Organizers hope the March 31 event will lead to broader recognition and support of nonbelievers in the armed forces, where they say they receive little support and often discrimination from an overly Christianized military.
“This is perhaps the first step in a new direction away from the evangelical proselytism that has permeated the military for decades,” said Sgt. Justin Griffith, an atheist serving at Fort Bragg and the event’s chief organizer.
Griffith said the concert is a “bitter pill” for some of his superiors on base, which is home to the storied 82nd Airborne Division, “but they get it. They are supporting us and I am really proud of them.”
The event, which will be open to the public, will include music and public speakers, including Richard Dawkins, a best-selling author of several books, including “The God Delusion.” Base officials expect approximately 5,000 people to attend.
How many of those will be atheists is an open question. According to the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, which analyzed a Department of Defense census, Christians account for 68 percent of the military population, while those who state “no religious preference” make up the second-largest group, at 23 percent. Those who choose to have “atheist” stamped on their dog tags account for less than 1 percent.
Many military nontheists report being the unwelcome targets of proselytism, sometimes by superiors, and complain of compulsory religious prayers and practices at official events. One area of growing concern is the mandatory assessment of soldiers’ ”spiritual fitness,” which they say is both unconstitutional and an attempt to proselytize.
“If you are a nonreligious soldier, you are a third-class citizen in the U.S. military,” said Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a military watchdog group, who will attend the event in Fayetteville, N.C.
“You are basically told that you lack intellectual integrity, courage, character and honorability . ... Rock Beyond Belief is an attempt to stick a fist up in the sky and say, ‘We have our rights.’”
The idea for Rock Beyond Belief grew out of “Rock the Fort,” a Christian-themed concert held at Fort Bragg in September 2010. That event, staged by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, included Christian music, speakers and an altar call for attendees to publicly embrace or affirm their Christianity.
That upset many nonreligious service members at Fort Bragg, including Griffith, who has been an atheist for 12 years. He asked officials for equal time and support for an atheist-themed event.
Griffith said he initially met with resistance — piles of paperwork to file, approvals to obtain, proof of interest and financing plans. An agreement was reached early last year and Rock Beyond Belief was slated for April 2011. But Griffith soon canceled it.