How To Be An Ally with Atheists: The Actual Thread


Readers of this blog may have noticed that the comment thread on How To Be An Ally with Atheists has gone both completely off-topic and completely toxic. Regrettably, I’ve had to shut the comments on that post down — which is a shame, since I think the topic is an interesting and important one, and I’d like to hear what people have to say about it. (And yes, I am all too aware of the irony of that particular post being the one where the comments went toxic.)

So if you want to discuss the actual topic of how to be an ally with atheists, I’m providing this post as a place to do that.

Please note: Any attempts to use this thread to revive the original shut-down comment thread will result in being banned from this blog. Thank you.

Comments

  1. Pig says

    (This comment has been disemvowelled, as significant portions of it were in direct violation of the “do not attempt to revive the original shut-down thread” injunction. The commenter has been banned. -GC)
    k, bg thngs: :) Dnt tll s tht thr ppl r sffrng t. W gnrll knw thr ppl hv prblms, r prjdcd gnst, nd m vn s thmslvs s th grtr vctms f prjdc, th thng s, w dn’t tll thm t sht p bt t. n fct frqntl w r wllng t mrch shldr t shldr wth ths ppl fr thr rghts. Th thng s, whn w r mrchng wth y, pls tr t mrch wth s. Bng n ll mns bth sds shld hlp ch thr, nt n sd shld jst fcs n th prblms f th thr t th xclsn f ts wn sss. nd whn w d mrch wth y fr cs, rcgns tht w mrchd wth y. T thnk grps tht wnt gnst y nd t nt thnk ths tht mrchd wth y, slps ths wh mrchd wth y n th fc nd mks t s tht w thnk r hlp s nthr wlcm nr wntd. Ths sn’t smpl mttr f bng nclsv, bt ls hvng gd mnnrs. :) f y r gng t crtcs ndvdl thsts wh y thnk r “Bd” thn thr r crtn thngs y hv t tk nt ccnt: : Th rn’t bd bcs th r vcl. Crtcsng thst ldrs fr bng vcl s lk crtcsng g rghts ldrs fr bng vcl, smthng whch lds t thsts tllng y whr t gt ff. b: Dn’t dfnd ndcnc b brngng p ncvlt. Ths hppns whn ppl crtcs yr prtclr pprssd grp, sm ldr s cstgtd fr bng “Nst nd wht ds t mn? Nn tms t f tn t mns tht th prsn dng th crtcsng sn’t ntrstd n wht th ldr ctll hs t s, th jst wnt qck s w f dscrdtng tht prsn. c: Dn’t cll smthng pplr fllc nlss t s ctll pplr fllc. Chmbrln ws n Nz, strw mn sn’t strw mn f t ctll s tkn yr hl bk (nd th bs rgmnt s bsd n tht bk), nd smtms cmprsn t Htlr s pt. d: Rcgns tht ppl rn’t jst n thng. Htchns s n thst, h s ls Ncn. Dwkns s n thst, bt h s ls scntst. Ths mns tht nt vrythng th s s s thsts. Ths s jst lk nt vrythng g prsn hs t s s s g prsn, bcs thr s lt mr t ppl thn jst n lbl. : Rcgns thr r tw rgmnts t d wth thsm. n s vr rghts, nd th thr s vr fcts. Mdrn thsts tnd t rg strngl n fvr f rghts, prtclrl rlgs frdm, nd th sclr ntr f th stt. Sclr ds nt mn n thst stt, sclr stt dsn’t gt nvlvd n rlgn n w r th thr – y r fr t wrshp n n w tht dsn’t nfrng pn thr ppl’s rghts. Y cn gr wth s n tht, wtht hvng t gr wth s n whthr yr Gd xsts nd s ctll wrth f wrshp. h, nd whn w rg tht w thnk yr rlgn s sll d, t s nt bt y t s bt n f yr ds. T prtnd ths s mrtl nslt mks y vn sllr, s w hv ll hd n nd f sll ds n r lvs, nd t rg tht smthng s nw scrd bcs y blv t, mns tht y thnk f y blv t, t mst b tr. : Mk sr y rn’t clmng thngs fr rlgn whch rn’t rlgs. Thr r thsts wh frm cmmnts, wh r fnn, wh nj lf, wh crt grt rt, wh r jst s vrd nd s gd s n thst t thr. Jst lk y shldn’t clm tht thsts r jst n thng, y shldn’t ct lk th rlgs r jst n thng thr. S whthr n rtst s rlgs r thst, tht rtst s n rtst, nt jst sngl lbl. : Nt, tht thr r thsts wh d th vr thngs hv lstd hr. Tht ds nt mk t k, ncl Tms r cmmn ccrnc n n cvl rghts mvmnt.

