No, Atheists Don't Have to Show "Respect" for Religion

Progressive believers often ignore religious differences in the name of tolerance. But this ecumenicalism promotes anti-atheist hostility and shows a disregard for the truth.

“Can’t we all just get along?”

Among progressive and moderate religious believers, ecumenicalism is a big deal. For many of these believers, being respectful of religious beliefs that are different from theirs is a central guiding principle. In this view, different religions are seen as a beautifully varied tapestry of faith: each strand with its own truths, each with its own unique perspective on God and its own unique way of worshipping him. Her. It. Them. Whatever. Respecting other people’s religious beliefs is a cornerstone of this worldview… to the point where criticizing or even questioning anyone else’s religious belief is seen as rude and offensive at best, bigoted and intolerant at worst.

And this ecumenical approach to religion drives many atheists up a tree.

Including me.


Don’t atheists want a world where everyone’s right to their own religious views — including no religious views — is universally acknowledged? Don’t we want a world with no religious wars or hatreds? Don’t we want a world where a diversity of perspectives on religion is accepted and even embraced? Why would atheists have any objections at all to the principles of religious ecumenicalism?

Oh, let’s see. Where shall I begin?


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, No, Atheists Don’t Have to Show “Respect” for Religion. To find out why on earth any atheist would object to the idea of interfaith respect, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

No, Atheists Don't Have to Show "Respect" for Religion

37 thoughts on “No, Atheists Don't Have to Show "Respect" for Religion

  1. 1

    I have had people say to me that because I am an atheist that I could not possibly have ethics and morals. Other people have said that because I have morals and ethics, I could not be an atheist. Go figure!

  2. 2

    I guess that means that they think you’re lying, which means you have no morals or ethics, which means you are an atheist after all, which means you were not lying originally, which means you do have morals and ethics….

  3. 3

    Your latest article on Alternet does not take one Scientific theory into account. I speak of the “Multiverse theory” a byproduct of M-theory (M stands for Membrane in this case) and this theory proposes infinite parallel universes all with different laws of Physics. Perhaps in one of these God did in fact create our flat Earth on Oct 23rd 4004BC. Now that would be weird. I hope I don’t live in that one 🙂

  4. 4

    On this related note, I’ve actually had more genuine *conflict* with liberal religious friends than the handful of religious conservatives I’ve been on friendly terms with. Mostly because they seem to feel I owe them agreement with their weird and mostly-silly beliefs. Or at least the acknowledgement that their weird-and-mostly-silly-beliefs are just as likely to be true as the conclusions I’ve come to based on reason and evidence.
    (A common exchange follows the script:
    [Friend asserts something premised on the truth of their religious ideas]
    [Azzy shrugs or politely demurs or avoids the subject]
    [Friend is reminded Azzy is an atheist, brings up an ostensibly miraculous event and asks “come on, what other explanation can there be?!”]
    [Azzy offers another explanation]
    [“UGH, you are JUST AS FUNDAMENTALIST as the religious right! Why are you so CLOSED-MINDED?!”]
    (I have subsequently re-evaluated my working definition of “friend.” >.>)

  5. 5

    Yes, this drives me up a wall too…
    There are few very fundamental Christians (or other religions) here in Sweden. But there are a lot of newagey vague ‘somethingoutthereism’ beliefs, and the few religious people there are, are more often of the kind you describe in this article. I’ve met a fundamentalistic Christian (young earth creationist) in real life exactly once in my whole 40 year old life (and he was from the USA temporary working in Sweden). So this kind of beliefs and views on the world is the one I most frequently run into.
    Most of my friends and family are not, and have never been, Christians, or religious, but they have a lot of spiritual and newage belifes, and I run into much the same ideas about tolerance with them – until I say I don’t believe in ANY of it… then I meet the same reaction. Tolerance for my views is completely out the window then.

  6. 6

    Greta, I think you hit the nail on the head here, with respect to why I find the commenters on Alternet so despicable (and I do: not just wrong, not just annoying, but despicable): hypocrisy.
    The hypocrisy of instituting a big circle-jerk, and talking up the “tolerance and respect” angle to no end, all the while being grossly and arrogantly intolerant of anyone who does not agree with them (because they will only tolerate and respect disagreement along very narrow pre-conceived lines). It is hypocrisy, naked and blatant, and even while I could not put a name to it, I hated it.

