The Root of All Evil

One of the more bizarre offshoots of fundamentalist Christianity that has been making headway in recent years is the “prosperity gospel”, also called the “Word of Faith” movement. Devotees of this theology believe that God, far from the dour, gloomy Puritan deity who expected people to deprive themselves in this life to be rewarded in the hereafter, is actually more like a rich uncle who can’t wait to shower us with riches and grant us financial prosperity. In this movement, wealth and fame in a Christian is not a hindrance to salvation but a sign of God’s favor.

How does one take advantage of this amazing offer? The central theme of the prosperity gospel is that if you donate and tithe generously to God – which invariably means donating and tithing generously to the specific person telling you this – then God will reward your faithfulness by repaying your investment many times over. Their catch phrase is “name it and claim it“, indicating that the true believer will receive anything they ask for in faith. (Except for its extra helpings of Jesus, the prosperity gospel is almost identical to the New Age movement spearheaded by The Secret, right down to the claim that you get whatever you think about, whether it is good or bad.)

Word of Faith preachers include Creflo Dollar (yes, that is his real name, apparently), Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton (whose website advertises a book titled How to Pay Your Bills Supernaturally), Joel Osteen, Jan and Paul Crouch, and others. All of these preachers tout the fabulous, dazzling riches just waiting to be claimed by believers, available now for one easy monthly payment of 10% of your gross income (gross, not net – people who tithe from their net income hate the baby Jesus). Call now, operators are standing by.

The Christian Bible, with its constant injunctions against wealth and privilege, seems like the unlikeliest soil for such an unabashedly materialistic theology of greed to take root. The ludicrously tortured reinterpretations which followers of this gospel put forth should evoke nothing but laughter from anyone with an ounce of rational sense. Consider the following explanation of Jesus’ famous “camel through the eye of a needle” parable from the prosperity gospel organization Flame Ministries:

The “eye of the needle” was not referring to a sewing needle, but to the trade entrance in the city wall through which the merchants would bring in their camels laden with merchandise. If the camels were overloaded, they couldn’t get through the gate, so the merchant would have to unload some of the goods enabling the camels to continue.

Yes, that makes perfect sense! So, when Jesus said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven, what he really meant was that a rich person getting into Heaven was only about as difficult as it was for a moderately laden camel to get through a gate specifically made for the use of camels and other beasts of burden used by merchants to haul their goods. It all seems so clear now!

If you’re not done laughing yet, the site also gives us this howler:

Jesus read this text [Isaiah 61:2] at the beginning of his earthly ministry when he declared that he was anointed to bring glad tidings to the poor (Luke 4:18-30). Good news for the poor presumably meant that the poor do not have to be poor any longer.

Yes indeed, that’s what Jesus was all about: telling the poor that they don’t have to be poor any longer. Oh, wait – anonymous author of the Gospel of Mark, did you want to chime in here?

“For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me.”

—Mark 14:7

I haven’t seen teachers of this theology address other anti-wealth verses, but with a little thought, I’m sure we can help them out by coming up with reinterpretations of those verses every bit as ridiculous as the ones they’ve already put forward. How about this one?

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

—Matthew 6:19-21

You’ll notice that Jesus never says not to acquire earthly treasures, only not to “lay them up for yourselves”. Clearly, what he meant is that intead of hoarding our wealth under a mattress, we should invest it in the free market. Jesus was history’s first investment advisor!

Or this:

“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?”

—Matthew 6:24-25

An easy one. Clearly, what Jesus meant in this passage is that Christians should have their own personal chefs who plan their meals and fashion consultants who pick out their wardrobes for them. Therefore, you can dine on champagne and caviar every night and wear silk robes and Armani suits without committing the grievous sin of choosing them for yourself.

All levity aside, there is one truly repugnant aspect of this movement. Namely, if being prosperous is a sign of God’s favor, then the logical corollary is that the poor – especially poor Christians – are bad, sinful people who must have committed some offense that God is punishing them for, or who do not have enough faith in God’s blessings to be repaid for their efforts.

Law student Vivian Teixeira, 20, was a member of the Born Again in Christ Church — another popular prosperity church — and then the Universal Church for a total of four years. She abandoned them both a year ago, she said, weary of their emphasis on money. “They said whoever isn’t prosperous is in sin,” she said, adding that sometimes she gave everything in her wallet at offering time. (source)

In essence, this is the theology of robber barons. It helps greedy preachers line their pockets with money often taken from the already desperately poor, and then tells those poor people that they themselves are to blame when riches do not magically fall out of the sky on them in return. It panders shamelessly to people’s most selfish desires and exploits the desperation of the gullible. And, in its shameless flaunting of its leaders’ wealth and success and its unabashed proclamations that one should believe in God to get rich, it is an excellent example of why we should tax the churches.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • tobe38

    Excellent post.

