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Dec 07 2012

Is Religion Really Religious? The Baseball Analogy

I’ve been thinking, for no particular reason, about an argument that sometimes gets made about religion: by believers, and occasionally by atheists. It goes roughly like this:

“Religion isn’t defined by belief in the supernatural. It’s about so much more than that: community, history, philosophy, music. So it’s unfair to criticize the institution of religion solely by criticizing supernatural beliefs.”

Believer Be Scofield made this argument a while back, somewhat crudely, when he chided me for having “myths” about religion… one of those “myths” being that religion is a belief in the supernatural. Atheist Daniel Fincke made a more nuanced version of a similar argument, when he discussed what would be left of religion if the belief in the supernatural were removed (“potentially a lot”).

I was thinking about this recently, and an analogy popped into my head.

hot dogWould you define “baseball” as “an event at which people eat hot dogs, drink beer, and sing the National Anthem”?

Certainly that’s an accurate description. Baseball certainly is an event at which people eat hot dogs, drink beer, and sing the National Anthem. (At least in the United States: I don’t know what the baseball culinary and musical traditions are in, say, Japan or Central America.) In fact, I’ll go further than that: In the U.S. at least, hot dogs and beer and the National Anthem are closely intertwined with baseball, to the point where each often evokes thoughts about the other, and each tradition has influenced the other in a symbiotic way.

But “hot dogs/ beer/ National Anthem” are not the unique defining characteristics of baseball. Hot dogs, beer, and the National Anthem are consumed/ sung at other events, separately and together. If you were at a Fourth of July picnic at which hot dogs were eaten, beer was drunk, and the National Anthem was sung, you wouldn’t call it a baseball game. It might evoke memories about baseball, or musings about it. Those memories and musings might even inspire picnickers to start a game. But it wouldn’t define the picnic as a baseball game.

And conversely: If a baseball game were played at which no hot dogs were eaten, no beer was drunk, and no National Anthem was sung, it would still be a baseball game. You might think it wasn’t a very fun baseball game; you might even make a joke about how “This isn’t a proper baseball game — there’s no hot dogs or beer or National Anthem!” But in a non-joking context — if you were asked, say, to testify in court about whether you were at a baseball game that day — you would acknowledge that yes, it was a baseball game. Even with its shocking lack of hot dogs and beer and National Anthems.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Yes, religions are commonly associated with community, history, philosophy, music. These things are closely intertwined, and have been for many centuries — to the point where each often evokes thoughts about the other, and each tradition has influenced the other in a symbiotic way. But they aren’t defined by the other. Religion is not uniquely defined as an institution with community, history, philosophy, and music. Many institutions exist with community, history, philosophy, and music, without being religious. And if you come up with a belief system about a supernatural world all by yourself in your apartment, with no community or history or philosophy or music, it would still be a religion.

Baseball_swingBaseball is not defined as an event at which people eat hot dogs, drink beer, and sing the National Anthem. That’s not what makes baseball unique. That’s not what makes it baseball. Baseball is defined as a sporting event with certain specific rules, with a pitcher and batters and three strikes and home runs and so on. And religion is not defined as an institution with community, history, philosophy, and music. That’s not what makes religion unique. That’s not what makes it religion. Religion, for the overwhelming majority of people who believe in it, means a belief in supernatural entities or forces with some effect on the natural world.

So if you like hot dogs and beer and National Anthems, but you think baseball is the most tedious sport on earth, you don’t have to go to a baseball game. You can go to picnics, or organize your own “hot dog/ beer/ National Anthem” parties. You can even criticize baseball publicly. Your criticism would generally be seen as a criticism of the game… not as an unfair attack on the fine traditions of hot dogs, beer, and National Anthems.

And if you like community and history and philosophy and music — and heck, who doesn’t — but you think religion is false at best and toxic at worst? You don’t have to join a religion. You can participate in other kinds of communities, or start your own. You can even criticize religion publicly. And it is entirely fair to criticize the institution of religion solely by criticizing supernatural beliefs. That’s what “religion” means. And when believers try to defend religion by saying, “Religion doesn’t mean supernatural beliefs!”, it makes me think that they know, on some level, that the supernatural beliefs are indefensible.

*********

UPDATE: Comment from Nathair that, if you don’t mind my saying so, hit it out of the park:

But you forgot the part about how baseball is therefore responsible for hot dogs, beer, and national anthems and by logical extension responsible for all food, drink and music. Plus, lest we forget, baseball has rules so clearly it’s the basis for all of our laws too.

54 comments

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  1. 1
    latsot

    Good stuff.

    Since I listened to the audio version of Why are you atheists so angry? I can’t help but read all your posts in your actual voice.

    I recommend it, even more entertaining.

  2. 2
    Bjarte Foshaug

    This comes up a lot. If the thing that you are defending [let's call it "religion (2)"] is not the same thing that I criticized [let's call it "religion (1)"], it doesn’t matter if you call it “religion”: We are still not talking about the same thing, and it’s still a red herring (i.e. changing the subject) to bring up arguments for religion (2) in response to my arguments against religion (1). As long as I make it clear how I am using the word “religion”, it’s no good to start arguing for something else called “religion” (as if calling two things by the same name could somehow make them the same thing, or even related topics).

    The same thing goes for any attempt to counter arguments against “God (1)” (e.g. a supernatural intelligence who created the universe) with arguments for “God (2)” (e.g. life, the universe, and everything), as well as any attempt to counter arguments against “free will (1)” (e.g. the idea that you could have chosen differently than you did in a given situation, even if all prior causes – including the activities of your own brain – had been absolutely identical) with arguments for “free will (2)” (e.g. the ability to act in accordance with one’s felt desires without external pressure or coercion). The same kind of equivocation comes up whenever some asshole insists that X doesn’t qualify as “misogyny” because X doesn’t imply “hatred of all women”, as if any major point raised by feminists hinged on defining misogyny in such a way…

  3. 3
    5000fingers

    I will take this analogy even further. I would point out that if you took out hot dogs, beer, the singing, the peanuts and cracker jacks, a lot of people would stop going to baseball games. I mean, let’s face it, it’s not the most exciting game to watch. But the accumulated traditions make it a compelling experience that becomes more important and interesting than wading through three boring innings for every time something actually happens.

