Religion: A “10-level” Guide for New Team Members

by Brian Leppert


The Army demands competency and establishes training standards in a set of basic soldier tasks and drills. These create a baseline for conducting operations. Yet, CA personnel, by definition, encounter a variety of non-military mission related problems. Because of their emphasis on building relationships, CA teams must train new members on the basics of social topics. One said topic, which often leaves Americans in heated dinner table debates, concerns religion. Religion impacts individual and social life in the operational environments (OEs) that CA teams operate in. Yet, how can new CA personnel master the basics of religion? How can they extend their knowledge beyond the dinner table?


The following aims to provide a “10-level” guide for new CA personnel on religion and its application to the CA mission. Here, religion focuses on spiritual pursuits, which inform the courses of action (COA) religious people pursue. New CA team members don’t have to acquire a doctoral-level understanding of each religion. But having a more robust understanding of the basics will aid them in navigating religious problem sets. Simply put, understanding the basics provides team members with a perspective that will heighten their awareness and increase their operational capability. Religious basics give new CA personnel an additional sheet of cognitive acetate, deepening their understanding of the operational environment.


Spirituality and Ethical COAs

First, religious people primarily seek divine or spiritual experience. Spirituality can take many different forms, but it generally follows along the lines of theism and pantheism.[i] Theism views the spiritual realm as resulting from a singular, all-powerful entity, or “god.” Theistic religions include Christianity, Judiaism, and Islam. Theism differs from pantheism, which views the world as one with or the same as god. Here, no separation exists between god, nature, and people. Pantheistic religions often include traditional/folk religions, sects of Hinduism, Buddhism, various New Age religions, and some post-modern philosophy.


Second, the ethical COAs prescribed by religions result from their spiritual beliefs. Essentially, the pursuit of spirituality drives both individual and social conduct. Theism produces specific COAs in governance, finance, civic duty, medicine, business, etc. Likewise, these differ from the COAs prescribed by pantheism. For example, because a theistic worldview separates god and nature, theists often view modern scientific medicine as a valid means of healing.[ii] Here, faith healing plays a crucial part because god can heal. But, this does not negate seeking medical cures because god may not heal. Inversely, pantheists often look towards holistic views of healing and medicine, which require a spiritual component. Because nature equates to god, divine presence permeates all things. Thus, pantheists will adopt healing practices that acknowledge unity with cosmic spirituality.

Yet, because religion focuses on spirituality, the religious person does not first ask, “How can I be a good person?” Instead, they ask, “How can I become spiritual?” This differs from Western secularism because the secularist does not view morality as a by-product of a higher power. Here, ethics derive from either law or culture. But, by focusing on spirituality, religious people produce COAs that align with their understanding of the world. Putting ethics before spirituality in religious settings places the cart before the horse. Theists and pantheists alike seek a greater understanding of ‘god.’ But each understanding drastically differs. Consequently, this pursuit drives their respective COAs. Thus, ethics, although important, comes second, derived from sacred experience.


Application of Religious Principles

The following section outlines several “how-to’s” on applying religious spirituality and spiritually derived COAs to problems CA teams may encounter. First, consider the treatment of disease in many traditional African communities. Many African traditional religions view disease as caused by evil spirits, curses, or witchcraft. This view results from a pantheistic understanding of nature. These societies don’t see the world around them as only physical, consisting exclusively of scientific concepts such as molecules, bacteria, or viruses. Instead, the spiritual controls the physical. Viruses exist, but viruses result from bad spiritual conduct. Thus, those holding to this worldview view healing as a process that, “. . . provides treatment for physical, psychological, spiritual and social symptoms”.[iii] Team medics must recognize that some patients will not view themselves as “treated” simply by the administering of various drugs or antibiotics. Giving a traditionally religious person Ibuprofen leaves healing still on the table. Medical treatment in traditionally religious communities may require coordination with the local healer. By recognizing that worldview guides practice, team members can look for problem areas derived from unquestioned Western assumptions and mitigate them before they arise.


