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Slowly and progressively over the last decade, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has become less religious. Although religion, particularly Christianity, is a part of many military customs and traditions and was once a routine part of ship and barracks life, the connection that Defence members have to any faith has decreased to a level where the majority of officers, sailors, soldiers and aviators are not affiliated with any religion. Since religion does not play the significant role in the lives of Australia’s military personnel that it once did, the ADF can now take active and deliberate steps to transition toward a genuinely secular, diverse and inclusive organisation.

Unfortunately, the ADF has passively resisted any transition to, or discussion of, its identity as a secular organisation. The continuation of overwhelmingly Christian-centric rites, traditions and pastoral care practices give evidence of this reluctance to change. It is particularly evident in the provision of pastoral and spiritual care to ADF members and their supportive networks. This is partially due to an enduring view that either Defence’s religious chaplains are able to set aside their religious beliefs, or that members seeking support are ambivalent or indifferent to the religious beliefs of those providing support.  However, these assumptions are increasingly questionable and emerging evidence exists to suggest that non-religious Defence members would not seek support from religious chaplains.1 This means that a significant proportion of Defence members are effectively unsupported by the extant chaplaincy model.

This article will look at the importance and advantages of secularism in a modern ADF. Changes in religiosity that have occurred over the last few years will be highlighted along with the emergence of gaps in pastoral care that have resulted from an exclusively religious chaplaincy model. Suggestions on approaches for the provision of secular wellbeing support so that pastoral care can remain relevant to non-Christians, the non-religious and the traditional Christian base alike, will also be made. The importance of secularism in a national institution such as Defence will be a theme throughout this article, which ultimately aims to progress a discussion on the need for a secular pastoral care model for the ADF.

Benefits of a Secular Australian Defence Force

In Australia, all government departments are theoretically secular.2 However, due to historical hangovers of tradition, customs and structure, plus its current pastoral care model, Defence remains one of very few State, Territory or Federal Government departments that maintains a large number of ongoing positions for ordained ministers of religion as religious chaplains.3 Furthermore, it is the only department that has Ministerially-appointed non-Defence Public Office Holder positions for the provision of religious advice to the Department.4 Whether perception or otherwise, this status of religious influence means that the ADF is functionally, if not structurally, non-secular.

Further evidence of non-secularity in the ADF, in particular Christianity, is not difficult to find –although at times it is unconscious or unnoticed due to its normalisation. Aside from Ministerially-appointed advisers to Defence, there are Principal Chaplains at the one-star level in all Service Headquarters, senior chaplains on almost all formation headquarters, and chaplains at most training establishments. In addition to this visible presence, there are religious memorial ceremonies, commencement services, graduation services and ceremonies, and saying grace remains at most formal dinners. Anzac Day and Remembrance Day services continue to maintain some fundamentally Christian elements, with even the Department of Veterans’ Affairs advice suggesting prayers, hymns and Bible readings.5 Laying up of Colours, Standards, Guidons and Banners have a significant religious (Christian) component, as does the commissioning of new Her Majesty's Australian Ships. Character Development lessons and curriculums at training establishments remain the domain of chaplains. New recruits may still choose to make an oath, and other subtle links to Christianity are threaded through badges, emblems and symbology.6 Finally, all major bases have at least one chapel or church, ranging in seating capacity from several dozen to several hundred.

Although a non-secular and dominantly Christian chaplaincy model seems to have served the ADF well for the best part of a century, over the last two decades the nation, its population, the nature of war, likely adversaries, possible allies and coalitions have evolved considerably from the likely conditions that existed when the doctrines of Defence chaplaincy were developed. These changes suggest that an exclusively religious chaplaincy model is no longer congruent with the contemporary requirements of the ADF and its members and a move to a secular pastoral care model is necessary. The advantages of a secular model in the ADF context include:

