There wasn’t a whole lot of media coverage of the Rock Beyond Belief event, but what coverage there was seemed to be fair-minded. Reuters had a reporter there who talked to atheist soldiers and their families. What they said reinforces why this event, and the broader movement for recognition and equality for atheists in foxholes, was so important:
Though some Christian groups asked the Defense Department not to allow the non-theist event and other critics groused about it through social media, the gathering Saturday had a peaceful vibe without a protester in sight. The crowd included many families with children, some of them part of the military community and others civilians who came out to show support.
“This is very cool,” said Brenda Germain, whose husband retired from the Air Force. “So many times the atheists feel like they’re alone in their community.”
Several military members and their spouses echoed Germain’s feelings but didn’t want their names used out of concern about possible repercussions. One Army wife said her home in a town near Fort Bragg was vandalized after her children told their friends they did not believe in God. Her family ended up moving, she said.
Two service members said they put “no religious preference” rather than atheist on their dog tags to avoid having their beliefs influence how they are treated or viewed by their colleagues.
“We’re good people, we’re serving in the military,” said an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg who did not want to be identified. Atheism “hasn’t changed how I serve.”
But it can and too often does change how others treat them — and that’s the whole point. In my remarks that opened the event, I made it a point to say that some — emphasis on that word — officers abuse their authority and try to force their religious beliefs on those under their command. I think it depends very much on the views of the unit and base commanders; sometimes it isn’t a problem at all and sometimes it’s a big problem.
AP also talked to some of the soldiers:
The event marked a coming-out of sorts for atheist and secularist soldiers at Fort Bragg, who have been trying for more than a year to be recognized as a “distinctive faith group,” a designation that would allow them to hold their meetings at Bragg facilities. Curious soldiers in uniform mixed with people in civilian clothes as bands played and children began to race around the huge field when the rain let up.
“I’ve been an atheist pretty much my whole life, and where I was growing up in Texas, I didn’t know another atheist,” said Pfc. Lance Reed. “It’s important to meet people who have some of the same beliefs and interests as you do, and that’s what this is about.”
Reed also said he hoped Christians at Bragg and other believers would attend, to dispel some misconceptions about atheists.
“A lot of people think it’s all about God-bashing or something like that,” he said. “You can see we’re not evil people who want to burn down churches. We’re just here to have fun.”
Sgt. Lance Hollander, who said he’s been looking forward to the event ever since he first heard about it last year, agreed that in some ways the concert could serve as a calling card for soldiers who aren’t religious.
“Atheists are the least trusted group in America, and we want to change that,” he said.