The Joys of Secularism

I just listened to an interview with one Sam Harris, posted on the CNN website, about how "we" should ditch religion. Religion, he says is not a good tool for making moral decisions, and modern science works much better.

I also saw some comments on Facebook about this, about what a wonderfully clear thinker Harris is, and how more people should think like him. So I want to post some thoughts from a different perspective. Perhaps they will start a conversation.


I have problems with Mr. Harris' positions on several counts. First, he makes an array of assumptions without real support. For example, he says President Obama is against gay marriage "because of his faith." The assumption is that Obama subscribes to a teaching of Christianity that sees homosexuality as an abomination. However, there is nothing in the teachings of his long-time church or his personal statements to support that. More likely -- if we're making assumptions -- is that gay marriage is not a core goal of a major constituency, and so it's politically risky, with little payback. It is, after all, very unpopular with the general American public. Barak Obama is nothing if not political.

Then he mentions the differences between Christianity and Islam, and says they cannot be reconciled. He is correct, they cannot. The two are fundamentally opposed views of the world. That's true as well of Hinduism, Buddhism and more. It's also true of political philosophies, many of which are fundamentally opposed in their core beliefs. So what? That's how the world is. Some of us believe some things are beyond compromise. Mr. Harris is one, I suspect. It's not wrong.

He also says "religion" is not concerned with the problems of our world, but only with what happens after this life. But this is nonsense, and is clearly shown as such by a glance at events, both ancient and modern.

Christians, for example, have built tens of thousands of orphanages and given shelter and care to the most powerless in society by the millions. They have built schools, also by the thousands, to give those same kids an education. And then there are hospitals: Who knows how many thousands across the world? Most are hospitals who treat many of their patients without cost.

I am personally familiar with Christian congregations and organizations today that spend many millions of dollars addressing problems of AIDS, other diseases, refugees, hunger, lack of clean water, education, economic opportunity and more in the United States, Africa, South America and Asia.

Now, since Mr. Harris and those who agree with him claim to have a better idea, I think it's fair to compare their own actions in these cases. Let's see... Schools? Hard to find. Orphanages? Haven't heard of any. Hospitals? Nope. Have America's atheists done anything to alleviate the suffering in our world? Hard to see it, if they have. Condemning those who are doing the work is not helping with a problem.

What about his superior moral decision making? Is that the result of decades of public school children being taught by secularist teachers that making moral choices is "no different than choosing the flavor of ice cream at Baskin-Robbins." That there are no absolutes, and it's every person for him- or herself. It's okay to steal, do drugs, cheat, gang-bang, and more. This is superior morality?

The problem with Mr. Harris' broad brush approach, just dumping all religions in one pot, is that it simply ignores some fundamental differences. It makes a moral equivalence between Osama bin Laden with Mother Teresa, for example. Is that the outcome of scientific moral decision-making?

This is no superiority. It's nonsense and the path to a social jungle.

8 Comments

Hello Larry -

You make some interesting points above, but there are several of them that I'd like to comment on.

"More likely -- if we're making assumptions -- is that gay marriage is not a core goal of a major constituency, and so it's politically risky, with little payback. It is, after all, very unpopular with the general American public..."

First, I fail to see how your distinction between B.Obama's beliefs and those of his constituency in any way negates the point being made by Mr. Harris. Is it not a reasonable assumption that the vast majority of B.O.s constituency feels the way they do on the issue of gay marriage - for religious reasons? Mr. Harris may be wrong in his assumptions, but his underlying point stands on its own.

On Christianity vs. Islam: "So what? That's how the world is. Some of us believe some things are beyond compromise..."

You're right, people will disagree about different issues. The real question here, though, is: Do rational people attack each other with stones, machetes, acid, firearms, explosives or nuclear weaponry, when they are not operating under the illusion that they are doing "God's work"? I cannot think of any other aspect of humanity that has given rise to such incredible destruction and violence. Can you?

"He also says "religion" is not concerned with the problems of our world, but only with what happens after this life. But this is nonsense, and is clearly shown as such by a glance at events, both ancient and modern."