  7. 7

    I see the Alternet commentators are in usual form. The irony of “liberal” commentators engaging in full bore privilege induced rage never fails to give me grim amusement.

  8. 8

    Perhaps in one of these God did in fact create our flat Earth on Oct 23rd 4004BC.

    Eh, not really The simplest many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics only supports universes with the same physical laws as ours. There’s other ones where things like the fine structure constant itself is a quantum fluctuation “frozen in” to the structure of the universe via inflation, and thus there could be universes where it is different to ours (leading to different relative strengths of various fundamental forces and all that follows from there), but these are… well, problematic from a parsimony point of view. There’s no coherent many-worlds/multiverse theory where universes can contain absolutely anything at all (like, say, an omnipotent deity who thinks what a bunch of upright apes do with their reproductive organs is cosmically important). “If you can imagine it, it exists somewhere out there” is fun to think about, but it’s pure conjecture, no more.

  9. 9

    Wow, that’s very well said. But at the same time, it’s my deeply held, personal, religious belief that I should keep the #1 most read spot on AlterNet, and you have to respect that or else you’re a Stalinist Nazi who’s hell-bent on destroying my wonderful faith. 😀

  10. 10

    Josh: 🙂 I am so glad I’m not the only AlterNet writer who gets competitive and pissy about the Top Ten list. I once had the Number One spot, and the Number Two was a piece by Chomsky, and I was all like, “Yeah! Take that! In your face, you commie bastard!”
    That being said: I will pwn you, you amoral, intolerant, tool of Satan! 🙂 (Actually, I probably won’t: if I haven’t yet made the Top Ten with this piece, I probably won’t. Still. Prepare for pwnage!)

  11. 11

    Thanks Greta;
    Another part of the problem; that both lukewarm-bathwater ecuminicals and blazing fundies are just too intellectually lazy and morally cowardly to attempt to understand the things they claim to believe.
    If you cloak other’s beliefs in a miasma of relativist fog, you can continue to root your own certainty in unexamined shallows. Most true beleives cannot articulate what they claim to believe.
    Ehrman suggest challenging Xians to narrate the last 3 days of Jesus’ life without contradicting the 4 gospels. This cannot be done, even by those who insist on ‘gospel truth’ as the ideal. Nor can mohammedans justify the tribal practices of FGM or Afghan ‘dancing boy’ slavery by the koran or hadith.
    Concerted ecumenical whishy-washism enables the worst evils of each and every sect.

  12. 13

    I think a lot of these more progressive believers don’t think their religious beliefs are contradictory. Rather, they see them as alternative ways of understanding what progressive Christian John Shelby Spong calls “the God experience.”
    Needless to say, it makes arguing with them more or less impossible as they don’t really have any definition for the God experience. Spong defines it as some nebulous ground of being and source of all things good and puppyful.

  13. 15

    On another blog, far far away, I commented that faith was the outcome of a process. You start with a predisposition to believe, you selectively accept information which confirms your bias, and after a cascade of reinforcing emotions you end up with a faith that is impervious to rational challenge. In other words faith is like a conspiracy theory. You mention similar to this in the article.
    Challenge a conspiracy theory and you get a full blast emotional reaction. Ecumenical efforts are like Birthers and AGW deniers huddling together. Rational argument meets unmodulated resistance.
    Religion is like a conspiracy theory, except that it has methods in place to recruit new believers.

  14. 16

    To be honest, I disagree. As someone who has moved from fundy to progressive religionist to my current religious state, which has a primary creed of
    “I don’t know. I am OK not knowing the answer to transcendant questions. I am just going to enjoy the journey I am on.”
    My experience with progressive religionists is not that just that they are tolerant of all religions, but that they are tolerant of all “worldviews” including atheistic ones.
    They think the Flying Spaghetti Monster is hilarious. For many of these people, the approach to life is that we all do what we can on this journey to make it as best as we can. Everyone should enjoy it and get meaning from it in the best way they can. If the best way to do that for you is to be an atheist, then good for you.
    I literally have never met a progressive christian who really disliked atheists. I’ve met tons who DESPISE fundamentalists though.

