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Category: secularism

Talk the Talk: Blasphemy!

If you like Good Reason for the atheism, but not so much for the linguistics, then this episode of Talk the Talk might be for you. It’s about blasphemy, the recent Muslim film riots, and the need for Blasphemy Day (which is September 30 — get your costumes early!).

It’s a little soap-boxy, but I said what I wanted to say: The right to question — and even ridicule — religious ideas is important. There needs to be a way of saying, “This is a bad idea.” It’s wrong to give up that right just because it will hurt someone’s feelings. If someone is willing to resort to violence and murder when their ideas aren’t treated with kid gloves, then this is an admission that their ideas aren’t defensible using regular means, and are invalid. Muslims, I’m looking at you.

On the other hand not all religious people lose their shit when they get sent up. Even though I have no love for the Mormon Church, I do cite them as an example of how to respond to criticism and mockery.

It was fun to be a bit blasphemous on the radio, and it was fun to watch Jess Allen squirm more and more throughout the interview. The look on her face when she heard “Hasa Diga Eebowai” for the first time was truly priceless — I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: Here


Regular readers will notice a lull in the frequency of posting here on Good Reason. Part of that is that I got a new job that’s keeping me busy, but then I have been busy before. And lately I’ve felt like I’m running out of things to say. But it’s not really that.

Something’s been paining me about Movement Atheism. Elevatorgate was an uncomfortable wake-up call, but I managed to hit snooze. The recent TAM difficulty renewed my discomfort. In both cases, a female atheist blogger expressed perfectly reasonable discomfort with unwanted sexual attention, and was met with rape threats (from the most unhinged) or self-serving counter-arguments (from a lot of atheist guys). The casual and not-so-casual sexism of atheist guys really bugged me. Weren’t we progressive thinkers? Why was this going so wrong? And then Thunderf00t’s actions on Freethought Blogs gave me a rising sense that something bad was happening to my movement. This made it easy not to blog. I was busy, after all. I had other things to do. And it hurt to watch, so I turned away. In the words of Leonard Cohen, I ached in the places where I used to play.

So I was encouraged by this blog post by Jen McCreight.

I don’t want good causes like secularism and skepticism to die because they’re infested with people who see issues of equality as mission drift. I want Deep Rifts. I want to be able to truthfully say that I feel safe in this movement. I want the misogynists, racists, homophobes, transphobes, and downright trolls out of the movement for the same reason I wouldn’t invite them over for dinner or to play Mario Kart: because they’re not good people. We throw up billboards claiming we’re Good Without God, but how are we proving that as a movement? Litter clean-ups and blood drives can only say so much when you’re simultaneously threatening your fellow activists with rape and death.

It’s time for a new wave of atheism, just like there were different waves of feminism. I’d argue that it’s already happened before. The “first wave” of atheism were the traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics. Then came the second wave of “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens, whose trademark was their unabashed public criticism of religion. Now it’s time for a third wave – a wave that isn’t just a bunch of “middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men” patting themselves on the back for debunking homeopathy for the 983258th time or thinking up yet another great zinger to use against Young Earth Creationists. It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.

Ah, the Second Wave. Remember that? Coming out as an New Atheist, and not afraid to say it. Heady days. And remember how we used to feel like we were on solid ground when we said that ‘atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in gods’? Except when you looked around at other atheists, that wasn’t really true. We really did have other things in common besides just our lack of belief. We were attracted to a constellation of issues, including skepticism, secularism, science, political progressivism, and (pretty uniformly) equality for LGBT people.

I see this third wave — or as a commenter on Jen’s thread dubbed it, A+ — as a simple way of acknowledging that atheism can incorporate positive values, including social justice and gender equality. It can go beyond what I call ‘mere atheism’ and reflect the values that atheism draws us toward, but does not necessarily encompass.

An example of how this works: How do we get from atheism to respect for LGBT people? Many times I’ve seen atheists complain about LGBT posts on Reddit: “How did this get here? What does this have to do with atheism?” Well, not much to do with ‘mere atheism’, but a lot to do with actual atheism. It may be partly “the enemy of my enemy” thinking; religions have had gay people oppressed and killed, we don’t accept the right of religions to do this; ergo, we oppose it. And just as Richard Dawkins’ use of the ‘coming out’ metaphor has been apt in the case of atheists, we feel like our lack of societal acceptance and even ostracism from our families helps us make common cause with LGBT people, who endure much of the same.

