400 years later Christians are still at it

This October marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Galileo’s The Assayer on the nature of three comets seen in Europe in 1618.

As always, whenever we think of Galileo, we think of Christian persecution. Indeed, Galileo said in the introduction to the book, that some people have “advanced ridiculous and impossible opinions against me.” He even sent it to the then Pope’s chamberlain who later served under the Pope who put the astronomer on trial.

We look back on history and think of these dramatic examples of persecution and pride ourselves on how things have changed. Yet just as in the past Christians persecuted non-Christians and other Christians they still gleefully attack ‘heretics’ and other Christians just not as violently as in the past.

Today in Australia the persecution of Christians by Christians fortunately doesn’t involve auto da fes but a recent Australian Defence Force case suggests banishments are still on some Christians’ agenda.

In Australia the Department of Defence recently exonerated a former top Navy chaplain who the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) magazine Rationale reported (6/10) “had been leading the push for secular reform of the military’s wellbeing support capability.”

In the Rationale article, supported by evidence from an RSA’s submission to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, Si Gladman the Rationale editor, said the case highlighted the fact that that the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RASCS) “has pursued a pattern of conduct aimed at blocking much-needed secular reform within Defence.”

The RSA said that in 2020 the Navy’s Director General of Chaplaincy and Principal Chaplain, Collin Acton, had told the Defence Forces Remuneration Tribunal that a theological degree did little to prepare religious chaplains for providing of the sort of pastoral care required in the modern ADF.”

Acton told the DFRT that the ADFs Chaplaincy Reporting Tool used to monitor the type of work chaplains undertook showed that 95% of chaplain’s times was spent on non-religious pastoral care and well-being report.

He said: “the types of pastoral care we regularly deal with include issues such as relationship breakdown, family and domestic violence, anxiety/depression, suicide ideation and the wider complexities around members having trouble at work”.

In October 2022 Mr Acton told the RSA that he had been ‘forced out’ of Defence for “his public advocacy of the need for secular reform of Defence’s religiously based chaplaincy model”. Acton remained in the Navy but told the RSA that the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (RACS) wanted him removed from Defence.

Fortunately, Rationale reports, a Defence Department review has exonerated Acton and validated the RSA view that the “religious-based worldviews of chaplains, are often out of step with the culture the ADF is trying to develop – a culture recognising diversity and promoting inclusivity.”

The review, conducted by Deputy Chief of Navy, Rear Admiral Chris Smith investigated the claims against Acton and found “no evidence to suggest any contravention of Defence policy or unprofessional conduct.”

“Many traditional religious views – for example, considering same sex relationships, sexual relationships outside marriage and divorce to be sinful – are rejected by most Australians and, indeed, by most mainstream religious people. They have no place in the modern ADF,” the RSA said.

The RSA was too polite to point out that navies and armies have over the centuries been hotbeds of exactly many of these practices just as they have been endemic in some churches.

Moreover, comments from some divines illustrate why Acton was victimised. The RSA submission cited an Anglican Bishop, Grant Dibden, who in a 2021 speech to mark Defence Sunday that: “our heart is to minister to the ADF, be ambassador for Christ and to represent the Anglican Church in the complex secular context that is Defence….Any time we do anything in Jesus’ name we are participating in the mission of Christ and pointing people to God. We’re missionaries” in the Defence Force.

And if the claim to be missionaries was not clear enough Dibden went on to say that “Defence chaplains often work theologically from the other person’s situation back to God rather than starting from a church or religious perspective.” That sounds very much like proselytising by exploiting concerns rather than pastoral care.

Whichever, it’s not working as the RSA points out that The Defence Census of 2019 showed that the number of ADF personnel having no religion had grown from 37% in 2011 to 57% in 2019.

RSA also pointed out that the military people were not alone in not wanting to seek religious advice according to a 2020 Dynata Survey of 1,000 Australians commissioned by the Humanist Society of the ACT which found that only 22% of non-religious people would be likely to seek support from religious chaplains and that 49% would seek support from non-religious pastoral support providers.

In the author’s days in the Army more than 50 years ago he had to confront the problems of being an atheist in an institution which asserted that it was supportive of religion. It didn’t excuse you from church parades for instance, and as an officer, you had to be there to show the flag and keep an eye on the OR’s who were generally just as unenthusiastic as you were.

Moreover, despite claims that there are no atheists in foxholes blasphemy has always been more common there than prayer.

And as for the sins of the flesh, when the author’s father was posted to Darwin before heading to New Guinea, he had one night’s duty guarding a brothel and keeping the very long line soldiers in orderly formation. He declined a free visit for himself when closing time arrived and took a crate of beer for him and his mates instead.

In Vietnam the author had to help handle a situation when one of the gunners had got himself one of those infections which sometimes catch up with soldiers on R&R and help convince his family why, for compelling and secret military reasons, he couldn’t go back to Australia when scheduled.

And in those military years the name of Christ was taken in vein more than in prayer while soldiers – both Australian and American – were endlessly creative in coming up with new language containing both sexual and sacrilegious words and phrases.

It was always thus in armies and navies – probably as far back as the days Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens picked up clubs to do damage to a neighbouring threatening group. It may not have been the same as the language of your average Digger but the range of grunts and oaths would probably have been just as diverse as that of a 21st century soldier.