  • Diversity and respect. Religion remains a well-documented source of cultural division.7 With the release of Defence’s common values in October 2020, replacing the separate values of the three Services and Defence Public Service, the value of respect is further entrenched and is explained as the ‘humanity of character to value others and treat them with dignity’,8 which is a fundamentally secular description of respect. A transition to a secular military with a supporting pastoral care model directly supports Defence’s values and provides the preconditions for religion not to be a source of division and conflict within the ADF itself.
  • Killing and the military. There is an age-old philosophical conflict between religious views on killing and the role of military forces in warfighting.9 Theologians point to ‘just wars’ and much has been written on the topic; however, military members are still required to reconcile their dissonance between religious teachings and the act of killing.10 A secular military unambiguously separates religion from one of the most fundamental activities of a military at war: killing.
  • Operational bias. Recent White Papers are consistent in implying (through omission) that it is unlikely that the ADF will be deployed on warlike operations into a theatre that is exclusively Christian or even culturally familiar.11 Religion may be a key divisive factor in any conflict or peacekeeping operation in which the ADF could be involved, with adversaries and local populations in an area of operations adhering to different religions, denominations, or belief systems. A non-secular, predominantly Christian military may project a bias, or at the very least may lead to a perception that the ADF favours one side in conflict to the detriment of peaceful outcomes. An openly and visibly secular military avoids this bias, which may assist with freedom of manoeuvre and the general conduct of operations.
  • Targeting of ADF members. A non-secular military may provide an adversary that has a different religious view with a theological reason to target ADF personnel. A secular military may remove a source of difference that is based on religious fundamentalist grounds.
  • Conservative perception of the ADF. A perception that the ADF is conservative, through overt religiosity, may result in a view that the ADF is not representative of the population that it defends. Secularism provides the ADF with social legitimacy and will become increasingly important for the reputation of the ADF as the religious affiliations of the nation’s population changes.12
  • Enhancement of recruiting. A visibly non-secular organisation is likely to present a barrier to entry to some potential recruits. It is reasonable to expect that a candidate who is Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Muslim, of another non-Christian religion, or even non-theist, would not view a visibly Christian organisation positively or feel that their needs could be supported within that organisation. Removal of this perception, through secularism, may be sufficient to remove this barrier and enhance views of the ADF as a progressive and diverse, respectful and fair organisation.13
  • Wellbeing support triage. A notable advantage of secularism is that the wellbeing needs of ADF members can be assessed individually and assigned to professionals that are most appropriate based on need. The current religious chaplaincy model remains binary in execution, that is, a Defence member has the option to see a religious chaplain, or nobody at all. In contrast, a secular pastoral care model allows for the provision of wellbeing support to all members based on need, regardless of religion or belief system.
  • Consolidation of counselling services. Secularism allows for all agencies responsible for wellbeing support and pastoral care to be consolidated and optimised to provide the most effective support possible. This may include coordination of psychiatry, psychology, counselling, social work, chaplaincy and other wellbeing support mechanisms and practitioners. This allows wellbeing support to be oriented toward the needs of the population rather than attempting to fit non-secular chaplaincy to a secular and diverse population.
  • Members’ preferences. Secularism would provide for ADF members to have input into the kind of wellbeing support services they would prefer from a range of possible options rather than being constrained to the current exclusively religious model. This would allow the ADF to optimise the wellbeing and pastoral care model to cater for the entire Defence population.
  • Misalignment between religion and policy. Misalignment remains between the secular policies of the ADF (as made by the Government from time to time) and doctrines of some religions. For example, some religious and denominational views on female reproductive rights and same-sex marriage differ from the policies of the ADF. A secular pastoral care model removes ambiguity between the policy position of the ADF and the religious views inherent in a religious chaplaincy model that is governed by religious practitioners.

While these are some of the benefits of secularism for the ADF, they remain largely unrealised by an ADF that is tied to an exclusively religious chaplaincy model designed for a population that no longer exists. As will be described in the next section, the religious affiliations of Defence’s population is deviating further from Christianity each year (and religion in general). As this occurs, it is reasonable to suggest that either Defence members themselves, or the broader society, will eventually demand a secular chaplaincy model for the ADF. In the meantime, the ADF continues to maintain a distinctively religious, and overwhelmingly Christian, chaplaincy model where the different theological beliefs and wellbeing needs of Defence members are not equally catered for by Defence.

