Can the US Army embrace atheists?

Justin Griffith
Image caption Sgt Justin Griffith wants atheists to be given more respect in the armed forces

In a land of faith and flag, Justin Griffith is challenging the US military to abandon its religious ties.

When he was a child growing up in Plano, Texas - a place he describes as the "oversized, goofy buckle on the Bible belt" - he would bring his bible to science class and debate his teachers on the finer points of evolution.

"In my head, I won every time," says Mr Griffith, now 29.

But somewhere along the way, his penchant for picking ideological fights with the non-religious got him in trouble. He found it harder and harder to argue with the points they were making. At 13, he suffered a crisis of faith.

"It was so painful. I lost my religion before I lost my first girlfriend. Nothing that big had ever happened to me, and I didn't have any coping skills," he says.

Mr Griffith found peace with his atheism, but he is not done sparring with the opposite team.

As an active-duty sergeant in the US Army, he's leading the charge to get atheists more respect in the armed forces. In the process he is earning attention, both positive and negative, from around the world.

Protest rock

Mr Griffith's most ambitious project is Rock Beyond Belief, a day-long event on the military base Fort Bragg, North Carolina, complete with children's activities, rock concerts and a lecture by atheism's most visible proponent, author and scientist Richard Dawkins.

It is an ambitious plan in an organisation still respectful of religious traditions and in a town that holds Christian values dear.

Scheduled for 31 March, Rock Beyond Belief comes two years after another controversial concert at Fort Bragg, "Rock The Fort".

Sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, Rock the Fort was billed as an "evangelical event" with Christian bands, family activities, and an emphasis on spreading the gospel to the entire community.

Despite attracting criticism for hosting the event, the top brass at Fort Bragg said they would be willing do the same for an event thrown by a different religious group.

"So the next day, I raised my hand and said, 'Fort Bragg, I've got an event'," says Mr Griffith.

The concert was originally scheduled for 2011, but was postponed until his group could secure the same location as Rock The Fort: an outdoor field capable of hosting thousands of people, in view of the Main Post Chapel.

Though the Rock Beyond Belief concert is the most public of Mr Griffith' s efforts to make the military more accepting of atheists, it is not his only one.

"We have a lot of work to do," he says.

Military culture is full of religious ideology and symbolism, says Griffith. For instance, he cites the traditional flag-folding ceremony, which cites faith in God in multiple instances.

"These things have been here for years. It's tradition," he says. "How do we go about getting them out?"

Prior to planning the concert, he registered his complaints against the army's spiritual fitness test, a campaign that he continues.

That test, implemented last year as part of a wider resiliency and suicide-prevention program, rates servicemembers on the strength of their spiritual life.

He's also working to ensure that servicemembers can have "atheist" listed on their official military records.

"It took me a year and a half to get my records changed to atheist. When I told them I was atheist, they put 'no religious preference'," he says. "I told them that's unacceptable. I do have a preference, and that's atheism."

These records are important, he says, because of the end-of-life services provided to soldiers who may have been wounded in war.

"I want them to know that I am an atheist: do not pray; do not do last rites; do not do any goofy ceremonies for me," he says.

Bigger microphone

Mr Griffith counts about 100 members in Fort Bragg's atheist community, which meets weekly off-base, since it is not yet recognised as a distinctive faith group by the military.

He also works with other atheist groups on military bases across the country.

Through his efforts, Mr Griffith has become a figurehead within the atheist movement. His blog gets around 100,000 hits a month and he says he puts in about 40 hours a week of activism on top of his military duties. In July, he was appointed the military director of American Atheists.

"I definitely have a bigger microphone now," he says.

But with that bigger voice comes bigger criticism. Because atheists so often fight to keep religion out of public property or government activities, they are perceived as being anti-Christian.

When Fox News reported on Rock Beyond Belief, it focused on a music video by Aiden, one of the bands performing at the concert. That video featured images burning churches and references to burning synagogues and holy books.

Mr Griffith says the band was referring to sectarian violence in the name of religion, not an appeal for atheists to incite violence.

Still, the article resulted in an influx of hate mail and death threats.

Military microcosm

Though the general public is not always receptive to atheism, the military itself offers a promise of acceptance.

Aside from recognised Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups, Fort Bragg has resources for other faiths, including Buddhists and Wiccans, a Pagan religion.

"The army really is a microcosm of the entirety of our nation," says Benjamin Abel, a spokesman for Fort Bragg. "We serve the people, and we have an incredibly diverse population of people in the United States."

He notes that there are steps religious groups can go through to gain more visibility on base.

The fight by atheists, he says, reminds him of the struggle the base's Wiccan members endured years ago.

"Through history, the military has generally been out in front of a lot of social issues. We integrated the military first, we just had the recent change of 'don't ask don't tell', [and] women have been integrated in the military for a long time.

"We're not out there as a force for social change, but we certainly don't shy from it," says Mr Abel.

While Mr Griffith does not believe in God, he does believe in the military.

A few months ago he re-enlisted for another five-year tour of duty, and plans to make his career in the service.

"I never would have gotten anywhere without the army. It taught me to be a man," he says.

"The army is so good, it deserves these little corrections - and I do consider them little, in the scale of how great the army is."

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