Next, religious people view individual and social COAs as both immediate and ultimate because they prioritize spirituality. Like all people, religious people must satisfy immediate needs such as food and water, but they ultimately seek divine experience. A religious person may intentionally give up physical (immediate) needs like food in order to achieve spiritual (ultimate) fulfillment. Most religions have extreme examples of this, called ascetics, who intentionally forego physical comfort in their spiritual pursuits. The early Christian patriarch, Origen, went as far as to have castrated himself to avoid sexual temptation. These individuals often hold significant influence over the religious population, existing as social centers of gravity (COGs). Teams must identify and establish relationships with these individuals because they serve as a point of contact for higher spiritual wisdom. Teams will establish themselves as authorities on various issues, like medicine, if they collaborate with the local ascetic/social COG.


Additionally, the pursuit of spirituality can also impact social identity. To illustrate this, consider the split between Boko Haram (BH) and its ISIS counterpart (ISIS West Africa, or ISWA). Here, the two violent extremist factions divided over who they considered a true Muslim.[iv] BH did not consider people living under ‘secular’ rule as properly prioritizing spirituality.[v] Because of this, they actively targeted civilian centers such as markets.[vi] Essentially, BH targeted civilians because the ultimate goal of more spiritual governance took precedence over the immediate need for security.[vii] ISWA, however, shifted targeting to security forces.[viii] For ISWA, the local Muslim population still had true faith even though they lived under secular rule. Basically, ISWA recognized the immediate need for rule of law, viewed the current system as quasi-legitimate, but believed they could offer a better approach. Following this narrative, BH and ISWA saw the relationship between immediate and ultimate needs differently. BH viewed civil governance as antagonistic to Muslim spirituality whereas ISWA sought to legitimize their actions by appealing to material needs. BH took an ascetic approach to governance, requiring all people to adopt their “all or nothing” ideology.


Understanding these spiritual dynamics can help CA teams resolve conflicts, strengthen the legitimacy of civil institutions, and counter extremist action. It can further dialogue initiatives between the government’s security efforts and the local population by recognizing the interplay between religion and public life.[ix] Providing security, medical, or governmental assistance strengthens immediate, material support. Yet, teams must help civil governments bridge the gap between immediate needs and addressing root causes of divide in religiously fractured societies. CA teams cannot overlook the role that religion plays in the ways that religious extremists utilize it to bolster support and drive recruitment. Local governments in the Lake Chad region ravaged by BH and ISWA will create a higher likelihood of success by implementing religiously-minded policies. These approaches will help counter the appeal of extremist organizations by de-legitimizing their efforts. Here, CA teams will not directly fulfill spiritual needs. Instead, they focus material support in ways that set conditions for the local population to achieve their ultimate/spiritual goals. CA security, medical, and governmental assistance efforts only scratch the surface if they fail to appreciate the foundational religious issues.


Additionally, CA teams focused on civil information management (CIM), or the newer civil knowledge integration (CKI), and civil reconnaissance (CR) can leverage religion to identify centers of potential conflict. Furthermore, CA personnel can make “. . . religion... part of the solution”.[x] For instance, a religious division extends across the Sahel between Muslims in the North and Christians in the South.[xi] Both Islam and Christianity share similar basics, stemming from their theistic beliefs. CA teams can leverage these similarities rather than highlighting their differences. Also, CA personnel can also utilize history as valuable context to further these efforts. Contrary to popular belief, Christians and Muslims have established dialogue in the past. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest Christian theologians, extensively dialogued with Muslim scholars in his Summa Contra Gentiles.[xii] CA teams can develop relationships in religiously diverse and tense areas by identifying existing and/or historical efforts for dialogue.


Moreover, CA teams can leverage religious educational initiatives within their AO. Take the push for literacy by Christian missionaries as a case in point. Historically, Christians have prioritized literacy because Christian spiritual growth comes by reading the scriptures. A Pew Research study suggests that Christian communities in the Sahel have higher education rates and have made advances in formal education, compared to other faith traditions.[xiii] For many of these communities, literacy and education have a distinct religious association for the reasons mentioned above. In these communi