So how do we get from atheism to acceptance of women as equals, deserving of respect? I see a clear line from skepticism to feminism. To be a skeptic is to constantly remind yourself that you may be wrong, that you need to keep revising your accepted beliefs, and there’s always more that you could be a little more skeptical about. Well, I’ve realised that I can do better at challenging my attitudes about sexism. Oh, but I don’t consider myself a sexist person, right? Maybe sexists never do. And if I’m truly not a sexist — if I’ve incorporated that value so thoroughly into my thoughts and actions — then why not say so?

So I’m saying so. I’m stepping beyond ‘mere atheism’ and reaching out for that third wave: A+. In some ways, it’s quite natural to do so, and in other ways, I can tell I’m going to have to do a lot of listening, thinking, and updating. But as a skeptical atheist, I can do that.

High Court Challenge to the chaplaincy upheld!

Great news — the Australian High Court has upheld Ron Williams’ challenge to the National School Chaplaincy Program.

Backstory for international readers: Back in 2006, then-Prime-Minister John Howard started the NCSP in an effort to funnel federal money to churches and give religionists unfettered access to kids in public schools. Unbelievably, the supposedly atheist Julia Gillard voted to expand the scheme.

The High Court has smacked the chaplaincy program down, but perhaps not for the best reasons. They rejected the notion that the NCSP violated the separate of church and state, but they upheld the complaint that the government shouldn’t fund it. Which is almost as good — starve the beast, right?

This is a great win for secularism and democracy and a huge fuck you to Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, and Peter Garrett. And of course, for all the unqualified evangelical pastors suddenly robbed of their audience, who will be crying in their beer tonight. A huge finger to them all.

How about throwing some dough to Ron Williams’ legal fund, eh?

Global Atheist Con, Day 2: A.C. Grayling

A.C. Grayling is a philosopher, and the author of “The Good Book”.

The title of his talk was “What Next for Atheism?” We’re seeing a swelling in our ranks, but how do we make sure this healthy atheist trend continues? Grayling suggests three ways:

  • Metaphysical debate, where we talk about rationality and evidence,
  • Secularism, where we discuss the role of the religious voice in public life
  • And most importantly, ethics, which involves how we live our lives and how we make decisions about our relationships.

Metaphysical Debate

Grayling suggested some ways that we can talk about religion to show how vacuous it is.
Instead of ‘God’, try substituting ‘Fred’.

Who made the universe? Fred. 

I have a deep personal relationship… with Fred.

Another suggestion (that I customarily use myself) is to refer to ‘gods and goddesses’.

I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in gods and goddesses

You can be moral without having to believe in gods. (And so on.)

This job involves getting people (especially children) to think critically. We can do this, says Grayling, by inviting people to think about the history of religions, and whether that justifies the case for them. Religions customarily obscure the facts about their past. Consider how the Church of England (and many others) have abandoned hell, and the Roman Catholic Church has abandoned limbo. I’ve seen this in the LDS Church as they’ve changed or abandoned doctrines with little fanfare and less detail, hoping no one would notice or remember. (It’s that memory hole again.) Grayling observes that this amnesia is very useful to them because it allows them to present themselves well. Religions, he says, are like the Greek god Proteus who could change his shape; Menelaus (or Aristaeus, or both) could only conquer Proteus by holding onto him tenaciously until, having gone through all his changes, he was exhausted. You just have to hang onto them until they get tired.

Yes, the religious will complain when we engage in metaphysical debate. But even this represents a positive change. A modern atheist could say, “When you guys were in power, you didn’t argue with us; you just burned us at the stake. Now when we present challenging arguments, you complain.”


Religious people have the right to believe what they like, and to make their voices heard in the public square, says Grayling. But their influence is currently out of proportion to the number of actual believers. With bishops sitting in the House of Lords, and money going to ‘faith schools’, religion should see themselves as they are: “Lobby groups!” Like trade unions and other interest groups, we shouldn’t be paying for them — they should be supporting themselves. Grayling says this is a point we should be making constantly.

Grayling related how, in debates, there are frequently four clergymen on the panel, and then him, the lone atheist. There are four of them because they can’t agree with each other. And yet they’re willing to make common cause… because they want the public money.


Grayling points out that religious people think they have a social area of morality and human experience cordoned off for themselves, and they claim that they own those things. We need to take back possesson of them.