    Similarly, if you took out the exterior cultural traditions and family engagement from religions, and stripped them down to the bare essentials of their supernatural theological mission, hardly anybody would go. Already, a large percentage of people who self-identify as religious on surveys don’t go to church, and only check the “Catholic” or “Baptist” box on surveys because of familial or nostalgic reasons.

    The good news is that the “beer, singing, and hot dogs” of the religious experience are widely available elsewhere. You can get a much better musical and social experience by joining a community choir. You can have a much more satisfying philosophical or didactic experience at your local library, and you don’t have to put any money in the plate.

  4. 4
    no

    From a bird’s eye view of the culture you have a point, but I think it’s a point that captures little of the truth and is, at least to my ear, combative special pleading.

    First, it tries to cram all religion into the Christian mold. You see this especially when other religions are wrongly called other “faiths”; in an Islamocentric culture perhaps they’d conflate religions and “submissions”. Religions differ widely in what they’re about, and while Christianity and Islam have constitutive beliefs, that’s frequently not the case for adherents of some kinds of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, and Chinese traditional religion, where what really matters to the adherents are the traditional practices. There are many Jews who consider themselves religious but to whom their religion is cultural affiliation, not beliefs or practices. And I’ve been involved in the past with the Unitarian Universalist Church, which has every historical right to call itself a religion, but which has long had constitutive values rather than beliefs.

    Presumably, you would object to a believer insisting that “atheist” necessarily meant “philosophical naturalist” rather than the etymologically sensible and widely-defended meaning “someone without a belief in any god”. It looks to me to be identical chutzpah to insist that the people who call themselves religious are doing it wrong and that it necessarily means “having supernatural beliefs” rather than the etymologically sensible and widely-defended meaning “institutionally bound together in attitudes, beliefs, and practices”.

  5. 5
    umlud

    @ no:

    while Christianity and Islam have constitutive beliefs, that’s frequently not the case for adherents of some kinds of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, and Chinese traditional religion, where what really matters to the adherents are the traditional practices

    Well, for a comment that was criticizing the use of cramming all religion into a single mold, you seem to be doing the same thing here, glossing over all of the sects of Buddhism, regional Hinduisms, and the catch-all phrase “Chinese traditional religion” (which is about as useful as “pagan” is to describe any one religion), but that’s just a minor point. (Still, I point it out, because it’s sloppy argumentation, especially considering your main premise.)

    What I want to point out is that even though you are right in that many Asian traditions aren’t as structured as Christian and Muslim ones (in fact, one could argue that Christianity and Islam are actually the exception to the rule, both geographically and through time), if you ask any adherent of these religions (and I’m being generous with Confucianism and Taoism being completely separable institutions, since they have had a LONG history of intertwining, merging, borrowing, splitting, reconstituting, etc.) whether they engage in religious ritual, many will agree that they do. Furthermore, if you ask adherents (even casual ones) of these religions why these rituals exist, they will – almost every last one of them – point to some godhead or other source of divinity and worship (or veneration or observation or honor) of that source of divinity.

    Now, you and I could argue about what constitutes a “religion”, but this is not that argument, nor is this an invitation to have that argument. What this comment is meant to do is to point out that your objection isn’t really substantiated on the premise that you forward (i.e., that Eastern religions, since they are not constitutive like Christianity and Islam, don’t actually fit into the analogy outlined by Greta). Sorry, but you’re wrong.

  6. 6
    gregorymarshall

    I like the analogy.

    On a personal note, I prefer baseball without the hotdogs, beer, and national anthem and if I have to hear that god awful “God Bless America” after the 7th inning again, I might just throw up. I couldn’t stand that song even when I was a believer.

  7. 7
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    The same kind of equivocation comes up whenever some asshole insists that X doesn’t qualify as “misogyny” because X doesn’t imply “hatred of all women”, as if any major point raised by feminists hinged on defining misogyny in such a way…

    I think partly this comes with the territory of co-opting a word which etymologically and historically refers to an attitude to refer to a category of behavior defined by its consequences, but given that virtually no one actually expects “disasters” to have something to do with evil stars, this IS something we should be getting beyond.

  8. 8
    Christopher Stephens

    Aaaaaaaaaaaah **leans back and basks in the brilliant clear thinking and thorough smacking down of a terrible argument by the best writer**

  9. 9
    Uncle Ebeneezer

    And it is entirely fair to criticize the institution of religion solely by criticizing supernatural beliefs. That’s what “religion” means. And when believers try to defend religion by saying, “Religion doesn’t mean supernatural beliefs!”, it makes me think that they know, on some level, that the supernatural beliefs are indefensible.

    This! Exactly what I was thinking while reading the beginning of the post (great minds, indeed!) Deep down, consciously or not, people of faith are aware of the gaping hole in their belief-system’s center. It’s conveniently protected from empirical attack because it’s wrapped in a bubble of deepness, and can’t-be-known-ness etc., but that protective shield is also it’s most glaring weakness. There is no evidence for the supernatural, and most believers know it. So when you question the value of the ridiculous core belief they defend it by shifting the discussion to the peripheral elements because those are more easily defended.

    Sorry, guess I’m just repeating what you said :)

    Welcome back!

  10. 10
    hausdorff

    This is a great analogy. I have been thinking lately that I should use more analogies in my writings, they do a good job of highlighting problems in an argument.

  11. 11
    miller

    So is the conclusion that UU is not a religion, because UU doesn’t have official supernatural beliefs? I sort of think that’s something UU people should decide for themselves. I don’t believe in overriding self-definition just because it makes it marginally easier to deliver atheist soundbites (ie saying “All religion is bad” rather than “All supernatural religion is bad”).

  12. 12
    dustinarand

    I like William James’ formulation:
    “Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” – The Varieties of Religious Experience.

    I like this because it captures the fact that religions make both moral and ontological claims. “Truth” in a religious sense refers both to claims about the existence of supernatural beings and to claims about how one should live. This is why religion and community always go together, because communities need to have articulated moral norms, and those moral norms acquire their claim to absolute truth from their association or provenance with supernatural beings.
    Incidentally, I also think this is why demonstrating that the cognitive bases of moral judgments do not require belief in supernatural beings is one of the best ways to attack the relgious claim that atheists are amoral.

