Not that I was expecting the UK’s Mirror of aspiring to the journalistic standards of more posh newspapers, but I was disappointed that a link from today’s UK MOD news service led me to this rather trashy story about religious minorities joining the British military, including this badly photoshopped picture with the caption, “Air power: how a soldier witch might look in action”.
The content of the story is fairly thin gruel, and the main substance includes a reference to another Mirror story from March which reports that “Official figures obtained through Freedom of Information show 770 members of the armed forces declared their religion as “other” and, of these, are 120 devotees of paganism”.
The Mirror’s coverage reflects a general cultural prejudice that Wicca or paganism does not deserve to be taken seriously as a religion or, to put it another way, as a spiritually-based world view. Perhaps this lack of respect is because of popular assumptions that it is about druids and faeries, or that it is a recently invented religion without centuries of tradition to lend it gravitas, or perhaps because of fears of some Christians that it is associated with devil worship. Certainly, as Ronald Hutton notes in this interview with the Religious Studies Project, contemporary Wicca or paganism is a modern construct, without documentable links to ancient practice despite some of the claims of its practitioners. Other scholars have noted the diversity of pagan/Wiccan practices, its links to environmentalism, romanticism, feminism and the pronounced individualism of our culture.
In his study of the US military chaplaincy, sociologist Kim Hansen noted that even among (predominantly Christian) chaplains, the officers charged with guarding religious freedom in the military, there was an overwhelming tendency to dismiss Wiccans as being immature seekers and “whackos” “who are either malevolent or silly”. In this respect, Hansen notes, Wiccans have not gained the same degree of acceptance in the military as Muslims, whose practices, while not always understand by non-Muslims, are intelligible according to widespread understandings of what religion looks like. Military chaplains, whatever their own beliefs, have a duty to facilitate the sincerely felt beliefs of military members, provided that they are not prejudicial to order, discipline, and operational requirements.
Protecting religious diversity in western militaries is a serious business when citizens of diverse democratic societies expect their military to mirror, or at least resemble, its country. Stupid articles by journalistic hacks filled with sniggering references to “HMS Hogwarts” do not further this goal.