FORT BRAGG, N.C. — For the first time in history, the U.S. military hosted an event expressly for soldiers and others who don't believe in God, with a gathering sort of like a county fair Saturday on the main parade ground at one of the world's largest Army bases.
The Rock Beyond Belief event at Fort Bragg, organized by soldiers here after a 2010 evangelical Christian event at the base, is the most visible sign so far of a growing desire by military personnel with atheist or other secular beliefs to get the same recognition as their religious counterparts.
The purpose was not to make the Army look bad, organizers said, but to show that atheists and other secular believers have a place in institutions such as the military.
"I love the military," said Sgt. Justin Griffith, main organizer of the event and the military director of American Atheists. He added, "This is not meant to be a black eye."
Griffith said he and other nonreligious soldiers are not permitted to hold atheist meetings at the base and have so far been rebuffed in their efforts to change that. They feel their beliefs marginalize them.
Organizers were hoping for a crowd of about 5,000. At least several hundred people gathered on the parade ground by midday Saturday. Rainy weather for most of the morning may have affected the turnout. Fort Bragg officials said they would provide a crowd estimate later.
The atmosphere was festive, with carnival treats like ribbon fries and ice cream, games for children and a demonstration jump by the Army's Golden Knights parachute team. Speakers and bands performed on the main stage. In many ways it was indistinguishable from a county fair except for the information booths ringing the parade ground and the content of the performances.