  2. says

    Greta,
    I posted your main points on my mostly Unitarian Universalist readership blog with a link back to your blog for the expanded comments.
    I was OK with the suggestions and they made sense to me when viewed through an anti-oppression lens.
    But there was lot of discussion surrounding the following suggestions on your list:
    “6. Don’t divide and conquer, and don’t try to take away our anger.”
    “8. Do not — repeat, DO NOT — talk about ‘fundamentalist atheists.'”
    If one can safely have a discussion on the possible utility of anger, this would be something to explore.
    There may be some cross-cultural issues here.
    Imagine how the undecided voters would have reacted to Senator Obama if he had gotten angry over the character assassination attempts during the election. It would have fed into the “angry black man” meme and would not have helped his campaign.
    Perhaps something similar is happening in how atheism is perceived outside the atheist communities? Are we helped or hurt by an “angry atheist” meme? Or do we need some anger as part of a multi-faceted “good cop – bad cop” strategy?
    Regarding the concerns over the “fundamentalist atheist” term, it may be better to reframe it as a “Godwin’s Law” idea (which someone has done — it’s known as “Blake’s Law”):
    In any discussion of atheism (skepticism, etc.), the probability that someone will compare a vocal atheist to religious fundamentalists increases to one.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharyngula_(blog)#Blake.27s_Law
    Like calling a person a “nazi” (even when they may deserve it), calling a person a “fundamentalist atheist” is just another form of “ad hominem” attack (sorry for the sexist language but it’s an old Latin term).
    Rather than responding with a label, the person who disagrees with an atheist that she/he views as a “fundamentalist atheist” should respond to the words and actions that she/he disagrees with.
    Overall, I found the list useful because we rarely examine religious affiliation through an anti-oppression lens like we do other issues in life (gender, economic class, sexual orientation, race, physical ability, etc).

  3. Rieux says

    I think Steve’s right that there are “some cross-cultural issues here”:

    Imagine how the undecided voters would have reacted to Senator Obama if he had gotten angry over the character assassination attempts during the election. It would have fed into the “angry black man” meme and would not have helped his campaign.
    Perhaps something similar is happening in how atheism is perceived outside the atheist communities?

    Yes, I think that’s a good analogy. With regard to injustice experienced by people of color, a member of the majority can use the “angry” stereotype as a simple tool to marginalize and delegitimize minority concerns. Rather than spending the time or energy to understand the minority critic’s perspective or examine whether his concerns are justified, a majority member can dismiss him as an “angry black [etc.] man” and his ignore whatever he has to say. In the end, the “angry” stereotype merely helps to perpetuate the oppression.
    Atheists, like other kinds of oppressed minorities, have much to be angry about. Our gracious hostess here has, I think, written the definitive work on that subject. Obviously the matter is complex, but it seems to me that the common denominator of most causes of atheist anger (and other minorities’ anger as well) is the illegitimate use of majoritarian power to privilege the in-group and marginalize the out.
    The upshot is that anger is an unavoidable consequence any time a minority is broadly mistreated. I don’t think it’s either plausible or appropriate to expect atheists, or any other kind of minority, to shut up about our anger. (Though of course Steve isn’t suggesting that.)

    Or do we need some anger as part of a multi-faceted “good cop – bad cop” strategy?

    Again, I don’t think anyone could put the case better than Greta has–especially in the second section of that post, “Why atheist anger is not only valid, but valuable and necessary.”
    I don’t think the main point is to be the “bad cop” in some three-cornered dialogue, though that is sometimes how these matters end up being fleshed out. Rather, I think what’s most important is the recognition of the benefits that anger can bring to a group of human beings seeking to be treated justly by those who have power over us.
    In the end, I don’t think much of any complaint about atheist (or black, or GLBT, or…) anger that doesn’t even attempt to come to terms with the reasons we have for being angry. Attacks on us made without the slightest gesture at understanding just perpetuate the problem–far more than unkind words from a powerless minority ever could.