    It just goes to show that religious, supernatural nonsense like the Bible can always be re-interpreted to defend and justify anything. When the masses are poor, tell them (like Mother Teresa did) that it’s ok to be poor, they’re supposed to be poor. It makes them like Jesus was. They’ll get their rewards in heaven. This stops them (at least for a while) from rising up and overthrowing their oppressors.

    But, when the masses are rich, tell them it’s good that they’re rich and exploit them for every penny you can get out of them.

    Such blatant hypocrisy is never so at home as it is in religion.

  • Polly

    Your exegesis shows great promise. I think you have a bright and lucrative future in ministry! I can see it now: A Saul-like conversion, a teary-eyed repentance of your past godlessness, and an anecdote vividly describing your calling by the H.S. to fleece the flock, uh, er, sew the seeds of a powerful ministry and reap a crop of souls…along with the promised crowns.
    Why should you choose to remain a lone voice calling out in the wilderness? You could be an HEIR of the Kingdom.

    I think it was K. Copeland who interpreted Matt 8:20

    “Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

    as saying that JC was not in fact homeless, but simply didn’t have anywhere to sleep that night because he was in a different town.

    Another claim was that Paul was so rich that he was plugging up the justice system based on Acts 24:26.
    And let’s not forget Judas. He was getting fat by mereley skimming off of all the donations.
    Donating is called, “seeding” or “planting/sewing a seed” You sew a seed of faith and reap a reward 100X greater. So, you seed, let’s say $10,000 by giving it to them, you should expect $1million back!
    I know someone (NOT me. Really.) who has seeded probably many thousands over the years to TBN – sickening.

  • AgnosticAtheist

    The “Word of Faith” movement you spoke of, while a perversion of what has been considered Christianity throughout history, are fun to study. They dominate American Christianity. Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, etc. are extremely popular and can fill stadiums with the faithful.

    It’s been said that we seek after 3 primary things: Power, Wealth, and the fountain of youth. The WOF movement has supplied the answer to these three quests.

    1) With God you can do anything/All things are possible/Nothing can stop you/You’re more than conquerors/the faithful will give lots of money so they can get more money in return/etc.

    2) God wants you rich/the wealth of the sinner is yours/give the preachers money and God will reward you/prosperity is your right as a child of God/etc.

    3) God wants to heal you/you can walk in divine health/sickness is defeated by Jesus and has no place in your life/etc.

    It’s just plain and simple great marketing. God to love them for that.


  • anti-nonsense

    These people are just plain blatant hypocrites. And if there is one thing I hate (there is more then one thing but whatever) it’s hypocrisy.

  • Anonymous

    The Christian Bible has a few things to say about the “health and wealth” prosperity gospel:

    “There will be false teachers among you….In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up….Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping….Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…they are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed….Blackest darkness is reserved for them….If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning…Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.”

    2 Peter chapter 2

    “Watch out for those false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them….Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

    Matthew 7:15-23

    “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God–HAVING A FORM OF GODLINESS BUT DENYING ITS POWER. Have nothing to do with them.

    2 Timothy 3:1-5

    “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.”

    2 Corinthians 11:13-15

    There are many Christians who agree with you that the prosperity gospel is shameful. Please don’t lump all Christians into that holy-water guzzling, bling wearing, “richly blessed” bunch. I, for one, do not name them and claim them as my own…

  • Dave

    There are many Christians who agree with you that the prosperity gospel is shameful. Please don’t lump all Christians into that holy-water guzzling, bling wearing, “richly blessed” bunch. I, for one, do not name them and claim them as my own…

    You should reread the original post, and you’ll note he was in fact quite careful not to lump all Christians into this bunch. He calls it a “bizarre offshoots of fundamentalist Christianity” and “the theology of robber barons”

    So what’s the atheistic angle on this whole affair? It’s that when you have a book that can be interpreted pretty much any way you like and you put it up on a pedestal as flawless and a source of divine command, then you’re bound to have people abuse that.

  • The Ridger

    There are many Christians who agree with you that the prosperity gospel is shameful. Please don’t lump all Christians into that holy-water guzzling, bling wearing, “richly blessed” bunch. I, for one, do not name them and claim them as my own…

    You condemn it as “Anonymous” – not even a screen name which (if it’s like mine) is mainly there to put a buffer between me and my job, and is pretty easily penetrated.

    This is the problem – someone makes a statement about some radical or bizarre form of Christianity, one that hurts people, and is rebuked by moderate Christians for attacking “all Christians”.

