Monday, January 6, 2020

What Really Matters by Glen Brown


               When we stop asking questions, we stop thinking.

God’s Existence:

Some people search for conclusions based on inductive reasoning, grounded in the laws of physics and empirical data. They examine abstract concepts (God's existence and divine plan, free will…, for example) using this world for drawing their conclusions. They might ask: is it possible to know if God exists or not? How can we know what God is, especially since it is believed that God transcends our experience? Can we create a meaningful statement about God's existence, whose proof is independent of observation? Can contradictory versions of a cherished belief be both reasonable and true? Is it presumptuous of us to believe that we can know the will of a supposed supernatural being that is transcendent and incomprehensible?

According to philosophical neuroscientist Sam Harris: "To believe that God exists is to believe that one stands in some relation to God’s existence, such that God’s existence is itself the reason for one’s belief" (The End of Faith). Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins asserts that non-theists "choose not to make a leap from reason and/or bewilderment to an invocation of the supernatural." It's apparent that though non-theists do not have a belief in God's existence, most of them (like most theists), have moral and ethical convictions. When they find out about an institution, for instance, that is complicit with heinous crimes against innocent children, they want moral and legal justice and not “prayers, penance and fasting” (The God Delusion).

Questions to ask about the Teleological Argument (or Argument by Design) for God's Existence:

It is an invalid, inductive argument to prove the existence of a creator through examination of selected evidence to an assumed cause or causes. Here are some questions about the illogic of this particular and popular argument that attempts to prove God’s existence:

Is there anything in the argument of design to suggest that the designer or "Higher Power" of the universe is religiously significant? Is there anything in the argument of design to suggest that the designer of the universe is omnipotent, benevolent, and/or omniscient and cares about its creation? Is it possible that the designer could be a disinterested creator (deism) and without the characteristics attributed to the Judaic, Christian, Muslim God?


Moreover, is it logical that we infer through the nature of a cause from the nature of its effects? What types of fallacies of logic are the results of such responses? How often do we attempt to explain the occurrence of an event by reference to a few antecedents which rendered its occurrence probable? How often do we mistake correlation for cause? How often do we reduce a complex causal inquiry to simplicity and confuse the necessary cause with the sufficient cause? In short, is it logical to infer the nature of a first cause from the nature of its effects? 


The aforementioned questions are logical inquiries and so are the following questions: How do we examine an abstract concept (like God) using the real world for our basis of empirical knowledge? Should our faith be subject to reason and logic? Why shouldn’t we ask questions about what we hold sacred? Can we be right about what we believe is true since there are many religious beliefs with a myriad of contradictions among them? 

If we ask more questions, they might be the following: Shouldn’t we determine whether our disagreements are about facts and evidence or about our underlying values and beliefs before proceeding? Can we evaluate a claim that we make without access to the facts in question? In other words, should we pledge ourselves to that which are presuppositions and without certainty?

Finally, can anyone be so sure as to have an unreasonable certainty that one has the answer to some of the oldest questions? Why is it that most of us do not think we need to logically examine the details of religious fundamentalist's propositions? Why is it a value and meaning for us to preserve our belief in a God at any cost? Is it logical for us to believe, for instance, what Christ or any other prophet actually said, or whether they even existed? Is it logical for us to believe "that the creator of the universe would personally impregnate a Palestinian virgin in order to facilitate his son into the world as a man?" (Hitchens). Is it logical for us to believe that a God created the entire universe, but its chief concern is whether we worship it or not here on earth, and that our sins have some sort of “cosmic significance” in a universe that contains billions of galaxies, each galaxy with billions of stars, and each star with perhaps a planetary system and other possible life forms? “If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them?” (Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion). 


As stated by British philosopher, logician and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell: “Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of skeptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If [we] were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove [our] assertion provided [we] were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if [we] were to go on to say that, since [our] assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, [we] should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.” 





The Problem of Natural and Moral Evil and the Suffering of Innocent Children:


Seeing the natural wonders of the world as proof for God's existence is also through use of selected evidence to prove a point. Does this argument assume what it claims to prove; in other words, does it beg the question? If there is a designer or "Higher Power" of the universe, is it responsible for evil as well? Our world contains viruses, bacteria (Clostridium botulin), smallpox, cholera, typhus, meningitis, tuberculosis, plague, tsetse flies, Chagas (parasites), malaria-ridden mosquitoes, screw worms, dengue fever, 
venereal disease, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, cruel and indifferent people... Our world also reveals catastrophic destruction by earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones, floods, drought, famine, wildfires, and volcanic eruptions; the universe reveals astronomical destruction among comets and planets, stars that explode and then destroy everything in their wake... We would have to ask: did the "Higher Power" create them too, and for what purpose? 

