Time to take religion out of Anzac commemorations

Harold (Henry) Robert Norman Stevenson

I come from a military family. 

My brother served in both the Australian navy and the airforce.

My cousin and his father served in the airforce.

My father served in the AIF in Morotai.

My uncles served in the Middle East, including one who was in the Rats of Tobruk

Both my grandfathers served in France in World War I.

My grandmother was a military nurse.

My grandfather, Harold Robert Norman Stevenson was the recipient of a Military Medal.

And yet, as the descendant of this military family, I am effectively excluded from attending Anzac Day commemorations because of the overt religiosity (often tinged with right-wing, religious fundamentalism) of the current commemorations. I am sure I am not alone.

Norman A Stevenson

I am an atheist. My father, whose service cost him his mental health, was an atheist – although he preferred to call himself a ‘Jumping Calathumpian’. Yet I cannot attend a commemoration without being assaulted with religious, prayers, sermons and a sanitised version of Anzacs as god-fearing, saintly heroes that would both amuse and horrify them. 

It’s time the RSL took religion out of Anzac services and made them secular. People of all religions and none, including Indigenous soldiers, served at Gallipoli and in other campaigns across time and place. We cannot continue to commemorate them in a way that distorts and dishonours this reality.

Australian defence personnel were not religious in the past, nor are they now. A report from Colonel Philip Hoglin of the Australian Army reminds us of the:

“… overlooked reality that the largest ‘religious’ grouping in the ADF no longer subscribes to, or is affiliated with, a religion.”

John (Jack) Thomas Webster

In 2015, over 47 per cent of ADF personnel had no religion. It is also likely that many of the remaining 53 per cent are only nominally Christian – do not attend church, believe in the power of prayer, or even believe in a supernatural deity. 

Religious ANZAC Day services certainly don’t represent the contemporary ADF. But, what of the Anzacs?

As a group, the Anzacs were not religious. After the war, Australians were profoundly uncomfortable as the church worked assiduously to co-opt the commemorations.

Last year, Ann-Therese King shared a letter from her grandfather’s French fiancée to his mother, describing her impression of the Australian soldiers who defended her homeland in World War I:

“… they are big, hard men, men, who live hard, fight hard, and think less of death than any other body of men I have ever met. They seem to be very irreligious, and sometimes uncouth, but they are brave and large-hearted, and though naturally we have men of all kinds with us, I think their code of honour is the most admirable, that is to be found.” (My emphasis)

This is confirmed by Australian anthropologist, Bruce Kapferer in his book, Legends of People, Myths of State. He says:

“Many of the soldiers … were irreligious virtually by intention. Christian religion was part of the disciplinary framework of the military and the officers of religion were part of that structure of domination which denied to the men a self-determining autonomy valued in egalitarian thought.” (My emphasis)

Similarly, in his book, Inventing Anzac, professor of folklore at Curtin University, Graham Seal, says:

“… the expression and observance of religious belief was discouraged within digger culture.”

What these historians are saying, is that religion is not just irrelevant, but antithetical to the Anzac tradition. 

Kapferer is clear: Religion was not just absent from Anzac culture – irreligion was ‘valorised’. In fact, the essence of Anzac, part of what became the ‘religion’ of Anzac was this irreligiosity. 

Historian, Michael Belcher, refers to the padres who accompanied the Anzacs as ‘poorly appreciated’. The Anzacs, themselves, referred to them as “Cook’s Tourists”.  As World War I veteran, Major Frank Valentine Weir wrote in his letter diary on 31 December 1916:  

“Note all you say re Parson Rogers Chaplains have a great time 1 in bed every night & only 1 parade a week Church – carry the rank of an officer & no responsibility – the free lancer every where they go & recognize no C.O.” 

After the war, says Belcher, most Australian clergy were reluctant to participate formally in Anzac Day commemorations because they did not want to glorify WWI as a ‘Holy War’. 

Indeed, as Carl M F Fischer wrote to the Courier-Mail in 1914:

“If these fighting nations were Christian nations they would obey Christ whose directions are, ‘If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink.’” 

After the war, the Protestant church worked hard to co-opt the Anzac Day ceremonies but there was a huge backlash from diggers and families of other religions and of none. 

By 1938, the Victorian RSL announced:

“An Anzac Day service without prayers which, it Is hoped, will be acceptable to all Churches …”

Their plan did not totally excise religion:

“The proposed new form does not Include spoken prayers or the Benediction, but the hymn ‘Abide with Me’ will be included. An opportunity for those attending the service to recite the Lord’s prayer will be provided.”

The Moderator of the Victorian Presbyterian Assembly (the Right Rev. F. W.Rolland)  responded positively to this mostly secular plan:

“Personally, I realise that the Returned Soldiers’ League desires to have everyone attend the gathering at the Shrine. It is almost Impossible to arrange a service that will suit everyone,and the question seems to resolve itself into securing the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Surely the RSL and the church, today, could be equally as magnanimous?

The extreme religiosity of many Anzac services is disrespectful to the memory and tradition of the Anzacs, to many of their family members and to many of those currently serving in the ADF. The conservative, right wing dog-whistling that takes place in some sermons (see, for example, my “Perverting Anzac Day for Jesus“, 2016)  is exploitative and excludes many of us who would like to participate.