Religions teach that all the good things come from gods, and all the bad things come from us. In fact, all the things come from us, and there’s no need for mumbo-jumbo.

So in closing, Grayling outlined the way forward for atheism:

  • Challenge the claims of religion, challenge their history, pin them down about what they think
  • Demand that voices in the square are proportionate to their actual participation, and
  • Take back human experience.

Global Atheist Con, Day 2: Leslie Cannold

Leslie Cannold is a writer, activist, and the author of “The Book of Rachel”. Her talk: Separating Church and State: A Call to Action.

It’s one of those funny paradoxes that Americans seem super-religious, when their constitution has provisions for the separation of church and state — and what’s more important, that separation gets upheld in court. Australia, however, allows lots of religious stuff past the legal barriers — and Australians are largely secular. The net effect is that Australia does not really achieve a separation of church and state.

Cannold compared the relevant bits of each country’s constitution. Let’s start with Australia:

Section 116: The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

And the USA:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

Both texts read about the same. The difference is that of implementation. In USA, courts have a tradition of “reading it up”, so that an action is prohibited unless it’s explicitly okay. In Australia, they “read it down”, so that it’s okay unless it’s explicitly prohibited. That means a lot of religious stuff gets in.

The difference between the two methods of implementation shows up in two landmark cases, both of which involved the role of the government in promoting religion in schools: McCollum v Board of Education (USA, 1948)

“For the First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere. Or, as we said in the Everson case, the First Amendment had erected a wall between Church and State which must be kept high and impregnable.”

and The Dog’s Case (Australia, 1981), in which one Justice said:

[Section 116] cannot readily be viewed as the repository of some broad statement of the principle concerning the separation of church and state from which may be distilled the detailed consequences of such separation.

What this means is that Australian taxpayers pay to promote religions:

  • religious festivals (millions of dollars for World Youth Day)
  • canonisations ($1.5 million in the case of Mary McKillop)
  • tax breaks for churches
  • private schools
  • and exposing kids to religion via chaplains

Cannold actually has no objection to Religious Education taught by teachers. However, at the moment we have a situation where access to high school students is thrown open to what can only be described as evangelists. Here’s the head of Access Ministries:

“There is enormous amount of christian ministry going on in our schools, both at state level and at at national level, both at government and non-government schools, but we must ask how much of that ministry is actually resulting in christian conversion and discipleship growing”

“Our Federal and State Governments allow us to take the Christian faith into schools. We need to go and make disciples.”

In Cannold’s view, Australia is a soft theocracy. Politicians feign religiosity because they think it will get them votes. Our Prime Minister (who Fiona Patten calls a “non-practicing atheist“) has given religions everything they’ve wanted.

So what can we do?

Cannold emphasises that “we” includes the non-faith community and some religious believers who can’t stand this trend and who consider faith a private matter. We need to find them and form coalitions.

Here are some simple suggestions from Cannold.

Join the Facebook group for Australians for Separation of Church & State
Help with the Australian University Freethought Alliance.
Donate to Ron Williams. He’s single-handedly mounting a challenge against the chaplaincy, and the legal costs are climbing. Throw him some dough.
Engage in web-based advocacy
Build alliances with teachers. There are teachers who agree that scripture shouldn’t be taught in school, but after school. Opt-in, not opt-out.

And foremost — we need to admit that we do not have a secular state in Australia. We think of ourselves as secular and non-religious, and we are. But we’re also kind of conflict-averse, and we need to stop that.

Why are atheists so rude?

It was Orientation Day on campus. People can sign up for clubs (including the UWA Atheist and Skeptic Society), and there are always tons of church groups doing their schtick. So I like to see what’s out there.

Here’s a conversation I had. It went pretty much just like this.

The atheist temple

The big news in atheism this week: Alain de Botton wants to build an atheist temple. Which seems strange — atheism isn’t a religion, so why would it need to borrow religion’s trappings? I think de Botton tipped his hand, though, in this pronouncement:

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build a 46-metre tower to celebrate a ”new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Richard Dawkins’s ”aggressive” and ”destructive” approach to non-belief.

Rather than attack religion, Mr de Botton said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life.

”Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” he said. ”That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective … Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, atheism has become known as a destructive force.

