Rock Beyond Belief is an ambitious project that will be putting on a free festival consisting of secular speakers and musicians, both big name and small. We are a small grass-roots outfit, but we have the backing of many major secular and military foundations. Currently we are focusing on a large-scale event that will be on the main post parade field on Fort Bragg. Eventually Rock Beyond Belief wants to spread the message to many other military installations.
We are not interested in just being a counter-event to the offensive Rock the Fort concert. We are also not interested in putting on an anti-christian, anti-religious, or anti-anything event. Rock Beyond Belief is A Day of Fun and Entertainment for the Rest of Us.
In the spirit of Richard Dawkins’ Out Campaign, we are embracing the fact that just by coming out and saying “we are non-theists, and also we are your firefighters, your military members, and your neighbors and friends” that we help to shed the negative connotations and debunk the myths associated with being a non-believer.
It’s true that we’d like to stand on our own as an event, and distinguish ourselves as ‘not just a counter-event.’ However, in order to establish this difference, we need to explore exactly what and why the Rock the Fort event was offensive. If we are claiming to take the high road (and we are), we must first explain the low road.
On September 25, 2010, the Fort Bragg Religious Support Office, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) co-sponsored a massive Christian festival called Rock the Fort. The stated purpose of this event was to convert as many soldiers, family members, and civilians to (their version of) Christianity. They bragged about converting hundreds of soldiers at previous events, and billed this as a Spiritual Fitness event.
Spiritual Fitness (also called Spiritual Resilience) is a disturbing concept in its own right. Every soldier must undergo annual *mandatory* Spiritual Fitness testing, and hours of remedial training if you fail (also mandatory.) We at Rock Beyond Belief feel that all Soldiers are already complete, and are not in need of changing their degree of spirituality. Spirituality should never be used to assess a soldier’s fitness. To that end, we are not putting on a de-conversion festival, or hosting any ‘de-baptisms’ (yes, those exist.)
Rock the Fort was heavily protested before it even got to Fort Bragg. Many legal and secular organizations demanded its cancellation. Unfortunately, it was not canceled. The event was justified with a promise to support any other group. Basically this forms a ‘limited public forum’, a complicated legal situation. Though we wish that no groups were allowed to have such a tremendous amount of government support, we do not have a time machine. We are proud to be the first to raise our hands and say “I have an event.”
The problem is the solution
Some people say “two wrongs don’t make a right.” If nobody stands up to the pervasive and one-sided nature of religious favoritism, we’re left with an even worse situation. Whichever side has the most money wins, and wins bigger every year. This pattern has already resulted in an atmosphere of fear for atheists in the military. Many face potentially career-ending attention simply by publicly acknowledging their religious preference.
Worse still, many are faced with threats of violence – I receive a steady trickle of these myself. So this is a perfect opportunity to gain acceptance as well as a voice. If you still have a problem with our festival, either work on a time machine or send your complaints about the situation to the Pentagon (to join ours.)
Thank you, Colonel Sicinski
Rock Beyond Belief’s earliest attempts were not taken seriously by Fort Bragg, as visitors may remember. However, the situation has changed drastically in the months since our first approach fell through. Fort Bragg’s Garrison Commander, Colonel Sicinski has made the right call, and has now approved our event with the full support and government co-sponsorship that was promised.
There is a tangible momentum building in the foxhole atheist community, and we’ve reached a flash point. Our voices will be heard. With the legitimacy of an official event, we now have an extremely positive story to rally around. We really appreciate your understanding and support.
If anyone would like to extend a personal thank you to Colonel Sicinski, please do so at this email address. I’m assured that he will receive a copy.
We are planning to take Rock Beyond Belief to every base that hosted Rock the Fort. As soon as we get our feet wet here, we will continue to be the only other voice in the limited public forum that the DoD has established. We are also encouraging all military atheists to stand up and speak out every time there is a similar situation.
If religious favoritism is being displayed, do not turn the other cheek. Don’t flip out either. First, try to stop the infraction directly through verbal and written pleas. If that fails, and they claim to support any other group, immediately take them up on that offer. It’s a win-win. You’ll either increase visibility and acceptance for the foxhole atheist community, or you’ll put a stop to a one-sided and unconstitutional situation. (in most situations, that is. No room for this sort of compromise on the dreadful Spiritual Fitness testing and training – that fight is coming.)
If you become aware of a situation, you should also immediately contact me (Justin Griffith – Military Director, American Atheists).
“Don’t Pray? – Don’t Say!”
We find ourselves in the curious position of being on the front line of two types of war. One is tangible and you see it on the news every day, the other is the subterranean ideological battle that unfolds as the evangelical Christian groups work against the separation of church and state.
We are not going away. We are at a cross roads here. More and more people are coming forward, sticking their necks out just to say “I am not religious. Respect me equally.” I’m optimistic for the future, despite how rocky the situation is now.
Support a local Military Atheist meetup group
Join a M*A*S*H meetup group – If you live anywhere near a military base, please join / help start up a MASH meetup group. The military is so dismissive of us because we don’t stand up and organize. The Military Atheists & Secular Humanists movement is starting to spawn chapters at every post. The Fort Bragg M*A*S*H group is finalizing the steps necessary to get on the master list of ‘services’ that Fort Bragg sends out to all 50,000 troops. Our goal is raising tolerance and awareness for non-religious Soldiers, and the visibility we are going to get from that is vital.
Once we succeed at Fort Bragg, we will empower all the other chapters with a step-by-step process. Fort Bragg is the trial balloon, and you already see what is about to happen when local members networked and organized. In a few months we will be standing up proper groups with literature, financial support, and of course the backing of the long-running Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF)
And any MASH group that contacts American Atheists for affiliation will receive it. Perhaps a billboard campaign, care packages, and speakers could help your MASH group gain legitimacy and stability.
Social Networking Outreach
We launched a YouTube channel, For the first video(s) we set the conservative talk radio show that interviewed me to relevant documents and pictures. That is actually a pretty decent place to start learning the actual details of the controversial aspects of our first approach with Fort Bragg. We’ve got some pretty sweet videos already in the works.
And I do try to answer as much of the email traffic we get as possible. If you simply want to offer support and encouragement, feel free to use the contact form, as it sends mail to me directly. Your letters have kept us going, and I pass them along to the entire RBB planning staff who all worked extremely hard on this event for nearly a year now.
Please contact me here. Indicate your status as a journalist and how time-sensitive your message is in the subject line, and I’ll get back to you much quicker.