By Colleen Jenkins
FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (Reuters) - An atheist-themed festival drew hundreds of people to an Army post in North Carolina on Saturday for what was believed to be the first-ever event held on a U.S. military base for service members who do not have religious beliefs.
Organizers said they hoped the "Rock Beyond Belief" event at Fort Bragg would spur equal treatment toward nonbelievers in the armed forces and help lift the stigma for approximately 295,000 active duty personnel who consider themselves atheist, agnostic or without a religious preference.
Defense Department policy holds that all service members have the right to believe in any or no religion. But those gathered at the event described being ostracized and harassed in the military community for not believing in God and worried about getting passed over for promotions if their secularist stances were widely known.
"We're sending a message," said Justin Griffith, an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg who spearheaded the event. "Foxhole atheists are out there fighting for your rights. Please return the favor."
The majority of U.S. adults consider themselves Christian, though there are signs the country is becoming less religious. The American Religious Identification Survey in 2008 showed a growing number of people identified as atheist, agnostic or having no stated religious preference, with 15 percent in that group in 2008 compared to 8.2 percent in 1990.
Christianity also dominates the religious makeup of the military. Only about 8,000 out of 1.4 million active duty members in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force identify themselves as atheists, and another 1,800 say they are agnostic, according to the Defense Department.
Approximately 286,000 more list "no religious preference." That group can include atheists and agnostics but also people who may consider themselves religious or spiritual but do not affiliate with a particular religious group.
Griffith is a born-again Christian creationist-turned-atheist who dreamed up the "Rock Beyond Belief" festival to protest an evangelical event held at Fort Bragg in September 2010. Sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the "Rock the Fort" event featured Christian musicians and speakers who shared an evangelical message with the military community.
Griffith, 29, tried to get "Rock the Fort" canceled, arguing it was aimed at converting soldiers and violated the constitutional separation of church and state. Fort Bragg officials refused to call it off but said the base would offer the same level of support to other groups seeking a similar gathering.
Griffith's counter-event took more than a year to transpire, due in part to an overseas deployment and a dispute with base officials about where the "Rock Beyond Belief" concert would be held on the installation, which is located just west of Fayetteville.
Fort Bragg's garrison commander said allowing the atheist event to be held on base was just the latest manifestation of the Army's efforts to make sure nonbelievers in its ranks were treated like everyone else.
"We don't treat soldiers who are atheists as atheists," said Col. Stephen Sicinski. "We treat them as soldiers."
After rain gave way to sunshine on Saturday, a smaller-than-expected crowd streamed onto the same large field where Christians gathered in 2010. There was again face painting and jumping inflatables for children, but a performer on stage rapped that "creationism is dead wrong" and a T-shirt for sale featured a Bible along with the slogan "Holy Crap."
Richard Dawkins, a well-known atheist and best-selling author of books including "The God Delusion," received a big applause during his speech when he said, "You don't need religion in order to be moral."
He said he was glad for the atheist-friendly crowd but had wished some religious soldiers would attend.
"Because I was hoping to change their minds," said Dawkins, who on March 24 spoke to thousands of people gathered at the National Mall in Washington for the "Reason Rally," another recent event held to embolden people with secular beliefs.
Though some Christian groups asked the Defense Department not to allow the non-theist event and other critics groused about it through social media, the gathering Saturday had a peaceful vibe without a protester in sight. The crowd included many families with children, some of them part of the military community and others civilians who came out to show support.
"This is very cool," said Brenda Germain, whose husband retired from the Air Force. "So many times the atheists feel like they're alone in their community."
Several military members and their spouses echoed Germain's feelings but didn't want their names used out of concern about possible repercussions. One Army wife said her home in a town near Fort Bragg was vandalized after her children told their friends they did not believe in God. Her family ended up moving, she said.
Two service members said they put "no religious preference" rather than atheist on their dog tags to avoid having their beliefs influence how they are treated or viewed by their colleagues.
"We're good people, we're serving in the military," said an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg who did not want to be identified. Atheism "hasn't changed how I serve."
Griffith's push for acceptance of foxhole atheists isn't stopping with "Rock Beyond Belief," he said. He and other soldiers are working to get non-theists recognized as faith groups within the military, a status that would allow them to collect donations and meet regularly on base.
"We want to use the chapels," Griffith said. "We won't burn them down. We just want to be inside."
(Editing by Greg McCune)