  4. J. J. Ramsey says

    One issue with theists being allies of atheists is that both sides are probably always going to be stuck with some underlying tension, no matter what.
    Gay activists expect that if or when get what they want, they’ll be living and working and interacting with straight people. They don’t expect or even want to be the majority, but rather just to be treated like the human beings that they are. A win for the gay movement is not a loss for heterosexuals. It’s not a zero-sum game. You can say fairly similar things about feminists and advocates for racial equality.
    With atheists, it is somewhat different. Of course, one of the things that we want is to be treated like human beings. However, many of us think that a world with theists is going to be a bit more dysfunctional than one without. Theists are people with some wrong ideas about how the world works, and as you pointed out, there’s a risk that those wrong ideas can lead to bad decisions that affect everybody. (Of course, the extent of the risk depends on what those wrong ideas are.) If we get everything we want, theists are going to be deconverted and stop being theists, and that’s not something that even most liberal theists want. Liberal theists may be content to have us around, but not necessarily vice versa.

  5. Prof Bob says

    Your readers have undoubtedly read Dawkins books showing the overwhelming evidence for evolution but perhaps they have not read the agnostic and atheistic expositions (as well as the theistic and deistic) positions of beliefs. But more important, since you mention morals, is the morality section showing the various ways of solving moral questions. They are in Book 4–a very long free ebook–at http://andgulliverreturnsinfo

  6. Prof Bob says

    Your readers have undoubtedly read Dawkins books showing the overwhelming evidence for evolution but perhaps they have not read the agnostic and atheistic expositions (as well as the theistic and deistic) positions of beliefs. But more important, since you mention morals, is the morality section showing the various ways of solving moral questions. They are in Book 4–a very long free ebook–at http://andgulliverreturnsinfo

  7. Valhar2000 says

    J.J., your comment does make sense, and it probably describes many liberal religious people.
    For this reason, it is important that they educate themselves about what atheists really tend to think, and the common myths. After all, as Greta pointed out, many atheists do not consider it necessary to rid the world of religion, or if they do, do not consider it worth the trouble to make it so, once the mor eprenicious forms of religious practice have dwindled.
    Therefore, though there must be underlying tension in alliance between beleivers and unbeleivers, much can be acheived by such an alliance before the tension itself must be addressed and the alliance broken up. And even then, co-existence should be entirely feasable.

  8. WScott says

    (My apologies in advance for the long-winded post, but I was thinking about it all night.)
    Good post Greta. Vey well thought out and I agree with pretty much all of it. In principle.
    But to play devil’s advocate for a moment, it’s not hard to understand why progressives – and the LGBT community in particular – would want to distance themselves a bit from the most unpopular, least-trusted group in America. And honestly? I’m kindof okay with that.
    Two reasons. First: yes, discrimination against atheists is real and I don’t mean to trivialize it. But let’s be honest – it’s nothing compared to what my gay friends have to put up with every single day. No one’s telling me I can’t get married, or adopt kids. I’m extremely unlikely to get fired or denied fair housing over my “orientation,” let alone beaten up or killed over it. Yes, I know there are a few instances of all of the above, but they’re nowhere near as common, as pervasive, or as publically acceptable as they are against gays. Basically unless I decide to run for public office someday (yeah, right!), I’m doing okay.
    Does that make it right? Of course not! But in real life you have to pick your battles and prioritize where you’re going to spend your time & energy. Speaking as a straight atheist/agnostic (depending on what day you catch me), I’d much rather we as a society focused on gay rights first.
    Second, and even more important: I would love it if the whole world gave up their religiosity and got secular like me, but that’s simply not going to happen in our lifetime. Probably not in our kid’s lifetime. So I’m willing to settle, in the short term, for more moderation and tolerance among believers, and the return of the fundamentalist nutjobs back to the fringe where they belong, so that tools like Rick Warren are not perceived as “moderates.” I’d settle for creationism (in all it’s pseudonyms) being returned to theology and philosophy classrooms so that science courses can actually teach science. I’d settle for some degree of rational, logical thinking among our leaders, and my neighbors.
    And none of that is going to happen until we can get rid of the idea that the GOP has God on their side and the Democrats are all evil secular humanist atheist elites. One of the top priorities for progressives/liberals, has to be reclaiming some portion of the religious vote. And the more they go out of their way to reach out to the atheist community, the harder that becomes. It sucks, but there it is.
    So I guess my personal message to Progressives would be “I hope you don’t forget about us. But if you don’t feel like you can come by as often, I understand.”

