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The Best Gift Ever: Freedom From Religion

With the Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza seasons upon us, it can be difficult for someone to find a celebration in and around town that doesn’t have the God component in it.

With the Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa seasons upon us, our family has been searching for alternatives. It can be difficult for someone to find a celebration in and around town that doesn’t have the God component in it. My daughters have celebrated Hanukkah in the past (from my upbringing), and the tradition of a Christmas tree (from my wife’s upbringing). We never incorporated religion of either holiday into the lives of our two young daughters, choosing instead to go through the motions of the holidays to meet the obligations of family traditions.

I have outgrown the fears and guilt of not practicing Judaism. (The latter took much, much longer.) And much like those who shed their religious practices and embrace a non-theistic approach to life, I began my search for developing new family traditions and practices with which my wife and I can raise our daughters. But first I needed to better understand the term “Atheism,” and how I related to it.

The commonality all religious people share is a belief in a deity. It doesn’t matter which religion you subscribe to, there is some inherent respect for others who attend a religious place of worship even when it is different from one’s own — at least on some level. This doesn’t include non-theists.

According to a 2006 study conducted by the University of Minnesota, Atheism is not thought of too highly. Well, that’s an understatement. The study concluded that Atheists are the least regarded minority in America; thought less of than Muslims, blacks, Latinos, gays, Asians, etc. I came to understand through a conversation with my father (my dad, not the Father), that the word "Atheist" is what the public takes issue with. The definition of Atheist simply means “without God”, but I have come to the conclusion that many Americans understand the word to mean “against God”.

Atheist, agnostic, non-theist – whichever term a non-believer labels themselves as – God is not part of their life, and therefore they are considered a heathen. Heathens are way less cool than a semi-practicing, not-quite-sure-Jew who just goes to temple on high holy days, or to attend bar mitzvahs. In his New York Times opinion piece Americans: Undecided About God? Eric Weiner refers to the roughly 12 percent of Americans who have no religious affiliation as “Nones.” (The number is much greater with young people, at 25 percent.) Seven percent of these “Nones” define themselves as Atheists. The term “Nones” is much less offensive then Atheist, but it still doesn’t define me. “None” seems so empty. I’m so much more than “None”.

There has been an awareness campaign lead by Atheists and non-believers through various organizations, such as Richard Dawkins’, Non-Believers Giving Aid, as well as through the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The organizations have been informing the public that Atheists are an active part of every community, and are positive members of our society. One can be good without God. In fact, I would argue that goodness without God is more genuine than goodness with God because the goodness is generated without the consequence of heaven or hell. Society has included many non-theists, both famous and less well known.

Here in my hometown of West Orange, we celebrate and honor Thomas A. Edison. He did not publicly declare himself an Atheist, but was quoted in a 1910 interview published in the New York Times Magazine as saying, “No; nature made us – nature did it all – not the gods of the religions.” Just for fun, I enjoy exploring the names of other famous non-theists throughout history. I like to see who shares my views.

Historically, individuals and groups are judged by any number of traits, whether it’s on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, political views, etc. Although Atheists should be proud of their charitable works and positive acts within our communities, this inherent, negative judgment based on godlessness presents a danger and fear of sharing non-religious views that go against the mainstream. Non-theist organizations have launched publicity campaigns to promote a coming out (if you will) with one’s own non-theistic views.

There are many in the non-theistic community who take an alternative approach to Atheism: Humanism. Humanism is defined as this:

“An outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.”

Humanism does not address God at all. I like it. As a father, a husband, an educator, and a generally good person, it defines me well. I realize that I had been defining myself as an Atheist to “get away from God”. Redefining myself as a Humanist allows me to recalibrate my spiritual compass and move forward with my Humanistic-led life, instead of spending energy moving away from God. 