  15. 17

    I agree. We definitely don’t have to show respect for religion, as long as we show respect for other people. (And here’s the thing – I respect some religious people so much that I argue with them because I can’t stand to see them hurting their own minds by believing in the sorts of things they do.)

  16. 18

    Everyone should enjoy it and get meaning from it in the best way they can. If the best way to do that for you is to be an atheist, then good for you.

    That’s kind of a weird way of defining “the best way to find meaning”. You seem to be saying that the best way is whatever way the individual person finds most satisfying, but doesn’t it make a lot more sense to describe the way that most effectively figures out what’s actually true as the “best”?

  17. 19

    Greta, I just wanted to say how great your blog is. I read a few articles here and there from AlterNet links, but in the past few weeks have devoured most of your atheism, and some of your sex pieces, and they’re all wonderful.
    More importantly (for me) your blog was the final kick in the pants I needed to stop holding out for the day when someone was going to magically come along and pay me to write, and just get off my ass and friggin’ do it. For that, I am in your debt.
    Keep up the good work.
    (My blog: )

  18. 20

    I think the problem with Christianity (and probably Islam) is that it’s based on belief rather than behavior. I wouldn’t mind the progressive Christian types so much if they would simply admit that it’s a story that they happen to find meaningful and to have a sense of humor about how funny religious ritual can be.
    It might also help if they’d figure out that the word “god” is essentially meaningless. Many theists are so desperate to find common ground that they adopt what I call the No True Atheist position, in which you can only be an atheist if you believe that you are the most powerful being or force in the universe. Barring psychosis, I cannot imagine what would lead me to conclude that I’m more powerful than gravity, the weak nuclear force, or the ebola virus.
    The Boy Scouts of America definition of atheist is of exactly this type, amazingly enough – I am actually a Boy Scout leader, and my kids, who met Greta at Skepticon, are in various BSA programs. We’re also, obviously, outspoken critics of the discriminatory positions of the organization, which I think is useful because it makes sure that the kids hear something other than the BSA party line while they’re learning first aid and knots. A lot of the adults, unfortunately, are a lost cause – realizing this was what finally drove me out of a painfully accomodationist career of tone trolling.
    Recognizing that one’s religion is a myth and having a sense of humor about the emotional appeal (and even beauty) of religious rhetoric and ritual is not all that hard – plenty of non-Orthodox Jews are atheists of just this type, and it’s not even something that you have to be particularly quiet about.
    As a progressive atheist, I have a lot in common with progressive Christians. If we could talk about values and behavior instead of yammering about respect for silly practices and beliefs, we might be able to accomplish more.

  19. 21

    “I literally have never met a progressive christian who really disliked atheists.”
    I think it’s a little more common among moderate ecumenical types than among really progressive progressives.
    But still, I’ve heard a lot of “you’re just as bad as the fundamentalists” (actually, my mom gave me that one; it was kind of like this). I’ve also heard variations on “it’s OK to criticize fundamentalism, but not Christianity in general”. This is also something one gets from True Christians, who are fine with atheists criticizing any interpretation of the Bible except their own.

  20. 22

    I literally have never met a progressive christian who really disliked atheists.
    As I said, it doesn’t have to be only Christians, but also many believers in different kind of new agey stuff as well. Yes, they are usually fine with atheists… until you get in a discussion with them (a discussion they often initiate) and they realize that atheism actually isn’t a ‘path to find ‘whatever’ that we have chosen because it feels so good for us, but that most of the time it’s a rejection of all these beliefs (and most certainly theirs).
    Most atheists are not atheist because it’s “the best way to enjoy life and get meaning out of it”. Most are atheists because we don’t see a shred of evidence of something like gods, or any supernatural entities and phenomena. How that makes us feel, or if it gives us any meaning is irrelevant to what is most likely the truth! Then it is another question that that doesn’t stop you from enjoying life and see meaning in it. Atheism in no way hinders that, and are fully compatible with a lot of views on life that sure does – but that’s not why.
    That’s usually when the tolerant believers are not so tolerant to us anymore… They have presented you with their tolerance: “All paths are fine, including atheism”, and they don’t feel they get the same tolerance back when this very idea in itself is also rejected, and then we’re sort of fair game.
    Even though my rejection of it in a discussion of what I think about these things doesn’t in any way include that I think they don’t have to the right to their view (of course they do), they often get very provoked by it.
    It’s basically “whatever feels good” versus “whatever is true regardless of how it feels”, which could mean that they see it as us rejecting tolerance when we don’t agree on this.