    If moderate Christians would clean their own house – even by just condemning the nuts – we wouldn’t have to.

  • Javaman

    On Direct TV between channels 325-360 there must be 30 competing televangelists constantly asking people to send them money so they can spread Jesus’ message worldwide. If they actually wore rags and traveled the land barefoot like Jesus supposedly did, maybe I would have respect for them. However, their attire and slick stage productions lead me to believe they are a bunch of thieves. The amazing part is that there are millions of people who send these people money.

  • Anonymous

    April: Perhaps I was too quick to read the original post. Thank you for encouraging me to take a second look. You’re right, there was not a blanket condemnation of all Christians. I appreciate that. I still think making the leap from condemning the health and wealth “gospel” to demanding that all churches lose tax exempt status is quite a stretch.

    The Ridger: I’m sorry you categorize my comment as a rebuke…it was actually intended as more of an “Amen” (except for the churches should not be tax emempt part).

    I think it’s really fascinating that the wisdom of this blog’s author, an avowed atheist, and the wisdom of that flawed, fallible, impossible to interpret (insert your favorite derogatory adjective here) ancient book actually agree on this particular issue. I wonder how many other points of agreement there are in atheist thinking and Biblical passages.

    Thanks for throwing the doors of the atheist house wide open for those of us who like to wander away from our own dustbunnies once in awhile. I appreciate the opportunity to come in and look around. Is it necessary to wear a nametag when I visit, The Ridger? Is that part of the atheist culture? I thought atheists didn’t like labels…;-)

  • bassmanpete

    The Steve Martin movie Leap of Faith should be compulsory viewing for all school children, repeated each school year to ram the message home.

  • Anonymous

    Please forgive me, my comment was intended for Dave NOT April.
    Today has been an exhausting day…

    maybe that’s my punishment for not tithing on my gross income
    the past few months. Where’s that checkbook? How do you spell
    his name C-R-E-F-L-O?

  • schemanista

    I wonder how many other points of agreement there are in atheist thinking and Biblical passages.

    That’s a poor enticement to read the Bible for wisdom.

    I wonder how many other points of agreement there are between Christian thinking and moral precepts in the Yoga Sutras, or the Qu’ran, or the Code of Hammurabi, or the writings of Solon the Athenian?

  • Alex Weaver

    Pity there aren’t more similarities between the Bible and the Kama Sutra. Might dramatically increase the biblical-literacy rate.

  • Ebonmuse

    I wonder how many other points of agreement there are in atheist thinking and Biblical passages.

    As it happens, Anonymous, I’ve written about that before.

  • tobe38


    “I still think making the leap from condemning the health and wealth “gospel” to demanding that all churches lose tax exempt status is quite a stretch.”

    Have you followed the link and read Ebonmuse’s article “Tax the Churches”? It’s pretty compelling.

  • The Ridger

    No, of course you don’t. I’m sorry I couldn’t ferret out the “Amen” in your comment, and if you were only condemning the one line I retract mine. As it applies to you.

  • Jim Baerg

    Is this a case of life imitating art? This crowd reminds me of the “Church of the New Revelation” aka Fosterites that Heinlein put in _Stranger in a Strange Land_. Did some people read the book & realize that scam would work in the real world?

  • Anonymous

    Schemanista: I’ve always been fascinated by points of agreement or related concepts in many religions and philosophies. I don’t read the Bible just looking for “points of agreement” though. Like you said I read it for wisdom. My commnet wasn’t meant as enticement to anyone; I would never entice you to do anything you didn’t freely choose to do.

    Alex: The Kama Sutra may have many things in common with the Song of Songs/Solomon. I was enjoying the K.S. until I got to the part about “hammering nails” into one another! I do like the idea that sex is more than just physical release and is more about a spiritual connection (which is a concept expressed by both the Kama Sutra and the Bible).

    Ebonmuse: Thanks for the link to the “Let Your Love Be Genuine” article. I hope to read it sometime this week…

    Tobe38: Skimmed the article and would like to read it again before re-thinking the issue. Just as a first thought though: churches are not the only tax exempt organizations–there are MANY. Are you and Ebonmuse implying that, to be fair, all tax exempt organizations should start paying taxes? Or does the suggestion only apply to churches and religious organizations?

    The Ridger: Thanks for letting me come in my “mask” for now. I’m kind of a private person though probably wouldn’t lose much if I took it off. It just feels more comfortable for me…for now. Sorry my “Amen” wasn’t very loud. I’ve kind of backslidden from my Pentecostal upbringing!