In the opinion of Christian theologian Aurelius Augustinus: This world serves only as a testing ground for reward and punishment in the afterlife; life on earth is a punishment for original sin; natural evil is simply imperfection that makes variety possible; evil is the privation of goodness. We need evil in order to understand goodness; God gave man free will and thus the capacity to choose between good and evil.

Poppycock! Evil is not a punishment; it is not an imperfection or a deprivation. It is not a thing or essence. It is never "pure." It is not an entity that exists outside of the laws of nature and human behavior. Rather it describes human behavior. To believe that God allows for evil because it provides us with the knowledge of good and evil and free will is not a logical or moral rebuttal. Of course, not all evil is the result from a misuse of free will. Moreover, to believe that "freedom consists of the ability to choose evil as well as good and that human freedom is therefore diminished to the extent that God disposes us to choose good rather than evil... is highly questionable... If we define freedom as the ability to choose between good and evil, is freedom so supreme a value as to compensate for the evils to which it leads? Does the value of Hitler having been able to choose the deaths of millions of Jews outweigh the sufferings he imposed upon his victims?" (Olson). 

Surely, the whole world of knowledge of good and evil is not worth the suffering of one child. As Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote: "If everyone must suffer, pray tell me what have children got to do with it?... It is not worth one little tear of even one tormented child who beat her chest with her little fist and prayed to 'dear God' in a stinking outhouse with her unredeemed tears! Not worth it because her tears remained unredeemed... Can they be redeemed by being avenged? But what do I care if they are avenged; what do I care if the tormentors are in hell? What can hell set right here if these children have already been tormented? And where is the harmony if there is a hell? I want to forgive, and I want to embrace. I don't want more suffering" (Brothers Karamazov). 

Christianity:

And what do we make of the Catholic Church's history of ignoring priestly pedophilia and its cultural genocide and deaths of Indigenous children by Catholic clergy?  How can we reconcile with the Catholic Church's flagrant complicity and hypocrisy?  How can we forgive Christian ethnic cleansing and the divine Manifest Destiny? And what should we make of today's theocratic fascists, these white Christian Nationalistic misogynists and homophobes who are repressing women's rights and LTGBQ? And what about Christianity's archaic ideologies and indoctrination of a need for salvation perpetuated through irrational fear and guilt?



Prayer:

Think about the logic of these two assertions: 1. God listens to and answers prayers in "real time." 2. There are approximately eight billion people on earth. 

Why do we thank God for the good things that happen in our life (however trivial they might be), but we don't blame God for the bad things that happen in our life? Indeed, we know there are no scientific studies done about the efficacy of intercessory prayers. "We can assume no religious organization would want a scientific confirmation either because of the high risk for logical refutation." 

Furthermore, how do we justify all the unanswered prayers?  “Consider petitionary prayer (in contrast to a merely meditative sort): in the first place, the idea of an omni-god that would permit, for example, children to die slowly of leukemia is already pretty puzzling; but to permit this to happen unless someone prays to Him to prevent it—this verges on a certain sort of sadism and moral incoherence (imagine a doctor who acted in this way!), and one wonders what people have in mind worshipping Him” (Rey).


On a lighter note: the comedian Emo Phillips once said: "When I was a child, I used to pray to God for a bicycle. But then I realized that God doesn't work that way, so I stole a bicycle and prayed for forgiveness" (Dennett). 

Sacred Textbooks and Morality:

Obtaining our morality from our religious beliefs, or from our sacred textbooks, entails a processing of various contradictory and paradoxical canon. How do we understand those passages that advocate retribution and violence? Should we follow the immoral precepts found in the Bible as well?

Consider these Old and New Testament passages: Genesis 3:16-18, 6:7; Exodus 11:5, 20:3-5, 21:7, 34:11-17, 35:2; Leviticus 20:9-27; Numbers 15:32-35, 25:1-9, 31:17-18; Deuteronomy 12:2-3, 13:7-11, 20:1-18, 21:10-14; Joshua 6:16-21; Judges 19:23-29; 2 Kings 3:26-27; Job 42:10-17; Proverbs 13:24-25; Isaiah 37:36-38; Hosea 13:15-16; Matthew 7:13-14, 13:41-42, 15:4-7, 19:21-29, 25:41-46; Luke 3:17-18; John 3:15-18, 3:35-36, 15:5-6; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 11:3-16, 14:34-35; Ephesians 4:31-32, 5:22-33, 6:5-6; Colossians 3:18-22; 2 Peter 3:7-12; Revelation 6:7-8, 8:7-11, 9:1-21... to name just a few (Anderson; Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion).

