Let’s Fight Over the Frame

I have received a lot of interesting critical replies on Facebook and in my comments section to my post from Wednesday saying that some atheists say they only “lack belief in gods” rather than believe or know there are none, out of an irrational fear of being like religious people by making belief statements about gods like they do. I argued for saying, “I know there is no God.” (By which I meant I fallibly know there is no personal and intervening god(s) of the kind religions promulgate.) While I won’t here address every good thing said or cite their specific words, thinking through what critics has helped me clarify my position.

The first thing to start off with is a clarification about the way I was using the coinage “religiphobia”. I have been accused of uncivilly poisoning the well and not treating those I disagree with fairly becuase I used that word. Let me be clear, by religiphobias I just mean “excessive fears of religion that lead some atheist to avoid good things because they resemble religious things in ways that are actually only superficial”. It’s tongue in cheek, it’s meant to mildly provoke people with something memorable so that they reflect. It is not a way of saying atheists are bigoted. I was thinking of an exaggerated analogy to phobias like arachnophobia or agoraphobia. Irrational fears. That’s the primary meaning of the word. It has nothing to do with bigotry. What I was just trying to say is sometimes atheists overcorrect in a way that seems motivated by excessive fear. But even there, I don’t think it literally crosses the line into real phobias and I didn’t have bigotry in mind at all. It’s just a catchy analogy.

In fact, as I think the first post should make clear, or the rest of the series will, this is a series about emboldening atheists to take stronger stands against theists by confronting them more directly, by organizing ourselves more effectively, by boldly reclaiming good aspects of the world theists have coopted and manipulated for themselves and unjustly claimed exclusive provenance over, etc. This is going to be a decidedly pro-atheist series of posts of friendly chiding, not meant to be insulting at all. And I think a read through of the post should dispel anxieties that I intended to poison the well or strawman anyone. The post acknowledges that fear is not always the only motive behind the arguments I criticized. The post acknowledges that while I strongly disagree with agnostic atheists that their position is “sophisticated” and “nuanced”. And commenters who adhered to the position expressed no objections that I saw to how I characterized the content of what they think. Only this word was a problem for someone. But I thought it worth addressing, since I don’t want to give the impression I’m okay with belittling those I disagree with.

Now, in substance seemingly a good many agnostic atheists admitted sharing my high degree of confidence (99.9999%) that personal gods don’t exist but still preferred to emphasize that they “don’t know” and just “lack belief” because of the linguistic and semantic expectations of believers. One person just made a good observation that since belief is a word that equivocates as meaning both “take on faith” and as “consider sufficiently probable to assume to be true for all practical purposes” using the word “believe” can be misleading so he tries to avoid the word for that reason. Thinking about this, he raises a good concern. If an atheists says they “believe” there are no gods, since generally in the context of god related things people assume belief=faith, they may by default assume that this is an atheist faith declaration. They may leap to wanting to simplify any belief declarations about gods as fitting this established category of faith belief out of intellectual laziness that thinks framing things as a facile symmetry (“see! both sides have faith!”) is a profound irony and way to satisfyingly resolve things. Also thinking about this made me realize that for some atheists, since belief=faith to them, saying they “lack belief” is their way of saying they “lack faith“. And I am all for people declaring proudly that they lack faith.