  21. 23

    While I don’t consider myself to be an Atheist I also don’t believe in any make believe god out there that many are brainwashed into believing in from birth, Like it says in my sidebar, “I am a spiritual being having a screwed up human experience here.” I believe that I’m part of the living spirit of this planet, but that it’s a spirit only, not some omnipotent god and creator.
    And all these fools that keep brainwashing their next generations of children are not doing this planet any favors.

  22. 24

    Okay, Billy—but, apropos of Maria’s comment immediately preceding yours, I hope you’re not discomfited if/when atheists tell you that we find the notion of a “living spirit of this planet” that you’re part of to be just as dubious (to the extent it makes coherent sense at all) as the “make believe gods” you disdain.

  23. 25

    /yawn the vagaries of the dark ages come back to haunt us, how will we ever hope to moved forward being burdened by the past…why can’t we just learn from our mistakes and put all this silly mystical nonsense behind us…while I have no allusions to overthrow anyones power structure I can’t help but think they need to marginalized at every opportunity…they’re just dangerous to ideas and life ugh why does the human brain have to be so variable its maddening sometimes…mmm merlot

  24. 26

    I’m willing to give the “living spirit of the planet” a break as long as it stays as Einsteinian pantheism (which, as Dawkins astutely points out, is functionally indistinguishable from atheism). The problem is that it seldom seems to stay that way and can morph into a crazy dictator god alarmingly easily.
    I believe in gravity and the carbon cycle. Among other things. I’m even willing, for the purpose of reading ancient literature, to stick the difficult to comprehend details of those phenomena into the “god” word. But it’s a metaphor and I say so explicitly and often.

  25. 27

    Sorry, Billy, but there’s no more evidence for a “living spirit of this planet” than there is for any other sort of god. The overwhelming evidence is that consciousness is a biological product of the brain… and the planet does not have a brain. And consciousness does not come from a supernatural spirit: it comes, again, from the brain.

  26. 28

    My experience with progressive religionists is not that just that they are tolerant of all religions, but that they are tolerant of all “worldviews” including atheistic ones.

    I’m glad for you. But that has not been my experience at all. Or rather: My experience with progressive religionists is that they are tolerant of atheists… until we start talking about our atheism, and explaining why we’re atheists, and discussing the problems we have with religion, and so on. At which point, they start calling us intolerant and bigoted and so on, and the “shut up, that’s why” arguments start coming out.

  27. gdl

    I think this misses the point of ecumenicism, which isn’t usually to defend or discuss God.
    They usually occur in the context of civil religion – where there are efforts to reduce bigotry and violence and increase understanding. There are often bland affirmations, but these are made for the purpose of increasing understanding. They have the impact of mitigating the edges and the balkanization of religious communities.
    It need not be that atheists get excluded. In my own interfaith organization, the Ethical Culture society held a position of leadership. But their position, although atheistic, remained one of magnanimity toward us faithful rather than hostility.
    I think that your emphasis on “truth” is reductionistic. That there is no God is one sort of propositional statement.
    Other true statements might be more pedestrian: Church is where the family goes; prayer makes me feel better; I like to sing – etc. Not everyone chooses, nor must they, to have everything they believe vetted by others. They are allowed to vet them themselves.

  28. 30

    The article reminded me of the time I attended YearlyKos. There were two panels on the religious right run by progressive Christians. What really got me was when they said that atheists should shut up and let them fight for our rights, because it is offensive for atheists to speak out.
    I’m not going to let other groups speak for me. That’s as silly as asking African Americans to be quiet and let a special group of Caucasians speak for them.

  29. 31

    I agree with Greta and Maria’s comments above.
    Liberal christians may not dislike us as people, but once we enter into a discussion with them and they learn that we don’t agree with their special snowflake, they become irritated, and either overtly or passively hostile.
    For those christians who are suffciently perceptive, our very existence seems to shake the pillars of their social orthodoxy, and on some level tells them that they have an emotional stake in a false idea that is central to their worldview.
    On a related note, it goes without saying that religion attempts to influence politics and our legal system.
    But I wonder if, paradoxically, our largely secular political and legal systems work to soften, to moderate, to modernize religious beliefs and values. So that in 50 years, christianity in america will be more like the Church of England. Wishful thinking? Perhaps.

