Army and Air Force left behind as other nations pursue secular reform

Si Gladman / 03 November 2023

Australia’s Army and Air Force could soon become outliers in not providing a secular pastoral care option for their non-religious personnel, with the United Kingdom likely to become the latest country to pursue reform of its military chaplaincy capability.

In an answer to a question in the UK’s House of Lords in July, Annabel Goldie, Minister of State for Defence, said the Ministry of Defence (MOD) had recently concluded a review into the provision of non-religious pastoral support in the armed forces.

“[We] are currently considering the recommendations of that review and how best we can support all our people,” Baroness Goldie said.

“The MOD is aware that the Armed Forces of Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands employ humanist pastoral carers (or similar). We are working to create and sustain an environment where everyone feels respected and able to achieve their full potential.”

Lord Colin Low, Baron Low of Dalston, asked the minister whether the government considered religious chaplains as being qualified to offer pastoral support to non-religious armed forces personnel.

Baroness Goldie argued that chaplains were selected and trained for their ability to show empathy to all service personnel. 

“They are professionally qualified to provide pastoral care to everyone, regardless of faith, world philosophy or status and will provide or facilitate spiritual support to personnel and their families as requested,” she said.

The British Army’s recruitment website currently states: “There is an intention, in the near future, for the [chaplaincy department] to recruit a uniformed Non-Religious Pastoral Officer, on the same terms as Army Chaplains.”

Armies in Western nations are increasingly turning to non-religious pastoral care to meet the needs of their non-religious personnel.

Canada’s military already has humanists chaplains and is instituting broader secular reform of its military. Earlier this year, Ireland’s Workplace Relations Commission ordered the country’s Department of Defence to review its hiring practice for chaplains following a successful complaint of discrimination by a humanist chaplain who was prevented from applying for a role because he was not religious.

In the Australian Defence Force, a majority of personnel now identify as not religious, with the figure predicted to rise to as high as 75 per cent by 2030.

Despite this, only the Navy has recognised the need to provide a secular option of frontline pastoral care and wellbeing support – known as Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officers – for its workforce.

Last year, a spokesperson for the Defence Personnel minister said Army and Air Force would “examine the lessons” of the Navy’s initiative to introduce some secular roles into its chaplaincy branch. 

However, the findings from the review are due in 2024 – a situation the RSA has warned will unnecessarily delay the introduction of secular pastoral care and negatively affect personnel. 

However, the Pentecostal representative on the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS) – which has oversight of chaplaincy recruitment – told the Canberra Times that he was “not necessarily completely convinced” that the Army and Air Force would follow suit with a similar model. Pastor Ralph Estherby said: “…the same problems that were present in Navy are not present in Army and are not necessarily being argued.”

The RSA sought an explanation from RACS as to the factual basis of Pastor Estherby’s comments, but has not received a reply.

The Rationalist Society of Australia is actively lobbying and advocating for secular reform of the Defence Force. See the latest updates here.

If you want to support our work, please make a donation or become a member.

Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

All the more reason.