So, I seriously appreciate the goal of avoiding this linguistic confusion. But here’s my issue with it. We need to fight the conflation of the word “believe” in these matters with “faith” believing. We need to fight for that ground rather than concede it. We also need to fight for the word “knowledge”. Knowledge shouldn’t mean 100% certainty. Atheists are saying to me, “If I say ‘I know’, this will play into the script Christians expect whereby I’m an arrogant atheist who thinks I know with 100% certainty. I want to knock them off their script by saying, no I don’t know, but neither do you.” The problem with that is that it does not take the fight to them by challenging the framing that knowledge has to mean 100% certainty. That’s a crucial fight to have. I don’t mind my first move, saying I know there is no God, scandalizing the believer and making them say “how dare you be so presumptuous!” It’s my opening to correct the meaning of the word knowledge, refute the false accusation that I claim certainty, and start talking about how I proportion my beliefs to reasons and what all my reasons are for being so confident. I can say you know there is no Thor, right? And they do usually think they know that. By letting people go on thinking that there are only two categories “knowledge/absolute certainty” on the one hand and “belief/faith” on the other we let them also go on equivocating that all non-certain beliefs are formally just like faith beliefs. “See? We all have faith! You have faith too when you expect the sun to rise tomorrow or your spouse not to leave you or your car will be where you left it. You don’t have absolute certainty and yet you believe. So, there’s nothing wrong with me believing without absolute certainty that a 1st Century Palestine godman walked the earth and died for the atonement of my sins and I will live everlastingly with Him in Heaven.” 

We need to stop this equivocation where they get to lump all beliefs with a degree of uncertainty in with beliefs that are more than just “uncertain” but extraordinarily improbable and which have enormous weight of reasons against believing them. (For my full take down of conflating faith with good forms of belief read my post on why I define faith as inherently irrational and immoral.)

If we let them define knowledge as certainty and say, “no, no, of course I don’t know there’s no God! I only lack belief! I’m not arrogant!”, we accept the false framing that this is a profoundly difficult question where both sides have a point. Personal god theists don’t have a point. It’s really not a murky unponderable. That messaging, even from atheists, sends the message to a lot of confused ordinary low information assessors of the question that believing or not is just a coin flip. Everyone’s just shooting in the dark; it’s such a hard question. I can hear the TV broadcaster solemnly in my head now, “Philosophers have struggled for centuries with the question and still have no answers.” I reject that framing. I don’t play along with the idea that believing in personal interventionist gods is a serious possibility any more than I would think it’s seriously possible there are demons accounting for epileptic seizures or schizophrenic episodes or multiple personality disorders, or that witches are causing disease outbreaks, or that I can’t find my wallet in my apartment because a ghost must have taken it, etc.

That’s how silly interventionist gods are. They’re seriously no different. And we all get that in the case of Thor and Zeus and Bacchus, et al. We dismiss them out of hand. Yet another atheist commenter called me a fundamentalist for saying that there is no Yahweh, that Jesus was not a godman Christ and he doesn’t appear every minute in transubstantiated crackers around the world, that Allah never existed to inspire Mohammed, etc. God matters are just matters of belief, apparently, and to say anything stronger is to be like fundamentalists. Sorry, but that’s a prejudice due to cultural framing and social pressure that says we need to treat the personal gods of the major monotheisms as live options where we don’t treat greco-roman or norse or (in America) Hindu gods with a shred of plausibility. That whole frame needs to be called boldly into question. I think we lose by buying into it and affirming their view that this is a difficult question. It’s not.

Less than 17% of professional philosophers either lean towards affirming theism or affirm it outright. Nearly 70% lean toward or accept atheism. And the only category of philosophers who strongly are theistic are philosophers of religion, who in many cases are doing philosophy as part of their religiosity in the first place. But actual metaphysicians are as non-theistic as the average philosopher. These are the philosophers who deal with the categories of basic reality as rigorously as any one and who are more likely than most philosophers to believe in lots of speculative things, intangible things, empirically unsettlable things (like that numbers have reality as not just constructs of our minds or that all possible worlds in fact exist or that universals are real). Yet they’re overwhelmingly not inclined towards theism.

Yet news outlets will blithely ignore this and pander to the religious hegemony and say “Philosophers have debated for ages and still cannot agree…” When ~70-83% of professional philosophers, the people whose primary vocation is to rigorously investigate abstract issues like this, go against ~90% mainstream belief in God, they’re showing an astonishingly consistent ability to deviate from ideas they have been marinated in culturally as much as anyone their whole lives. There’s something to that.

