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Column 14
Parsley and salt water

The strength of community

By © Martin Foreman
Word Count: 798 words
Publication date: May 8, 2005

Two weeks ago, I spent the best part of a day helping an old friend prepare for Seder. While my host undertook the serious task of preparing the soup and the lamb, I sliced carrots and asparagus, grated apples and pears to stir into the charoses and filled bowls with parsley and horseradish.

That evening fourteen of us crowded into the small Manhattan apartment. Siblings, partners and assorted nephews came to the door, as did my friend’s mother, her cousin, his non-Jewish wife and another gentile. After the usual bustle of an extended family getting together and the introductions to newcomers, we settled down, more or less quietly.

A photocopied order of ceremonies was handed round, with both the formal words and explanations of the various acts. We took it in turns to read the various elements of the service – the meaning of the breaking and hiding of the matzah, the significance of dipping parsley in salt water, the drinking of wine.

The youngest child was unable to read Hebrew and so the second youngest quietly but confidently asked the Four Questions. When it came to the chanting, our hosts melodious baritone filled the room

And so once again a group of Jews remembered the liberation of their ancestors from slavery millennia ago. We were reminded how Pharaoh again and again broken his promise to set them free, even after God sent plague after plague to persuade him. Only when the deity killed the first-born son in every household did the Egyptian finally let Moses lead his people across the Red Sea and into the Sinai desert.

Before I visited, I reminded my friend that I was an atheist. He had shrugged and pointed out that in the Seder all were welcome, Jews and non-Jews, believers and non-believers. Out of politeness, I kept silent when references to God were made – people become atheists when they start to think, not when a stranger abuses their faith. Yet before the evening ended, three members of the family casually commented they were either confirmed atheists or inclined to disbelief.

I suspect they were fairly typical. For them belief in a supernatural being who sent locusts and boils, blood and death, was irrelevant. Two other things were more important – reaffirmation of membership of the community of Jews, and the bringing together of three  generations who might not see each other again for months or years. I considered myself lucky that for a few hours I too shared the warmth that comes from membership in a close-knit community and family.

Seder is not unusual. Each religion has ceremonies where the bonds of family and community are strengthened. They are most visible to the outside world In major celebrations, such as Christmas and Eid, but many houses of worship attract followers because in addition to weekly or daily services they offer playgroups or sports or other activities that regularly bring members of the congregation together.

It is that sense of community, rather than belief in an impossible God, which gives religion much of its strength. No-one need be alone in a church, mosque or temple. Others will talk to you; the pastor or priest, imam or rabbi will welcome or advise you.  Membership gives you identity.

And because the congregation is welcoming and supportive, people trust it. They accept that what it tells them about a supernatural being and morality is true. If a survey were ever taken, it would probably show that most people are believers not because they have given their faith much thought but because it gives them the community that they need.

The day after Seder I attended a meeting of New York City Atheists. Over forty of us crowded into a room little bigger than the living-room I had eaten in the night before. It was  a predominantly older crowd, although there were a few in their twenties or thirties. Most knew each other by name or by sight.

The guest speaker was Dennis Himes, Connecticut state director of American Atheists. During a discussion as to why faith continued to attract people despite its failings, he agreed that a key component was the sense of community it provided. Someone then pointed out that NYC Atheists had begun to organize more events – a book reading, a film, letter-writing, a public demonstration –  specifically so that members could enjoy each other’s company.

People are gregarious. We need family and friends. As long as places of worship are the focus of community life, religion will flourish, despite the ignorance it encourages and the harm it causes.

Rational arguments are an important tool in demolishing the stranglehold of religion. But one of the greatest challenges facing atheists in America today is showing believers that community, comradeship and purpose can and do exist without God.


"I share your basic views. Community is important. However, I see the faith scam as insidious, invidious and insufferable. I do not think we have the time or patience for a gentle response.

The religio-political industry is too successful in creating an ignorant and docile American public. I am of the opinion that the lies of faith need to be confronted directly. Americans need to become ashamed of their craven ignorance."

William van Druten, MN
May 9, 2005

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

wear the Scarlet letter

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