This year, our family has decided to participate in HumanLight, which is an event to celebrate the teachings of Humanism. As I explained to my daughters: “Think of all the best qualities you like in those people whom you love, that’s Humanism.” Since my daughters have never been introduced to religious dogma, they never developed a sense of fear or guilt related to religion. They were never told that if they were naughty Santa wouldn’t bring them a gift, or they need to go to temple to be a “good Jew.” (I would never think of telling them they should marry a nice Jewish boy. Had I heeded my mother’s insinuated advice to do just that, I would never have the beautiful family I have today!) Likewise, I could not bring myself to raise them to kneel before a supernatural being and commit them to a life of servitude to an Almighty Master. My daughters have always been raised and taught to respect others, to inquire about the world around them, to treat the environment as though you would a good friend, that they can achieve whatever they set their minds to and most importantly to enjoy life.

What will our HumanLight celebration look like? It’s new to us, and that’s very exciting. We have chosen (as a family and not dictated by a book or the media) to develop our own tradition. We have decided to donate money to the organization, Heifer International. It is an organization that provides animals and related training to families around the world so those families can become self-reliant. (Of course, my daughters are deciding between bunnies and ducks.) We will light our “Family Candle” on Dec. 23, which is HumanLight Day, and spend the evening together doing what we do best: enjoying each other. In preparation for the celebration in Morristown on Dec. 17, we worked on a large family banner together, which reads: “Happy HumanLight!” Unlike the 10 fairly threatening commandments which seem a little outdated for the world we live in today (“Thou Shall Not Murder” Really?), my daughters thought of words which reflect the qualities they think people should live by: Charity, Share, Recycle, Kind, Friendship, Donate, Peace, Love, Respect, Family, Caring, Happiness, and Fun. (And if you are not a fun person, I don’t think my daughters will wish you struck down by lightening, or to burn in the eternal flames of hell…)

To the young child, the world is naturally full of respect, love, compassion, and caring. I tend to overthink the need to address questions they have about God, heaven, Jesus, temple, praying, and such. There is innocence when discussing religion with a child who has no pre-conceived notion or even more so, post-conceived belief system that has been in place for years. Where I struggled for years to shed the guilt of not practicing something I had no longer believed in, my daughters simply don’t believe. And they do so guilt-free. There is immense beauty in this.

As I was reading yet another blasphemous book, Parenting Beyond Belief, by Dale McGowan, my 8 year old throws her arms up towards the ceiling and fervently exclaims, “I don’t get it! People want to do good things so they can go to heaven, and then it’s over. You die, and it’s over. It’s over! It’s just over.” She’s right. You do good, and then it’s over. What’s so bad about that? Darwin would be proud. Actress Hermione Gingold once stated, “’Thy glorious kingdom, which is for ever and ever. Amen?’ I don’t want to live for ever and ever. It’s too much.”

So, as I experience yet another holiday season of shoppers running to the stores, the media debating the use of the term “Happy Holidays!” v. “Merry Christmas!” the car magnets declaring, “Keep Christ in Christmas”, listen to news stories of yet another religious war, and watch as town halls place religious props on their lawns for lightings and such, I will continue to live a good life through the values of Humanism. My daughters will pass on the traditions my wife and I model and teach each day, and they will live a life of true freedom: Freedom from superstition, freedom from guilt, freedom from servitude, and freedom from religion. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