Now, I should have been clearer about another point that I touched on but not extensively. Impersonal god concepts–God as a ground of all being metaphysical principle–are ones that have some interest philosophically to me. But the point I neglected to make is that theism is not about those. It’s about personal gods, i.e., the kinds that actually intervene in the world or, at least, have minds like ours. And as I did mention, the idea that God is both eternal and yet has a personal mind like ours is impossible as far as I can tell. Minds arise in a space-time context. Imagining them without a space-time context is incoherent. I am unclear whether a deistic “ground of all being” should be said to exist. It’s a difficult metaphysical question that I don’t see how I can answer clearly at this time.

Sometimes I find the language helpful and compelling, sometimes I don’t. It’s not what people mean when they say they are theists though. A bare metaphysical principle with no interactions with human lives is not what people are so invested in knowing is real or not. The average person does not care that much about metaphysics. No one is having sleepless nights over whether numbers are independently real or mental constructs unless they’re philosophers or mathematicians. Metaphysical principles don’t interest people. The only God that people really mean and are interested is one that is personalized in their minds in some way (even if they are also giving lip service that sounds nice and deistic). The real target is personal gods. When I say I know there is no God, I’m cutting to that chase and not letting them equivocate by leaping from the plausible chance that there’s some metaphysical principle “God” to the absurd beliefs about intervening deities and miracles and heaven and hell, etc. What theists constantly do is try to get us to admit that just because some bare metaphysical principle might exist we have to say “God” is a live option we can know isn’t there. Then on that equivocation, they act like the personal God they believe in is a live option you’d be arrogant to say isn’t there. No. I’m not biting. I’m insisting they reframe. I’m immediately drawing this distinction for them and stopping them from conflating two different things.

I am fighting for the frame. Here’s what knowledge is, here’s what belief is, here’s what faith is. Yes, I don’t know exactly about the metaphysical principle. But what you really are trying to argue for is the intervening personal gods and those are not supported just by the bare plausibility of the metaphysical principle. Not with the avalanche of evidence against personal gods that you reflexively acknowledge in the cases of Thor and Zeus, et al.

Finally, two other interesting arguments. One person said he can’t say there are no gods because they would exist in a supernatural realm and by definition he can’t go disprove them from this realm. So he can’t say that he knows there are no gods. I guess I tend to assume that all my knowledge statements are about the realm I live in. Just as I know there is no Aquaman in this realm. I know there is no Yahweh or supernatural Christ or Allah interacting here in this realm. These things are clearly best explained as the products of human imagination. If they happen to also exist in some other realm, wow, that’s quite a coincidence, but an irrelevant one seeing as how they leave no real evidence that they have anything to do with this realm or will do anything promised to the people in this realm.

A similar argument from the same person when I asked whether he knew there was no ghost in the room with him was that he only perceived no ghost but there are more things in existence than humans perceive so he couldn’t rule it out. My reply to that is that, yes, we don’t perceive everything. There could be imperceptible beings we know nothing about. But the odds that that set of beings would coincide with the ones humans have posited based on superstitious inferences is a serious long shot (enough to say, we know, as just made up by humans and with no verification, are fictions and not serious candidates for truth).

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Criamon

    I had mentioned on FB that I think the (overly-) cautious non-use of the word knowledge can be thought of as a defensive move designed to demonstrate your thinking even in the terms defined by the other side (reasonable or not). That is, it by doing this it means bypassing the reasonableness of the ‘knowledge’ standard entirely (“assume the least charitable meaning for knowledge…”). This move is often not even stated, but is evident by the caution.

    The thing you point out here that I find very interesting, is that taking control of the frame is something we might too often give up on. It can be a point of strength to operate within the assumed meanings of an opponent (the argument is so good, it the corner you think you’ve backed me into doesn’t actually matter). But it still feels like acceding control of the frame is defensive. I like the idea of taking control of the frame as an offensive opening move – inviting an opponent to react to it with unreasonable standards that can then be shown as unreasonable special pleading of standards. This has the advantage of starting from strength while simultaneously setting up the most likely counter to fail (spectacularly probably).

    I like that you’ve made me think about this.

    • Criamon

      OK, I flubbed up some typing there, but I think you get the meaning.