Defence’s Changing Religious Affiliation

In less than two decades, the ADF has gone from overwhelmingly Christian to an organisation where a majority of its members have no religious affiliation. This march toward a less-religious ADF is not new and has been observable in data since the mid-2000s. Over the last five years the proportion of members who do not affiliate with any religion has increased from 47 per cent on 1 July 2016 to a majority of 56 per cent on 1 July 2020, at a rate of 1.5-2.5 percentage points per year.14

Figure 1 shows the extent and pace of the demographic change in religious affiliation in the permanent ADF. In 2003, more than two-thirds of all personnel nominated Christianity as their religion. In 2020, this proportion had reduced to just over 42 per cent, with personnel not identifying a religious affiliation accounting for over 56 per cent (including non-religious members and atheists), and other non-Christian religions accounting for the remainder.

Religiosity of ADF permanent force members 2013 - 2020
Figure 1. Religiosity of ADF permanent force members 2013 - 2020

This rapid change is driven predominantly by recruits at the entry level where junior officer and enlisted ranks reflect (and amplify) known broader societal changes. As shown in Figure 2, almost 73 per cent of all current privates (and equivalents in Navy and Air Force) and 76 per cent of all officer cadets and midshipmen are not affiliated with a religion. If future cohorts reflect the same religious characteristics, and as the newest Defence members proceed through their career, then it will be inevitable that the trend of decreased religiosity will continue. Based on these settings, Christianity will account for less than one-quarter of the ADF population by the end of 2030, and those with no affiliation will comprise an overwhelming numerical majority of almost three-quarters.

While the newest Defence members overwhelmingly have no religious affiliation, this has not always been the case. Figure 2 also shows that over 75 per cent of the ADF’s current star-ranked officers (typically recruited in the early 1980s or earlier) are affiliated with Christianity, as are 67 per cent of warrant officers class one (and Service equivalents). This demonstrates that there is a generational difference within Defence, which partially explains the incongruence between the reality and perception of religious affiliation where senior leadership and structures maintain a Christian legacy, yet junior members are overwhelmingly non-religious.

Religiosity of ADF permanent force members by rank on 1 July 2020
Figure 2. Religiosity of ADF permanent force members by rank on 1 July 2020

Table 1 further shows the change in religious affiliation through comparing the 20 largest religious groupings/denominations in 2003 with 2020. The change in religiosity is self-evident. The proportion of Defence members affiliated with a Christian denomination has decreased across the board (only the catch-all ‘other Protestant’ has increased), while the proportion of other religions (with the exception of Judaism), atheism, agnosticism and ‘no religion’ has increased. Currently, there is a combined strength of over 600 Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Baha’is, and a further 550 atheists. Hindus (ranked 12th) and Sikhs (17th) are now firmly among the largest 20 religions, which was not the case in 2003, and declared atheists is the seventh largest ‘religious’ grouping.15




Change since 2003






Rank change

% point change



No Religion







Christian - Catholic







Christian - Anglican







Christian - Uniting





↓ (1)



Christian - Other Protestant





↑ (1)



Christian - Presbyterian/Reformed







Christian - Other





↓ (2)



Christian - Baptist





↓ (2)



Christian - Lutheran





↑ (1)



Christian - Salvation Army





↓ (9)



Christian - Eastern Orthodox







Christian - Pentecostal





↓ (3)



Christian - Churches of Christ





↓ (7)










Christian - Latter Day Saints





↓ (3)








↑ (9)



Christian - Seventh Day Adventist





↓ (4)








↑ (5)








↑ (3)








↓ (2)











Table 1. Twenty largest religious groupings/denominations in 2003 compared with 2020 (data source PMKeyS)