  13. 13
    Crommunist

    So is the conclusion that UU is not a religion, because UU doesn’t have official supernatural beliefs?

    From my understanding, UU is a special animal because it invokes a lot of pseudo-supernatural ideology in its practice. Then again, this is all second-hand info from former UUs, so I could be totally wrong.

  14. 14
    maudell

    That argument reminds me of Bill O’Reilly’s new belief that Christianity is not a religion…

  15. 15
    NDDave

    To continue the analogy, I think you knocked it out of the park, Greta..

  16. 16
    Nathair

    But you forgot the part about how baseball is therefore responsible for hot dogs, beer, and national anthems and by logical extension responsible for all food, drink and music. Plus, lest we forget, baseball has rules so clearly it’s the basis for all of our laws too.

  17. 17
    Greta Christina

    No @ #4: What umlud @ #5 says. As for entirely atheistic, naturalistic, secular Judaism: I don’t think that’s a religion. I think it’s a cultural tradition.

    Are you really arguing that any institution that’s “institutionally bound together in attitudes, beliefs, and practices” is a religion? There are many, many, many examples of such entities, examples that almost nobody would call “religion.” Which is my whole point. When you start re-defining “religion” as “an institution bound together in attitudes, beliefs, and practices,” the word loses its unique meaning. And it often seems that the reason for doing so is that people like their religion, but recognize that the “supernatural beliefs” part are absurd.

    miller @ #11 (and others talking about UU): UU is a somewhat unusual case, because some practitioners of it do hold supernatural beliefs and consider them an important of the institution, and some don’t. I would therefore say that UU is a religion for the former, and isn’t for the latter. (Except for legal/ tax reasons, which is a different discussion.) And yes, people largely have the right to self-definition… but there are limits to that. We have to agree on the language to some extent if we’re going to have meaningful conversation. And my whole point here is that this whole “religion isn’t really religion” business muddies the waters of communication. It’s a diversionary tactic, a moving of the goalposts. And from my own experience and that of many other former believers, it’s often a very slippery, “when no-one is watching” tactic: people will insist that religion isn’t a belief in the supernatural when they’re talking to atheists and skeptics, but revert to treating it as a belief when they’re alone or with other believers.

  18. 18
    thephilosophicalprimate

    Welcome back! This is a terrific way to make your atheism blogging comeback!
    *applause*

  19. 19
    Sastra

    I’d say that a belief in the supernatural is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a “religion,” since technically someone could have an odd superstition which wouldn’t in and of itself constitute a religion. There probably needs to be some sort of a unique metaphysics (description of reality as a whole), an ethical commitment(s), and elements of worship, reverence, transcendence, and/or a sense of the sacred — usually but not necessarily involving a community. That’s in addition to — not instead of — the supernatural beliefs.

    The gray borderlands are always going to be fuzzy no matter what definition you choose to use. But I think it’s a good idea to define religion in such a way that it doesn’t include baseball — and does include Christianity.

    And really — if the BEST thing you can say about religion is that the supernatural isn’t emphasized in many of them, that’s like praising baseball because you can go to the stadium and don’t have to watch the actual game, there’s so much going on. That’s not a point in its favor. That’s a reason you might allow yourself to be dragged there.

  20. 20
    Hank_Says

    That’s a six, Greta. Good to have you back at the crease (cricket analogy).

    There’s a trite old saying* which states “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.” On face value it appears a perfectly reasonable admonition not to gossip. However, my response (usually when someone posts the quote on facebook as a deepity) is to say: “The greatest minds discuss all three: ideas are always formed by people and almost always in response to events (which are in turn frequently caused by other people).” Not as snappy, I admit, but hopefully the point about context is made.

    Religion is an idea like any other; if you’re going to defend it, defend the idea itself, not those of its effects you happen to like (which have more often than not been misappropriated as innovations of the religion under discussion). Defend religion if you feel you must, but don’t have half a conversation.

    __________________________________________________
    *This is usually mistakenly attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt (displaying even more disregard for context than the quote itself).

  21. 21
    John Horstman

    Yay, Greta’s (heh, mis-typed your name as “Great”, considered leaving it) back and fierce as ever!

  22. 22
    miller

    @Greta #17,
    I agree that it’s a massive red herring to defend religion on the grounds that it isn’t always supernatural. People often seem to frame themselves as nonreligious or non-supernaturalist when they really are. On the other hand, if you primarily associated with unitarians or secular Jews, you might end up arguing a lot over the definition of religion. This is also a red herring, since it’s unrelated to our central thesis: that there is no supernatural.

    That being the case, my own comment #11 was a red herring, and I will not argue the point further.

  23. 23
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Religion is cultural.
    OS choice is religious.
    Cultures are a direct result of evolution.
    Evolution is political.
    Politics are philosophical.
    Philosophy is an OS choice.

  24. 24
    gregorylynn

    If baseball was responsible for our laws, we’d have better laws.

  25. 25
    Nathair

    Aw shucks.

  26. 26
    cottonnero

    gregorylynn #24: I don’t know. The most significant legal concept to come out of baseball is three-strikes laws.

  27. 27
    random11

    Why counter this argument? Just flow with it.

    They want to define themselves with community, history, philosophy, music? That’s great!
    Just ask them if they care to explain the bigotry that is part of their community, the wars and corruption that are a part of the history, and the anti-science that is part of the philosophy.

    It won’t take them long after that to redefine it back to something narrow like “following Jesus”

  28. 28
    Martha

    OK, another UU piping up here. I’ve been trying ever since I started reading atheist blogs by writers I admire– like Greta- to articulate for myself what I think sometimes gets thrown out with the supernatural bathwater in atheist communities.

    Yes, there are theistic UUs– many more now than there were 30 years ago from what I can tell– and there are people who do quite a bit more than dabbling in Woo. But they all agree to a humanistic moral code that I can back. Misogyny, racism, and homophobia are not welcome, period. I’m not saying that UUs aren’t influenced by racist, sexist, and homophobic norms; of course we are. But there is a clear communal value to work against these influences, to value the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings.

