“Without God, I Am No One”—Bullshit That Needs Our Attention

Fundamentalism kills. In more ways than one.

NBC News has reported that an American—a 33-year-old who was born in Illinois, raised in Minnesota, and studied in California—has now died in Syria, as a fighter for the barbaric jihadist group, ISIL. He was killed by another group of anti-Assad fighters, the Free Syrian Army.

Douglas McAuthur McCain, according to those who knew him, was a “a good guy who loved his family and friends,” a smiling joker who loved music, liked to dance and play basketball. “He was a goofball in high school,” one of his classmates told NBC.

Sometime in 2004, though, Douglas McCain apparently started taking religion seriously, as many Americans do. He posted on Twitter in May: “I reverted to Islam 10 years ago and I must say In sha Allah I will never look back the best thing that ever happen to me.”In sha’Allah” essentially means “God willing.” Lots and lots of people, especially Christian people, say “God willing” and say that their faith is “the best thing that ever happened” to them. It’s pretty common and not all that radical, unfortunately.

McCain also posted a picture of himself holding a Quran, with the caption,

The quran is all I need in this life of sin.

If you replace “quran” with “Bible,” then you have a typical statement from many American Christians, a statement I have heard countless times in one form or another. Again, although it is unfortunate, there is nothing all that radical about someone claiming that an old, old book is all they need in this life, of sin or otherwise.

Another social media posting from McCain expressed what he believed was the source of his existence:

Allah keeps me going day and night. Without Allah, I am no one.

Let’s remember that “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for “God.” In other words, what McCain posted was this:

God keeps me going day and night. Without God, I am no one.

Again, I have heard that same idea expressed numerous times by Christians I have known. Right now you can check out your own Facebook page, if you have one, and probably see a version of it someone has posted. It is all too common to hear people, people who live in your neighborhood and share space in your community, say such things. As I said, it is unfortunate that such sentiments are so prevalent among us.

It isn’t exactly clear how Douglas McCain went from expressing such things, such things that a lot of people express on any given day in America, to actually joining a group of bloodthirsty jihadist killers in Syria. It’s not clear Image: A Facebook profile photo of man identified by NBC News as Douglas McAuthur McCainhow he became “Duale ThaslaveofAllah,” which reportedly was his Facebook name. We will probably never know the mechanics of how that transformation happened, even though it would help us all to know.

Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of people who say the things that Douglas McCain said don’t end up either killing for, or dying for, their deity. Those who think their religion is the best thing that ever happened to them, or who believe an ancient book is all they need to guide them, or who believe that they are nothing without God—a being they have never seen and can’t possibly “know”—most of the time live their lives relatively peacefully, many of them even doing a lot of good in the world.

But I have come to believe that we, those of us who have not utterly surrendered our minds to an unseen—and presumably unseeable—deity, those of us who maintain that any religious views should be accompanied by some degree of doubt and uncertainty, must call out those who say things like Douglas McCain said.

It is time that we make people—especially our young people—uncomfortable when they say things like, “Without God, I am no one.” It’s time we call bullshit on such sentiments. It is time we take on parents who teach their children that they are nothing without God. Or teach them that an ancient, pre-scientific book is an infallible source of information, especially about God, or history, or morals. It is time we stop being afraid of criticizing people’s religious beliefs, if those religious beliefs include offering up their minds, or the minds of their children, as slaves to some Bible- or Quran-revealed divine being.

Because even though we don’t know what exactly led to Douglas McAuthur McCain giving his body to a radicalized and militarized incarnation of Islam, we know that it began with him seriously surrendering his mind to Allah, to God, to a bloodthirsty being first brought to us by ancient and ignorant people who told us their God once murdered “every living thing on the face of the earth” (the Bible) and who told us that God will punish unbelievers “with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter” (Quran).

We should do our best to make sure that people understand what it means to completely turn their lives over to the very flawed star of a faith that first came into being in the Bronze Age. Perhaps, and only perhaps, we may be able to prevent more Douglas McCains from wanting to kill and die in the name of God.

25 Comments

  1. Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man … living in the sky. Who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer, and suffer, and burn, and scream, until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you. He loves you and he needs money.
    ― George Carlin

    I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.
    ― Friedrich Nietzsche

    Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.
    ― Christopher Hitchens

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  2. Troy

     /  August 26, 2014

    And that my friends is the pure gospel! Right on my brotha!

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  3. Todd

     /  August 26, 2014

    AMEN!!! What a terrible, self-effacing way to live, to believe that all of your achievements (and even the food you put on the Thanksgiving table) is ALL thanks to a petty, jealous, vengeful god!