Shouldn’t we question the reasonableness and efficacy of inhumane beliefs and the will to commit such atrocities against humanity in the name of God? Why should millions of people, for instance, suffer as a result of those who hold such indefensible views? Shouldn’t our idea of justice and ethical and moral behavior be based upon tolerance, reason, humility, compassion, empathy, and integrity instead of texts that are also filled with abomination? 

Perhaps we should ask: What if we are wrong about what we believe to be true after all? How can we assume with any certainty that we have the answers to the most essential and pertinent moral questions that affect humanity? Where do we find the answers to these and other questions of morality and justice if the Bible and other sacred books also advocate enmity and severe punishments, like stoning people to death and severing people’s limbs?  Perhaps that is why it was so important that our founding fathers separated "church (synagogue and mosque) and state" in the U.S. Constitution.

So Why Do People Believe in a God (or gods)?

It is because of our prodigious parental indoctrination during the formative years; our cultural indoctrination; our fear of death and our the desire to be immortal; our need to be connected to the eternal; our need to obtain consolation for pain and suffering; our need for psychological and unconditional love from a father figure and our obeisance to a dominant authority; our need to believe in the supernatural, sacred places and miracles; our need for group identification and spiritual union with other like-minded people; our psychological propensity to create myths, prayers, rituals and worship; our cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias; our brain’s genetic make-up; our heredity, evolutionary neurobiology and memetic (cultural) transmission; our desire to believe in something/anything as long as it gives us hope in this absurd world of pain, suffering and death (Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion).  


Why are some people more religious than others? Recent research of the brain reveals that "believing a proposition to be true is associated with greater activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area important for emotion and reward... Religious thinking is associated with greater signals in the anterior insula (pain perception) and ventral striatum (reward)... Dopamine receptor genes play a role in religious belief as well. People who have inherited the most active form of the D4 receptor are more likely to believe in miracles and be skeptical of science... [Conversely], uncertainty is associated with the anterior cingulate cortex" (Harris, Sam, The Moral Landscape).

The Basis of Morality:

Do we need a belief in God in order to be moral? Of course not. According to anthropological studies and archaeological evidence, morality evolved as a form of in-group social control several thousand years ago. As claimed by historian and science writer Michael Shermer: "Morality originated when people came to live together and devised various rules of conduct for living peacefully and cooperatively" -- a sort of quid pro quo long before the inception of organized religion -- where eventually "moral sentiments and behaviors were initially codified into ethical systems" (The Science of Good and Evil). Reciprocation makes biological, evolutionary and sociological sense. It seems sensible to believe that morality is the product of genetic transmission, human interaction and cultural influence, and that it is expedient for us to cooperate with one another in order to survive. 

Unfortunately, many religious believers reinforce enmity toward those with different convictions, instead of offering good will. These conclusions are empirically substantiated: the cultural genocide of the Mayan, Aztec and Inca civilizations; the genocide of Yazidis and Christians by ISIL; the destruction caused by the Byzantine-Muslim Wars, the Crusades, the French Religious Wars, the Spanish Inquisition, the Catholic Church's burnings and executions for heresy and its history of torture and terrorizing of Jews and Muslims and the Trail of Tears; the Vatican's illicit financial partnership with Adolf Hitler and indifference to the Holocaust; the Thirty Year's War; the Lebanese Civil War; the Northern Ireland conflict; the Sunni and Shia Muslim conflict, to name just a few historical examples. In addition to mass violence, "we must add the weight of oppression: all the religious acts that ban, censor, excommunicate, shun, denounce, repudiate, persecute, and execute. The targets are those who believe otherwise, those who are different, and those who do something forbidden by doctrine" (DeNicola). Though religion has also been a positive life force for millions of people, there are millions of people who believe it is God's will to engage in radical, mass brutality and ruthlessness. 



So, What Really Matters?

"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly, those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats [Ode on a Grecian Urn], scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here" (Dawkins, Richard, Unweaving the Rainbow).

