For the first time in history, the U.S. military on Saturday hosted an event for soldiers and others who don't believe in God -- a gathering 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 like the military.
"I love the military," said Sgt. Justin Griffith, main organizer of the event and the military director of American Atheists. "This is not meant to be a black eye."
He said he and other non-religious 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 gathered on the parade ground by midday. Rainy weather for most of the morning may have affected the turnout.
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.
Organizers said the goal was not to disparage religious soldiers, but to celebrate the beliefs of secular members of the military and their families.
In the weeks leading up to the event, some bloggers and others expressed concerns. A chaplain deployed in Afghanistan posted an open letter on Fort Bragg's Facebook page, saying he feared the event would be devoted to mocking religious soldiers.
"We're never antagonistic toward religious believers; we're antagonistic toward religious belief," said Richard Dawkins, the British biologist and best-selling atheist author who was the event's headline speaker.