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  4. King Beauregard

     /  August 27, 2014

    I believe you have misdiagnosed the problem: the problem isn’t dedicating one’s life to God, the problem is dedicating OTHER PEOPLE’S lives to God. It is entirely possible to be a serious, devout Christian and still maintain an awareness that, however binding you may personally find the Bible, the next person is entitled view things differently.

    It’s when you lose track of that distinction that you run into trouble. What Douglas McCain was trying to do with guns — bend the world to his theological vision — a great many American Christians try to do at the ballot box.

    This isn’t even about the freedoms guaranteed by our nation (though it is certainly consistent), this is about theology. However committed I am to my vision of God, I also have to remain humble (pride goeth before destruction, doth it not?), and part of that humility is that the next person may understand God even better than I do. And what sort of sinner would I be if I stopped someone else from manifesting God’s vision?

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    • I appreciate your comments, my friend.

      You may be right that “the problem is dedicating OTHER PEOPLE’S lives to God,” but the people who do such things are, first, zealots themselves. It is the zealotry and dogmatism I was addressing. I appreciate that point about American Christians using ballots to do what guns do elsewhere.

      And I admire the way you present your faith, especially your saying that “the next person may understand God even better than I do.” I would hope that would include those who don’t know if there is a God or not. After all, that may be a better understanding of God, given our limited vision, than any.

      Duane

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      • King Beauregard

         /  August 28, 2014

        Okay, I think I was getting wrapped up in how you were having trouble with the sentiment “without God I am nothing”. In my mind it does not follow, at all, that such a person will try to impose his views on others.

        In fact, the more seriously one takes the notion of needing God, I feel, the more likely that person is going to try to be of service to the world God created, and those who live in it. It’s the people with a child’s half-formed concept of God, and what God requires of them, that cause trouble; they’re the ones who can’t think past “kill all the bad people”.

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        • I think there is evidence for both of our positions, frankly. What it comes down to is the mental state of the individual holding “without God I am nothing” views. Some people, thankfully very few people, are predisposed to psychopathic behavior, and the allure of dying, with others in a community of fellow believers, for a godly or god-blessed cause is too tempting to pass up.

          And, for what it’s worth, I think most people (of the kind we are discussing) believe they have a fully- or mostly-formed concept of God, which is what causes them to act either positively or negatively or not at all. I happen to think that all conceptions of God are necessarily childish (I’m not using the word pejoratively) and less than fully formed simply because there isn’t enough evidence to go on. And even if one considers the Bible or Quran or other religious texts as evidence, the fact is that many different conceptions of God can be derived from them, as the many interpretations and variations of religious expression demonstrate. And that leads me to think that God had absolutely nothing to do with the composition of religious texts, all, more or less, claiming to be divinely inspired.

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      • King Beauregard

         /  August 28, 2014

        By the way, I haven’t really said what I personally believe. For one thing, it really wouldn’t make that interesting of reading. For another thing, my brain flips a coin every morning, and if it comes up “heads” I’m an atheist, and if it comes up “tails” I’m a pantheist who believes we’re all in communion with God at some level — so it’s real difficult for me to commit to “what I believe”, since it changes so frequently.

        But I have turned theology over and over in my head just enough to have some opinions about what “sane” theology looks like, and the first principle of it is, you can’t ever get past “here’s what I think is going on, and while I’m personally convinced, that doesn’t mean I can impose my beliefs on anyone else”. If you can keep that in mind, go right ahead and believe you hear God, or believe in spaghetti monsters, or Eris and her golden apple, or pipe-smoking salesmen, or Xenu, or Elijah Muhammad. Hell, become a Black Scientologist for all I care:

        http://www.adultswim.com/videos/the-eric-andre-show/black-scientologists

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        • Our experiences aren’t all that different, when it comes to deciding “what I believe.” Some days I am predisposed to believe in an attenuated conception of theism, other days deism, other days none of the above. It often depends on what I’m reading!

          That being said, I did once live in a world where folks see things quite differently from what you expressed about “sane” theology. Evangelicals are, by definition, those folks who want others to become Christians like themselves. It isn’t really a faith for passive folks, even though a lot of passive folks can still be members of evangelical churches (they just have to ignore the constant calls to evangelize their families and neighbors and co-workers and even strangers). 

          I guess that is why I am prone to think that people who are zealous about their faith tend to want others to share their enthusiasm. And that almost never involves guns or beheadings, thankfully, but I still find it destructive of so much human potential to see it used even in trying to convince other folks that an eternal heavenly reward awaits them, based on whether, here and now, with limited knowledge and experience, they make the right choice about Jesus.