  30. 32

    “There are often bland affirmations, but these are made for the purpose of increasing understanding. They have the impact of mitigating the edges and the balkanization of religious communities.”
    True, but we hit a bit of a snag when this takes the form of an affirmation like “We’re all working towards a better understanding of God.” or other loaded language regarding the bolstering of “spirituality” or “faith”. You can have religious groups X, Y, and Z, all of which are members of group B, the group of all believers. You can heal divisions between X, Y, and Z by appealing to their shared parts and experience in, and loyalty to, group B. But sometimes this comes at a price to us atheists who aren’t in group B and don’t want to be; we remain outsiders, sometimes perceived as a shared enemy setting up roadblocks to other people’s attempts to strengthen their faith.
    It’s good that your experience involved an atheist society being treated well. Understand, however, that many of us have experience with people who spouted all the lovely corny ecumenical affirmations about how we’re all in it together and can get along if we really try, and then turned around and treated atheism like the plague. There’s a particular (perhaps over-hyped, but still fascinating) study on this topic (the same one that showed atheists to be the one of the least trusted groups in America).
    “Not everyone chooses, nor must they, to have everything they believe vetted by others. They are allowed to vet them themselves.”
    This is somewhat of a privilege not granted to atheists. Mentioning off-hand that one does not believe in God, or is active in atheist organizations, is often taken as an invitation to have one’s beliefs criticized.
    In any case, the idea is not to set out to be disrespectful to all theists at every opportunity. The idea is to not allow respect for a false idea to get in the way of legitimate discussions, such as if theology is the actual topic up for discussion, or the impact of religion on politics, society, science, civil rights… or even one’s personal life. If a person has a bad experience with religion, they shouldn’t be blamed for saying that they were treated badly by some group or doctrine.

  31. 33

    Brilliant and concisely written!
    I highly recommend that everyone read this article from beginning to end.
    One of my own presuppositions when I read the title was that this piece was going to seek to justify or support rude behavior by atheists when they engage religious adherents in debate and discussion.
    While it is true that how we treat each other during debate (no matter our world view) is always an important topic, I share Christina’s perspective that atheists can fully engage in these sorts of discussions respectfully and civilly without having to be reverent to or respectful of the actual religious claims we are discussing.
    I also share her aggravation with the liberal and moderate theists (what I have referred to as the “mystics”, “fence-sitters” and “water jugglers”) promoting a ecumenical attitude toward religion and the assorted religious opinions that folks have about reality in plain view…except when it comes to atheists who arrive at this multi-cultural macarena by flatly stating that not only does the Emperor have no clothes, there is no proof that the Emperor even exists.
    In fact, after nearly a half century on this earth, I have found that a proactive and vocal civility to be the finest way to gain knowledge and attain clarity from a topic that is all too often steeped in the dark cloud of taboo while being protected from critical analysis by men in gowns and fancy hats.
    Remaining silent either implied consent or encouraged stagnation and apathy, so I would hope that the liberals and moderates come to understand that atheists are very valuable when it comes to participating in the open and ecumenical marketplace of ideas.
    To be clear, I respect anyone’s right to faithfully believe in anything that they want, in fact, I wholeheartedly defend that right.
    Consistent with that right and equally so, atheists also have the right to critically analyze such faiths, refute them, reject them and not respect them as, if applicable, such beliefs don’t have evidence to support the veracity of the many claims that are, by default, made from faith alone.
    Steve Schlicht
    Biloxi MS