    This is clearly not the case for atheists as a whole. Just as I agree with about half the UUs I know about the supernatural, I agree morally with half the atheists I see on the internet. It’s just that the social justice-rejecting group of atheists are far more offensive to me than theistic UUs with a commitment to social justice. I’m really much more interested in the way that people treat one another than in what they profess to believe.

    Still, I agree with Greta, Jen, Stephanie, and other FTB bloggers that there is value in our not-secular-enough society in engaging in social justice explicitly as an atheist. I’m completely on board with that; I just don’t want to be associated with libertarian atheist values. I guess that’s the one of the key issues for me: atheism that relies solely on a lack of belief in the supernatural is too broad to forge a community. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that; indeed, I think that’s why we’re seeing Deep Rifts, and that’s a good thing.

    Community is important, and I don’t know of many communities that bring people together with different talents and from different walks of life in the way that religion has traditionally done in our society. I’m perfectly okay with calling that something other than religion, though.

    Finally, i don’t think we talk enough as a secular society about how hard it is to live in accord with our values. I do think religions have developed practices than can be helpful in that regard; perhaps that’s part of the reason they’ve persisted in spite of all the negative baggage they bring along. I see no reason that these practices cannot be divorced from a belief in the supernatural. We need to celebrate extraordinary courage and kindness among our fellow humans. It gives us hope for the future– and it helps us to think through ways in which we can fight some of our own fears to build a better world.

  29. 29
    jflcroft

    I see what you’re saying, but I don’t think I agree. I think the main disagreement, fo me, comes when you say “if you come up with a belief system about a supernatural world all by yourself in your apartment, with no community or history or philosophy or music, it would still be a religion.” I think not – I think what you would have is a personal supernatural belief system. To me a religion HAS to have a social and institutional component to be considered a religion. “Personal religions” are not, in my view of the term, actually “religions”. And that’s why I object when people damn “religion” when they are ONLY criticizing supernatural beliefs. I think it leads to lack of clarity in argumentation and sloppy thinking which prevents us from being optimally clear.

  30. 30
    jflcroft

    One way to view my objection here: I think it’s fair to say I view some form of supernatural belief as a necessary but insufficient condition for there to be a “religion”. I would tend, to, to resist the characterization of Humanistic Judaism and Ethical Culture as “religions”, but I also want to reject the idea that a full critique of a “religion” can be made without taking into account cultural, historic, social and other elements.

  31. 31
    Steve Caldwell

    Crommunist wrote:

    From my understanding, UU is a special animal because it invokes a lot of pseudo-supernatural ideology in its practice. Then again, this is all second-hand info from former UUs, so I could be totally wrong.

    Unitarian Universalism is a special case because it is non-creedal. For individuals who want to join any UU congregation, there is no list of beliefs that one has to profess. Heck … if a congregation wanted to have a creed as a requirement for membership, they would be thrown out of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The “no creedal tests” requirement is one of the few restrictions on local congregational autonomy.

    Given that there is no creedal requirement for membership (from a headquarters office or local congregation) and local congregations have very few restrictions on how they run themselves, it’s no surprise that one can find theists, deists, Pagans, Buddhists, Jews, agnostics, atheists, etc belonging to the same local group. And there are circumstances where a UU congregation can be very helpful (e.g. a useful support network for Bible Belt atheists and freethinkers). And they have created in partnership with the liberal United Church of Christ and secular health educators one of the best available sexuality education programs for children, adolescents, and adults.

    Given that there is no supernatural belief requirement in Unitarian Universalism, one can safely say that Unitarian Universalism does not fit with the religion definition provided by Greta here. However, there are individual Unitarian Universalists who do hold supernatural beliefs and would be “religious” here.

    And this is totally separate from the guidelines used by the IRS to decide what is a tax-exempt church:

    “What’s a “church” and how does the IRS decide?”
    http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/brad_hirschfield/2010/10/whats_a_church_and_who_decides.html

    There is a 14-point test but churches are not required to meet all 14 points to be a church. They are expected to meet most of them.

    For example, Quakers are a church under IRS rules even though they don’t meet the “Ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of study” requirement. And Unitarian Universalists are a church even though they don’t meet the “A recognized creed” requirement. And a hypothetical church in a retirement community would not meet the “Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young” requirement.

    And this 14-point test is what keeps all of us from getting ordained online through the Universal Life Church and calling our households “church” to escape paying taxes.

  32. 32
    Greta Christina

    I’ll concede the point made by Sastra and jflcroft. Supernatural belief is necessary to define something as a religion, but it’s not sufficient.

  33. 33
    mnb0

    “Religion isn’t defined by belief in the supernatural.”
    Nothing in religion that isn’t defined by belief in the supernatural needs said religion.
    Glad you’re back.

  34. 34
    tomhuld

    I think the reason it is fair to criticize religion for its supernatural beliefs is that it is precisely those beliefs that are the destructive parts of religion. It is not the Capella Sistina or the Weihnachtsoratorium that have caused people in Uganda to propose laws to make homosexuality a capital offense. A feeling of belonging to a community will not in itself make people fly planes into skyscrapers. Most of the bad effects of religion can be traced back to its superstitions.

    On the other hand, no amount of great art or sense of community can justify the atrocities committed by religion.

    So criticism of religion must continue until nobody will ever again try to use religion to hurt people.

    And once more, though it’s been said many times in this thread: it is a joy to have a new post from you again!

  35. 35
    scenario

    I think there are a lot of similarities between mainstream religion and baseball.

    In baseball you have people who are nicknamed pink hats. They are people who do not understand, nor care about baseball, they are just there for the atmosphere or to be seen by other people.

    In mainstream religion, there are many people who have absolutely no idea what the philosophy of their religion is beyond a few stories and the belief that when they die they will go to heaven and see their dead loved ones, they just go to church to be with other people and to be seen.

    There are many superstitious beliefs in baseball, don’t clean your hat if your on a winning streak, don’t step on the first base line when your walking to first base, eating the same food before every game… Just like religion, not everyone follows them, but some do.

    The big difference between baseball and religion is that people don’t use the rules of baseball as an excuse for reprehensible behavior.

  36. 36
    Godless Poutine

    Hi Greta,

    Your post sparked thoughts about Hockey in Quebec. I posted about it at my blog. I hope I didn’t completely misunderstand what you were saying…

    http://www.mysecretatheistblog.com/2012/12/the-holy-church-of-hockey.html

    Turns out this year’s food bank is at a 58 yr low in Montreal… the NHL lockout is being blamed… who knew Hockey took over charity now that the churches are empty.