tc December 20, 2011 at 09:13 PM
Pastor Greg- Okay, maybe Loren's heart is in the right place, but I don't get comments like this: "Unlike the 10 fairly threatening commandments which seem a little outdated for the world we live in today (“Thou Shall Not Murder” Really?)".. How can someone's heart be in the right place if they find a prohibition against murdering people "outdated" and "threatening"? I don't know anyone - of any religious belief, or non-belief, who has a problem with a rule against murder. I'm sure they exist - they are called sociopaths. I guess that's why he wants to shield his daughters from any feelings of guilt.
Nick Muson December 20, 2011 at 09:23 PM
Oh please.
Loren Svetvilas December 20, 2011 at 09:23 PM
Hey, tc, I think my kids ARE great! I can't imagine any parent would want their child to burn in Hell. (Although some would sacrifice them from having heard God tell them to do so...right? Or even try to kill them, such as Abraham and his son Isaac. And God expects us to respect that! Worse yet, we are to teach youngsters that that is what someone who loves you and created you would ask someone to do...for Him?) That may sound superior, but I think it sounds like reasonable thinking. Declaring myself superior is not my intention, despite how my words have been interpreted. If part of that includes having an "elementary level" understanding of religion, then I will take pride in knowing that I was able to question and distance myself from religion so early on in my developmental level. (Would a post-doctorate level of understanding make all the difference? Perhaps that would be slightly better than a Master's level?) Your "fun belief" is fine. But it also supports an institution which isn't all that "fun" for many. (Even today's headlines attest to that.) Millburn? No wonder you're so upset! Here in West Orange there are daily sacrifices to the Sun God each day. If I lived in Millburn I would probably raise each of my kids with a different religion to see which one works best :)
tc December 20, 2011 at 10:09 PM
Wow, Loren, your last comment is quite incoherent!
Joanne Smythe December 21, 2011 at 06:52 AM
Nick, I tend to take issue with any person who is intolerant of the views, beliefs, and feelings of others -- it doesn't have to be an atheist. Loren, you frequently make tu quoque arguments that are both unconvincing and fallacious. Regarding your hospital example, as someone who is not at all religious, if laying gravely ill in a hospital bed, and someone came by "to pray" for me, insult or disrespect would be the last notions to cross my mind. The world is a large place, filled with different people, ideas, and values. Perhaps if people were less "insulted" about these differences, and instead tried to understand and respect these differences, everyone would get along better. Merry Christmas.
Steve December 21, 2011 at 02:28 PM
Whats wrong with religion? I find it to be an excellent foundation not only to me and my childrens upbringing but also for having a civil society. Whether you believe in God or not, I do not see an argument against compassionate religous peoples. I have never heard a Priest speak about anything but showing kindness and compassion to another person. If you don't put faith first with you or your children and teach them the morals in which this country was founded, you slowly have the degregation of society in which teenagers, as seen this week on the news, beat an elderly homeless man for fun. Loss of religion here in America is slowly tearing us down. As goes faith so does society. Teach your children to believe in God, to be kind and to care about one another. God is here and he is watching. Have a blessed Christmas, a happy Channuka or whatever religious holiday you celebrate. :)
Pastor Greg Boyle December 21, 2011 at 02:35 PM
Good point tc, I was just saying that Loren is following his convictions. I don't agree with him at all. In fact he has drawn inaccurate conclusions about me and posted personal attacks here on Patch. He has an ax to grind with people of faith and I pray that he would spend some time looking into the reality of God instead of spending his energy trying to defeat Him. Historically ,there are to many examples of God haters who became his best disciples and servants. Your statement about conclusions is right on. With God out of the way people (creatures) get to develop their own morality which is the worlds worst slippery slope without acknowleging a standard set by our Creator.
Edwin December 21, 2011 at 03:16 PM
I wanted to respond but was struggling with what to write. God is so merciful that he has given us free will so I have no right to judge you or anyone else. I will say that from personal expierence I KNOW prayer works. I won't be hypocritical and say I've never had a moment of doubt and questioned things but after reflecting on my own life God always shows me his way and his light. There are miracles AND tradegies in life that science simply an not answer. Lastly, as humans we all have rights but in protecting our own "rights" we need to be careful in not stomping out others just for our own cause. I believe in prayer, should i now not be allowed to pray with my teammates b/c someone may not believe? If I can't than arent my rights then violated??
Don December 21, 2011 at 08:48 PM
