FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — For the first time in history, the U.S. military hosted an event expressly for soldiers and others who don't believe in God, with a gathering sort of like a county fair 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 here after a 2010 evangelical Christian event at the base, 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 Sgt. Justin Griffith, main organizer of the event and the military director of American Atheists. He added, "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 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.
"There is no good, honest reason to believe in a god or gods of any kind, or indeed in anything supernatural," he said. "The only reason to believe something is that you have evidence for it."
The event marked a coming-out of sorts for atheist and secularist soldiers at Fort Bragg, who have been trying for over a year to be recognized as a "distinctive faith group," a designation that would allow them to hold their meetings at Bragg facilities. Curious soldiers in uniform mixed with people in civilian clothes as bands played and children began to race around the huge field when the rain let up.
"I've been an atheist pretty much my whole life, and where I was growing up in Texas, I didn't know another atheist," said Pfc. Lance Reed. "It's important to meet people who have some of the same beliefs and interests as you do, and that's what this is about."
Reed also said he hoped Christians at Bragg and other believers would attend, to dispel some misconceptions about atheists.
"A lot of people think it's all about God-bashing or something like that," he said. "You can see we're not evil people who want to burn down churches. We're just here to have fun."
Sgt. Lance Hollander, who said he's been looking forward to the event ever since he first heard about it last year, agreed that in some ways the concert could serve as a calling card for soldiers who aren't religious.
"Atheists are the least trusted group in America, and we want to change that," he said.
A concert that was planned last year fell apart after a dispute between organizers and the base leadership over questions such as its location. Saturday's gathering was made possible in part by $70,000 in donations from the Raleigh-based Stiefel Freethought Foundation, whose founder, Todd Stiefel, said he hopes the Army ultimately decides that its role doesn't include events like Rock Beyond Belief and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association-sponsored concert that prompted it.
"I would like this to be the last one of these events," Stiefel said, arguing that the government shouldn't have any role in hosting events geared towards religious belief or lack of it.
Fort Bragg is willing to work with organizers of any event that fits its guidelines, said Garrison Commander Col. Stephen Sicinski, who estimated that the BGEA evangelical concert generated twice as much controversy as the atheist event. As far as the Army is concerned, Siciniski said, the event isn't a bellwether of changing beliefs — it's simply another one of the community events that Bragg often hosts.
"We don't treat soldiers who are atheists as atheists, we treat them as soldiers," he said. "They're soldiers first."