    Let me say to all, again, thank you for the opportunity to attempt to understand where atheists are coming from. I really appreciate it.

  • The Vicar

    @Jim Baerg:No, this sort of scam has been around for a long time. Long before there was television, there were Christian movements that practiced this; G. K. Chesterton mocks one of them in one of his essays, and he died around 1936. And I very much doubt that the idea was new then.In fact, now that I come to think of it, one of the ideas put forth by Job’s “comforters” in the chapter of the Bible by that name is that material wealth is a sign of God’s approval. Since that is patently denied by the story, you can date this notion (and argument against it) to pre-Christian times. And in multiple cultures, the interpretation of material wealth as a sign of God’s favor was the mainstay of the Divine Right of Kings.

  • Nes

    Though I’m not tobe38, my view on taxing churches/religious organizations is that they should, like anyone else (to the best of my knowledge, which I admit is limited), be taxed by default and have to apply for tax exempt status, and in doing so they should be subjected to the same rules/standards as any other organization that applies. (As I think I commented on the original, the same thing would apply for any government funds as well, such as assistance with charity.) In short, don’t treat it any different just because it has the label “Religion” slapped on it.

  • Ebonmuse

    Just as a first thought though: churches are not the only tax exempt organizations–there are MANY. Are you and Ebonmuse implying that, to be fair, all tax exempt organizations should start paying taxes? Or does the suggestion only apply to churches and religious organizations?

    I believe that bona fide non-profit, non-partisan organizations should be tax-exempt. Churches, however, are both for-profit and partisan organizations. I would be fine with granting tax-exempt status to genuine charitable organizations that operate as part of a church – not to the churches themselves.

  • Thinker


    Thank you for commenting on this topic. The prosperity gospel has done serious damage in my life, and I feel compelled to reveal it.

    At the moment I am a Christian, but am challenging my beliefs. As I see it, the biggest problem with Christianity as it exists today is that there are so many different flavors out there, and all of them claim to be the “correct” one. Obviously no one can be confident that they know the truth when he has other Christians telling him/her that they’re wrong about this, that, or the other issue. Most Christians will tell you that the Bible contains every truth and every answer to every question. Obviously, this is only if you interpret it correctly, otherwise there are many passages that could be considered false and/or contradictory to other passages. This leads to the question, who is interpreting the Bible correctly? I say nobody is.

    The Bible is a compilation of human views of life and God. Sure, there’s a common theme, and arguments can be made that all of its authors agreed and wrote nothing contradictory to each other, but you can’t ignore that they saw things through their own individual perspectives. It’s impossible to interpret the Bible “correctly” because we will never fully understand each individual author’s perspective. The only one capable of understanding it all is an all-knowing God. He doesn’t speak to us directly though if you believe what the majority of Christians say. We have to rely on what other people say about God. We have to read the Bible to hear God’s voice, they say. If all we have to go by is the Bible, then our understanding will never be “correct” because we can’t fully understand the Bible.

    Anyway, enough of my soap box. My story is a long one, so I’ll just tell part of it. If anyone is curious about the rest, I’d be glad to expound upon request.

    For a few years I regularly attended a popular, non-denominational, growing, Bible-based, friendly, and what I perceived at the time to be healthy church, similar to Joel Osteen’s church. One of the main teachings of this church is the topic of money. The pastor of this church likes to point out how many passages in the Bible relate to money, and since there are so many, he says that it is a very important topic to address. That makes sense. A lot of what this pastor says makes sense. That’s why it’s easy to believe the dangerous claims that he makes in his sermons. I did just that. I went bankrupt believing that God was going to bless me because I was giving to the church, and am living in guilt and shame to this day, more than two years later.

    Before going bankrupt, however, I had turned to the church for financial advice. I took classes on how to budget my money, and was told that as long as I was faithful I would never lack, and I would gain financial favor with everyone I did business with. When it turned out that I was lacking despite my faithfulness in sticking to my budget, and there was absolutely no favor in my finances I went in for personal counseling. The pastor I met with was amazed at how bad my financial situation was. I was over $30,000 in credit card debt at the time and had creditors demanding at least 5 times what I could afford to pay. The creditors were ruthless and didn’t even come close to showing me the favor that I was supposed to have on my finances. Rather than working with me, the creditors worked against me. They forced me to choose whether to lose everything and starve to death or declare bankruptcy. After this pastor saw how bad the situation was, he could think of nothing encouraging to say and decided that all he could do was pray with me that God would show me a way to avoid bankruptcy. Guess what, God didn’t show me any way out.

