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Atheist group seeking recognition by Army

Members believe designation may help end stigma

By Tom Breen
Associated Press / April 2, 2011

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

Atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other assorted skeptics from the Army’s Fort Bragg have formed an organization they hope will be a pioneering effort to ensure fair treatment and win recognition for nonbelievers in the overwhelmingly Christian US military.

“We exist, we’re here, we’re normal,’’ said Sergeant 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 Lieutenant 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.’’

The decision on recognition goes first to an Army agency called the Installation Management Command and may be reviewed after that by the Army Chaplain Corps. Neither agency returned calls for comment. MASH members said chaplains at Fort Bragg have been supportive of their effort.

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

MASH formed in January, partly in reaction to a concert that was sponsored by an evangelical Christian organization and held on base last fall. Griffith, an atheist when he joined the Army 4 1/2 years ago, said he tried to organize an atheist festival but called it off because higher-ups were not providing the same support they had for the Christian event — a charge that Fort Bragg officials deny.

Griffith said MASH has about 65 members among some 57,000 active service members who live on and off the post.

Fort Bragg’s garrison commander, Colonel Stephen Sicinski, said the post is doing what it can to help Griffith win recognition for MASH. “We’re guiding him along in the process to see where that goes.’’

If the Fort Bragg group succeeds, it will be overseen by the Chaplain Corps. That might seem contradictory for a group defined by its lack of belief, but it means MASH’s literature would be available along with Bibles and Korans.

Its members say they would feel more comfortable approaching chaplains for help with personal problems. Recognition would also be an official sign that not believing in God is acceptable, something members say is lacking now.

“They call it ‘coming out of the atheist closet,’ ’’ Griffith said. “There are people who won’t say anything to anyone outside of their own close-knit group. They don’t want Grandma to find out, or whoever. People feel like they have to lie about it.’’

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