          And by the way, “Turn that poop into wine” would be one miracle I could myself enthusiastically endorse, although I would much rather see it changed into beer. I might go back to church in that case.

          Duane

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          • King Beauregard

             /  August 31, 2014

            I’ve never been an evangelical, so I doubt I have quite your perspective. Nevertheless, there is at least one evangelical I respect:

            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2011/06/15/use-words-if-necessary/

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            • King B,

              There are evangelicals I respect, too. I have many books in my library by such evangelicals (those not necessarily wedded to a literalistic interpretation of an inerrant scripture). Quickly, though, for me it is not so much about respect for the individual, but a healthy disrespect for the dogmatism these individuals, many of them good people, not only hold themselves but disseminate to others. In the article you linked to, I found a couple of examples that will serve to demonstrate how merely changing methodologies (or embracing progressive ideas), in terms of evangelization, doesn’t change what I consider the fundamental problem with fundamentalist-evangelical thinking.

              The writer says in order to evangelize, one should open up one’s life. I’m good with that. Then he goes on to say, “here it means sharing that which is centrally and essentially important to you, the core of your identity and your source of meaning.” It’s that whole “core of your identity” and “source of meaning” thing I have a big problem with. To the extent a person takes that seriously, then I find it troubling that the only life someone has on earth is grounded on such an uncertain and dubious (in terms of real knowledge) foundation. Actually, I find it disturbing, even though I recognize that it is any individual’s business how he or she wants to use their brains, talents, time, and energy. But imagine if someone, someone you really cared for, told you the core of their identity was tied to a fondness for Santa Claus. That jolly old St. Nick was their source of meaning in life. Most of us would, to the extent someone was serious about it, try to help that person realize how questionable an enterprise that was. That’s all I am really arguing about religious dogmatism.

              But skipping down to the last bullet point, is where I really find the biggest problem. It’s not enough that committed religious folks spend their own lives wrapped up in believing they know something about God and the afterlife they really can’t know with certainty, but they want others to get wrapped up in it too. In fact, for traditional evangelicals and fundamentalists, it is essential to their walk with Christ. The writer makes a distinction between conversion and discipleship. And he is right. It is not enough for evangelicals, those really committed to their faith, to merely get people saved. They want to “make disciples” of them. They want to remake them. As Jesus said, teach them “to obey everything that I have commanded you.” As the writer of the piece says, conversion is really only “Square One” rather than the main event. The main event is the surrendering of the self, the changing of one’s “core identity.” All I am saying is that when folks talk and act that way, and if we care about their well-being and the larger well-being of society, especially vulnerable children who are often subjected to an intense effort at discipleship, we ought to challenge them.

              Duane

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              • King Beauregard

                 /  September 1, 2014

                I get your queasiness over this wish to make disciples of others, but the author’s point is to use only those methods that respect the other person. That immediately eliminates most of the harm that can be done, even to (especially to) children. If you’re trying to instruct your children in Christianity and you understand the difference between converts and disciples, you’re going to be teaching them to be kind rather than instilling a fear of hell in them.

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                • “Respect the other person.” Yes, that would be nice, wouldn’t it? But all the evangelicals I knew, and had fellowship with, wouldn’t understand that to mean a) that others’ claims of truth were worthy of consideration, and b) children shouldn’t learn that there is a hell to fear.

                  I wish things were as culturally cozy as some might want them to be, but, at least in my experience, they are not: Christ is the only way to heaven and rejecting him means an eternity in hell. That doctrine is especially taught to the kids and, again in my experience, is quite effective in making fear-laden converts, if not disciples.

                  Duane

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                  • King Beauregard

                     /  September 2, 2014

                    I just realized that the context of that article is missing; it sprang from a previous article where evangelism was done the normal way, i.e. the completely wrong way. The preface from the previous article:

                    “I don’t want to leave off here only saying that L&J have provided a manual on How Not To Do Evangelism. They certainly have provided that — offering a template for evangelism that seems designed to inspire ill-feeling on all sides and to be as ineffectual as it is unpleasant. But before we return to our journey through the instructively appalling pages of Tribulation Force, let me suggest a few things I think I’ve learned about a better way to approach this matter of evangelism.”

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  5. P.S.

    I noted with interest last night a comment by Rachel Maddow on the investigation by the U.K. of some of the young British nationals who left to fight for ISIL. The bobbies noted that at least two of them had recently purchased copies of the book, Islam for Dummies.

