Atheists represent less than 1 percent of the population of the U.S. military, but at the end of this month they will be holding a public festival and rock concert to celebrate "freethought" (atheism, humanism and skepticism) on one of the largest military bases in the U.S.
North Carolina's Fort Bragg will host "Rock Beyond Belief" (RBB), an event organizer Justin Griffith, a sergeant in the US Army and an atheist, hopes will generate more support for nonbelievers serving in the military.
According to some reports, military nontheists have said they feel they are unwelcome targets of proselytism, and complain of compulsory religious prayers and practices at official events.
Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, told The Christian Post that it's important to understand the background of how the atheist event came about.
The idea for RBB grew out of a Christian festival called "Rock the Fort" in 2010. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association sponsored the event that included Christian music, speakers and an altar call.
Torpy said that Rock The Fort "was given full-court press support from the chaplaincy. As a result of that, our community, atheists and humanists, asked for equal treatment."
But while organizers of RBB say they just want an equal opportunity, ChristianFighterPilot.com, a blog run by an enlisted pilot who goes by J.D., states that organizers of the event "have secured the explicit 'guarantee' of the US Army that they can criticize religion – and people who are religious."
Earlier, some concern were raised over the songs of headlining band Aiden, which are critical of religions – especially Christianity – and include lyrics such as, "Love how they burn your synagogues. Love how they torch your holy books...faith whether Christian, Muslim, Jew. Still you all distort the truth. The death of fiction will save us all.'"
Fort Bragg took these public concerns over the band seriously and originally gave Griffith the same stipulations he gave the Fort Bragg chaplains regarding the Christian event: the performers could "make no statements critical of other religions."
But JD writes, "Griffith apparently refused. In an effort that almost certainly included his legal representation, Griffith went back and forth with Col Sicinski, Fort Bragg's garrison commander, who finally signed off on the concert."
Sincinski issued a statement that said, in part, "Fort Bragg will not discriminate against speech on the basis of its viewpoint."
JD writes that the Billy Graham event did not receive the same clearance. "If the military is going to treat atheism as a religion, this is precisely the correct course of action. Every religion should be able to freely express its tenets in gatherings intended to be a fellowship of adherents. That's the heart of religious freedom," he writes.
Retired Navy Chaplain James Klingenschmitt told The Christian Post via email that when the Billy Graham event was held many atheists threatened lawsuits and that "Americans United for Separation of Church and State had (wrongly) argued that 'An evangelistic rally jointly sponsored by U.S. military personnel and evangelical Christian churches and ministries violates the U.S. Constitution and must be cancelled.'"
He said that while freedom of speech is important, and "as a Christian chaplain I would defend any group's freedom of assembly and worship," the line is crossed when groups "denigrate their fellow soldiers' religion, which violates the rules of good order and discipline."
The event is open to the public, and in addition to live music, prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, will be speaking.