I disagree with the idea that religion is not concerned with the problems of our world. With that said, I do think that on the balance, religion has done more harm than good. You are correct that religion is responsible for setting up universities, hospitals, charitable organizations, etc... The problem is that this view completely overlooks the hundreds of millions who have lost their lives due to religious violence. It overlooks the faithful who have been raped at the hands of those doing "God's work". It overlooks the billions of dollars spent defending our borders against those who would happily kill us in God's name. It overlooks the crushing fear and guilt under which many are raised, and live, in the name of God. Tell me, if I were to come into your house and threaten to burn you alive unless you agreed to hand over your savings and give me monthly "contributions" thereafter, would you feel that justice had been done if I took a portion of that money and set up a charitable organization afterward?

Your assertion that "the church" is responsible setting up institutions of public health and education rings hollow in light of the fact that the money to do so was obtained under threat of eternal damnation. Going back to our previous discussion, the fact that Pablo Escobar was well known for his philanthropy does nothing to change the fact that, in the end, he was a parasite.

The suggestion that "atheists" (a position I've always thought logically untenable - I am agnostic)have done nothing to better their world is silly. Most of the non-religious do not draw their identities from their status as non-believers. It makes no sense to suggest that they need to have organized themselves into groups of some sort in order for their contributions to society to be recognized. I think we can both agree that just because something is not quantifiable doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.

My question for you is: Whose concrete morality should I be following? Of the 2900 or so documented "gods", which one is the one that I should be worshiping? Furthermore, if I need to seek answers to these questions from you, a man, what kind of logical gymnastics are required for me to *know* that you - out of billions alive today - posses the truth?

I understand that there will be those reading this who will wonder how I can play loose and fast with something as important as my soul. When it comes down to it though, we all are. If we accept the premise that there is one true god and that he is known by man - and we then reduce this whole thing to numbers, the chances of one picking the "right" god from the 2900 mentioned earlier is roughly .034%.

I cannot find it in me to engage in grasping at straws for fear that I'll burn eternally if I fail to choose the right one. Beyond that, I find it insulting that the institutions touted as pinnacles of enlightenment are the very institutions responsible for so much of the suffering seen in the world today.

While the argument of Mr. Harris might have some soft spots, his message stands on its own merit.

Josh,
As much as I respect your comment, what the hell?!?! try to think about
a world without race and religion, it may be remedial and boring but we
wouldnt have to worry about the violence. You keep bringing up the
machetes and swords. Those are separate portions of violence and
barbaric problems that have to do with tribal issues that we as
americans haven't dealt with in centuries until it effects our gas prices.
Stick to the facts... Every major war we have fought since the 1st world
war has gone to religious matters and in that case even minor one. Ask
the next person or yourself the difference between a protestant or a
catholic or a jew or a Mormon. The differences are ridiculous!!! Live and
let live. There is enough world around for everyone to believe there own
beliefs and if not the go away. Thats my problem.Im agnostic, I dont
know but at the same time if someone comes to my house and
preaches a gospel I ask them to kindly go away, if not, I shut the door, I
hope everyone does the same. But until the day "GOD" comes down and
tells us we are all effin morons I think we should just do what comes
right in a simple moral code of conduct to be nice and take care of the
people around us,,,,, I remember something like that in kindergarten : /

BBrown,

Umm... What?

Josh,
You make some interesting points above, and there are several that I'd like to comment on.

YOU: First, I fail to see how your distinction between B.Obama's beliefs and those of his constituency in any way negates the point being made by Mr. Harris. Is it not a reasonable assumption that the vast majority of B.O.s constituency feels the way they do on the issue of gay marriage - for religious reasons? Mr. Harris may be wrong in his assumptions, but his underlying point stands on its own.

ME: Harris’ point was that Obama’s position is religiously motivated. I am saying that it is purely political. The motivation of the public for believing as they do on the matter is irrelevant. We’re talking about Barak Obama, and why he acts as he does on this issue. In fact, there is absolutely nothing in his background to indicate that his position is based in any religious faith. The tradition he comes from doesn’t hold that position.

YOU" On Christianity vs. Islam: "So what? That's how the world is. Some of us believe some things are beyond compromise..." You're right, people will disagree about different issues. The real question here, though, is: Do rational people attack each other with stones, machetes, acid, firearms, explosives or nuclear weaponry, when they are not operating under the illusion that they are doing "God's work"?