  9. says

    WScott spake thus:
    >> One of the top priorities for progressives/liberals, has to be reclaiming some portion of the religious vote. And the more they go out of their way to reach out to the atheist community, the harder that becomes. It sucks, but there it is.

    I’m sorry, but I’m not volunteering to be anyone’s scapegoat for votes, no matter how much I might want them in office.
    They don’t so much have to “reach out to the atheist community” as simply not promulgate the rhetoric that marginalizes us. All they need do to be decent candidates is to quit whoring themselves for xian votes with the god-soaked rhetoric, and avoid presumptions or tacit favoritism toward theists.
    I’m not asking for a federal holiday for atheists, just the dignity of not being summarily dismissed for not sharing the popular delusion about invisible magical pals.
    Even many “progressive” politicians such as Obama champion the federal “faith based initiative” program, to curry favor with religious voters. Imagine the enigma of an atheist being appointed administrator of it, and you might get a better idea exactly what sort of devil you’re advocating…

  10. says

    Grimpeur wrote:
    -snip-
    “Even many ‘progressive’ politicians such as Obama champion the federal ‘faith based initiative’ program, to curry favor with religious voters. Imagine the enigma of an atheist being appointed administrator of it, and you might get a better idea exactly what sort of devil you’re advocating … “
    Actually having an atheist in charge of this program sounds like a good idea.
    An atheist would be less likely to treat one religion as his/her favorite and more likely to treat them all equally when it comes to funding and other decisions for these faith-based programs.

  11. Kelsey says

    If you don’t mind going on a tangent, what does everyone think about faith-based initiatives? Personally, I say a soup kitchen is a soup kitchen, and it shouldn’t matter what church/mosque/temple/secular group is running it.

  12. Lisa says

    There’s an atheist movement? Really? Where do we meet? And what on earth do we talk about when we do meet?
    I feel like I should at least get a membership card or something.

  13. WScott says

    I’m sorry, but I’m not volunteering to be anyone’s scapegoat for votes

    Nor am I, Grimpeur. But there’s a big difference between scapegoating and simply not making atheists’ right a major issue. I’m just saying as long as libs/progs don’t go out of their way to demonize us (as some on the right frequently do), I’m okay with them not going out of their way to march with us.

    All they need do to be decent candidates is to quit whoring themselves for xian votes with the god-soaked rhetoric, and avoid presumptions or tacit favoritism toward theists.

    The second part of that sentence I agree with. But the first part is, I’m sorry, terribly naive. “Xian votes” are 80-90% of the votes in this country, whether we like it or not. And one of the reason the Democrats have been the opposition party for so long is that they have been unable/unwilling to attract those voters. Right or wrong, the pragmatic fact is you can’t get elected in this country without convincing a majority of voters that you share their religious values. I don’t like it either, but I don’t see a way around it.

    If you don’t mind going on a tangent, what does everyone think about faith-based initiatives?

    I totally agree with you. But I also think it would be political suicide for Obama or any other liberal politician to oppose them now. From what Obama has said previously (don’t have the link handy), he intends to put stricter guidelines in place to prevent proselytizing, which is honestly the best I think we can expect right now.

  14. Kelsey says

    Would “Rational Recovery,” a secular alternative to “Alcoholics Anonymous,” be eligible for funds?
    ~Sure, why not?
    WScott, I don’t want to eliminate funding for faith-based groups. I don’t think it’s unconstitutional, so long as it’s for the community at large, as opposed to a program that a church is just providing for its own members.
    I’m a Christian, and I’ve worked with a number of Christian charities that do a world of good- a free prenatal care clinic, English classes (I live in South Florida), things of that nature. It wouldn’t be right to say “Well, you’re doing great work and we’d fund you otherwise, but… you’re religious, so we can’t.” That’s religious discrimination. On the other hand, I’ve also seen the work of secular charities like Habitat for Humanity, and I don’t think they should be denied funding either.
    I guess what I’m saying is, let the program be judged by the benefit it brings to the community, not its religious stance.