    Of course, I had made bad choices that created this credit problem. Of course it wasn’t the church’s fault. Of course, I should’ve been more responsible with money to begin with. However, for one and a half years prior to the bankruptcy I became responsible with my finances. I was working toward turning my situation around. I was obeying God and doing everything I was supposed to do, as far as the church told me to. And most of all, I was tithing to the church. I gave 10% of my finances (before taxes) to the church. I even gave more than 10% on many occasions, and ended up going into more debt to support my giving. And all of this giving was encouraged by the church, despite the mountain of debt that was in my life. They said I would be blessed and that my situation would work out. The more I gave, the more I would receive, they said. Did I get blessed? Did my situation work out? Did I receive anything in return for what I was giving? Sure, I received. I received a guilty conscience when at last I had to stop tithing because my creditors garnished my wages. Then I received a nice package of shame too when I had to declare bankrupcty to avoid starving to death.

    The prosperity gospel is dangerous. It is false, and I am living proof. I am only alive because I stopped believing its false message. However, I am still reaping the “benefits” of guilt and shame for rejecting it. I don’t know what to believe about Christianity as a whole right now, but even though I feel guilt and shame, I can say without a doubt that this flavor of Christianity is dead wrong.

  • James Bradbury

    Hello Thinker,

    Thanks for sharing that, it sounds like you’ve learnt a hard lesson.

    You’re certainly not the only person to have mistakenly put their trust in the advice of the church. There’s an unfortunate tendancy to trust religious people, especially those in positions of authority, purely because they’re religious. In your case, you were lucky enough (bear with me here) to be able to discover the truth and make a change in your life. Those who are hoping to be rewarded or repaid in the afterlife won’t be able to complain if they are proved wrong!

    Good luck for the future.


  • RiddleOfSteel

    Word of Faith preachers include Creflo Dollar (yes, that is his real name, apparently), Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton (whose website advertises a book titled How to Pay Your Bills Supernaturally), Joel Osteen, Jan and Paul Crouch, and others.

    Creflo Dollar has a wife named Taffi. Unclear if her maiden name was Apple.

    Also be careful about criticizing Joel Osteen – lest you anger Walker Texas Ranger (aka Chuck Norris). I saw him in the crowd at one of Osteen’s televised services.

  • jared

    The tithe is a very controversial subject for churches. Unfortunately, it is the root of most kinds of evil. But then again, how can there be evil without good.

  • Thinker

    This site is worth checking out for all who would like to take legal action against these deceptive thieves:

    Hopefully they are successful.

  • Ebonmuse

    Thinker, please do not leave the same comment in multiple threads.

    As far as this lawsuit goes, I think it’s a nuisance and a frivolous use of the legal system, and would unequivocally be doomed to fail if tried. Perhaps a few prosperity-gospel preachers or faith healers who’ve been insufficiently careful in their promises could be challenged for false advertising (as I’ve argued before), but the vast majority take care to make claims vague enough that they can’t possibly be proven false.

    In any case, our society tends to give wide latitude to religious beliefs, so even the few lawsuits with genuine merit would very likely be thrown out. We atheists should be focusing our effort on promoting a positive picture of nonbelief and attacking the truly harmful aspects of religion, not trying to bully or harass religious groups out of existence.

  • Venia Shoniwa

    I was shocked to realise that there are people who are still lost in terms of prosperity gospel!!! I could not believe it when I read your comments. One wonders whether you are really christians. Because christians are followers of Christ, in everything, including giving and following the scriptures.

    What is your comments to Malachi 3 verse 8 -11. How about “The widow’s offering”, Mark 12 v 41 – 44. i am a living testimony. I used to be very poor. When I tried what Malachi 3 says, my life changed. By the way, all funds that are given to the Lord through “his storehose” church is accounted and audited. So please if you do not understand “giving” in churches, look for information from those that are in the know, test what they tell you with the word of God.

    You need prayers in order for you to get revelations from God. I understand where you are coming from because I used to think like you do. But I got God’s ggrace and now I understand and even preach about giving.

  • Alex Weaver

    One wonders whether you are really christians.

    You might try reading the site header.

    By the way, we’ve all heard this spiel before. Is this really the best apologetics this branch of Christianity has to offer?

  • CharlesInSoCal

    Speaking of Creflo and tithing, he allegedly suggests shooting people who don’t tithe.

    It sounded like this to me at about 0:58:

    “…we would line them up in the front and pass out Uzis by the ushers … the non-thithing members … we’d shoot them all dead…”

     Anyone out there know if the voice is really that of Creflo?

    Dan Barker has an interesting essay on tithing, and so does Brad at Agnostic Review. Deuteronomy 14, Numbers 18? I thought Christians were not under Old Testament Law.