The U.S. military hosted an event meant specifically for atheist and agnostic soldiers for the first time Saturday on the grounds of a large Army base in North Carolina.
"Rock Beyond Belief," an event featuring secular speakers and musicians, was held on the main parade ground at the Fort Bragg military base. It was modeled after the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's "Rock the Fort" evangelistic event that was held at the same venue in 2010.
"I love the military," The Associated Press quoted Sgt. Justin Griffith, main organizer of the event and the military director of American Atheists, as saying. "This is not meant to be a black eye."
The organizers claim on the event's website that they are not interested in being a counter-event to the "offensive" "Rock the Fort" concert, or in putting on an anti-Christian, anti-religious event. "Rock Beyond Belief" is a day of fun and entertainment, they say.
Griffith had invited Christian soldiers to the event, and had said a free barbecue meal would be provided to the first 1,000 Department of Defense cardholders.
Atheist and agnostic soldiers at Fort Bragg have been pushing for gaining recognition as a faith group that would have the right to hold meetings inside the facilities. And Saturday's concert, attended by a few hundred people, was also aimed at making a case for that demand.
Prominent British atheist Richard Dawkins was a speaker. "We're never antagonistic toward religious believers, we're antagonistic toward religious belief," he claimed. "There is no good, honest reason to believe in a god or gods of any kind, or indeed in anything supernatural. The only reason to believe something is that you have evidence for it."
"We got any Darwin fans in the house?" asked Baba Brinkman, a rapper, before launching into a song about evolutionary biology.
The Delaware-based Stiefel Freethought Foundation, which promotes and supports the free thought movement, had donated $70,000 for the event. Its founder Todd Stiefel was quoted as saying that the Army should not host events like Saturday's concert and the BGEA-sponsored event that prompted it. "I would like this to be the last one of these events."
Garrison Commander Col. Stephen Sicinski at Fort Bragg said the hosting of "Rock the Fort" was a non-issue. "We don't treat soldiers who are atheists as atheists, we treat them as soldiers," he said. "They're soldiers first."
The post commander had earlier refused to allow the festival to be held on the main parade field. Griffith had to cancel the event scheduled for April 2 last year. However, with the backing of groups working for church-state separation, Griffith complained to the Secretary of the Army that the fort was discriminating against certain religious groups. Cooperation was pledged as a result.
"This just might be the turning point in the foxhole atheist community's struggle for acceptance, tolerance and respect," Griffith said after the permission to hold the event was granted last August. "It's an amazing time to be a nonbeliever in the U.S. military on the cusp of a major breakthrough."
Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, told The Christian Post in an earlier interview that it's important to understand the background of how the atheist event came about. The festival was conceived as reaction to the Billy Graham's event, which received some manpower and financial support from the base command at the request of some chaplains.
Griffith and atheist groups objected to it, alleging it was an army-sponsored platform to seek converts.
Retired Navy Chaplain James Klingenschmitt earlier told The Christian Post that when the Billy Graham event was held atheists threatened lawsuits, wrongly arguing 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 canceled.