For the first time in history, the US military hosted an event expressly for soldiers and others who do not believe in God, with a gathering like a county fair on Saturday on the main parade ground at one of the world’s largest army bases.
The Rock Beyond Belief event at Fort Bragg, organized by soldiers at the base after a 2010 evangelical Christian event, is the most visible sign so far of a growing desire by military personnel with atheist or other secular beliefs to get the same recognition as their religious counterparts.
The purpose was not to make the army look bad, organizers said, but to show that atheists and other secular believers have a place in institutions like the military.
“I love the military,” said Sergeant Justin Griffith, the main organizer of the event and the military director of American Atheists. “This is not meant to be a black eye.”
Griffith said he and other non-religious soldiers are not permitted to hold atheist meetings at the base and have so far been rebuffed in their efforts to change that. They feel their beliefs marginalize them.
Organizers were hoping for a crowd of about 5,000. At least several hundred people gathered on the parade ground by midday on Saturday. Rainy weather for most of the morning may have affected the turnout. Fort Bragg officials said they would provide a crowd estimate later.
The atmosphere was festive, with carnival treats like ribbon fries and ice cream, games for children and a demonstration jump by the army’s Golden Knights parachute team. Speakers and bands performed on the main stage. In many ways it was indistinguishable from a county fair except for the information booths ringing the parade ground and the content of the performances.
“We got any Darwin fans in the house?” asked a performer named Baba Brinkman, before launching into a rap song about evolutionary biology that culminated in a call-and-response chant of “Creationism is dead wrong.”
The event continued through the afternoon and was to feature more music during the evening.
Organizers said the goal was not to disparage religious soldiers, but to celebrate the beliefs of secular members of the military and their families. In the weeks leading up to the event, some bloggers and others expressed concerns. A chaplain currently deployed in Afghanistan posted an open letter on Fort Bragg’s Facebook page saying he feared the event would be devoted to mocking religious soldiers.
“We’re never antagonistic toward religious believers, we’re antagonistic toward religious belief,” said Richard Dawkins, the British biologist and best-selling atheist author who was the event’s headline speaker.
Dawkins, who frequently makes pointed criticism of religious adherents, delivered some relatively restrained remarks, asserting that none of the common arguments for religious belief stand up to scrutiny.