The founders of the US were justifiably adamant about keeping any mention of God out of the nation's laws and decision making. The biggest reasons European thought and technology made such a jump ahead at the end of the Dark Ages was the effect of the freedom from religious dictates about science, science is clearly an area where religion is completely inappropriate. I am sure Jesus himself, being a carpenter (or as close as it got to an engineer in his time) would have seen the sanctimonious and intolerant people who try to use religion as a way to place their own desires above others, or justify greedy behavior, as missing the whole point he was trying to make, profoundly. If there is a God, God does not care how often we mention or think about God. God is not insecure and does not need our approval. What God wants is that we should be as good to each other as we would be to ourselves. What God wants is that we take care of one another, especially those who need our help. God wants us to understand that wealth is largely luck. The opposite of Jesus's teachings is so called Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is the road to hell, literally. God wants us to understand that ALTRUISM is a survival trait. Altruism is practiced by smart animals. Giving and sharing are good. Not bad. God wants us to survive this next century and its challenges and then prosper and multiply out among the stars. God wants us to meet him or her someday, as equals.
Pastor Greg Boyle December 22, 2011 at 02:24 PM
Joanne, I can tell you with full confidence as a minister who spends lot;s of time visiting hospitals, I have never experienced any rejection when I offer someone prayer. In fact very often the person in the next bed says something like "Pastor would you pray for me!" Chaplains/ministers do have to be mindful of persons beliefs or lack of, but a simple "may I" always works fine. Be blessed and Merry Christmas
Pastor Greg Boyle December 22, 2011 at 02:38 PM
Loren~ concerning Abraham; God was teaching the father of faith about covenant. Abraham believed in a)miraculous birth and b)resurrection. Abraham didn't slay Isaac,but because he let him go in his heart God saw his faith. The ram caught in the thicket foreshadows Jesus Christ the male adult lamb slain for the sins of the world. Christians following the OT model understand the NT reality in a)miraculous birth and b)resurrection. That's why we celebrate Immanuel "God with Us"
Kelaker December 22, 2011 at 03:05 PM
I think the problem stems from most atheist feeling envious of people who have faith (Either a lot of faith or a little, It doesn't matter) at this time of the year. You probably feel empty about not having anything to talk to your children about except how nothing created nothing and how they will go back to nothing. If they are not grounded in some belief, they will more than likely grow up to believe in nothing and pass on your nothing faith. SamW
Nick Muson December 22, 2011 at 04:16 PM
You know what sam? I am an atheist, and I will happily admit that sometimes I wish I understood why faith gives so many people so much comfort, which I do not deny is a positive thing. Many atheists are far more negative towards religion than I am, just like many religious people are much more obnoxious with their beliefs than others. But you have to really understand this, sam: you know absolutely nothing about non-believers, and your cute little Psych 101 analysis is the very picture of ignorance. Are you sure your real name isn't Newt?
Ryan December 22, 2011 at 05:00 PM
Sam evidently thinks being Christian gives him mind-reading powers. I don't believe there's any scriptural basis for that. Sam, since when is the Christmas season about affirming beliefs about who created what? I think you might want to pay a little better attention in church. Countering the theory of the 'big bang' is not what's on the agenda. Christmas is, of course, about a salvation myth, not a creation myth. An atheist like Nick, I celebrate Christmas mostly because it's fun. My parents taught me that giving gifts is a way of showing love for someone; it was also an occasion for charitable giving for us. I also think (though I don't believe in heavenly salvation) that the Christmas myth has a lot to commend it as far as affirming good values. Something about poor, humble people being more important in the grand scheme of things than the rich and powerful. The story doesn't have Jesus as the son of a bond trader or born in a palace. BTW since there's another user posting as Ryan in this thread, I want to point out that I'm not him. Patch allows duplicate screen names. This is my first comment on this thread. Click on our screen names to see that we are different users, if you don't believe me.
Loren Svetvilas December 22, 2011 at 09:59 PM
Sam, if you could please go back and re-read my comments, you may discover that believing in "nothing" is not a part of my life. In fact, I believe in a great many things, such as the wonders of science, the amazing effects education can have on people, the positive role of promoting wonder in children, and the incredible aspects of nature and the world we live in. There are so many things my daughters and I have to talk about, and this is what makes life so incredible.
Loren Svetvilas December 22, 2011 at 10:00 PM