ME: Yes! Absolutely and often, yes! Consider the case of the U.S. Civil War; World War I; World War II – neither of which were religiously motivated – Stalin and Krushchev in the USSR, who made Hitler look like an amateur, killing millions; Mao Tse Tsung in China, who also was responsible for tens of millions of deaths. The worst instances in the history of religion pale by comparision.

Further, the people who are now slaughtering others in the name of religion are not typical of anything. In every case, they are aberrant adherents to the radical fringe of their religious tradition. (In the case of Islam, the radical population is a good deal larger than a fringe, but it’s still not mainstream.) They represent only a distortion of religion. Still further, they are found in significant numbers only in certain religions, and not generally.

YOU: I cannot think of any other aspect of humanity that has given rise to such incredible destruction and violence. Can you?

ME: Oh, yes. Easily. I listed several of them above. And in addition there is the appallingly bloody war in the Congo, the genocidal slaughter in Uganda in 1998, and more. These were tribal and other matters, and had little to do with religion.

YOU: I disagree with the idea that religion is not concerned with the problems of our world. With that said, I do think that on the balance, religion has done more harm than good. You are correct that religion is responsible for setting up universities, hospitals, charitable organizations, etc... The problem is that this view completely overlooks the hundreds of millions who have lost their lives due to religious violence. It overlooks the faithful who have been raped at the hands of those doing "God's work". It overlooks the billions of dollars spent defending our borders against those who would happily kill us in God's name. It overlooks the crushing fear and guilt under which many are raised, and live, in the name of God.

ME: “Hundreds of millions” from religious violence? Care to elaborate on that? I think that’s a gross overstatement. Further, your comments about the brutality and the expense of defending ourselves apply not to religions across the board, but only to a very small number. Your brush is too broad.

YOU: Furthermore, if I need to seek answers to these questions from you, a man, what kind of logical gymnastics are required for me to *know* that you - out of billions alive today - posses the truth? I understand that there will be those reading this who will wonder how I can play loose and fast with something as important as my soul. When it comes down to it though, we all are. If we accept the premise that there is one true god and that he is known by man - and we then reduce this whole thing to numbers, the chances of one picking the "right" god from the 2900 mentioned earlier is roughly .034%.

ME: Wow, I didn’t know that I was the sole possessor of truth. Never thought that was the case. And in fact, I am certain that I don’t have the entire truth, or that I understand all truth.

But I am certain that I have at least the core of the truth about one matter: God and our relationship with him, though it’s not a matter of statistics or math. Nobody would use that logic for any other significant subject matter. It’s about evidence. I believe there is a great deal of evidence that supports what I believe, and I have tried to carefully investigate and follow the evidence. It’s that simple. I enjoy these conversations, and I have met and read of many self-proclaimed skeptics who have never honestly sought to examine the evidence, and follow where it leads. I made some pertinent statements on my more recent blog post.

Finally, without elaboration – for space – it is simply not true that the church has been the major – or even a major – source of suffering in our world. It’s not a clean, unblemished history, but your portrayal is badly distorted, and insupportable by evidence.

Hello Larry

LARRY: Harris’ point was that Obama’s position is religiously motivated. I am saying that it is purely political. The motivation of the public for believing as they do on the matter is irrelevant. We’re talking about Barak Obama, and why he acts as he does on this issue. In fact, there is absolutely nothing in his background to indicate that his position is based in any religious faith. The tradition he comes from doesn’t hold that position.

JOSH: Just to be clear, I'm not disputing the idea that Obama is politically motivated. I do disagree that this discussion is about Obama though (his statement was actually made in a different talk than the one I linked to). I also disagree with the idea that the motivation of the public for holding the views that they do is irrelevant. The idea that Obama is politically motivated only helps to support my argument - in that he is mirroring public sentiment. I hope that we can agree that the genesis of this sentiment is religion. I understand that there are those against gay marriage for other reasons but generally speaking the arguments given are rooted in religion.


LARRY: Yes! Absolutely and often, yes! Consider the case of the U.S. Civil War; World War I; World War II – neither of which were religiously motivated – Stalin and Krushchev in the USSR, who made Hitler look like an amateur, killing millions; Mao Tse Tsung in China, who also was responsible for tens of millions of deaths. The worst instances in the history of religion pale by comparision.