Indeed, what really matters is not how fortunate we are to have lived, or whether God exists or not, or how organized religion has been overwhelmingly destructive throughout history. What really matters is how we live our lives each day with or without a belief in God; that we accept one another's beliefs (or non-beliefs) as long as they do not advocate terrorism. What really matters is how we live with the most significant questions unanswered or unknowable; that we pursue a life based on logic, reason, critical thinking, justice, solidarity, intellectual honesty and life-long learning; that we live our lives peacefully and with tolerance and mutual respect, and with compassion and love for one another, and that we oppose hatred, racism, bigotry, subjugation, misogyny, xenophobia, hypocrisy and indifference... because "like a boil that can never be cured... but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured" (King), for we are responsible for what happens in our lives, and for what happens in the lives of others.

-Glen Brown   


Works Cited


Anderson, Elizabeth. “If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?” Philosophers Without Gods. Ed. Louise M. Antony. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pgs. 215-30.

Augustinus, Aurelius. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. New York: Random House, 1949.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.

--. Unweaving the Rainbow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998.

DeNicola, Daniel R. "Morality and Religion." Moral Philosophy. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2019. 

Dennett, Daniel C. Breaking the Spell. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Brothers Karamazov. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990.

Harris, Sam. The End of FaithReligion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.

--. The Moral LandscapeHow Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press, 2010.

Hitchens, Christopher. The Portable Atheist. Boston: De Capo Press, 2007.

King, Martin Luther. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." in Why We Can't Wait. New York: Signet Classics, 1963. 

Olson, Robert G. A Short Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1967. 

Rey, Georges, “Meta-atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception Philosophers Without Gods. Ed. Louise M. Antony. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pgs. 243-265.

Russell, Bertrand. “Is There a God?” (1952) in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Vol 11: Last Philosophical Testament, 1943-68. Ed. John G. Slater and Peter Kollner. London: Routledge, 1997, pgs. 543-48. 

Shermer, Michael. The Science of Good and Evil. New York: Holt & Co., 2004.


4 comments:

  1. “In the long perspective of human history, religion has done more harm than good and that the good it does is inextricable from the harm…

    “I am disgusted with Catholicism and, by extension, with all religion. What I want to offer here is a phenomenology of the disgust of a scholar of religion, of its dangers, but also of what I have come to see not only as the inevitability of disgust in the life of a scholar of religion, but more, its usefulness on many levels, emotional, psychological, existential, and intellectual…

    “Perhaps some of you are disgusted, for instance, by how cravenly evangelicals have embraced political corruption in the United States today in order to advance the allegedly Christian agenda of ostracizing and harassing young LGBTQ people, curtailing women’s reproductive rights and basic health care, and reviving a toxic white Christian nationalism. I know, I know, not all evangelicals, just like not all priests, not all bishops, not all congregations … but I am not talking about these other ones today, and anyway this is just another way of avoiding the question, and the disgust…

    “This is not to deny that religions have done and continue to do good things. But that I even have to utter such a correction — and that we scholars of religion feel compelled to do so, always, right after we speak what we all agree is a simple truth — shows the power of the idea that, in the end, religions are essentially good. It is so powerful and deeply embedded that rarely do we — who ought to know better — pause to stare into the depths of the truth that religions have, over time, done more harm than good before we scramble up toward the warm sunlight of good religion…

    “My disgust with Catholicism has been growing for a long time. For the past ten years or so, I have been immersed in the sheer horror of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis. ‘The sexual abuse crisis’ refers to the sexual violation of Catholics by their priests, first of all, and, second, to the protection of these priests by their bishops and religious superiors, who were quite often themselves involved in illicit sexual activities. The word ‘crisis’ for this moment in Catholic history is a mischaracterization, if what is meant by ‘crisis’ includes any notion of the exceptional, unforeseen, or unusual nature either of the abuse or its cover-up…

    “What I understand now is that the dark and troubled landscape of modern Catholic sexuality, and therefore of modern Catholicism itself, has been the normal, everyday life of modern Catholicism. This is not a crisis. It is the modern Catholic normal, finally disclosed for all to see clearly” -Northwestern University theologian and religious scholar Robert A. Orsi.

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  2. "I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice" -Charles Darwin, naturalist and author (12 Feb 1809-1882).

    "[Ichneumonidae: The family of parasitic wasps that deposit eggs inside or on top of the larvae of other insects. Once hatched, the ichneumonid larva slowly eats its host alive from inside out]" (Wordsmith).

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  3. Re: Miracles

    Imagining what might convince us is largely an exercise in futility.

    “…What might convince us of a given hypothesis? This is a reasonable request in criminal trials, and other kinds of scenarios where actual evidence is being considered. But in order to imagine what would convince us of miracles, it would require changing the past, and that can’t be done.

