Ethics & Religion

Time to take religion out of Anzac Day services

Plenty of non-religious Australians have fought, and have died, in war for our country.

While the insulting line that there are “no atheists in foxholes” is often thrown around, religion – particularly, Christianity – has never been a unifying force among military personnel.

Historians have noted that a great number of diggers during the First World War were not religious. Indeed, many showed a lack of interest in religion and distrusted military chaplains. One researcher and historian Chrys Stevenson has described the very ethos of the Anzacs as “overwhelmingly irreligious”.

In fact, if Australia were to find itself in conflict again, the men and women doing the fighting would be mostly non-religious. With a vast majority of Defence personnel now identifying as not religious, we would, as a nation, be pinning our hopes on many “atheists in foxholes” – although, of course, not all non-religious people are atheists.

It is perplexing, therefore, that the Australian War Memorial – the nation’s most important institution dedicated to the memory of all Australians who have died in war – views its role as advocating for one particular religion and privileging it on the most important national day of commemoration.

Those who braved the Canberra cold to attend this year’s Anzac Dawn Service would be forgiven for thinking that they had instead observed a Christian church service. Christian acts of worship dominated the event’s Order of Service, including Christian hymns, a Christian dedication and benediction, and the Lord’s Prayer. All of these were presided over by a Christian chaplain.

Regrettably, the exclusionary nature of Anzac Dawn Services at the Australian War Memorial risks alienating many Australians, especially non-religious and non-Christian veterans and current service personnel.

A number of veterans have recently spoken out about the religious nature of commemorations. Last year, a former soldier told the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide that the imposition of Christiantity on occasions such as Anzac Day was exclusionary.

In his testimony to the Royal Commission, Sam Proctor said:

“Ubiquitously framing it as a Christian-only sermon necessarily implies to current-serving non-religious or faith-diverse soldiers that they, their forebears and their fallen mates are only worth honouring to the extent that they were God-fearing.” 

He added:

“What could be an opportunity to bind us all in honouring the enduring ideals of the Australian soldier – mateship, humour, courage and endurance – is instead hijacked as another opportunity for proselytisation.”

In a 2022 article, former Army Colonel Phillip Hoglin wrote:

“… I am just one of many who feel an odd detachment from the dawn service itself, along with an emerging incongruence between the concepts of secular commemoration and the religious content of Anzac Day services.”

The realities of Australia’s religious and non-religious diversity, and of the rapidly changing demographics, leaves the Australian War Memorial with no option but to reform how it observes Anzac Day to make the Dawn Service secular and more welcoming of all.

Christianity is not just a minority faith in the Defence Force; it is fast becoming a minority faith in the wider community. At the next national Census in 2026, Australians marking ‘No religion’ will overtake those marking ‘Christian’ to become the single largest cohort. If the inherent bias in the religion question is removed – as the ABS is proposing to do – Christianity can be expected to fall to well below 40 per cent of the population.

Moving to more secular commemorations would not necessarily mean removing religion completely. But it would ensure these events are not dominated by one religious worldview. The change would open the door for more meaningful and creative ways – including, for example, storytelling, poetry or music – to reflect on the importance of Anzac Day to our nation.

My organisation, the Rationalist Society of Australia, wrote to the Australian War Memorial in May last year, urging it to pursue secular reform on this matter. We did not receive a reply.

Previously, in late 2022, a spokesperson for the responsible minister in the Albanese government, Matt Keogh, told us that commemoration events such as Anzac Day were “welcoming to all” and recognised the diversity of the Defence Force workforce and wider community. Clearly, Minister Keogh and the Australian War Memorial need to spend more time reflecting on whether the Anzac Dawn Service is, indeed, welcoming to all.

Making the necessary change would not require some grand act of bravery. Elsewhere, secular commemorations are already the norm. Melbourne’s well-attended Dawn Service features the hymn Abide With Me, but, notably, no Christian chaplain, no recital of prayers, and no Christian dedication and benediction.

Secular reform is taking place in other Commonwealth nations, too. Last year, Canada introduced significant changes to reduce the role of religion in its national remembrance services.

new directive there states that, where chaplains are providing a reflection at such events, the reflection shall be “inclusive in nature, and respectful of the religious and spiritual diversity of Canada”. The directive also says:

“The reflection must ensure that attendees are reasonably able to identify with the words being uttered. Chaplains shall endeavour to ensure that all feel included and able to participate in the reflection with a clear conscience, no matter their beliefs (religious, spiritual, agnostic, atheist)”.

In the United Kingdom, the Royal British Legion – which supports remembrance events across the country – has made changes to specify that the act of Remembrance is to be “brief and non-religious”.

It is time for change in Australia. All of our service personnel deserve respect and commemoration on an equal basis.

Published 25 May 2024.

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Photo by Department of Defence / Commonwealth of Australia


About Si Gladman

Si Gladman is Executive Director of the Rationalist Society of Australia (2024-). He is Editor of Rationale. Previously, he was Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia (2021-2024). He tweets at @si_gladman

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