Few would begrudge the opportunity for the faith community to agree upon an ecumenical prayer or observance, but, beyond that, Anzac commemorations must be secular so as not to exclude anyone, including the Anzacs who would not recognise themselves in the sanitised saintly soldiers who are honoured, today, in their stead.

Chrys Stevenson

10 thoughts on “Time to take religion out of Anzac commemorations

  1. Sam

    Wow… why would you spend time writing such a blog? With all the genuine issues facing our world…..the overtly religious nature of ANZAC services is the biggest problem on your radar at present.
    And for those that are religious or appreciate the religious nature of the current ANZAC services…..they should be bowing to the squeaky wheel of the poor athiest who finds it too offensive??…those poor ones like yourself who are unable to attend??
    Maybe given you think it should be taken out ….you should spend your time putting on a completely secular ANZAC service for all those other poor offended souls who don’t believe in those ‘sky fairies’ or whatever other name you want to refer to God as.

    Reply
    1. thatsmyphilosophy Post author

      As a matter of fact, I took the time, on a rare day off, to write about something, I, and many others, care passionately about.

      On the other 364 days of the year, I work as a professional researcher on issues such as domestic violence, end-of-life-choices, sexual harassment and abuse, and equal opportunities for women of all classes, races and socio-economic groups.

      I also keep busy advocating for two very elderly ladies in nursing homes.

      Surprisingly, I can care about and lobby on more than one issue at a time.

      Then again, women are so much better at multi-tasking than men.

      Thanks for your comment Sam, it gave me a good laugh.

      Reply
      1. robertcarr1960

        “Thanks for you comments Sam, it gave me a good laugh” that is where you finally failed in a cogent argument and became condescending. You expect your views to be taken seriously but deride others when they express theirs.

      2. plsuseyourbrain

        C’mon robertcarr1960.
        You don’t see the comment she was responding to as condescending?
        Why should Chrys respond to Sam’s rubbish whiny comment with a ‘cogent argument’?

  2. plsuseyourbrain

    “The extreme religiosity of many ANZAC services is disrespectful to the memory and tradition of the Anzacs”. Fantastic to see someone expressing my exact thoughts.

    I too come from a non-religious military family (Father/Army/Vietnam : Grandfather/Air Force/WW2 : Great Grandfather/AIF/Gallipoli). And I too am heartily sick of the over-christianisation of our ANZAC commemorations.

    This year I finally declined to attend (after decades of dedicated observance). The obsequious piousness of my local service is quite sickening and, apart from the military speaker (who is generally excellent) the entire service has very little relevance to the military history it is supposed to commemorate.

    Reply
  3. Jane Bowtell

    Totally agree with you, though not from a military background I see your point wholeheartedly. I am an atheist that believes religion has no place in politics either. I remember a frank but amicable discussion with my mother in law many years ago when she was trying to understand why I was an Atheist, after trying to explain my views to her she said “but you do believe really, deep down” no I said, why do you believe? “just in case” she said. This floored me and made me understand more fully that many people believe in religion because the fear of not believing is stronger. Thanks for your words 👍🏻

    Reply
  4. gerowynhanson

    Agree!

    On ANZAC Day, I usually post a photo of my father, Viv, who was a WWll veteran. This year, I posted a photo of him in a tent in New Guinea contemplating a scull, along with the story behind it. He was an atheist. He was studying vet science by correspondence during his time in the army from 1943 to ’46..

    As a 4 year old orphan, Viv had been brought up in some sort weird christian religion (aren’t they all?) by foster parents … and we all know what can happen there. War broke out and at 19, my father joined the army. He was stationed at a number of localities around the islands of Moreton Bay for a year or so, defending our coastlines as war had broken out in the Pacific. BTW, contrary to what people think, Brisbane, the Moreton Bay islands, and the Sunshine Coast were all bombed, shot at and blown up by Japanese ships and aeroplanes. You’ll never hear THAT story from the Armed Forces … but, I digress.

    Viv was then assigned to New Guinea where his older brother, Reg, claimed him. As my father had been studying vet science, he was ordered to become a medic with the Red Cross. The horrors he witnessed were unspeakable, but the worst of all was the being ordered to go out and carry the body of his brother back to base. Can you imagine? He also lost another brother who was captured by the Japanese in Singapore. His brother, Ken, died on the Sandakan march across Borneo. At some point during the war, Viv started becoming a skeptic, then an atheist.

    After the war, my father only attended one ANZAC Day dawn service. He was disgusted at the religiosity of it. Viv never attended again. Indeed, neither of my parents ever attended nor watched the march on tv.. My mother also lost her only brother. She and her family all become atheists after that trauma. Her brother was shot down over the English Channel on a bombing raid to Germany. He status is still M.I.A.

    Due to all the religious rubbish, I too, do not attend the services. The Dawn Service televised on the ABC is on in the background while I potter about with my usual early morning routine.

    It is time the meaningless religious services on ANZAC Day are dumped in honour of those atheists who have passed and those who are still with us. Lest We Forget.

    Reply
  5. valeriekerr11

    Well said Chrys. Exactly my thoughts. I would love to attend a non-religious Anzac Commemoration.

    Reply
  6. fishwishwonders

    Well said Chrys, I attended the beginning of the local ANZAC commemoration locally but left part way through due to it shockingly being more church service than anything else – the whole affair appeared to be run by a minister of religion, with very little I could relate to, and certainly not an opportunity to reflect on the various sacrifices made by members of my own family and others. They served under the Australian flag, not under a religious symbol.

    Reply

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