Further, the people who are now slaughtering others in the name of religion are not typical of anything. In every case, they are aberrant adherents to the radical fringe of their religious tradition. (In the case of Islam, the radical population is a good deal larger than a fringe, but it’s still not mainstream.) They represent only a distortion of religion. Still further, they are found in significant numbers only in certain religions, and not generally.

JOSH: I'll concede that I should have chosen my words more carefully to exclude wars - whether they be world wars or tribal wars. My point was that, generally speaking, people do not decide to take up arms and engage in the wholesale slaughter of their neighbors over mere differences of opinion. Yet we have multiple examples this week alone of religious factions, both Christian and Muslim, engaging in (or plotting to engage in) indiscriminate killing. While I understand that these do not represent the mainstream of religious thought in the U.S., the fact remains that they do present a very real threat to all of us. There is no limit to the depravity one will engage in when they operate under the illusion that they are "doing God's work".

LARRY: “Hundreds of millions” from religious violence? Care to elaborate on that? I think that’s a gross overstatement. Further, your comments about the brutality and the expense of defending ourselves apply not to religions across the board, but only to a very small number. Your brush is too broad.

JOSH: Fair enough. I simply do not have the time or inclination to try to compile statics for religious wars, skirmishes, etc... Maybe my brush was a bit broad, given that I am not willing to back up my claim with hard statistics, but it's not a stretch to say that the numbers are in the tens of millions. In fact, religious wars and skirmishes for which information is available online and which resulted in casualties in the millions are too numerous to mention (for the sake of brevity) here. This holds true even if we completely put aside those instances for which number are not available due to incomplete historical records (the Muslim conquests, The Crusades, etc...)

LARRY: Wow, I didn’t know that I was the sole possessor of truth. Never thought that was the case. And in fact, I am certain that I don’t have the entire truth, or that I understand all truth.

But I am certain that I have at least the core of the truth about one matter: God and our relationship with him, though it’s not a matter of statistics or math. Nobody would use that logic for any other significant subject matter. It’s about evidence. I believe there is a great deal of evidence that supports what I believe, and I have tried to carefully investigate and follow the evidence. It’s that simple. I enjoy these conversations, and I have met and read of many self-proclaimed skeptics who have never honestly sought to examine the evidence, and follow where it leads. I made some pertinent statements on my more recent blog post.

Finally, without elaboration – for space – it is simply not true that the church has been the major – or even a major – source of suffering in our world. It’s not a clean, unblemished history, but your portrayal is badly distorted, and insupportable by evidence.

JOSH: I wasn't referring to you specifically as the keeper of ultimate truth. This was more of an oblique reference to the fact that all religious texts, all religious teachings are the creation of man. God did not sit down in front of his laptop and type these things out. They are the natural result of man's search for meaning in this world, his desire to know where he came from, and his need to know that his loved ones have gone, after death, to a place he finds agreeable. Have you not reflected on the idea that you would likely be Muslim were it not for the great lottery known as birth? Does it not strike you as odd that "universal truth" differs widely depending on the geographic region in which one was born? Does it not seem a bit odd that Christianity (for the sake of example, this trait is not exclusive to any one religion) shares many significant themes with religions that pre-dated Christianity by thousands of years?

You claim that my beliefs are insupportable by evidence when, in fact, they are what many would consider reasonably logical conclusions based in scientific fact. Are you familiar with the works of Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking and the like? It boggles my mind that some very well educated and coherent people that I am very close to laugh at the theory of evolution and yet hold up religious texts written by men as proof that evolution is hogwash. There are literally hundreds of billions of galaxies in our universe - how is it that so many find it so inconceivable that we could be the result of anything other than the whim of a divine being who intends to burn us eternally if we don't fall into line? I'd like to think that the creator of the universe is secure enough to not behave in such a petulant manner.

The scope of this conversation is so great that I'm certain we could spend the rest of our lifetimes debating it, so I'll leave it at this: The "ultimate truths" held up by the champions of religion stink of humanity - I see more of the divine in string theory than I ever have, or likely ever will, in the teachings of our religious scholars. A friend of mine has a saying "If you go to www.blackhelmet.com, they'll tell you that black helmets provide the best coverage" - so it is with religion, if you spend time studying exclusively the teachings of a belief system,chances are good that you're going to "know" only what you've read. It wasn't until I'd spent literally 25 years overcoming the fear of eternal damnation I'd been sold, and poked my head out of the box, that I discovered that I really didn't believe what I had been told I did.