  • SocraticGadfly

    I don’t “fear” religions myself. Also, having read folks like Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer, I don’t even do a blanket demonization of religion, unlike the PZeds and others of the world. I know that religion has an evolutionary history, and like a lot of sociological movements, has a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly in it.

    • eamonknight

      Well, I think PZ’s overarching point is that the institutionalized encouragement of superstition is *in itself* a Bad Thing, even if the religion that results in individual cases is a gentle, affirming, love-everyone-be-kind-to-animals sort of thing (and I think Dan agrees, more or less).

    • SocraticGadfly

      I can accept that, but, I don’t think Dan takes the next step of throwing out the baby with the bath water, calling secularists who work with the religious (including, say, a Genie Scott) “accommodationists” as a pejorative, etc.

    • eamonknight

      PZ sometimes goes too far for my taste, but I don’t think we want to get into the details of the accommodationism arguments here ;-).

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Here’s my view on that (and possibly PZ’s, if I understood him right when we were on a panel together in July.

      The bad kind of accommodationism is the kind that throws philosophy and atheists under the bus for the sake of protecting science. There’s nothing wrong with scientific organizations saying it’s not up to them to decide what people do philosophically or theologically with scientific facts and pointing religious people to theological reconciliations of new scientific findings. The problems come in when they actively promote the positive thesis that faith and science have no conflict at all or in other ways side against atheism. All PZ and Coyne, as far as I understand them, argue for is that science organizations be neutral and not pander so much to people of faith that they actively argue against atheism or the idea that a scientific finding could ever undermine theism legitimately.

      And I loathe anything that treads into NOMA territory because as a philosopher I’m furious that the most vital questions of ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics are simply ceded to faith, as though the only two options are science and faith. It’s scientists saying, I don’t care what you think about those things, just stay out of my science. Here faith, you can take over for values as long as you let me do science. Fuck that noise. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/2011/01/against-accommodationism-religion-has-no-rightful-claim-to-an-unencroachable-magisteria-of-its-own/

    • SocraticGadfly

      I’d accept that. I’m thinking more of people who flatly say that religion has contributed nothing to modern culture. Or even worse, like Tom Flynn at CFI, who think we shouldn’t take Christmas as a holiday because of its origin, wants to rename the days of the week, etc. Or others of similar ilk, who think that the ancient cathedrals simply weren’t worth the cost, who flatly refuse to listen to religious music (I have more than a dozen requiems, myself), etc.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Yes, I specifically have an argument coming up in this series inspired by a disagreement with Flynn I’ve never gotten around to blogging about but wanted to for a while.

  • Ace_of_Sevens

    I don’t think the impersonal God digression quite excludes enough. Reverend Moon was considered to be a personal God of sorts, and he existed.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      hahahaha but not AS a god!

  • eamonknight

    I like this. While I get the opposing point, I have to agree that ultimately it’s important to try and break the semantic frame the theist is operating within. Christians — especially the more conservative varieties — have these frames about epistemology and morality, that really do need taking apart. You can see it in this Pharyngula post (http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/09/03/anti-choicers-arguing-against-me-in-absentia/), where the Christians are strawmanning his take on the morality of abortion — not at all engaging his points, not even comprehending them — because they are stuck in a frame of “unless it’s written into the fabric of the universe, it’s all just someone’s whim”.

  • Sqrat

    “I am fighting for the frame. Here’s what knowledge is, here’s what belief is, here’s what faith is.”

    That is to say, “Here’s what the word ‘knowledge’ means, here’s what the word ‘belief’ means, here’s what the word ‘faith’ means.”

    I have taken a lot of flak of my own over the years for some of my own frame-fighting, over what the word “atheist” means. It means (to quote one particular dictionary, although one could cite others that differ only slightly) “one who believes that there is no deity.”

    “Belief” is part of the very _definition_ of the word “atheist.” If you genuinely don’t believe that there is no deity (for some common and reasonable meaning of the word “deity”), then don’t call yourself an atheist. Call yourself a nonbeliever, if you must, but don’t call yourself an atheist. “Nonbeliever” and “atheist” are not synonymous.