Sam, You may have a point when you claim that those WITHOUT faith are envious of those WITH faith. I can only explain what I mean this way: Have you ever looked at a young child and thought, "Ah, wouldn't it be great to be so ignorant of the world around us?" Oh! To actually believe in the Tooth Fairy, or that a little man dressed in green arrives every St. Patrick's Day to play tricks on people! Or that you can be a virgin and still give birth! If a child was to continue this well into adulthood, choosing to cover their ears and eyes to science, I would describe this as self-elected ignorance. This may feel good and shelter one from alternate possibilities, but I think we can agree that it hinders growth. Once growing through the age of reason, a child seeks truth. It is our responsibility as adults to help this growth, not hinder it by continuing to claim wonderfully spun tales as truths. So, I do envy in a way people of faith who when asked a challenging question about science or life can reply, "Ah, it's God - you've gotta' have faith..." (But DEFINITELY not envious of those for whom that answer suffices!)
Kelaker December 23, 2011 at 04:16 PM
Loren, I do not know any adults that still believe in fairy tales ( Tooth fairy, Easter bunny etc.) . So i guess in that respect the atheist and the religious are equal in their growth. But I feel you have left a void in your children lives by raising them without some kind of faith. I hope they find it later on. But any how God bless you and have a happy solstice. Nick and Ryan, I would consider you the typical angry Atheist, I would just lump you together with all the other people who have a problem with anyone who happens to be comfortable with their faith. I consider you anger at the site of a crèche in front of a church with someone who gets angry at a neihbor because they painted their house a color you do not like. If you are happy in your faith ( secularism ) so be it, but why don't you get some help and leave the rest of us alone. SamW
Nick Muson December 23, 2011 at 04:27 PM
sam, you are obviously a big fan of "lumping" people together in a way that makes you feel superior. I, for one, am proud to be lumped by you. Happy Lumping!
Gary Englert December 23, 2011 at 05:15 PM
A Happy Festivus (for the rest of us)... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hN3-po2fNz8&feature=related
Carol S. December 23, 2011 at 07:53 PM
I wish your daughters luck as the enter their teenage years. It sounds to me as if you and your wife have chosen to raise your daughters by yourselves. No opportunity for repeated messages of living a moral, healthy life at their synagogue or church or any other gathering of like minded people. I promise you they will feel lost. It gives teenagers extraordinary strength when they feel they are part of something bigger than just themselves and their immediate family.
Kelaker December 23, 2011 at 08:45 PM
As Nick Muson left on my Message board. Hey sam White, Nick Muson left you a message on your Patch profile. “Hey sam -- you're a complete idiot!” Click here to view and reply. You see Loren this is why rational people try to stay away from these type of discussions. when you are dealing with people who are wound to tight, all discussions degenerate into name calling. SamW
Nick Muson December 23, 2011 at 08:50 PM
Sam, you are an idiot. You are mistaking having no respect for religion with having no respect for YOU. I said: "I will happily admit that sometimes I wish I understood why faith gives so many people so much comfort, which I do not deny is a positive thing." You said: "they are just bitter people" "phony argument" "they do not show any regard for anyone else's religious beliefs" "most atheist are so unlikeable" "most atheist do not worry about anyone else's feelings"
Ryan December 23, 2011 at 09:45 PM
Who says I feel "anger at the site of a creche in front of a church"? In point of fact, I cannot think of a MORE appropriate place to see a symbolic creche displayed! Who says I feel angry at all? Read what I said about Christmas -- I observe it. I find it fun. It's about love and charity. It has useful lessons to teach even secular people. Tell me how this makes me an "angry atheist", please. (Again, I am not the same Ryan who was posting farther up the thread.) Sam, you leave me worried about the prospects for the human race. Not because of your religion, which is your business and none of mine (and as long as you keep it that way, I'll have no problem with you). You worry me because you seem unable to be swayed from your prejudices even by evidence placed right in front of your face. It's you who need help. Yes, I am angry, at you, not your or any religion, but at your determination to mischaracterize people based on nothing but your own prejudices.
Ryan December 23, 2011 at 09:56 PM
Carol, with due respect, you don't know what you're talking about. You insult the millions of people who thrived without religion in their teenage years, and their parents. Take it from someone who had the most amazing, successful childhood (including adolescence) while being raised completely secularly by two parents who never once took me to church after baptism. (My great grandmother insisted on the baptism.) There are many, many other forms of enriching community out there and not going to church does not make a family a bunch of hermits. And it astonishes me if you think scripture is the only possible source of moral values. If a religious upbringing worked out well for you and your kids, I'm glad to hear it; but it is arrogant (as well as ignorant) to assume that your way is the only way.
