There are lots of atheists in foxholes. And instead of praying, they’re spending their time fighting for their first amendment rights.
That’s what the Justin Griffith, who founded the Military Atheists and Secular Humanists, or MASH, is doing, after organizing Rock Beyond Belief in Fort Bragg, N.C., only to see it effectively cancelled by army brass at the last minute.
“In September of last year,” Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, explained via telephone, “Fort Bragg and the chaplaincy went out of their way to put on a major Christian evangelical event.”
While, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, military brass offered wll over $50,000 worth of support for the Christian event, such largesse was, at the last minute after months of planning, refused to a daylong event sponsored by atheists and other non-believers, effectively blocking it.
Rock Beyond Belief, organized by local atheists at Fort Bragg, was to be a big event. Thousands of people were expected to show up, and notable musicians and speakers, including famed author Richard Dawkins, were to headline the show.
In contrast, the September evangelical event, Rock the Fort, sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, brought out perhaps 1,000, though organizers claim ten times that amount. Rock the Fort became controversial, as many objected to the army doing so much – including the provision of port-a-potties, organizational support for the chaplains and even army parachutists – for an event aimed evangelization.
In fact, it was the statement by Fort Bragg’s commanding officer that inspired the atheists to build their event. The officer said that the same support would be afforded to any organization.
Fort Bragg seemed to carry through on that, until March – only days before the planned April 2 event was to take place. “The garrison commander,” said Torpy, “after being given a green light from his legal team to support the event in accordance with the general’s letter, said, ‘Here’s what you can have – not an outdoor field, like Rock the Fort, but a seated event in a 700 person auditorium. You’ll get no support whatsoever.'”
That commander went on to say that organizers must state that Fort Bragg had nothing to do with, and did not sponsor, Rock Beyond Belief.
Organizers had no choice to cancel the event. They believed that thousands of people were planning to attend, and were unsure as to how to plan for such a small venue, and feared a possible public safety issue. Also, given the high-profile nature of some of the performers and speakers, said Torpy, a West Point graduate who spent ten years in the military, most recently in Baghdad. “You have to understand that they can’t spend their time at a small, 700 person event.”
Rock the Fort was clearly religious in nature, and the legality of the military’s promotion of a specific religious sect has been, to say the least, questioned by some as a separation of church and state issue.
Rock Beyond Belief was billed as “a fun day for the rest of us,” but, said Torpy, “In a certain case, the Billy Graham event was ‘for the rest of us as well,’ to convert the rest of us. It was military support and resources to convert people to Christianity. There were bouncy castles there for kids. It was to spread the gospels.”
However, MASH avoided focusing on that question in the buildup to Rock Beyond Belief, instead focusing on creating what they hoped would be a positive event that would be open to all. It was only after Fort Bragg officials issued last-minute rule changes forcing the show’s cancellation that organizers began to condemn a federally funded institution, the leadership of which seemed intent on spending public money to proselytize.
Fort Bragg officials gave two reasons for the changes. They said that a media analysis suggested that only a few hundred people would turn out, and that they had received no “letters of intent” from billed speakers and entertainers confirming that they would be there.
Torpy dismissed both reasons. “We’ve never been allowed to see this analysis,” he said, and pointed out that only about 1,000 people showed up for the Billy Graham event. And, “They never asked for letters of intent, but they are up on the website.”
The recent flare up over the events highlights a deeper, ongoing issue: discrimination by the military against atheists. “23.4 percent of the military is ‘no religious preference,'” Torpy said, referring to Department of Defense data analyzes by MAAF. “That’s the largest religious demographic.” Indeed, no single religious sect has such a high percentage of adherents. “And,” he said, “There are people scared enough to put down ‘Christian’ when they mean ‘not Christian at all.'”
Torpy and others, including MASH, argue that, given the command structure of the military, and the high level of support top brass gives to Christian groups, there is a good deal of fear among enlisted atheists, who worry that they could see abuse, or lack of promotion, if they were to publicly declare their beliefs the way evangelicals do.
“It’s something that I hear about all the time,” he said. “They’re telling us that we’re second class citizens.”
Still, MASH has more than 70 members and is continuing to fight for change in the military.