    • SocraticGadfly

      Beyond this is the whole issue of the problem of induction and the related idea that in classical logic, one cannot prove the nonexistence of anything.

    • Metaphoenix42

      That’s false:

      P -> Q
      ~Q
      ~P

      Modus Tollens.

    • Sqrat

      Right. Karl Popper’s solution to the problem of induction was to say that, while I cannot prove the non-existence of something, I can hypothesize the non-existence of something. Such a hypothesis is, in principle, easily falsifiable: I hypothesize that X does not exist. If X exists, then just show me some compelling evidence of the existence of X, and I will have to admit that my hypothesis was wrong. But if repeated attempts to provide evidence for the existence of X fail, then I have good reason for confidence that my hypothesis is correct. And, to build on Dan’s argument, at some point my confidence in the rightness of my hypothesis reaches the point that I am fully entitled to say that “I know that X does not exist.”

      Now, substitute “God” for “X”.

    • SocraticGadfly

      There’s also another issue, to move from Hume to the man who brandished a fireplace poker at Popper. Per Wittgenstein, what does one mean by God?
      Unless special pleading is piled on special pleading, the problem of evil alone undermines the classical Xn omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity. But, who says that’s the only version of god there is? To then move from Wittgenstein to that great philosopher James Tiberius Kirk
      (with a background from Arthur C. Clarke on “magic,”) I think of the Apollo episode of the original Star Trek.

    • Foxhole Atheist

      Beginning with not x presupposes x…not x is in fact the null hypothesis…we don’t ‘prove’ the null..rather we generate evidence in support of x…If evidence is forthcoming we then reject the null (not x) and settle on x…If evidence is not forthcoming then we can’t reject null and settle on not x…and this is where I have settled on the subject of God(s)…I confidently say there is no god(s) as I confidently say there are no dragons or unicorns etc…

      of course my position is subject to change pending further (any) evidence

      So for me there is either evidence or there isn’t in support of claims…I find that words such as knowledge and belief can lead to confusion unless one takes the time to carefully spell out what they mean by these words

  • Sneezeguard

    Words are very powerful things, and the semantics of connotation and denotation, and how they shape our discourse are very important topics for discussion. For a simple example, I’m sure many of us in the atheist community are very aware of how much difficulty stems from people misunderstanding how the scientific community defines the word ‘theory.’

    That being said, it is because words are so powerful, that I feel it is best to let people come to their own conclusions about what they wish to call themselves. Now more than ever this is becoming a cause celebrated in our society, as more and more we are allowing people to declare their racial identity, their sexual preference, their own gender, and for us, it is becoming far easier for someone to claim themselves free of any religion, and they are claiming all of these things with the words that they feel best represent themselves.

    I dislike the friction I sometimes see between atheists and agnostics. It’s the same friction I’ve seen between religious groups like Catholics and Baptists, and one of the worst examples of a way in which the non-believing community emulates religion for me.

    We share so much it seems a shame we focus on the little that separates us.

    • ctcss

      “We share so much it seems a shame we focus on the little that separates us.”

      The more I see of non-believers trying to come together as cohesive groups with definitive goals and concepts, the more I see the same sad issues emerging among them that have dogged religious groups for centuries.

      I applaud any individual or group for trying to bring about good in the world. But the less than admirable tendencies of the human animal makes this an often tricky and sometimes tragic path to tread.

      Attempting to drain the swamp reveals the alligators and Burmese pythons that must be contended with. The problem we need to recognize is that those ‘gators and pythons are inside us, not outside.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I feel it is best to let people come to their own conclusions about what they wish to call themselves.

      Don’t conflate “making arguments people can consider so that they can come to the best conclusions of their own” with “not letting people come to their own conclusions about what they wish to call themselves”.

      We share so much it seems a shame we focus on the little that separates us.

      If it alienates us into enmity, yes, that’s a shame. If it is a catalyst for growth and thinking, then it’s not a shame but vitally necessary and good. We focus on where we disagree because back patting is boring.

