The UK Ministry of Defence might seem an improbable source of religious statistics. In fact, it (and its predecessor departments) has long been enquiring into the religious affiliation of the armed forces, from the 1860s for the Army, the 1930s for the Royal Navy and the 1960s for the Royal Air Force.
Data-collection is now annual, with a census point of 1 April, through the Joint Personnel Administration System since 2007. Collation is undertaken by the Defence Analytical Services and Advice section of the Ministry of Defence, with publication via the annual (now online only) UK Defence Statistics.
Table 2.13 of the 2009 edition of UK Defence Statistics contains the religious affiliation of the UK’s regular armed forces (trained and untrained, but excluding reservists and Gurkhas), and disaggregated by service, for 2007, 2008 and 2009. It will be found at:
The number of armed forces personnel declaring they have no religion has risen over this triennium, from 9.5 to 11.6 per cent. The proportion is greatest in the Naval Service (15.7 per cent) and smallest in the Army (9.4 per cent), with the Royal Air Force at 13.9 per cent in 2009.
Even so, all the figures are relatively small and well below the 43.2 per cent of the adult population saying they had no religion in the British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey in 2008, whose ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?’ question is well-known for minimizing religious adherence. The corresponding 2001 population census figure for Great Britain was 15.1 per cent but has probably increased during the past nine years.
The overwhelming majority of the armed services claimed to be Christian (or of the Christian tradition, i.e. including non-Trinitarians) in 2009: 87.2 per cent overall, with 88.9 per cent in the Army, 85.9 per cent in the Royal Air Force and 83.6 per cent in the Naval Service. The equivalent 2008 BSA figure was 49.8 per cent. The 2001 population census figure for Great Britain was 71.8 per cent, using question-wording in England and Wales which some regard as ‘leading’.
Only 1.2 per cent of armed forces personnel registered as non-Christians, fewer than one-fifth of the 6.7 per cent recorded in the BSA and just one-tenth of the BSA statistic in the case of Muslims.
Of course, the two sets of data are not entirely compatible. The armed forces monitor the religion of their personnel as part of the gathering of essential background information, particularly at the point of recruitment. This information could have an intensely practical and operational purpose should a servicewoman or man be injured or killed on active duty, or otherwise fall ill while serving with the colours. This is somewhat analogous to (civilian) hospitals asking patients about their religion when being admitted for treatment. By contrast, the BSA survey simply poses its question in a way which has no potential longer-term implications.
At the same time, despite the abolition of compulsory church parades immediately after the Second World War, religion is quite institutionalized and embedded within the armed services, principally through a strong chaplaincy network (and an Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre in Hampshire, to train and support the chaplains). This, plus the natural desire to take out a spiritual ‘insurance policy’ in the event of the worst happening in the front line, perhaps contributes to an explanation of why our armed forces are nominally so much more religious than the rest of us.