Gaps in Pastoral Care

The decline in religiosity points to a large gap in the current pastoral care model where support is provided almost exclusively by Christian chaplains to a Defence population which is not majority Christian. An assumption that has existed for many years is that Defence’s religious chaplains are able to adequately set aside their religious beliefs and provide wellbeing support to all those who might seek it.16 However, this assumption is increasingly questionable. While it might have been true in the days of a predominantly white Anglo-Saxon, male-dominated military where, if a member were not religious themselves they had an inherited affinity with Christianity, it is almost certainly not true given the diversity that exists in the ADF today.17

Given the observed change in religiosity, it seems unreasonable and unfair to have a wellbeing model where only the support of a religious chaplain is available. Emerging evidence exists to suggest that not only do non-religious people avoid seeking support from religious chaplains, many religious people would also avoid a chaplain.18 If extrapolated to a Defence population, this means that a significant proportion of Defence members are effectively unsupported in the extant chaplaincy model and that it is no longer fit-for-purpose in providing for the pastoral care needs of all Defence members, or even a majority of them. Further, by 2030, it is projected that the current model will only support a minority of members and will be functionally obsolescent unless the model is fundamentally reformed.

Adding further concern to the appropriateness of the current model is the growth in the number of chaplains themselves. While the religious affiliation of Defence members has been decreasing, the number of chaplains has steadily increased in both proportional and real terms. In July 2020, there were almost 150 permanent force chaplains, which equates to one for around every 400 Defence members or one for every 180 Defence members who are Christian. In July 2003, there were 90 chaplains, which represented one for every 560 Defence members or one for every 390 Defence members who were Christian. In other words, the ratio of chaplains to members has not only increased substantially since 2003, it has more than doubled relative to the number of members affiliated with Christianity.

In addition to a prima facie concern about the growth in chaplain numbers is the fact that they also represent one of the least diverse employment categories.19 Current and historical constraints on marriage, female clergy and the time taken to acquire the necessary theological degrees may partly explain why chaplaincy is an older male-dominated employment category. This lack of diversity may be perceived as problematic when wellbeing support and pastoral care are required for a Defence force that is increasingly more diverse, raising the question of whether a non-diverse category is best placed to support a diverse workforce.

Approaches for the Provision of Secular Wellbeing Support and Pastoral Care

Fundamentally, the ADF is required to provide wellbeing support to members regardless of their faith. It is inevitable, given the changes in religiosity, that in the years ahead the ADF will be required to not only have the capacity to support Defence members with a diverse range of religions and beliefs, but also those personnel with no religion at all. In order to provide this support a transition toward secularism is essential.

Conceptually, there are two broad models for the provision of secular pastoral care in Defence which may be labelled as ‘all’ or ‘nothing’ approaches. It is assessed here that after more than 100 years of history, it is not yet pragmatic to suggest that the ADF is ready for a ‘nothing’ model where religion is removed from pastoral care in its entirety and religious chaplaincy ceases. Perhaps in 2030, when an overwhelming majority of Defence members and a simple majority of Australia’s public are no longer affiliated with any religion, such a model can be considered. In the meantime, a model that provides wellbeing and pastoral care options for the entire ADF, inclusive of all religions and beliefs, is a model that would provide the greatest benefit and capability outcome for Defence.

Structuring a pastoral care model applicable to all ADF members is not theoretically difficult; however, unlike the current model, it would require fair recognition of all belief systems with acceptance that the emerging dominant secular demographic does not wish to receive pastoral care from religious providers. This can be achieved through six primary changes to the model:

  • Development of a command and governance structure for the provision of wellbeing support and pastoral care across the entire ADF that is not based on religious chaplaincy, but secular approaches.
  • The introduction of secular wellbeing support practitioners, such as social workers and counsellors, to provide support in parallel with existing chaplains as part of a greater wellbeing organisation.
  • An increase in wellbeing support practitioners with more general belief systems, such as humanists.
  • A reduction in Christian-based pastoral care to a level proportionate with their representation in the Forces.
  • Mandatory qualifications and experience in an appropriate wellbeing field for all pastoral care practitioners, including religious chaplains.
  • A dynamic pastoral care workforce capable of both surging during periods of increased need and changing its representation in line with that of Defence.

