Atheists in foxholes: Is faith essential to police work?

Studies have shown that perception affects behavior, we are essentially wired for faith

Many police trainers point to faith as essential to police work. That pronouncement usually comes with some statement that it doesn’t matter what you believe in, just believe in something.

The majority of cops will nod in agreement, but it doesn’t make everyone happy. People who are confident in their own religious faith often find that kind of statement disheartening because their faith teaches them that there is Truth that transcends the general concept of “faith in something, no matter what.”

Those who have no belief in a benevolent supernatural power — whether that is an outright hostility to the thought, a benign indifference, or an active disbelief — are troubled at the accusation that they are less of a cop. As it turns out, there are some atheists in foxholes.

Perspectives on Faith
From my perspective as an evangelical Christian, I see efficacy in any of the following perspectives on faith:

•    faith in one’s self
•    faith in an ideal potential
•    faith expressed in iconography
•    faith in a religious system
•    faith in a personal God

I contend that everyone in law enforcement does, indeed, rely on one or more of these.

For the purpose of this discussion, I base my argument on science, not theology.

Marked Benefits in Health
Research on the mind-body connection — as if they were ever disconnected in the first place — yields some interesting findings. One is that perception affects behavior. Expectations are self-fulfilling, not because of some karmic influence, but because it engages brain chemistry as well as behavior templates that are already established from life experience.

Thinking about a previous success improves job interviews. Standing tall increases perceptions of authority attributed to you by others. Clenching a pencil in the mouth, thus forcing the “smile” muscles to work, actually creates changes reflected in optimistic behavior of research subjects.

Other recent research shows actual changes in the brain — not merely ephemeral thoughts — under the influence of meditation. We all know the calming effect of combat breathing that improves both physiology and emotion. We also accept that positive self-talk affects our behavior.

Sociological studies show marked benefits in health, success, and longevity among those with a religious practice and supportive faith groups. Similar benefits accrue from any positive group affiliation.

My non-religious colleagues find that a locus of control centered on their own competence, drive, and purpose is quite powerful and sufficient to sustain them in their profession. Those who have a religion other than one based on Judeo-Christian tradition gain strength from their practices as well. Even mere superstitions can sustain us for a time.

That is not incompatible with the beliefs of my evangelical Christian colleagues who would agree with me that God offers common grace to all, blesses the efforts of the peace officer for the common good, and has divinely designed a magnificent brain to operate within human free will. God, as we understand Him, does not deny His benefits beyond the fold.

Whether what you believe brings you ultimate transcendent peace or fits you for heaven is quite another discussion — one I’d be happy to have with you. As to the question of whether faith in something is essential, the science of the matter says we’re wired for it.

And that is something we can all believe.

About the author

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy.. He is retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults

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