It's not, as Mr. Brown believes I stated above, that I think we should do away with religion. As I said earlier, I think religion is a natural result of early man's desire to understand the world around him - the quest for the ultimate theory of the universe by Mr. Hawking et al is a continuation of that search. Many people need religion to help them feel a sense of order and purpose, and that is fine. It's just that I am not content to accept that blind devotion to (what I see as) falsehoods will lend meaning to my time here. I made clear earlier that I believe many of our problems stem from the "truths" that we've been sold, it's nice to hear divergent views like that expressed my Mr. Harris in the mainstream from time to time.

Before I step off of my soapbox, I'd like to make clear that I am not denouncing anybody for their beliefs. It's just that I believe differently on matters of religion, and this seems a logical place to discuss these differences.

Josh, I’m going to respond selectively, trying to keep these to a reasonable length. So I will address only selected points. Please feel free to bring up anything I skip that you want me to address.

JOSH: Just to be clear, I'm not disputing the idea that Obama is politically motivated. I do disagree that this discussion is about Obama though (his statement was actually made in a different talk than the one I linked to). I also disagree with the idea that the motivation of the public for holding the views that they do is irrelevant. The idea that Obama is politically motivated only helps to support my argument - in that he is mirroring public sentiment. I hope that we can agree that the genesis of this sentiment is religion. I understand that there are those against gay marriage for other reasons but generally speaking the arguments given are rooted in religion.

ME: I’m not certain it’s true that it’s religiously motivated. I’ve seen no evidence of that, no surveys or anything else. Neverthess, I’ll agree that it’s possible that a significant number are religiously based, since there is a long-standing tradition of a prominent place for religion – especially Christianity – in America. (That’s no longer the case, by the way.)

The American people by and large avoid extreme positions. In Colorado, for example, they will not outlaw gambling, but they consistently reject expansion of it. We will tolerate a “little sin” as long as they don’t ask for more. There are many other examples.

So, the rejection of gay marriage by the majority of the American public may be based on something other than overt religious reasons, while still reflecting the remnants of that heritage.

But my question would be, so what? Surely a belief or policy can be evaluated on its merits, regardless of the source. That something has religious roots certainly should not disqualify it.


JOSH: I'll concede that I should have chosen my words more carefully to exclude wars - whether they be world wars or tribal wars. My point was that, generally speaking, people do not decide to take up arms and engage in the wholesale slaughter of their neighbors over mere differences of opinion. Yet we have multiple examples this week alone of religious factions, both Christian and Muslim, engaging in (or plotting to engage in) indiscriminate killing. While I understand that these do not represent the mainstream of religious thought in the U.S., the fact remains that they do present a very real threat to all of us. There is no limit to the depravity one will engage in when they operate under the illusion that they are "doing God's work".

LARRY: Extremists off all stripes represent a threat: Mexican drug gangs – who are moving their violence into the US – other gangs, lone wolf terrorists, whose work we have experienced more than once. The threats to our safety are legion. Few have a religious basis. And the “Christians” in the news of late are not motivated by any genuine religion – especially Christianity – regardless of what they call themselves. They are whacked out paranoid misfits.


JOSH: Fair enough. I simply do not have the time or inclination to try to compile statics for religious wars, skirmishes, etc... Maybe my brush was a bit broad, given that I am not willing to back up my claim [“Hundreds of millions”] with hard statistics, but it's not a stretch to say that the numbers are in the tens of millions. In fact, religious wars and skirmishes for which information is available online and which resulted in casualties in the millions are too numerous to mention (for the sake of brevity) here.

LARRY: I don’t believe it. I don’t think in any but the wildest exaggeration can you claim tens of millions dead in religious wars, on any scale. Never happened. Your brush is a lot more than a bit broad.


JOSH: Have you not reflected on the idea that you would likely be Muslim were it not for the great lottery known as birth? Does it not strike you as odd that "universal truth" differs widely depending on the geographic region in which one was born? Does it not seem a bit odd that Christianity (for the sake of example, this trait is not exclusive to any one religion) shares many significant themes with religions that pre-dated Christianity by thousands of years?