    At least for some, and really, probably for most, the lure is not religion so much as the opportunity to get (apparent) respect from a different group of people while venting rage and frustration over screwing up your former life.

    You can’t make this stuff up.

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    • I have heard quite a bit about those two ISIL fighters who bought that book. But I think we kid ourselves if we think that what motivates most of those killing on behalf of Allah is not an affection for fundamentalist religion. Sure, there are mixed motives here, as elsewhere. But the overarching justification for doing such barbaric things is that those doing those things believe, in some form or another, that they have God’s (Allah’s) blessing. It is written in their holy book, at least the way they interpret it.

      Yes, getting respect and acceptance from others is part of what attracts certain vulnerable people to causes like ISIL. But the common glue that holds them together is a fanatical brand of religion. I watched some grisly and gut-turning videos of these bastards killing people in unspeakable ways, and Allah was on their minds. How do I know? Because Allah was on their lips as they sawed off screaming people’s heads.

      Duane

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      • How do I know? Because Allah was on their lips as they sawed off screaming people’s heads.

        Actually, Duane, that’s not convincing to me. What else are they going to yell, Geronimo? We aren’t far apart on this, but the point is important to any effort to stem future terrorism attacks. ISIS has adopted a collective ethos to justify their activities and that includes the damnation and death of anyone who differs, but it’s similar with the criminal gangs in large cities. They have rituals and other symbols like tattoos. In some, a new member has to kill an innocent to prove his loyalty. Even Yale has it’s Skull and Bones club with hazing initiation rites. The Masons have secret rituals. It’s all common tribal behavior. (Why aren’t all you psych-majors coming to my rescue here? 🙂 )

        Radical Islam is the enabling philosophy, no question, but I still think that for most of the Western cannon-fodder, it’s akin to joining the French Foreign Legion. One of the recruiting videos has lines like, “You wouldn’t believe the fun we have, it’s like Disney Land over here.”

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        • ansonburlingame

           /  August 30, 2014

          Jim,

          Not a psych major for sure, but I have long observed “malcontents”, people very unhappy with their lives. Fear (unacknowledged for sure) and hatred motivates them, fundamentally. The “angry sailor” getting chewed out, the criminal in the ghetto or the terrorist anywhere are angry, vengeful men (OK, some women as well today, like the one’s screaming rape the first time a man …….).

          Religion, a twisted and perverted form of religion, can support such feelings and give such angry and fearful people the “support” they call for to act out their fear and anger.

          I have seen photos from just Ferguson, depicting some very large, well built, molotov hurling, black men of late. Angry, you bet and underneath perhaps some fear as well (again unadmitted fear). In that case they felt justified to release their anger, pent up emotions, by acting very violently and of course against any reasonable law(s). Racism of the reverse sort was that motivation, maybe and any unprotected, white cop getting in their way could expect ……… Just because they were in uniform, any black cops could wind up as collateral damage as well.

          Deep within all humans is the “fight or flight” instinct. Supposedly civilization tries to tame that beast in all of us. But it is much closer to the surface, seen by actions, in many people, even today. My guess is that underlying many instances of “inappropriate use of force” by police is caused by fear and anger as well, no matter how well we try to train such people. Yes that could be called racism but I see little difference from a police officer acting that way or the above mentioned picture(s) I have seen from the “other side”. Neither are acceptable behavior and both “actors” should be held accountable to the law.

          Anson

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          • Anson,

            I’ve read your comment twice and I’m still having trouble trying to understand what you’re telling me. Most of what I get from it is that you have lots of experience with “malcontents” and that you suspect it’s a case of “Racism of the reverse sort . . . “ But I’m glad you ended with an admission that it’s not all the crowd’s fault.

            Enclaves like Ferguson, and there are many of them, did not happen overnight. There are decades of pent-up feelings behind the violence, feelings derived from the reality that black citizens are not part of governance, nor of policing. Hence, the tribal situation I described. For the black crowd, it goes well beyond “fight or flight”, although I grant you, that accounts a lot for police overreaction. Also, if you’re a white cop in a black town, it’s easy to see why some come to equate color with crime and loose sight of the humanity of individuals. The Ferguson rioting was motivated by deep-seated resentment and long-standing anger.

            Something I heard on the evening news, or maybe it was Maddow, bears repeating here. A policy of mandatory mini-cams for each policeman has had a dramatic effect on crime statistics in communities in at least two states, California and Maryland. In both cases the use of force in policing dropped more than 40% and the number of citizen formal complaints about excessive force declined more than 80% over the previous year. If that doesn’t tell the story I don’t know what does.