Destructive force? For me, Dawkins and Hitchens are two guys who have come to epitomise well-tempered reason, intelligence, and courage in the face of mortality, so de Botton’s criticism doesn’t ring true for me. I’d like to suggest a little test which I’ll call the S.E. Cupp test: When someone says they’re an atheist, do they spend more time promoting atheism, or castigating other atheists because of their tone? If the latter, then what’s the difference between them and a theist?

Dawkins has called the project a waste of funds, PZ says it’s a monument to hubris.

Me? I say it’s redundant. We already have a temple. I was there earlier this month. Or, at least, at one of them.

The atheist temple I went to was the Temple of Knowledge, and it’s better known as the New York Public Library.

It gots lions.

Why would I call it an atheist temple? Because it’s filled with the work of people. People; not gods. People (and you can see them there every day) engaged in the process of gathering knowledge and combining it to make new knowledge. This is the goal of science, which is an atheistic form of reasoning.

I walked along its halls of solid marble, where generations of humans have come to read and learn.

No gothic arches, these. How could you help but be in awe of not just the building, but the building’s purpose?

Like a temple, the magnificent Reading Room prompts a hush. 

And the people who built this place — yeah, they were tycoons who made their money from the skins of small furry animals. But they wanted to build a place where the knowledge of the world could be preserved, and they cared enough to make it amazing. And they inscribed this on the walls, in letters big enough for anyone to read:

“On the diffusion of education
among the people
rest the preservation
and perpetuation
of our free institutions.”

I read that, and I think, you know, they got it. They really got it! Even back then. Our society depends on education. Our freedom depends on it. You can’t preserve freedom in a population of ignoramuses; they’ll just tear it down again the instant they feel afraid. It’s such an alien concept in this age, when one political party has dedicated itself to the destruction of the Department of Education, and (through homeschooling) constantly works to undermine the public school system so that children will be protected from education. It seems like a quaint and noble sentiment, but we need to relearn this thinking that came from better minds than ours. Just as we need another quaint and antiquated notion symbolised by libraries: the public good.

But that’s not all I saw. There were treasures.

Holy shit! It’s a Gutenburg Fucking Bible! One of only 40 perfect ones left. Yes, it’s a bible because for some reason, people thought the Bible was important back then. But what this book did was make reading and publishing commonplace. That’s much more important than the book’s rather poor contents.

And check this out: it’s Christopher Robin’s toys! That’s not just Winnie a Pooh — it’s Winnie THE Pooh. And the others! It was great to see them there, even though it made me think of Toy Story 2. I look at Tigger and realise that Ernest Shepard really nailed it.

These are clay tokens with cuneiform on them, some of the earliest writing that people ever used. That made it possible for people to transmit knowledge over generations.

And while I was in this Library, I felt so connected to people in other ages and to the future. It was a feeling that I can only describe as spiritual, even though I don’t like that word. But it was the same feeling that I felt in the old religion but more intense and meaningful.

You can keep your paltry theist cathedrals. Do not copy Mormon temples — they are monuments to superstition and foolishness. Let St Patrick’s fall. Instead, build a library, Mr de Botton, or an observatory, or a university, or a museum. They’re the only temples that atheists have any business building.

Actually, St. Patrick’s will make a very nice reading room in about 100 years.

The yearly War on Christmas email from my family

A family member has sent this rather long and well-circulated email.

Apparently the White House referred to Christmas Trees as Holiday Trees for the first time this year which prompted CBS presenter, Ben Stein, to present this piece which I would like to share with you. I think it applies just as much to many countries as it does to America .

The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary.

My confession:

I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees, Christmas trees. I don’t feel threatened. I don’t feel discriminated against. That’s what they are, Christmas trees.

It doesn’t bother me a bit when people say, ‘Merry Christmas’ to me. I don’t think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn’t bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a creche, it’s just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from, that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship celebrities and we aren’t allowed to worship God ? I guess that’s a sign that I’m getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from and where the America we knew went to.
– – – – –
In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it’s not funny, it’s intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham’s daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her ‘How could God let something like this happen?’ (regarding Hurricane Katrina).. Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, ‘I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?’

In light of recent events… terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O’Hare (she was murdered, her body found a few years ago) complained she didn’t want prayer in our schools, and we said OK. Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn’t spank our children when they misbehave, because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock’s son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he’s talking about. And we said okay.

Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with ‘WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.’