  37. 37
    Paul W.

    jlcroft:

    I see what you’re saying, but I don’t think I agree. I think the main disagreement, fo me, comes when you say “if you come up with a belief system about a supernatural world all by yourself in your apartment, with no community or history or philosophy or music, it would still be a religion.” I think not – I think what you would have is a personal supernatural belief system. To me a religion HAS to have a social and institutional component to be considered a religion. “Personal religions” are not, in my view of the term, actually “religions”. And that’s why I object when people damn “religion” when they are ONLY criticizing supernatural beliefs. I think it leads to lack of clarity in argumentation and sloppy thinking which prevents us from being optimally clear.

    I don’t think there are clear sufficient conditions for something to “literally” be “religion,” or that we should expect there to be.

    Supposing that some individual did manage to come up with a religion-like belief system and philosophy, including (1) belief in supernaturalism (e.g., substance dualism) and (2) some essentialized concepts of morality that hinge on the supernaturalism, I’d call that religion.

    I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that there’s a right or wrong answer to, though. “Religion” is a “natural kind term,” which is a term that is basically defined by prototypical exemplars, with the “definition” being reverse-engineered from those examples. (That is how most scientific terms and most everyday category terms work.)

    When you reverse-engineer a definition from examples, there’s often a bit of wiggle room in what you take to be the necessary or sufficient conditions. All the clear examples of “religion” have some kind of supernaturalistic component, and some kind of moral component, and some important social aspects, but which of those three things is “most essential” for being “religion” is just not clear, and IMO cannot ever be clear.

    It’s like the definition of “life”—which many features of clearly living things must be shared for something to be alive? Is a virus alive? IMO, the right answer to that is yes and no. It’s a replicating evolvable pattern, like living organisms, but it lacks some features that all the others share, e.g., its own metabolism.

    Similarly, I think that if you found an individual who managed to come up with their own personal “religion,” I think the question of whether it’s “really” religion has no answer—the right answer is yes and no, depending on what you take to be criterial, and there’s wiggle room that will not ever go away.

    Another way of saying that is that there are two “natural kinds” of thing being discussed when we discuss religion, at different levels—the level of individual psychology and the level of social psychology. Whether you’d consider an individuals unique “religion” to be real religion would depend on which phenomenon you’re more interested in. It wouldn’t be surprising if biologists and psychologists said yes, and sociologists and political scientists said no—and there wouldn’t be anything particularly wrong with that, because they’d be using different, related senses of the word, describing related phenomena at different levels, as often happens when discussing complicated things. As long as they agree on which features the phenomena do and don’t share, it’s not a big problem. (Any more than it’s a problem that some biologists would consider viruses to be alive, because they can replicate and evolve, and others wouldn’t, because they don’t metabolize—once you realize what’s really going on with life, the question of whether viruses are “alive” just stops being interesting or important, because the answer is clearly “yes and no.”)

  38. 38
    Paul W.

    I think the reason it is fair to criticize religion for its supernatural beliefs is that it is precisely those beliefs that are the destructive parts of religion.

    I think a better reason in scientific terms is that the supernaturalism is importantly what makes religion tick in a unique way, for good and for ill, and is the only thing that distinguishes between all of the clear exemplars of “religion” and lots of other cultural psychological and cultural phenomena.

    That claim needs some defending, though, from critiques like no’s @ #4. A lot of people think that Eastern religions are exceptions to that rule, but they generally are not.

    All major religions and at least the vast majority of minor ones typically involve some kind of dualistic belief that is part of what gives the religion its factual and moral authority.

    That is not only true of religions in which there are gods and divine revelations of the obvious sorts. It is also true of most meditative disciplines that might seem to be “religious” practices without any necessary component of supernatural belief.

    Take a minimal and austere form of Buddhism, for example—one without any belief in Karma or supernatural persons, but with a traditional meditative practices and and a related moral tradition. The first thing to notice is that most actual Buddhists are not austere in that way—they generally believe in a bunch of supernatural beings (e.g., demons or souls of ancestors) and/or Chi and/or Karma or something like that. They believe in something like dualistic souls. (Even if those souls are in some sense an “illusion” too, and/or aspects of some greater nonpersonal but nonetheless soul-like thing).

    Not only do they typically believe in souls, but that belief generally matters a lot to how the religion works.

    There’s almost always some sense that the meditative practices access some special features of the universe that are beyond normal perception and cognition—e.g., the ultimate nature of reality, or some more proximate but unseen spiritual aspect of the world. In essence, practitioners generally believe in a kind of supernatural ESP, even if it can only do certain limited things. (And even if many (seemingly) minimalist believers would deny believing in “the supernatural” because they don’t believe in gods or witchcraft or ancestor ghosts or the Evil Eye.)

    In the communities and/or lore of these “meditative practices” and associated moral schemes, there are almost always revered figures who are believed to have special “spiritual gifts,” because they have more gifted souls, or have refined their ability to use their souls through long devoted practies—and those revered masters are generally assumed to have better supernatural ESP in some sense or other.

    Revered masters are wiser and/or more skillful (e.g., at martial arts) and/or more moral or compassionate because they are better than others at sensing the “unseen order” in life, the universe, or whatever, and living in accord with it, using their (better or better developed) refined supernatural ESP.

    The reverence and authority of such figures generally hinges on certain minimal supernaturalistic beliefs, whether the practitioners are conscious of that or not, and whether or not they’d call such things supernatural. (Many wouldn’t, because there’s an ambiguity in the term. Many people don’t believe in markedly supernatural things like ghosts walking through walls, or magic spells or astrology or Luck, but nonetheless take for granted that people have something like dualistic souls that have something fundamental to do with wisdom, creativity, morality or whatever.)

    That psychological feature of religion—belief in outright “revelation” and/or something that amounts to supernatural ESP—is one of the most crucial features of religion that “makes it tick” as a social phenomenon, in two major ways:

    1) It is what makes religions seem to offer something special that nothing else can, and

    2) It tends to immunizes religion from rational critique.