LARRY: I have heard this argument before, and it’s true that the place and circumstances of our birth are shaping forces. However, it doesn’t account for the fact that most born in America are not Christians, that many Americans have become Muslims, and many Muslims (increasing numbers) in other countries have become Christians. So there’s more involved than the deterministic roll of the dice you propose. I was not born a Christian, and though I was raised in an ostensibly “Christian” environment, I did not automatically become a Christian.

The second point I would like to address separately, since it would require a lengthy response of its own.


JOSH: It boggles my mind that some very well educated and coherent people that I am very close to laugh at the theory of evolution and yet hold up religious texts written by men as proof that evolution is hogwash.

LARRY: I’m not one of them.


JOSH: “…we could be the result of anything other than the whim of a divine being who intends to burn us eternally if we don't fall into line? I'd like to think that the creator of the universe is secure enough to not behave in such a petulant manner.”

LARRY: You may be surprised to know that I agree with much of what you are saying above. Whether God will send anyone to “burn eternally” is open to debate, and not at all agreed by many biblical scholars. Second, God is certainly not petulant, and if there are those who are condemned – and I think justice requires something of the sort for at least some cases – they are condemned not by a petulant God, but by their own rejection of a God who went to great lengths to avoid their condemnation.


JOSH: “…if you spend time studying exclusively the teachings of a belief system, chances are good that you're going to "know" only what you've read. It wasn't until I'd spent literally 25 years overcoming the fear of eternal damnation I'd been sold, and poked my head out of the box, that I discovered that I really didn't believe what I had been told I did.”

LARRY: Well, I left what I had been taught, as well, and it was a lot longer than 25 years for me. (Though I was enough of a rebel that I was never intimidated by threats of “eternal damnation.”) And I have also studied far more broadly than the exclusive teachings of one belief system. I have read and considered widely. I have looked for evidence in the opposing arguments. I spent decades searching for something that would fill the emptiness in my life, that made intellectual sense, and that was defensible, without saying, “Well, the Bible says this.…” I tried over and again doing things my way and in a manner that seemed right to me. The end result was an emptiness inside, and a great deal of damage in my life and the lives of others.

I say that to say this: I am neither stupid nor uneducated. I have three college degrees and I’m usually at least smarter than the average bear. I am widely read and widely experienced. I am skeptical of simplistic explanations and prone by both training and inclination to ask questions. Nor am I a crowd follower. You know me well enough to know all this is true.

And I am, by careful and conscious choice, a follower of Jesus.

I’ll stop here. I don’t want to ignore the rest of your points, but this is excessively long.

Christianity only becomes a religion when you make it passive and ritual. It
is far deeper than that. Far deeper than any of the earthly things we have.
Christianity, for me, is a relationship with Christ. Jesus is my best friend
and all I'm saying to the world is, look how cool this guy is. Why wouldn't
you wanna be His best friend too?

Those whom comprehend does not give the information. Power and authority are the separation from an individual to a nation. Without differences man would become too evil, set aside our personal desires; then, power and authority becomes one as a people. The Church and Government were separated to divide the world leadership from one leader into several leaders always dividing the Power and Authority over the world. It is religion which have kept peace on earth from an individual to a nation. People whom attend respected based religious organizations use violence as a last resort. If you study all the great leaders, those whom were less religious started wars; on the other hand, we have some confused muslims based upon their past experiences as a nation. All religions that worship the Creator (God, Jehovah, Allah) share the same end; well, not the same format. I respect the Catholics and Muslims for the support given to individuals world wide, I am an American.

If you need the facts about religion just email me at [DELETED]. I must be general for the people.

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  • Mason J said:
      Those whom comprehend does not give the information. Power and author...
  • Tom said:
      Christianity only becomes a religion when you make it passive and ritu...
  • Larry Baden said:
       Josh, I’m going to respond selectively, trying to keep these to a rea...
  • Josh Baden said:
      Hello Larry LARRY: Harris’ point was that Obama’s position is religio...
  • Larry Baden said:
      Josh, You make some interesting points above, and there are several th...
  • Matt said:
      BBrown, Umm... What?...
  • BBrown said:
      Josh, As much as I respect your comment, what the hell?!?! try to thin...
  • Josh Baden said:
      Hello Larry - You make some interesting points above, but there are ...

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