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world’s going to hell. Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. Funny how you can send ‘jokes’ through e-mail and they spread like wildfire, but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing. Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing yet?

Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit.

If not, then just discard it…. no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don’t sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.

My Best Regards, Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I sent this back:

As the atheist of the family, I thought I’d respond.

There seems to be some idea floating around that atheists hate Christmas and want to stop it. Well, that’s just silly. I love Christmas! In fact, for the last ten years, I’ve been in a choir that puts on a big Christmas show. (Some of the other singers are atheists, and they like Christmas too.) I’ve got most of Handel’s Messiah memorised, and when we do “Angels We Have Heard on High”, I can belt out a lusty “Glo-ria” with the best of them. I don’t believe the story, but I keep singing at Christmas because I like the music. I like the lights, and the food, and being with family, just like everyone does.

What I don’t like, however, is compulsory worship. Christians like their religion, and that’s fine. But I don’t like how some Christians have decided that schools are the place where they want this part of the culture war to play out. I hope nobody I’m writing to thinks this, but maybe someone thinks that prayer in school is a pretty good idea. So here’s a thought experiment.

Imagine your school district announced that, starting tomorrow, everyone was going to have Muslim prayers to Allah. If you’re thinking, “Gee, I don’t know if I’d feel very comfortable with that,” well, that’s about how an atheist feels. And that’s not just because atheists don’t want to have prayers to Allah in school (although that’s true). It’s also because we think public schools ought to be neutral on the subject of religion. That way, the children of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Wiccans, Mormons, and (yes) atheists all get a level playing field. No one’s religion is promoted at the expense of anyone else’s. Sounds fair to me. And by doing it that way, schools are obeying the Constitution, which is the law of the land.

If people (including Ben Stein) are concerned that there isn’t enough religion in society, then I have some good news: there are already buildings for teaching religion, and they’re called churches. They’re very nice, they’re already built, and you can choose exactly which kind you like. (And they’re tax-free, because tax-payers are compelled to pick up the financial burden for churches, even wealthy ones, whether they want to or not.) Worshipping at home is also a very good option.

I don’t know if I really needed to write this. I actually think that most Christians are smarter and more fair-minded than the person who wrote the latter half of the email (and it wasn’t Ben Stein). The idea that God is going to allow the nation to be smitten with horrible disasters unless enough non-believers are compelled to grovel before him against their will is, fortunately, not an idea that I have seen too many Christians get behind. But here it is, just in case.

Comments welcome.


Action Item: Support school secularism

There’s a primary school in Perth called Edgewater Primary. For 25 years, they forced students to say the “Lord’s Prayer” at school assemblies. Now, they’ve dropped it.

A WEST Australian government school has banned students from reciting the Lord’s Prayer before assembly in response to complaints from parents.

Edgewater Primary School, in Perth’s north, ended the 25-year practice after some parents said it contravened the WA Education Act, which stipulates schools cannot favour one religion over another.

“We acknowledge that of the parents who did respond to the survey, many wanted to retain the Lord’s Prayer and it is right that we continue to recite it at culturally appropriate times such as Christmas and Easter, as part of our educational program,” [Edgewater principal Julie Tombs] said in a statement.

“However, at this school we have students from a range of backgrounds and it is important to consider all views and not promote one set of religious beliefs and practices over another.”

Good on them. They made the right call.

But some people of faith are foaming about it.

A state primary school in Perth has been inundated with hate mail after deciding to drop the recital of the Lord’s Prayer at assemblies.

The Education Department says the Edgewater Primary School has received letters, emails and abusive phone calls from people around Australia, venting their anger at the decision.

The President of the Western Australian Primary Principals’ Association Stephen Breen says the complaints have been vengeful.

“We are getting comments like I’ll meet you in the grave, you know real loony stuff,’ he said.

“I don’t want to go on to it too much, but the receptionist is receiving phone calls and then people are slamming down the phone. It’s just gone over the top.”

I can understand that they’re not happy about losing their cultural hegemony, but as Australia and the world become more secular, it’s something they’re going to have to come to terms with.

In the meantime, I’ve written the school an email.

I just wanted to offer my support and tell you that I think your school made the right call. People can practice what religion they like, but it’s not fair for a public school to promote one religion over another. Keeping religion out of schools means that everyone’s religion is on an equal footing, and that’s good for everyone, religious or not. Good work.

If you’d like to convey your support, their email is

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