    The use of some sort of “spiritual gifts” to divine truth and skill and morality is what makes religion most attractive—religious people generally assume that that is how you learn truths of wisdom and morality and/or skill of some sort(s).

    It is also what introduces and defends many unverifiable claims. A religious mentality generally assumes that the only or best way to achieve wisdom, etc., is to use your supernatural ESP, and/or to follow a leader with better supernatural ESP than your own, and often both—e.g., learning from somebody with better supernatural ESP how to develop your own. Such beliefs are mostly immune to falsification because it’s assumed that the best evidence for important truths is supernatural ESP, and that the things being detected are not observable in any other way, or are only very indirectly observable by normal perceptual and rational means.

    (For example, an Eastern martial arts discipline may claim to result in stronger Kung Fu because it’s more attuned to the spiritual aspect of reality, and to some small degree that provides some empirical basis for judgment—somebody being able to kick somebody’s ass may be taken as evidence that their discipline is more spiritually correct and thus leads to a more effective use of Chi energy, or a more skillful harmony with some deep Truth about ass-kicking or something. But such cross-checks are typically very weak, and only effective for weeding out certain kinds of claims.)

    You see that in all sorts of Eastern and New Agey religion, and even very liberal theology like Karen Armstrong’s. Armstrong—like a lot of heterodox theologians, and UUs who are dualists—thinks that there’s deep Truth in all religion because people have faculty of “intellectus” that transcends mere sensory perception and rationality. Such a faculty can only be supernatural—it assumes that that there is some fairly direct and thus reliable access to some aspect of reality that is “spiritual” and yields Truth and Wisdom of certain uncheckable sorts about a few things like the ultimate nature of reality and/or basic morality.

    I suspect, but don’t know, that among very liberal “religious” people like UU’s and liberal Quakers, there’s a very high correlation between belief or disbelief in dualistic souls and whether people are comfortable calling themselves “religious” vs. not “really” religious. I think most people intuitively get the distinction I’m making explicit, even if they can’t articulate it themselves—the people who feel most “religious” are precisely those who feel that there’s at least Something More beyond observable and rationally analyzable material reality, and that at least some people have the ability to at least detect it in some way that can only be cashed out with something like dualism. (Usually substance dualism, but sometimes property dualism or certain kinds of Idealism.)

    That brings up the term “Faith,” and what “faith” really is, and whether it’s appropriate to call religions “faiths.”
    no says this:

    First, it tries to cram all religion into the Christian mold. You see this especially when other religions are wrongly called other “faiths”; in an Islamocentric culture perhaps they’d conflate religions and “submissions”.

    I think I more or less disagree with this.

    I think that when people talk about faith, what they’re often really talking very inarticulately about is supernatural ESP.

    Religious people generally don’t think “faith” means believing any damn thing without evidence, or even more strongly than the evidence warrants. They think that faith provides evidence of a different sort than normal sensation and rationality, because they believe in outright divine revelation and/or supernatural ESP, which is basically a kind of divine revelation.

    When people appeal to “faith,” they usually assume that faith works to reasonably reliably give them truth of at least certain sorts—that they can trust their guts about whether certain things are true and/or right, or trust the guts of people whose whose gut judgments are better than theirs.

    Explicit or implicit belief in supernatural ESP is what makes believing “on faith” seem intuitively reasonable—it’s assumed, consciously or unconsciously, that supernatural ESP will guide at least some people to have faith in the right things, by providing evidence that’s usually not called “evidence” because it’s different from the kind of objectively verifiable evidence used by scientists, or in court.

    I think that’s a natural correlate of believing in dualistic souls at all. If you have a soul, presumably it has some useful function that’s at least related to thinking and feeling, and one of the most obvious functions is to tell you stuff that you wouldn’t know without a soul to inform you. A soul presumably has some ability to detect things that normal senses can’t, or at least has some built-in knowledge that brains don’t (e.g., about morality).

    In that sense, and I think it’s a very important one, everything that’s clearly religion does have that kind of “faith” in common—a kind of belief in knowledge or skill, or at least experience, that can only be had with something like a dualistic soul, which somehow transcends and trumps other forms of evidence (in at least certain respects), and is more or less immune to checking with normal perception and rationality.

    That is the key feature that connects “religion” as a personal psychological phenomenon to religion as an evolving social phenomenon—it provides both the basic motivation to care about religion and the immunity from refutation that lets it succeed in spreading itself.

  39. 39
    Bill Dauphin, avec fromage

    Great post, Greta; you nailed it!

    Thanks, Steve Caldwell (@31), for this link!

    Unless there are detailed definitions of terms behind that list that specifically require supernatural belief, I think it wouldn’t be too hard to define a purely materialistic/humanistic organization that would meet enough of these criteria to qualify as a “church” for tax purposes… but I also think 99 44/100 percent of people would say “well, yeah, that may be technically a church according to tax law, but it’s obviously not a religion.”

    I recall some years ago that a swingers’ club in Texas was being shut down based on a law about “adult businesses” being within a certain distance of churches and schools. I jokingly suggested that they should organize themselves as the Church of Sexual Sharing (or some such) to make themselves exempt from that law, and get a tax break in the bargain (members were being assessed a share of the costs of hosting parties, which is how they got tagged as a “business”; but those assessments could just as easily be characterized as donations).

    I really was joking, and don’t advocate gaming the tax laws like that… but I think a swingers’ club could meet most of the 14 criteria (assuming “worship” need not have a specifically supernatural object and “creed” need not include a profession of supernatural belief) — hopefully not the one about “religious instruction of children,” of course! — if it really wanted to.

    That does not, however, mean people would be likely to accept it as a “religion,” in any commonly used sense of the word.

    scenario (@35):

    The big difference between baseball and religion is that people don’t use the rules of baseball as an excuse for reprehensible behavior.

    SRSLY? Have you not heard of the designated hitter? ;^)

    Finally… the obligatory Bull Durham link.

  40. 40
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    jflcroft

    I think the main disagreement, fo me, comes when you say “if you come up with a belief system about a supernatural world all by yourself in your apartment, with no community or history or philosophy or music, it would still be a religion.” I think not – I think what you would have is a personal supernatural belief system.

    Most generally, given the sloppy definitions humans use, yes. Until you impose or sucker others into following your beliefs. Then suddenly: Religion.