  • Antonio Lorusso

    A contender for the source of the conflation of phobias with bigotry that may have been behind the reaction to religiphobia comes from phobia being co-opted for terms like homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia etc, whose common meaning is of bigotry. As pointed out in the article, whilst there is overlap between fear and bigotry, they are not the same thing, and these terms have eroded that distinction, and will continue to do so given how established these words have become in language.

    • LouisDoench

      Yeah, that conflation rankles me a great deal. I suffer from mild/medium strength acrophobia (fear of heights). The panic attacks I get when on a rooftop or similar high and exposed space are serious business and something I have little control over. I don’t like the idea of both minimizing the experience of persons with a form of mental illness by conflating our conditions with the the mean bigotry of those who hate gays. Now I’d be the last person to say Dan can’t have his little jibe about “religiophobia”, I think he explained it well above. As long as he’s aware that he should be careful about minimizing or appropriating the experiences of people with actual phobia’s.

  • 9B9K9999

    We dont give enough attention to the meanings of words. And that’s a strong prerequisite for this branch of forensics. It’s a valid tactic imo to create an ambiguity in order to get to the nugget of wisdom in highlighting these crucial distinctions we discuss.

  • ctcss

    Dan

    In many ways I admire what you are attempting to do. (Not all of it, but a lot of it.) But as a non-mainstream Christian believer, I am often confused by your use of terminology. Could you make a post where you very clearly define the various terms you use (and oppose) about religion? (Yes, I have read many of your posts about such things, and this one seems to be getting closer, but I haven’t seen anything that quite addresses what I am bothered by.)

    The reason I ask is that I can’t quite tell if I am mostly on your side or mostly against your side. A lot of what you seem opposed to relates to the religious environment you came from, but now reject. As nearly as I can tell, I would reject that theological environment as well. And your choices of words I find to be troublesome. You apparently regard “faith” as blind faith. I regard it as reasoned trust. You consider “theism” to only relate to a personal God. (I’m not even sure what the term “personal God” means, especially since I don’t see eye to eye with you on “faith” as a term.) And you apparently use “deism” in a way that I don’t understand either, since I thought that simply referred to God creating everything, but now being completely absent from what was created. And I am guessing you regard “prayer” as being petitionary prayer, but no other type.

    In essence, I would like to read a clearly stated model (with detailed descriptions and examples) embodying the religious theological concepts you are rejecting and fighting against. Since I was never taught to regard Jesus as God, I was taught universal salvation (no hell), and was never taught to study the Bible as in a woodenly literal way, a lot of what you refer to really perplexes me.

  • James Howell

    I appreciate your addressing the “ground” frame, but you continue to describe it as an “impersonal god” concept. Believing in a God that lacks personality and material intervention as fundamental components is not the same as believing in an impersonal God.

    This misrepresents the idea and the framework, so this comes across much less as “fighting for the frame” as vigorously promoting your frame without looking at how the other frames operate. Understanding God as the ground and abyss is, in fact, a nuanced position that an activist approach manhandles rather than accommodates with understanding.

    There’s a kind of participatory knowledge gained from living within a faith tradition that your frame doesn’t seem to allow. For a person of faith, this would require violating the integrity of one’s true inner experience, a genuine apostasy of the heart that disowns sublime experience because its means of articulation share the same symbolic space as a tradition of superstition and reactionary politics.

    For those of us on the margins of contemporary Christianity, there’s nothing outside of the endless reconfiguration of religious symbolism that grants deep, abiding access to that knowledge — specifically Christian symbolism, as I am a creature and a mind conditioned by space-time. The proposed frame funnels participatory knowledge — the eros and gnosis of personal faith activity — into categories of (hard) knowledge, faith, or belief that do not describe either the form or content of engaging life as a Christian for all Christians.

    I share your distrust of theism and superstition, and I am often upset at fundamentalism for bad stewardship. There’s a long developing trend in theology that would be, if not compatible with your personal or advocated practice, then at least in alliance with some of your goals.

    I appreciate your engagement.


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