The method that the ADF uses to transition to secularism will require a deliberate, sensitive and well thought-out transition strategy. In many quarters of society the observance of religion remains a highly contentious and emotionally charged issue, including the freedom to exercise no religion. Therefore, a transition plan needs to consider a broad range of views so as not to disenfranchise any particular group. Fortunately, as exhibited by the ADF’s gender and other diversity strategies, which had their own sources of internal and external change resistance, the ADF is wholly capable of transitioning to a secular pastoral care model.


Secularism remains a topic that is not widely or actively discussed in Defence. The reluctance to address this topic, whether intentional or not, is not a sustainable position. With 56 per cent of Defence members no longer affiliated with a religion, a proportion that is predicted to increase to three-quarters of the ADF permanent force population by 2030, the current religion-based chaplaincy model will soon be obsolescent in providing wellbeing support and pastoral care. Consequently, there is a rapidly emerging requirement to transition away from an exclusively religious, Christian-dominated chaplaincy model to a secular pastoral care model.

Reluctance and failure to adjust the chaplaincy model to the likely demands of the current and emerging military demographic has a range of detrimental outcomes. It risks continuation of a model that marginalises or does not support a numerical majority of members, distances the ADF from the Australian population that it purports to defend, and introduces a deterrent to potential recruits whose beliefs are increasingly divergent from those supported by the Defence institution. Of greatest single concern is that there would be, as there arguably is today, tens of thousands of currently serving members effectively unsupported by a chaplaincy model that does not cater to their needs, and possibly conflicts with their belief system.

It is relatively simple to visualise a pastoral care model that provides for the wellbeing requirements of all Defence members. In principle, it is a model structured around the spectrum of beliefs represented in the ADF rather that one based on religious chaplaincy alone. This does not mean the abolition of chaplains in Defence; however, it does suggest that religious chaplains should become just one of several groups of practitioners, alongside humanists, non-affiliated counsellors, social workers and others, governed by a command structure responsible for the provision of wellbeing support and pastoral care across the ADF. Once achieved, all Defence members, ranging from the most religious to the humanists and atheists, will have suitably qualified wellbeing support practitioners available to them to ensure that their pastoral care needs are met and that they remain able to contribute to Defence capability. Finally, without the inclusion of humanists, atheists, irreligious and non-theists in a discussion on wellbeing support alongside religious chaplains, there will be a continuation of the disproportionate influence of religion on wellbeing support at a time when secularism is a more desirable objective for an effective pastoral care model.


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1 Sue James, ‘Chaplaincy Survey’, Humanists Victoria, 31 August 2020, accessed 14 October 2020,

2 Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (Cth), Section 116. States that the ‘Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion…’, which is frequently interpreted as defining secularity in Australia (see for example: Carolyn Evans, ‘Religion and the Secular State in Australia’, 3,

3 Some police and emergency service departments continue to have a small number of chaplains as an employee, honorary appointment, or in a voluntary capacity.

4 The Ministerially appointed non-Defence Public Office Holder positions are listed in: Australian Government Remuneration Tribunal, ‘Remuneration Tribunal (Remuneration and Allowances for Holders of Part-time Public Office) Determination 2020’, 16 June 2020. Responsibilities are outlined in: ‘Memorandum of Arrangements Between the Commonwealth of Australia Represented by the Chief of the Defence Force the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services’, 2018 (undated).

5 Department of Veterans’ Affairs, ‘ANZAC Portal: Planning a commemorative service’, accessed 14 October 2020,

6 For example, St Edwards Crown, while a symbol of the monarch and head of the Anglican Church, is also a holy relic that adorns the badges of Navy, Army, Air Force along with the corps of the Army.