  41. 41
    Greta Christina

    When you reverse-engineer a definition from examples, there’s often a bit of wiggle room in what you take to be the necessary or sufficient conditions. All the clear examples of “religion” have some kind of supernaturalistic component, and some kind of moral component, and some important social aspects, but which of those three things is “most essential” for being “religion” is just not clear, and IMO cannot ever be clear.

    Paul W., OM @ #37: I strongly disagree. I think it’s very clear which of these three things is “most essential.”

    Here’s why. There are LOTS of institutions and groups which have some moral component and some important social aspects, but which do not have supernatural aspects. Political/ activist/ social change groups are the most obvious example. Greenpeace, the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, ACT-UP… And we don’t call these groups religions. If an institution or group has a moral component and a social component, it’s not a religion. If it has these things, AND it has a supernatural component, it is a religion. Therefore, the supernatural component is the most important and most uniquely defining characteristic of a religion.

  42. 42
    nathanaelnerode

    I actually think you’re plain wrong about the definition. There’s been a big problem in “religious studies”, which is simply, “what the hell do we use as a working definition of religion?!?”

    The belief-based definitions *ALL* fail on at least one example which is clearly a religion.

    For a major example, “Orthodox” (more accurately, orthopractic) Judaism doesn’t require that its followers believe anything; it just requires that they follow hundreds of arbitrary rules and rituals, of the sort any obsessive-compulsive would love.

    The community-and-ritual definitions work. They’re better. They include things like Football — I really genuinely believe that Monday Night Football *is* a religion, and should be analyzed historically as a religious phenomenon. So is High School Football.

    Modern “parody religions”, such as the Church of the SubGenius, which formally call for “belief” in open absurdities which are designed so that the followers will not truly believe them (rather than calling for belief in the hidden absurdities of “traditional” religion), have quite aggressively broken the belief-based definitions. But they fit really really well in the community-and-ritual definitions, Devivals and all.

    Now, I’m a non-believer. I think that by defining religion accurately, we see that belief is in fact *parasitic* to religion, and *damages* the core aspects of religion, by replacing a honest community with entertaining rituals with a dishonest community of people being brainwashed using rituals.

    The key component which you’ve missed in your previous aspect is the *ritual* component. If an institution has no significant ritual component, it’s not a religion. If, on the other hand, it is full of arbitrary rituals, and conformity with the rituals is of great importance for social acceptance, it’s a religion. Yes, Freemasonry was a religion. A lot of people seem to like groups defined by complex rituals — I don’t really know why. The church of the FSM attained genuine religious status when people started actually dressing up as pirates in religious observance, and doing it regularly.

    The supernatural component is neither the most important nor the uniquely defining characteristic of a religion. *The ritual practice is the most important and the uniquely defining characteristic of a religion*. What makes a Scientologist a Scientologist? The “auditing”.

    I am not sure whether religion itself is a bad thing — it certainly can be dangerous, leading to bigoted in-groups attacking people who don’t perform the right rituals. I am absoutely sure that attaching beliefs to religion is a bad thing; attaching ortho*doxy* to the more fundamental ritual orthopraxy amounts to mind control, rather than merely behavior control.

  43. 43
    nathanaelnerode

    Note that ACT-UP and the Harvey Milk Democratic Club have no ritual practice. Greenpeace mostly doesn’t either; though there was a period when the boat protests looked like that, it seems to have ended, which means it wasn’t ritual.

  44. 44
    nathanaelnerode

    Note further that people have (accurately, in my mind) talked about “civic religion” — which includes the idea that it is your ritual duty to vote (even if there are no contested races?) and serve on a jury and go to the fireworks for the Fourth of July and etc. etc.

  45. 45
    nathanaelnerode

    Another example: UU practice doesn’t really count people as UU unless they show up at UU churches regularly for services and participate in whatever social justice operation the UU is doing this month. That’s ritual.

  46. 46
    nathanaelnerode

    “if you ask any adherent of these religions (and I’m being generous with Confucianism and Taoism being completely separable institutions, since they have had a LONG history of intertwining, merging, borrowing, splitting, reconstituting, etc.) whether they engage in religious ritual, many will agree that they do. Furthermore, if you ask adherents (even casual ones) of these religions why these rituals exist, they will – almost every last one of them – point to some godhead or other source of divinity and worship (or veneration or observation or honor) of that source of divinity.”
    ….and, wrong. Theravada Buddhists will generally claim that the rituals are simply the “best way to live”. Arrogant and authoritarian but not particularly supernatural, worshipful, or veneration-oriented.

    The rituals are the key here, not the supernatural belief. Veneration is a popular form of ritual, but far, far from the only form. Modern “devotional” Hinduism engages in veneration, but the older “Brahmanic” Hinduism is all about, basically, magic spells; this is another common and older mix of belief and rituals, a (frequently non-theist) system where the rituals are believed to give humans magical power over the world. Ritual is the big thing which they both have. In fact, ritual is so key that at least one Confucian tradition emphasizes that you should practice the rituals to appease the ancestor spirits *even though the ancestor spirits don’t exist*. Hmm.

  47. 47
    jamessweet

    A complicating factor, of course, is that (in the US at least) there is a strong overlap between people who are vocal about the problems with MLB and the sport of baseball in general, and people who just don’t care for hot dogs, beer, and the National Anthem. It’s only natural, after all; people who are really into hot dogs, beer, and the National Anthem are going to be less inclined to look deeper and discover the deep contradictions and vast patriarchal abuses of baseball. But it does serve to confuse the issue even further.

  48. 48
    Paul W.

    Greta:

    Paul W., OM @ #37: I strongly disagree. I think it’s very clear which of these three things is “most essential.”

    Yikes. You are quite right. What I wrote there is not what I meant to say, and it makes no sense given what I say after that.

    I meant to say that that which of the other two features was more essential is unclear. My following comment was explaining why the supernatural thing is key, and not optional. (I agree with you on that—I don’t think there’s much wiggle room about the supernaturalism criterion. There is more wiggle room on the social and moral aspects.)

