Music Festival Celebrates the Separation of Church and State
The not so controversial event at Fort Bragg offered something for everyone - to include Christian believers. The free barbecue lunch for the first 1,000 military i.d. card holders had hoped to draw the two separate camps together to coexist on Saturday
Despite rain early in the day, hundreds gathered on the Fort Bragg parade field on Saturday for the U.S. military’s first ever event geared toward supporting atheist and agnostic soldiers. The Rock Beyond Belief festival featured secular musicians and speakers.
One of the keynote speakers in attendance was Richard Dawkins, a popular name in the atheist community. Dawkins believes many people have the wrong impression of atheists and their message. “Atheists are humans, and we’re good people,” said Dawkins. “We’re never antagonistic toward religious believers; we may be antagonistic toward religious belief.”
Justin Griffith, an active duty sergeant in the Army, Military Director for American Atheists, and the coordinator for the Rock Beyond Belief event believes this event will help in establishing more rights for atheists in the military.
“This is a one of a kind event,” said Griffith. “All of us want to come out of the closet and participate meaningfully and demand our equality. We’re getting equality now. We refuse to be held down; we’re standing up in mass numbers.”
Col. Stephen Sicinski, the Garrison Commander at Fort Bragg, helped clear the way for the Rock Beyond Belief event.
“We try to accommodate all of the quality of life needs of our soldiers and their family members,“ said Sicinski.
Army Specialist Tom Bone was one of many at the Rock Beyond Belief event on Saturday. When asked whether he felt any discrimination while serving, his answer was negative.
“One of the things I was concerned about before joining the military was the whole ‘God and Country’ stance. It really hasn’t been as present as I thought it would have been,” said Bone.
“We don’t treat soldiers who are atheists as atheists. We treat them as soldiers. They’re soldiers first,” said Sicinski.
Todd Stiefel, a secular humanist and atheist, helped fund the Rock Beyond Belief event through his organization Stiefel Freethought Foundation putting $50,000 towards the event. The organization also provided a barbecue lunch for the crowd that had hoped to draw in Christian believers to intermingle.
“This event should only be happening today for one reason, because the Rock the Fort Event held by the Billy Graham Association in coordination with the Department of Defense,” said Stiefel.
On September 25, 2010, Fort Bragg hosted the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Rock the Fort that promoted Christian evangelism. Steifel and others believe the Rock Beyond Belief event may be a one-time occurrence that makes a big enough statement to end future events like this on both sides.
“I would like for this to be the last of these events—they should not be happening at all. Our Tax payers’ dollars should not go toward proselytizing belief or non-belief.”
Some members of the Fort Bragg and Fayetteville expressed concern that this event may create tension in the community. Sicinski believes there was less controversy over the Rock Beyond Belief event than there was for the Rock the Fort event 18 months ago.
“That [event] was probably twice as controversial as this one, at least from what I was noticing,” said Sicinski.
According to Griffith, he and several others, on separate occasions, applied for distinctive faith group status on Fort Bragg but faced rejection.
“All atheist groups are banned from meeting on post regularly,” said Griffith. “They will not recognize us in the same way they recognize other religious organizations.”
Col. Sicinski shared that any group of soldiers, including atheists, can meet on the installation for any reason, they just need to ask.
“I haven’t been asked for them to actually get space somewhere on post to do regular meetings,” said Sicinski. “If they want to be recognized as a distinctive faith group, that’s a question that needs to be answered by the Department of Defense. As far as I know, that’s being discussed at the Chief of Chaplains level.”