  15. Kelsey says

    P.S.- Habitat is just the first thing that came to mind, but probably not the best example as they aren’t 100% secular. Rather, they were founded as a religious group but “Habitat has an open-door policy: All who desire to be a part of this work are welcome, regardless of religious preference or background. Habitat for Humanity has always had a policy of building with people in need regardless of race or religion, and we welcome volunteers and supporters from all backgrounds.” (their website). In any case, there are plenty of good secular charities out there.

  16. says

    Even many “progressive” politicians such as Obama champion the federal “faith based initiative” program, to curry favor with religious voters.
    Actually, I thought that was sincere. I’m sure he has a lot of positions for pragmatic reasons, but from what I understand he’s a devout and sincere Christian. Doesn’t forgive the government entanglement with religion, though, even if the entanglement isn’t excessive a la the Lemon test.
    Honestly, I have very little to add. Just maybe the reminder, a la Ingersoll, that next Christmas I may want more.

  17. Anonymous says

    WScott: But the first part (“All they need do to be decent candidates is to quit whoring themselves for xian votes with the god-soaked rhetoric”) is, I’m sorry, terribly naive. “Xian votes” are 80-90% of the votes in this country, whether we like it or not. And one of the reason the Democrats have been the opposition party for so long is that they have been unable/unwilling to attract those voters. Right or wrong, the pragmatic fact is you can’t get elected in this country without convincing a majority of voters that you share their religious values. I don’t like it either, but I don’t see a way around it.

    The sort of rhetoric I mean is anything that tacitly excludes us from participation, like inviting a random crowd to pray, referring to church communities in language implying that everyone has one, or incompletely “inclusive” language like “whichever religion you follow” or “whichever name you call God,” “judeo-christian” (in certain contexts), etc.
    They don’t have to kiss my ass, just stop pretending that I don’t — or perhaps shouldn’t — exist.
    It really is time for politicians to STOP trumpeting that they share popular _religious_ values. Values, certainly, like charity, kindness, reliability, honesty, justness, etc, but _religious_ values inescapably favor some subset of the populace and unnecessarily promotes divides. Mike Huckabee’s campaign, for instance, was quite repulsive, for simply talking as if the xian perspective is the only one there is, even without actually disparaging any other. Democrats or liberals were not “missing the boat” by not emulating him more.
    IMO politicians shouldn’t raise religion or use religious language _at all_ unless it’s specifically a topic of the conversation, and then only to the extent required, and without offering doctrine-laden value statements.

  18. says

    Kelsey wrote: It wouldn’t be right to say “Well, you’re doing great work and we’d fund you otherwise, but… you’re religious, so we can’t.” That’s religious discrimination. … I guess what I’m saying is, let the program be judged by the benefit it brings to the community, not its religious stance.
    —-
    No federal funding program ought to ever have been called “faith-based” in the first place, because it implies federal favoritism toward religion. Why not “community-based programs,” leaving “faith” entirely out of it? Because W. specifically wanted a back door to divert tax dollars to promote religion over non-religion, to funnel money into organizations that should be supported only by like-minded individuals.
    Whether an organization is “religious” or not isn’t the concern — it’s how they spend our money that is. Do they proselytize? Do they discriminate in hiring? Do they discriminate in whom they serve? Do they pressure beneficiaries to participate in religious activities? Do they pay any church, parish, diocese, clergy, etc bills with it?
    AA, for instance, should be ineligible because they are in effect a religion, and in many people’s opinion, a quite cultish one: their program requires participants to invoke religious concepts, and revoke the power of their own rational faculties. Rational Recovery is totally secular: they don’t discourage religion, just totally ignore it, and _empower_ those very same rational faculties. Salvation Army should be ineligible because they discriminate against gays and atheists in their hiring, and preach as part of their “mission.” Goodwill Industries is totally secular, but serves much the same demographic with productive engagement and no mention of religion or god(s).
    An organization can be motivated by religious values, yet be totally secular in service — the “Good Samaritan” didn’t care about a religious clash, and didn’t push his god. Habitat for Humanity, as you mentioned, while ostensibly a religious-founded organization, does NOT discriminate and does NOT preach — they are “secular” in service. A number of my atheist friends volunteer, and feel completely welcome and accepted as-is. I’d have no problem with them getting a slice of the collective pie.
    There are lots of examples of secular organizations doing what “faith based” charities do, yet I suspect (do not know) that secularity is a DISadvantage in getting these funds. Instead, it would be proper for secularity (in actions) to be an eligibility criterion.
    I could probably spend a few hours googling to find definitive answers, but I hoped to piggy-back on someone else’s effort. ;-)

  19. Kelsey says

    “I could probably spend a few hours googling to find definitive answers, but I hoped to piggy-back on someone else’s effort.”
    LOL, so did I. Common ground in laziness!

