Active combat could boost religiosity, United States Defence study suggests

14 September 2018

Study of US servicemen suggests that religiosity may increase post-deployment


THERE are no atheists in foxholes, according to an old adage. Now, a study of US servicemen suggests that active combat may indeed boost religiosity.

Death, trauma and God: the effect of military deployments on religiosity by three economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research draws on two sets of data and finds that combat assignment is “associated with a substantial increase in the probability that a serviceman subsequently attends religious services regularly and engages in private prayer”.

The strongest and largest effects were found among younger enlisted servicemen and those who were physically injured in combat.

The first set of data came from a national longitudinal study of health that took place between 1994 and 2008, a sample that included 482 active duty overseas male servicemen. A total of 15.4 per cent reported attending religious services weekly; 75.1 per cent prayed privately, and 51.1 per cent reported that religion was an important aspect of their lives.

Factors including pre-deployment religiosity, age, race, education, and parental household income were not found to predict the likelihood of being deployed to combat zones. Soldiers who had served in combat zones were more likely to report religiosity than those assigned to non-combat overseas deployments: they were seven percentage points more likely to attend weekly religious services.

The second set of data came from the Department of Defence survey of the health of servicemen, comprising 11,598 active duty servicemen. This found that 18.9 per cent reported frequent religious attendance in the previous year; 22 per cent turned to prayer in stressful situations; and two-thirds (69.5 per cent) indicated that religion was important to them. Those who had engaged the enemy in firefight were two per cent more likely to attend religious services at least once a fortnight than those who had not.

The impact was largest for enlisted servicemen, compared with officers, junior servicemen under 25, and those physically injured in combat.

“Descriptive evidence suggests that the psychological and physical burdens of war deployments as well as the presence of military chaplains in war zones help to explain combat-induced increases in religiosity,” the authors, Resul Cesur, Joseph J. Sabia, and Travis Freidman write. Other possible explanations could be the peer effect of serving alongside religious servicemen, and the “social stigma” attached to seeking out secular psychological services.

“While our findings suggest that combat-induced religiosity is not solely, or even largely, attributable to chaplain-induced demand, the role of chaplains in providing counselling services — particularly in war theatres where there is limited secular competition, and a high degree of social stigma associated with seeking secular psychological counselling — remains a controversial military policy issue worthy of continued study,” they write.

The study notes that, historically, those who go into military service have been more likely to identify with religion. In the United States, Chaplains are prohibited by the constitution from “promoting or establishing religion”

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