    “If I could go back in time to watch Jesus coming out of a tomb, that might work. But I can’t travel back in time. If someone recently found some convincing objective evidence dating to the days of Jesus, that might work. But I can’t imagine what kind of evidence that could be.

    “As I’ve argued, testimonial evidence wouldn’t work, so a purported handwritten letter from the mother of Jesus is insufficient. If a cell phone is discovered and dated to the time of Jesus, which contains videos of him doing miracles, that might work. But come on, this is as unlikely as his resurrection.

    “If Jesus, God, or Mary themselves were to appear to me, that might work. But that has never happened, even in my believing days, and there’s nothing I can do to make it happen either. In any case…, imagining evidence that could convince us Mary gave birth to a divine son sired by a male god is a futile exercise, since we already know there’s no objective evidence for it.

    “One might as well imagine what would have convinced us in 1997 that Marshall Applewhite of the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult was telling the truth that an extraterrestrial spacecraft following the comet Hale–Bopp was going to beam their souls up to it, if they would only commit suicide with him. One might even try to imagine today what would convince us that he and his followers are now flying around the universe. Such an exercise is utter tomfoolery…”

    -Jonathan MS Pearce

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  4. For My Eulogist by Glen Brown

    Tell them I did not want a church and prayers,
    a priest’s hopeful praising
    of an invisible deity and illogical immortality,
    that I believed what a Pulitzer Prize poet once wrote:
    “God knows nothing we don’t know.
    We gave Him every word He ever used.”

    Tell them I did not want a coffin and flowers either—
    that rewind of god-awful dreariness and solemnity,
    nor did I want collages or a slide show. Instead,
    share a few of my favorite poems
    and play some music, preferably performed,
    and have lots of raucous laughter.

    Let slip that I once kept a childhood charm,
    not owing to superstition or religious belief,
    but only because the Vatican had “eternally released
    [Christopher’s] duty and sainthood” when they decided
    he was more mythology than reality.
    Be sure to tell them how much I loved irony.

    Tell them moments are what we are,
    that “life is but a day”
    and to never “miss out on being alive
    in a world where everything is given,
    and nothing [is assured].”

    But confess to them how I wanted to die
    before my wife did, out of fear.
    Tell them how I was terrified
    of losing a child most of all,
    the way some of my dear friends had lost theirs,
    and how I worried about the harmful choices
    my children sometimes made.

    Divulge that dementia was in my family too,
    if I had lived long enough
    like my grandmother and father,
    and how frightened I was about erasing
    my identity by cyber crooks,
    that it’s best to safeguard our money,
    as long as “our heart is spent.”

    Now, tell them how much I loved teaching
    and it is through music, poetry
    and philosophy…that show us how to be.

    Tell them how much I loved to sing
    and play Lightfoot and Young… on my guitars,
    and listening to Chopin, Mozart and Bach,
    and how I loved the blues, and jazz—
    when it’s bluesy—and reading
    Dunn, Hoagland and Djanikian, Hume and Camus....

    Remind them how much I savored
    my books, handguns, and Lexuses
    (as much as I craved dark chocolate)
    and saving unsullied money —
    things left behind to prove
    this dead collector lived comfortably.

    And don’t forget to tell them how much
    I loved caramel apples and apple fritters…
    and, of course, my mother,
    but not America’s hegemony,
    bigotry and hypocrisy.

    Proclaim how much I loved my tabbies too,
    my dearest friends and family,
    and my beautiful selfless wife, Marilyn—
    “Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”

    And that nights filled with stars,
    my mother’s Calabrian cooking
    and sewing machine’s hum,
    my baseball glove’s oily perfume
    and the spring’s night air,
    bright autumn days, the crow’s cawing,
    the wind’s homily swishing through trees,
    wind chimes and crunching through leaves
    were warm memories of my childhood heart.

    At long last, tell them it is old age
    who arrives unannounced one day,
    emptying its suitcase of inflictions.
    And death is the final costume we will all wear
    and “nowhere but where it will occur”
    and is not mine to keep,
    because it will belong to you someday.

    After all, spin a short yarn,
    tell them I said something
    unforgettable before I died,
    but that you have since forgotten,
    though you think I might have whispered
    Beethoven’s last words:
    “Plaudite, amici, comoedia finita est”—
    Applaud, my friends, for the comedy is finally over—
    from my other poem about dying
    and my wish to leave an éclat to posterity.

    Or was it something else I might have said?
    A cliché perhaps?
    Like everything of value in life
    is revealed through what we loved.

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