Mainstream Media Profile Student, Military Atheists

Two fantastic mainstream media articles from this weekend portray communities of student and military atheists in an overwhelminingly positive light.

Saturday, April 2, was the date originally set for the secular "Rock Beyond Belief" festival at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, that was canceled after Army officials refused to provide the gathering -- which would have featured Richard Dawkins and other nontheist speakers -- adequate support. Organizers and allies (including SCA) decried the Army's actions, and an Associated Press article written by Tom Breen on Saturday describes the struggle non-theistic service members at Fort Bragg and elsewhere face when trying to receive equal treatment as their Christian counterparts:

RALEIGH, N.C. — The cliche notwithstanding, there are atheists in foxholes.

In fact, atheists, agnostics, humanists and other assorted skeptics from the Army's Fort Bragg have formed an organization in a pioneering effort to win recognition and ensure fair treatment for nonbelievers in the overwhelmingly Christian U.S. military.

"We exist, we're here, we're normal," said Sgt. Justin Griffith, chief organizer of Military Atheists and Secular Humanists, or MASH. "We're also in foxholes. That's a big one, right there."

For now, the group meets regularly in homes and bars outside of Fort Bragg, one of the biggest military bases in the country. But it is going through the long bureaucratic process to win official recognition from the Army as a distinct "faith" group.

That would enable it to meet on base, advertise its gatherings and, members say, serve more effectively as a haven for like-minded soldiers.

"People look at you differently if you say you're an atheist in the Army," said Lt. Samantha Nicoll, a West Point graduate who in January attended her first meeting of MASH. "That's extremely taboo. I get a lot of questions if I let it slip in conversation."


Similar groups of non-theists at about 20 U.S. military bases around the world are watching the outcome at Fort Bragg in hopes it will lead to their recognition, too, said Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.

And then yesterday, Michael Winerip of The New York Times profiled a high school atheist club in Panama City, Florida, taking the opportunity to describe the growing number of student groups -- proudly headed by the Secular Student Alliance, an SCA member organization -- that have been formed to provide support for high school- and college-age atheists:

There have long been college atheist clubs, and at present there are an estimated 240 nationwide, said J. T. Eberhard, 29, of the national Secular Student Alliance. But recently they have been springing up at high schools. In the last three months, the number has risen to 21 from 12, Mr. Eberhard said.

The alliance, which is based in Columbus, Ohio, provides support services to atheist organizations. Several months ago, the Stiefel Freethought Foundation donated $50,000, enabling Mr. Eberhard to organize full time at high schools. His target is 50 clubs by year’s end.

The federal law permitting extracurricular clubs to use public schools before and after hours was passed in 1984 after lobbying by conservative church groups. Bible study clubs grew fruitful and multiplied, replenishing the Christian faith throughout the land. Then things took a turn to the left. The law required equal access, and gay-straight clubs started popping up.

And now this.

Winerip's brief reference to the the gay rights movement is very appropriate. There was another political, social, and civil rights struggle that achieved incalculable progress through positive portrayals and messaging in the media. With more coverage like these two articles, our growing secular movement can (hopefully) find similar acceptance -- and success.

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