Religious dominance of Anzac Day events risks putting off many Australians, RSA tells veterans group

Si Gladman / 23 April 2024

The continued dominance of Christianity in Anzac Day Dawn Services and commemorations risks putting off many Australians, veterans and soldiers, the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) has told the nation’s peak veterans group.

In a letter to the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL) and some of its state branches, the RSA said Anzac Day and other significant days of commemoration should be secular and welcoming of all Australians.

Christian rites and traditions – including prayers, benedictions, hymns, Bible readings, and addresses by chaplains – dominated RSL commemorations on Anzac Day last year in at least Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, Sydney.

In their prayers and speeches, chaplains urged people in attendance to:

  • “Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit”;  
  • “Help us all to seek for all people the freedom to serve you [God] and each other in peace and justice”.
  • “In the midst of the battlefield, of being overwhelmed and frightened, some of them would have recited [the Lord’s Prayer] for comfort, for strength and for peace. Let us do the same this morning.”

In his letter to RSL Australia and the RSL in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia, Si Gladman, the RSA’s Executive Director, said the RSA was concerned that the prominent role of Christianity could turn many people off.

Mr Gladman noted the Australian community’s religious and non-religious diversity, in particular the rapidly increasing number of Australians identifying as non-religious.


He also pointed to official Defence data that shows the majority of Defence personnel – about 64 per cent – already identify as not religious.

Important national remembrance commemorations should be truly secular – welcoming and inclusive of all Australians. They should not resemble church services. Continuing to privilege Christianity in these events risks alienating many veterans and current service personnel who are not religious or who are adherents of other faiths,” he wrote.

Mr Gladman told the RSL that non-religious veterans have been speaking out about the exclusionary nature of Anzac Day services.

Former Army soldier Sam Proctor told the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide that the religious nature of such commemorations “lacked relevance” to most Defence personnel and only reinforced an “impression that service in the ADF is the exclusive preserve of the Christians alone”.

In 2022, former Army Colonel Phillip Hoglin wrote in Rationale magazine that the religious nature of Anzac Day services and other national remembrance events was turning veterans away.

Mr Gladman told the RSL that moving to more secular commemorations would align Australia with other Commonwealth nations, including Canada and the United Kingdom. Last year, Canada introduced significant changes to reduce the role of religion in its national remembrance services. In the UK, the Royal British Legion has recently specified that the Act of Remembrance must be “brief and non-religious”.

Mr Gladman also urged the RSL to join in advocating for secular change of commemorations in national institutions, in particular the Australian War Memorial (AWM) and the Australian Defence Force.

The RSA has not received a response from veterans affairs minister Matt Keogh to a letter from earlier this month, having ask that the government ensure Christianity would not again dominate the Dawn Service at the AWM in Canberra.

In late 2022, a spokesperson for Mr Keogh told the RSA that events such as Anzac Day were “welcoming to all” and recognised the diversity of the Defence Force workforce and Australian community.

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

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Si Gladman is Executive Director of the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

Photo by Troy Mortier on Unsplash.

All the more reason.