            Jim

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        • Jim,

          No, I don’t think we are far apart. But I continue to wonder why you think that Western ISIL fighters are somehow differently motivated than the home-grown ones. Obviously they all have various motivations for their savagery, but, as you say, radical Islam “is the enabling philosophy.” I would say it is the heart of the problem, when it comes to ISIL.

          As for yelling Geronimo, I think you make my point. The fact that they don’t yell Geronimo and indeed invoke Allah tells us something very important about their motivation, beyond merely “a collective ethos to justify their activities.” The activities themselves–and the brutality with which they are carried out–are, for the most part, perpetrated as a consequence of their religious vision. They are doing what they are doing not just because they are members of a tribe, but because they are members of a specific kind of tribe, one that draws on a certain, dangerously literal interpretation of Islamic texts.

          There are plenty of Muslims fighting Assad in Syria or the Shiites in Iraq who do not want to establish an Islamic State or caliphate at all, or at least in the same sense that ISIL does. And the difference is in their religious vision, a vision I don’t think we should write off as merely the manifestation of the activities of a criminal gang. ISIL is that for sure, but they represent so much more than that.

          Duane

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  6. ansonburlingame

     /  August 27, 2014

    Duane,

    I first became aware of this blog from critical, harshly critical, remarks elsewhere. Then I read it, the blog. In many ways, I agree with you and the comments above, including from King B., with whom I rarely agree. But he seems to be a man of faith above and captures one of the key things about such faith. It is called humility. Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount that the meek shall ……. I believe there is a difference between humility and meekness and thus would wonder if that nunance was lost in some translation long ago. But so what.

    I to have a form of faith. But what or how I believe, have such faith, is my own business. As well I would never try to demand that someone do something based only on my own faith. Sure I will push a sense of morals upon someone, politically, simple because I believe it is the “right thing to do”. But I make that decision in my own mind and do not consult a god to check the position, politically.

    My minister gave a sermon not long ago about religion and politics. He believes that such religion should guide our politics, though he would never “get specific” from the pulpit. I privately disagreed with him with the simple observation that “God never tells me how to vote”. I added that I do not ask for such guidance as well.

    While serving in the military, in and around nuclear weapons and their .possible release, I never felt I was doing “God’s work” either. I was working for America, not God in such a capacity.

    On the other hand, I have found comfort in faith, of a sort. My 18 year old grandson heading off to college was interested in that topic and we discussed it for a full evening, one on one not too long ago. Basically I shared with him my own life experiences related to faith, Sunday School lessons, simple songs, etc., then doubting it all in high school and being sure I was correct to doubt in college, and much later on, returning to a form of faith that fits my needs at least. I concluded that he must find his own way ultimately. If it helped him to be a “good man” well good for him. But if he turned out to be a “bad man”, then don’t try to blame it on a god, either. He has to make his own choices and whatever help he seeks to make the right choices, well that is fine with me and should be with him.

    I reject “fire breathing preachers (or mulahs as well)” waving “ancient books” in the air, telling me or anyone else what to do. But quiet suggestions, encouragement to “think things through and just consider all sides”, well I will at least listen to such advice, and then do what I think is best.

    Incidentally, when I write something and find strong disagreement herein, well I feel like I must have gotten it right, that particular view!! But certainly God had nothing to do with it. YOU did!!

    Anson

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    • Anson,

      I appreciate the fact you actually bothered to read the post, rather than respond based on “remarks elsewhere.”

      I also appreciate the humility you bring to this subject, to matters of religion and faith. I can’t think of anything I agree with you on more than this statement you made about your grandson and religion: “I concluded that he must find his own way ultimately.” No dogmatism, no unjustifiable claims, just sharing with him your own “life experiences related to faith.” Bravo.

      Duane

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  7. Well said, Anson, in my opinion. Ultimately, we have to answer to that still, small voice “in our head”, whether you think it is God, philosophy, or your own conscience. Some people clearly have different voices or no voice at all.

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  8. ansonburlingame

     /  August 28, 2014

    Nagarjuna,

    Silly perhaps and certainly “unscientific”, but I believe every human being contains a “voice” from within, not without. But many humans never hear it, or just ignore it when it is “heard”. I did that for decades, ignored that “still, small voice”. Humans have been writing for a long time about such matters in an attempt to find a “good life”. Thus I read “ancient books” to see what was thought long ago. I read more modern ones as well. But in the end, I make choices every day and those choices result in what happens in my life. Nothing supernatural about it at all unless it is deemed supernatural to listen to one’s own “conscience” (or whatever else you choose to call it).

    Anson

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