  32. Gdl

    @Sean – just a couple notes.
    First, I’ve rarely been to an interfaith gathering where we talk about God. If anything, even if there weren’t atheists there, it would make most religious leaders uncomfortable. I have been to some where there’s conversation about what people do believe, but the perspective is one of discovery rather than judgment. I can see why atheists would flee at such a sentiment. Clearly you engage in interfaith events that are much different than my own.
    It’s also true that yes, there is some hesitation among theists about thinking atheists would put up a roadblock to faith. But I’m perplexed that you might would not try to do this. Isn’t that exactly what the point is: to ridicule, counter, challenge and eliminate the constructs of faith?
    And about the study: what’s interesting to me is that it’s not actually the non-belief that’s the problem. It’s the mental association that atheists are either Randians (as in Ayn Rand) or Stalinists. This seems more of a PR problem than one of belief, and I admit, it should be frustrating. The most public Atheists in the 20th century ended up being tyrants rather than liberals.
    As far as privilege goes, I think that there should be more atheists in the public sphere. But I am skeptical that there will ever be a time when there aren’t a few people who don’t get offended, either by belief, or unbelief. In these cases, I think a thick skin is beneficial. I personally don’t see that atheists are actively persecuted in this country (most of my family are atheists and have done quite well). Granted, I was, most of my life, surrounded by urbane unbelievers, of whom my faith is a rare curiosity.
    There is a political dimension to this. If atheists want to challenge religious public institutions on policy issues, then there will undoubtedly be political fights. But in a democracy, that’s the way it goes. If a non-believer actively supported the work of churches (as our agnostic founding fathers did), I suspect there would be less antagonism.
    I suspect Christina has done most of her research on the internet. This is much different than previous generations when mainline protestants were active in protecting the separation of church and state. In a time when unbelievers participated in church life, the culture were much different.
    Last, I do think there is a difference between challenging strange ideas and respecting persons who have them. Although it seems like a parallel to the Christian statement “love the sinner, hate the sin,” I wonder if Christians correctly sense that Atheists consider them a little less than human.

  33. 35

    “I wonder if Christians correctly sense that Atheists consider them a little less than human.”
    What is your evidence that (the majority of) atheists consider Christians a little less than human?

  34. gdl

    @Sara actually, I don’t know what a majority of atheists think. I think many atheists, however, think they know how Christians think.
    And they hate it.
    Greta knows, but it’s unrecognizable to me, a practicing Christian.
    My view: tolerance is accepting other people to be wrong, even if their beliefs aren’t true.
    There are many sorts of atheism. A casual apathiesm; a general skepticism; materialism. And then there’s a belief that other people are inferior for believing wrong things.
    I’ve met both Christians and some Atheists who have such a view.

  35. 37

    “If a non-believer actively supported the work of churches (as our agnostic founding fathers did), I suspect there would be less antagonism.”
    I don’t know what you mean by this. For one, the founding fathers were generally Christian or Deist (I think, actually, Jefferson was more or less a Christian Deist, in that he had a fondness for Christianity without all the supernatural bits.) It’s a bit harder to be sincerely involved in church life when you don’t think that the Bible (either testament) is an especially good moral guide, and you regard “God” as a nonsense word.
    For another, it would be a breach of my personal integrity to be involved in promoting falsehoods. If supporting churches means helping religious groups to do purely charity work with no proselytizing, or advocate on social issues such as separation of church and state, great. I’ve done that. If it means dialogue with religious believers, I wouldn’t really call that “support”, since a lot of what I’d say would be critical, but that’s fine too. If it means supporting churches with respect to anything they do specifically as churches, encouraging people to believe false things, I would find that to be unethical and hypocritical.
    “I think many atheists, however, think they know how Christians think.
    And they hate it.
    Greta knows, but it’s unrecognizable to me, a practicing Christian.”
    This is where non-believers come from in a large, religiously diverse region like the U.S. There is a cultural difference between the average Christian, who was raised in their current faith, and the average atheist, who at some point deconverted, or at least turned away from a flirtation with religion. You and your family are unusual in this respect; families of Christians that spawn non-believers are much more common.
    So if you come across an atheist who has a totally different view of Christianity than you, it may be because they are not very knowledgeable. But it also may be that they were raised in a totally different sect, such as a strict Catholicism. Or it may be that they are from a part of the country where their idea of Christianity is the one that most people assume is right, and yours is some weird fringe sect that “no Real Christian™” could possibly believe. Or it may be that your fellow Christians tend to act one way in environments where they feel relatively at-ease and supported, and another way around atheists who have strong opinions about what’s wrong with the Bible, so that you’re both right, but about people’s behavior in different environments.
    Just noting: being a practicing Christian doesn’t necessarily give you more insight into how Christians are in general. And what you regard as a blind hate may actually be frustration based on extensive experience. I suppose some atheists really are just crazy and hateful people. But that’s not something I’ve found to be either exclusive to us, or typical of us.

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