  20. says

    On 28 December 2008, 65yoh wrote:
    -snip-
    “do religionists actually want alliance with atheists?
    if so, why?”

    One word to answer your “why” question:
    “SEX”
    Actually — religious and non-religious folks do come together to promote sexuality education in order to increase health, fulfillment, and happiness in our communities.
    I’m a curriculum trainer for the “Our Whole Lives” comprehensive sexuality education program developed by the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalists using the best available secular public health guidelines.
    Over the years at various training workshops that I have co-led, we have had people from the following organizations:
    ** Volunteers and ministers from UCC Churches (a liberal Protestant Christian denomination)
    ** Volunteers and ministers from UU Churches (An eclectic grab-bag with historical roots in Protestant Christianity)
    ** Volunteers from Ethical Culture Societies (An eclectic grab-bag with historical roots in Judaism)
    ** Teachers from a Quaker private school
    ** Community educators from Planned Parenthood
    Since I was present at all of these workshops, I can guarantee that at least one atheist was present at every workshop.

  21. says

    Greta, you say that Christians have not been thrown to the lions for almost two thousand years.
    Perhaps not.
    But just in the past century they were thrown in Gulags and killed by the Millions.
    And it is still happening in places like N. Korea, Vietnam, and parts of China.
    I undertand that you want us to believe that atheists don’t want to eliminate Christians…but when I listen to people like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens I guess I am confused.
    Well, maybe not confused, its more like I don’t believe YOU.

  22. Jessie says

    Hi Greta. I found this a little late, but maybe you are still reading.
    Some background, so that you have some idea of what experiences and biases I bring to the table: I am a mixed White/Hispanic/Middle Eastern, invisibly disabled, straight, cisgendered, middle-class, geek woman. I am the atheist child of two atheist parents, one of whom was raised a Catholic, and the other, a Jew. I identify as ethnically/culturally Jewish but do not adhere to the religious beliefs and never have. I grew up in the Bible Belt (Georgia and Kentucky), and took a *lot* of flack for my atheism when I was growing up (including physical attack in one case), but I now live in metro Boston, and my social group here is probably at least 50% atheists and agnostics.
    Also, I really like your blog, which I just discovered! Anyway, on to actual content…
    I agree that too often, anything an atheist says to criticize religion will be construed by various people as bigoted and “fundamentalist”. However, I do think that some atheists are quite bigoted, and that it’s important that we recognize this. I have had friends state that they do not respect religious people, or that they automatically respect religious people less than non-religious people. I sometimes see white atheists latching onto Islam-bashing (and sometimes it goes into Muslim-bashing) to mainstream themselves – “See, we have common ground with you white Christians after all; let’s all talk about how much we hate Islam now, or how Muslims are predisposed to be [negative trait]!” – without considering, say, the racial implications of what they are doing. These are frequently atheists who have not been atheists for very long, or who grew up in liberal, less-religious areas, and I cringe every time I see it in action, because it reminds me of being bullied by Christian fundamentalists when I was a kid. And not all atheists realize that Hitchens is an asshole – I know one or two atheists who think he is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
    In atheist circles that include people like this, I actually find that I am less comfortable criticizing religion than I am in general liberal circles, because then people will take that criticism somewhere that I’m uncomfortable with it going.
    To put that more concisely, I think that you are right that people who don’t go over the line are attacked for supposedly doing so, but I also think, based on my personal experience as an atheist in atheist circles, that there is a line and there are atheists who cross it. I’m not sure how one explains this without the risk of someone throwing legit criticism aside as “crossing the line”, though.
    Most of your advice on how to be an ally to atheists, however, I thought was right on! Thank you for writing it!

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