. Enemy combatants with a strong faith are, of course, fanatics.

The thrust of the Defence Force policy on religious practices is to facilitate the exercise of religious practices by those wishing so to do. This is quite a reasonable purpose with which there is no quarrel.

However, freedom of religion has a corollary – freedom from religion. It is in this area where the Army’s policy is a little under-developed.

The policy refers to for two types of activities – special occasions and commemorative events.

Special Occasions

Special occasions provide an opportunity for members to take part in ecumenical worship on days of special significance to the ADF. The examples given are presentation of Colours, anniversaries or memorials of battles and launching of ships.

Just about every ship sitting on the bottom of the ocean was blessed at its launch, but let us consider Army events.

On the face of it, it seems reasonable that members should be able to organise religious ceremonies they consider fitting to mark important events concerning their regiment. However in practical terms a religious ceremony becomes the default.
When a Regiment holds a commemoration for a significant battle, a choice is not usually provided of having a religious or secular version.

The only package available is wrapped in religion. I attend these to pay my respects, on my own terms, to past diggers and let the religious ritual go through to the keeper. Planners of services for special occasions are told:
“ If non-Christians are likely to be present, the sensibilities of their religions are to be borne in mind.”
This is a nice touch for ecumenism. However, in practical terms it would be difficult to do much about the sensitivities of those present who would prefer that it was not a religious ritual at all. Perhaps any sermons or orations could refrain from predicting the fate of non-believers.

Commemorative events

Commemorative events are described as occasions of national importance when it is appropriate to conduct a ceremony of remembrance. On these occasions, such as ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, members of all faiths and those without religious affiliation may be present (author’s emphasis).

ANZAC Day ceremonies are normally in the form of Christian services. Again, I find myself being “led” in religious rituals in which I have a total disbelief.

Commemorative practices that are products of official orchestration do not always engage with private experiences. One wonders that, if the great Jewish General, Sir John Monash, had been killed in World War 1, whether his family would have been invited to participate in the Army’s commemorative services in their current form.

ANZAC Day commemorations do not have to involve religion. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs guidelines for ANZAC Day commemorations provide for a secular option.

The following is a simple Order of Service for a commemorative ceremony to be held on Anzac Day or Remembrance Day. Many services include prayers and hymns. Appropriate modern music or poems can be included as alternatives

However, if Chaplains are available they tend to be utilised.


At an Army dining in night, tradition demands the Christian ritual of prayers before meals is performed. This cannot be rationalised as a manifestation of customary practice of Army members. During their working day, if soldiers were gathered in a brew room, or wherever, for lunch, they would be more than a little surprised if the senior person present called upon the group to pause while a prayer was offered in thanks for the meal.
Discipline and custom requires soldiers to do in public that which many, if not most, do not choose to do in private.
It could be argued that it is simply a courtesy for the non-believers to let the Christians in the gathering do their thing. Perhaps so, but if the Christians present were of a mind to do unto to others as they would be done by, they might give some thought to involving people in a religious ritual which conflicted with their sincerely held lack of belief.

Chaplains at the personal level

Chaplains provide a valuable support service to members of faith.
And, in my occasional dealings with them, they were quite approachable and did not let religion get in the way of doing the right thing.

The Army’s notion that their role included providing me with “spiritual ministry” does, however, presume a bit about what I might think the term “spiritual” might mean.

a military chaplain must provide spiritual ministry to all members of the ADF, regardless of faith or denomination.

In the Army organisation, the Chaplain’s role in the Personnel department includes important responsibilities for member counselling and character development. If my character did not develop as it might have, the fault is not with the Padres.

In an Army of the future, when non-believers reach a critical mass, the Army uniformed establishment may have to include non-religious counsellors.


Life’s milestones such as birth, marriage and death can be acknowledged by civil celebrants. However Army gatherings to commemorate the actions and sacrifices of former soldiers or for other formal purposes appear to require a religious ritual to validate proceedings. The process does, however, rely on the good will of many in the captive audiences. The attitude of non-believers towards the religious aspects of activities would vary from indifference to anathema (to borrow an ecclesiastical term). Those at the latter end of the spectrum are, perhaps, providing Christians with a case study in tolerance.

As the protesters told us in the 60’s – the times they are a changing.
In the early days, few fell out from Church Parade. Those who did not accept the sanctity of the Sabbath were given duties. This might have boosted church attendances.

Church parades are no longer compulsory. I used to think that Section 116 of the Constitution provided some defence against the religious enthusiasm of those in charge of managing soldiers. However, the DOGS case in the High Court demolished this.
In 2002 I e-mailed some thoughts on this subject to Army Ceremonial who passed the question to the Military Christian Fellowship. I received a thoughtful and courteous reply from a RAAF Chaplain. His advice was that I should become a Christian.


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