  49. 49
    heliconia

    Greta, I think this is a great analogy. It also made me laugh. I don’t particularly like baseball, but it’s the professional sport I’m most likely to buy a ticket to see. When I was an undergrad, my family usually took in a baseball game whenever they came to visit (I was in Toronto, the only Canadian city with an MLB team), so I’ve definitely come to associate baseball with spending time with family, eating hotdogs, drinking beer, and occasionally seeing an exciting play. (Not so much with the national anthem, being Canadian.) So many people seem to put up with religion for the same reason—the social/family bonding time and sense of community—whether they ascribe to the supernatural beliefs or not.

  50. 50
    Paul W.

    nathanielnerode:

    ….and, wrong. Theravada Buddhists will generally claim that the rituals are simply the “best way to live”. Arrogant and authoritarian but not particularly supernatural, worshipful, or veneration-oriented.

    The rituals are the key here, not the supernatural belief.

    As I understand Theravada, this is false. Theravadins generally buy the metaphysics of reincarnation, breaking the ten fetters to attain Nirvana, and breaking the cycle of rebirth and suffering. Even if some don’t, most do, and I think that’s one of the motivating and immunizing beliefs that keeps the religion a going social phenomenon.

    (I’m no expert, though. Wikipedia backs me up, but Wikipedia could be wrong too. It happens.)

    We may be differing on what counts as “supernatural” belief. I’m talking about dualism of pretty much any sort (or maybe anomalous monism or dual-aspect Idealism), e.g., with souls that can survive death to be reincarnated.

    I think that even if very austere, minimalism Buddhism does not explicitly require something like dualism, its plausibility and attractiveness typically depend on dualistic assumptions. Achieving nirvana is a lot less attractive if then you just cease to exist, and avoiding rebirth, attachment, and consequent suffering is not motivating if you don’t believe in rebirth anyhow.

    I also think that even among those practitioners who don’t believe any of those specific things, most think there’s Something More beyond the mundane physical aspects of the universe, in something like a dualistic sense—there’s typically a belief in Soul Wisdom of some kind that adepts are better at experiencing. That is one of the things that lends “factual” authority to the traditional practices. Beliefs generally matter.

    Buddhism is often combined with features of other religions with more floridly supernaturalistic ontologies, and almost always combined with at least some of them, at least a simple dualistic Something Moreism. I don’t think you can analyze Buddhism correctly without recognizing that—it’s part of what makes Buddhism tick as both a psychological phenomenon and a social one. I suspect that Buddhism as a religion would wither away if people stopped believing in anything like dualism.

    That should not be surprising, because people are naturally prone to dualistic thinking.

  51. 51
    Ani J. Sharmin

    Very good point, Greta.

  52. 52
    no

    @ umlud #5

    Your criticism of my comment is puzzling and difficult to respond to, since the things that you attribute to me are exactly the opposite of what I actually wrote. It looks like you only skimmed it and responded to some other similar-sounding argument that you’ve seen somewhere else. So I’m going to ignore the mis-aimed critique and respond to a separate point you made.

    Furthermore, if you ask adherents (even casual ones) of these religions why these rituals exist, they will – almost every last one of them – point to some godhead or other source of divinity and worship (or veneration or observation or honor) of that source of divinity.

    The argument that you suggested was a genetic fallacy. Adherents to religions at the present time don’t have to define their religion by its original beliefs. I’ll agree that it’s the historical origins that made a set of rituals and taboos into a religion, but some have evolved to the point that they do not require any commitment to supernatural beliefs.

    @ Greta Christina #17

    Are you really arguing that any institution that’s “institutionally bound together in attitudes, beliefs, and practices” is a religion?

    Of course not. That was just a dictionary definition I pulled for (failed) non-controversiality. There seems no good reason to believe that there even are any necessary or sufficient conditions for identifying religions based on their modern instantiation. What earns the designation “religion” looks like largely a historical accident.

    Thus the counterexamples to the “religion requires supernatural belief” condition that I listed in comment #5. Of course, as stated in the comment’s opening, I agree that your (Christina’s) condition is a broadly correct generalization. But the analogy you made gets its force from the condition being a necessary condition, not just a reliable association.

    FWIW, I think a more reliable association for religion is “taboos and rituals treated as being vital, together with their justifying ideology”. Even then there are counterexamples like revolutionary communism, which is certainly religion-like, but due to historical development of the terms involved, isn’t classed as a religion.

    @ Paul W., OM #50

    We may be differing on what counts as “supernatural” belief. I’m talking about dualism of pretty much any sort (or maybe anomalous monism or dual-aspect Idealism)…

    You have a point! The LessWrong community uses “ontologically basic mental entities” to describe the supernatural. Catholicism only uses “supernatural” to refer to things from God, and “preternatural” for other types of woo. I like this dictionary definition: “unexplainable by natural law or phenomena”, which sounds to me like a good generalization of what you said above.

  53. 53
    Jascollins

    Religion may be non-religious; “We mainly go for our kids”.
    It may be nontheistic; “I don’t know whether I really believe, but my prayer group is a bunch of really nice people.”
    It may have (or lack) any of a hundred other significators of being part of some granfalloon, “TRUE Presbyterian congregations are the ones who only use the Westminster Confession; adding the Catechisms is technically schismatic.”

    But what EVERY local congregation of whatever size has, is a tribal identity. These people live with each other, share each others’ joys and sorrows; they have a shared culture, a shared memory, and shared habits and rituals specific to their LOCAL congregation. “But we ALWAYS have a bake sale the Thursday before Easter!”

    That is what we need to find a way to build.

  54. 54
    beautdogs

    Greta, you’re a terminologist!

    I have seen this argument also, along with the claim that “atheism is a religion.” But while the meanings of words do change, one is not free to redefine commonly-understood terms to suit an argument. This whole thing rather reminds me of the scene in Alice In Wonderland, when she objected to Humpty Dumpty using the word “glory” in a completely idiosyncratic way.

    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.

    Most people have a very hard time distinguishing the defining characteristics of a concept from ancillary information about it. “But it’s important!” I hear from colleagues who want to include usage info or technical details in a definition for a term.

    A term loses its value in communication if it is not characterized by unique attributes. Religion might or might not include community and security and charity, but those are not defining attributes, at least not in the principal or literal sense of the term. The most important defining attribute involves a service or worship of a God or the supernatural (Merriam-Webster).

    There’s glory for you!

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