7 Refer to the landmark article by Samuel Huntington, ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Summer, 1993), pp. 22-49. See also James Jupp, ‘Multiculturalism and Integration: A Harmonious Relationship,’ in Religion and Integration in a Multifaith Society’, ANU e-press, accessed 14 October 2020, Also, John Rees, ‘Religion and Culture’, E-International Relations, 8 January 2017, accessed 27 October 202,

8 Australian Defence Force, ‘A message from the Secretary and the Chief of the Defence Force: Defence Values - 1 October 2020’, email of 1 October 2020. Also: ‘Australian Defence Force, Defence Values and Behaviours’, accessed 14 October 2020,

9 For example, see: ‘Military Christian Fellowship, Topic One: Can you be a Christian in the military?’, viewed 14 October 2020, Also: ‘Defence Anglicans, Is it right for a Christian to serve in the military?’, viewed 14 October 2020,….

10 Refer to ‘just war theory’ for further information. For example: Seth Lazar, ‘War,’ in Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Spring 2020, viewed 14 October 2020, Also: Alexander Moseley, ‘Just War Theory,’ in Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, viewed 14 October 2020,

11 Department of Defence, “Defence White Paper 2016”, Canberra, viewed October 2020, Also Department of Defence, ‘2020 Defence Strategic Update’, Canberra, viewed 14 October 2020,

12 In the 2016 National Census, the most common responses for religion in Australia were: No Religion 29.6%, Catholic 22.6%, Anglican 13.3%, Not stated 9.6% and Uniting Church 3.7%. Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘2016 Census QuickStats’, viewed 14 October 2020,….

13 Defence Force Recruiting marketing research indicates that as recently as the period of January to September 2020, only 42 per cent of males and 36 per cent of females in the marketing demographic of 15-35-year-olds thought that the Navy/Army/Air Force had progressed. This provides strong evidence that the ADF is not viewed as a progressive organisation by a significant proportion of the Australian public. Defence Force Recruitment, ‘Attitudes towards services over time FY-19-20 –21’, Communications Tracking, Hall & Partners.

14 According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Census from 2016 and 2011, people with no religious affiliation increased from 21.8 per cent to 29.6 per cent. In the eligible recruiting demographic of 18-29-year-olds, the proportion of people indicating ‘Secular Beliefs and Other Spiritual Beliefs and No Religious Affiliation’ was between 35 per cent and 42 per cent, suggesting younger Australians are less religious.

15 This observation is significant for two reasons: firstly, atheists are more likely to reject religious-based customs and traditions and are more likely to openly advocate for secularism. Secondly, in the context of wellbeing support for themselves, they are more likely to abjectly refuse to see a religious chaplain due to fundamental divergence in belief systems will therefore require the provision of alternative secular forms of support.

16 This assumption is derived from policy: Department of Defence, ‘Australian Defence Force Chaplaincy Policy’, 26 August 2020, para 1.13, states that ‘chaplains are required to deliver chaplaincy services upon request, regardless of the faith or non-faith perspectives of the individual being supported…’.

17 It may also be unreasonable and unfair to expect a member with differing religious views or from diversity groups openly opposed by some religions, to approach a religious chaplain for support in full knowledge of the religious doctrine.

18 For example, in Sue James, ‘Chaplaincy Survey’, 66 per cent of non-religious people are fairly unlikely or very unlikely to access religious pastoral care. Further, 29 per cent of religious people are unlikely to access religious pastoral care. If extrapolated to the ADF this means that 47 per cent of the permanent force are not supported by the current chaplaincy model.

19 At 1 July 2020, 80% of chaplains were married, 90% male, and their average age was almost 50. This contrasts with the broader Defence population where 67% are married, 46.5% are under the age of 30, and 18.1% female.

Cite Article
(Hoglin, 2021)
Hoglin, P. 2021. 'Losing Our Religion: The ADF’s Chaplaincy Dilemma'. Available at: (Accessed: 19 April 2024).
(Hoglin, 2021)
Hoglin, P. 2021. 'Losing Our Religion: The ADF’s Chaplaincy Dilemma'. Available at: (Accessed: 19 April 2024).
Phillip Hoglin, "Losing Our Religion: The ADF’s Chaplaincy Dilemma", The Forge, Published: January 28, 2021, (accessed April 19, 2024).
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