In the beginning the Army created Army Knowledge Online.
Its forums were formless and empty, without a single thread to occupy the digital void.
And an AKO administrator, hovering over the binary darkness, posted a message.
People joined in. They asked questions and conversed about their careers, the wars, politics.
They started their own forums. They networked and learned.
And the Army saw that it was good.
Three years went by.
Then a retired soldier stumbled in. Something was missing, he thought.
"Hello," he wrote. "I was reading the different topics on the forums and I didn’t seeany topic talking about the reason you are here today. Jesus!"
Oh, sweet apple of discord.
More than three years later his creation — called Putting GOD First — was the biggest user-created forum on the Army’s internal Web site. That is, until Thursday. More about that in a bit.
Still, religion is the most popular topic in AKO forums. It’s bigger than the second amendment. Bigger than "don’t ask, don’t tell."
It is literally bigger than the Bible. On its own, Putting GOD First — known to regulars as PGF — had 4,391 pages as of June 11. The Gutenberg Bible weighs in at a comparatively spare 1,282.
To get an idea of just how popular religion is on the Army site, consider this: AKO has more than 23,000 forums. Only 40 have more than 1,000 posts. But the three most popular religion forums — PGF, Military Pagans and Christian Corner — together had nearly 109,000 Thursday. Religion-based topics net about the same number of daily posts as AKO’s generic discussion forum where people go to discuss everything from motorcycles to military tactics, to American Idol and, wouldn’t you know it, religion (AKO considers religion the second-biggest topic in the forums, but that’s sort of like saying there’s two things to talk about: religion, and everything else).
The popularity of religion on AKO shouldn’t be a surprise.
"Almost two-thirds of people that go online at some point have done so … to seek out religious information, or to get involved in a religious conversation or for other [religious] purposes," said Heidi Campbell, a Texas A&M professor who researches religion on the Internet.
A 2005 article in First Things, a self-described journal of religion, culture and public life, claimed that in the online world, only pornography gets more attention than religion. Porn isn’t allowed in AKO.
Online living room
Until last week, it was a bit of a mystery who started PGF. About the only thing most people knew about him was that he’d disappeared immediately after creating the forum in October 2004. But Robert S. Cunningham unexpectedly returned Wednesday, handed administrative privileges over to a fellow Christian and PGF antagonist and left again. Within 24 hours, Eric Williams, the new administrator, cut PGF in half. He purged an Army chaplain’s popular thread in its entirety. Other conversations that had been going on for more than three years were slashed. Then Thursday night the new administrator removed the forum from sight. Reached by phone Friday, he said he didn’t like the way people were treated in PGF, and he’d been trying for about a year to get his hands on running it. The forum was — and might again become — a prosaic scuffle.
Atheists, Pagans, Christians, Muslims and proponents of nearly every religion and anti-religion imaginable discussed, debated, insulted and proselytized in PGF, creating an environment that was informative, communal, often caustic and occasionally outright hostile.
"Everybody that comes in there comes in there to argue their own point of view," said Kevin Rohm, an outspoken atheist and frequent contributor who, ironically, created a new PGF Thursday evening to replace the PGF Williams took down.
The thing is that "most of the people there are very, very well spoken, they’re intelligent, and they argue fairly," said Rohm, a retired Army civilian. "There’s a few people who don’t."
Many within the forums have hypothesized the reasons for the disharmony. They generally distill down to this: If you go on a Christian forum outside of AKO it’s all Christians. If you go to an atheist forum it’s all atheists.
"If you don’t agree with them, you’re not allowed to express yourself," said Roger Hepworth, creator of AKO’s "Christian Corner" and perhaps the site’s most prolific messenger.
AKO, on the other hand, brings the entire Army community into one online living room and encourages members to gab.
"And I think the issue with AKO forums is that — who is in the Army? Just about everybody in society. So everybody starts their own little forum topic and then everybody else gets involved," said Eric Brown, another forum regular.
He describes the religious forums as an ongoing fight between Christians, Pagans and atheists, and says no particular group is at fault for the turmoil.
"Fanatics come in all breeds," he said. It’s entertaining, but "religion is one subject that’s gotten a bit out of hand."
You don’t need to be in there long to see it for yourself or to understand why it got that way.
"I look at the Bible as truth. And because it is true it is authoritative, and I use it like some of the atheists would use a science textbook," said Hepworth, an Army civilian.
Rohm, the atheist, said he’s never been a person to take anybody’s word for anything, and the Bible doesn’t prove God.
"Religion is about faith," he said. "It’s about believing without a factual basis to go on."
Hundreds of other men and women, soldiers and spouses, Army civilians and contractors, have argued along these lines for more than three years in PGF. But this argument is where most discussions ended up, not where they began.
The good shepherd
Most people browse the religion forums out of curiosity, then get dragged in by discussions of the hot-button issues kicked around in newspaper op-ed pages and on television chat shows: evolution and intelligent design, gay marriage, the pledge of allegiance, school prayer — the list goes on and on.
Which begs the question: is an Army-run Web site paid for with taxpayer dollars the appropriate place to be talking about these issues or, for that matter, religion?
"The Army is not endorsing any religion — or religion over non-religion — when it allows a free exchange of ideas about religion in this forum," Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the nonpartisan First Amendment Center, wrote in an e-mail giving his opinion. Haynes said for that reason, the site doesn’t tread on the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
"In fact, I would argue that it would violate the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses of the First Amendment if the Army were to prohibit users of the site from discussing religion while allowing them to discuss a wide range of secular topics," he wrote.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit organization that supports what its name suggests, didn’t go as far in defending religion on AKO, but it "would not have a problem with a Web site that merely allows people to express their opinion on religion and other matters, as long as the government is not taking sides or expressing preference for one faith over another," Rob Boston, a spokesman for the organization, wrote in an e-mail.
For its part, the Army is OK with the religious debates so long as people follow the forum rules.
"AKO Forums were designed to help members communicate with fellow users," Sheldon Smith, AKO’s outreach manager, wrote in an e-mail response. "The original intent was collaboration among Army members on topics of importance to them. As the foundation of many soldiers, religion is not excluded as a topic of discussion."
Those who run the site are "well aware" of religion’s popularity on it, but the content in forums isn’t monitored, Smith said.
While some have argued AKO is an inappropriate place to talk about religion, most who frequent them tend to disagree — regardless of faith.
"I think with what we do in the military and what we put ourselves through, having that outlet within the AKO forums — to discuss your beliefs and faith and to bounce ideas off people — I think is therapeutic," said Sgt. 1st Class Gioacchino Guarino, an active-duty member of the 82nd Airborne Division and the Army adviser for the Military Pagan Network.
"I think, well, because it’s a forum, if people don’t like it they don’t have to read it," said Christine Jones, an Army spouse and stay-at-home mother of five who helps moderate Christian Corner. "But I think it’s needed because I think people need to know there’s hope."
There was a strong argument to be made that a lot could be learned in the tussle.
"You get the occasional ignorant bigot that’ll come in there and try to raise some ruckus, but other than that it’s a really great place for people of like mind to get together and voice ideas," Guarino said before PGF was deleted. The forum he most often posts in, Military Pagans, remains active.
Jones, a Baptist, said that from her point of view things do get heated among those of differing beliefs, but it’s not like the Hatfields and the McCoys. Most people who disagree don’t necessarily dislike each other, she said.
"Being there as long as I have — and it sounds weird, too; my husband thinks I’m nuts, but — I kind of have come to love those people," Jones said. "It’s a big family."
Or at least it was.