Loren Svetvilas December 23, 2011 at 10:01 PM
Gary, in the spirit of giving, your link was a pure gift :) Thanks for posting. This evening, we lit our HumanLight candle, opened gifts, donated to Heifer International as a family, and as my 8-year old said, "Let's go out for sushi - that can be our HumanLight tradition!" Happy New Year to you and yours.
Loren Svetvilas December 23, 2011 at 10:08 PM
Thank you for your good luck wishes. (I think!) We're fortunate that we have many friends who think as we do, and love our daughters dearly. We are also able to have delightful conversations with friends and family with faith, and those without. (If they grow superficial enough to need to belong to a large group of similar thinkers to feel secure, perhaps they'll join a sorority, the Tea Party, or something of the sort...)
Marty Wilson December 27, 2011 at 06:26 PM
Loren, Many religious traditions start up in an effort to differentiate themselves from other religions or to 'compete' with other religions. Hannukah in Judaism is important, but in the US it competes with Christmas re: gifts. Kwanzaa and Festivus popped up in response to the same pressures, so did Human Light apparently. You see - in Judaism, we go for Chinese food and a movie on Christmas Eve, to differentiate yourselves - your family had to pick a different food - sushi and a different night - 12/23 (or is that humanlights night) - and call it a HumanTouch religious tradition. So, even though you seem to be outwardly be anti-religion (judging less from your article but more from your comments/responses here and in other patch responses), you still can't help but try to be religious-like in your activities - timing of HumanLight, need for tradition/ritual/etc. I can recommend a therapist if you want to talk about your undiagnosed religion-envy...it can be fixed. I'm a very secular person - but your whole tone was very offputting. Also, why do you have to trash sororities? Insulting the Tea-Party? Really? Are you also a big government person - that was a gratuitous insult below (or above)...very mean spirited. btw - the HumanLight website says that Humanists should not be critical of or negative towards other faiths - I guess that means you are not a HumanLight true believer (pun intended).
Loren Svetvilas December 28, 2011 at 09:05 PM
Marty, I think you are confused about HumanLight and my relation to it. I enjoy traditions, but prefer secular ones. In an effort to create traditions for my daughters, I seek to find new ones that do not involve a god or religion. With Humanlight, I found that with it comes a beautiful community of free-thinkers who are doing just that. Each religion developed it's own traditions, just as HumanLight appears to be developing it's own. No competition. No motives. Just a fun alternative to the commercialized celebrations we see roll around each Thanksgiving into December. Is it religion-like? I think it's much different. Thank you for your offer for a recommended therapist! (I'm understanding your kind gesture as a cruel jab at my mental state...I see you have used that line before on Patch...that's a shame.) Most humans are in continual mental growth, and I'm not ashamed to say the same about myself. Can we say the same for our religious leaders? Are they humble enough to embrace therapy, with the belief that the answers are found through prayer?
Loren Svetvilas December 28, 2011 at 09:08 PM
Marty, in addition: I'm sorry my tone upset you. My insult towards sororities and the Tea Party was mean-spirited, and I apologize to you and the multitudes of sorority sisters who are doing good in the world. (My political views won't allow me to apologize for any Tea Party jab, though.) I'm not a mean spirited person by nature, but do have a cynical side when it comes to religion, politics, corporations, and the like. With regards to your citing the HumanLight website as saying that 'Humanists should not be critical of or negative towards other faiths,' I can only speak for myself when saying that moving from Atheism towards Humanism has been a process. I feel that all Humanists are Atheists, but not all Atheists are Humanists. So my not being a "true believer" as you joke may indeed be true, but that is also a compliment. (I'm fearful of anyone who drinks ALL the Kool Aid...)
Martin Rommer January 01, 2012 at 03:26 AM
Atheism is in my opinion a a form of religion. By definition, it is the 'BELIEF" that there is no god. Nitche pronounced god dead in the late 1800's and a man in the early part of the 1900's named Adolph Hitler read those words, and proclaimed himself god. If Atheists feel threatened or attacked by religious folks, it's because they do a lot of attacking themselves, and with phony arguments like the First Amendment which specifically prohibits CONGRESS from enacting legislation respecting establishing or prohibiting any religion, yet state and local governments are bullied by these into thinking that a prohibition exists for them too. When you say that, they point to the 14th Amendment which was carefully crafted to not include religion. Wake up West Orange! Time to tell your local officials that you are a taxpayer too, and want to see a religious display, right next to the secular ones next Christmas. God Bless You All!!!

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