Julia Shaw

Losing my religion: faith, family, and the real story of secularization in the West

Julia Shaw
By Julia Shaw
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August 14, 2013 (Public Discourse) - In her new book, Mary Eberstadt argues that the West started losing God when it started losing the natural family. If she is right, then churches need to encourage and promote family formation, and religious believers need to form families.

The West is less Christian than it used to be. “A growing number of Western individuals greet the milestones of life with no religious framework at all,” Mary Eberstadt writes in her new book, How the West Really Lost God. They are born without being baptized or dedicated to a Christian community; they attend Sunday brunch rather than Sunday service; “and upon dying their bodies are incinerated and scattered to the winds, rather than prayed over whole in the ground as Christian ritual and dogma had hitherto commanded.”

In her thoughtful and engaging book, Eberstadt offers a new explanation for the religious downturn. Nietzsche’s madman predicted that religion would inevitably fade away. The traditional narratives about secularization see world-historical events or broad intellectual movements as silver bullets killing God. But Eberstadt encourages us to take another look at home and hearth—especially broken ones.

By looking at the decline of the natural family, she argues, we can understand how the West really lost God. While the religious and irreligious alike will find this book enlightening, the key audience includes the small “o” orthodox believers eager to spread the gospel. Once this audience understands the relationship between faith and family, perhaps Western society can find God again.

The Family Factor

To start, Eberstadt reviews the conventional theories of religious decline and reveals how they are incomplete. Most theories point to either an intellectual movement or a world historical event to explain the decline of religion. For instance, some blame rationalism and the Enlightenment for crowding out God. Others accuse consumerism. Sometimes, we are told that secularization results once people realize they no longer need the imaginary comforts of religion, or that the catastrophic world wars caused men and women to lose their faith. Many of these theories have a kernel of truth, but Eberstadt argues convincingly that none is sufficient to explain the whole picture because none can explain the ebb and flow in religious belief. They cannot answer why Christianity “has flourished in some times and places and declined in others.”

Enter what Eberstadt calls the “Family Factor”: the “active effect that participation in the family itself appears to have on religious belief and practice.” By the family, Eberstadt means the natural family: a married mother and father raising their biological children. The Family Factor explains why secularization occurs and fills in the gaps that other theories leave behind.

Family life is not an outcome of belief but a conduit to religious faith. Eberstadt compares learning religion to learning a language. She argues that “trying to believe without a community of believers is like trying to work out a language for oneself.” Eberstadt’s theory explains the communal way in which individuals “think and behave about things religious—not one by one and all on their own, but rather mediated through the elemental connections of husband, wife, child, aunt, great-grandfather and the rest.”

Her theory is unique. Most secularization narratives ignore the family’s role in religious formation or see familial decline as a result of secularization: people stopped believing in God and then they stopped having families. But Eberstadt turns this simple, direct relationship on its head. The connection between faith and family is multidimensional: “faith and family are the invisible double helix of society—two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another.”

It’s no secret that churches provide a necessary infrastructure and larger community for raising children. But Eberstadt conjectures that something deeper drives families to the pews. “Something about children might make parents more inclined toward belief in the infinite—to a supernatural realm that is somehow higher and less well-understood than this one.”

Childbirth is the miracle of life, and parents experience it, in Eberstadt’s words, as a “moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant.” This may explain why seemingly banal activities of family life—caring for an ailing parent or just staying married for seventy years—seem almost supernatural. The family, in a sense, defies death. Individual members may perish, but genes, names, and memories live on.

Eberstadt shows that strong family formation means more God. America enjoys a higher degree of religiosity than European countries, because “there are more families following the traditional model in America, even today, than in Europe.” Indeed, the post-war American baby boom coincided with a religious boom.

Conversely, weak family formation (e.g., illegitimacy, cohabitation, and divorce) means less God. The countries that have experienced religious decline have seen the natural family at its weakest. The French lost God earlier than other Western nations, because they stopped having babies and forming families in the late eighteenth century. Scandinavia, an area that has experienced dramatic decline in religious belief, has a high divorce rate and late marriage, and although there is a high rate of out-of-wedlock births, the total birth rate is very low. Countries that stop marrying and giving birth also stop attending church.

Lost in Translation

As Eberstadt reminds her readers, the language of Christianity is familial. Christians greet one another as brothers and sisters of the same God the Father. Christian marriage symbolizes the union of Christ and the church. The Holy Trinity is described in terms of a familial relationship: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Incarnation—the seminal event in Christian redemption—relies on the human family: God the Son came to earth as an infant, born to Mary, and adopted by Joseph.

Without the family, the Christian story may be lost in translation. If one is raised without a father, how can one contemplate the unconditional love of God the Father or understand Joseph’s adoption of Jesus? If children are a choice, how can a person consider accepting them, as Mary did, as a matter of obedience to God?

And if unencumbered self-expression is the highest virtue, then Christianity’s teachings on sex, money, and vocation are vicious. Sadly, says Eberstadt, “when many people live lives that contradict the traditional Christian moral code, the mere existence of that code becomes a lightning rod for criticism and vituperation—which further drives people away from the church.” Eberstadt concludes that “family illiteracy breeds religious illiteracy.”

Protestantism, Catholicism, and Family Decay

If family decay leads to and accelerates religious decline, then how should churches respond?

In a chapter aptly titled “Assisted Religious Suicide,” Eberstadt focuses most on how churches harmed the family by embracing certain doctrinal changes to the Christian moral code. This chapter is essential reading for any Christian believer, whether Protestant or Catholic. Yet it also reveals the weak point in Eberstadt’s analysis: she fails to distinguish between thriving and decaying churches in Protestantism and why, despite keeping key doctrines on family formation, Catholicism is declining.

Eberstadt argues that the Christian moral code remained intact until the Protestant Reformation, “when churchmen started picking apart the tapestry of Christian sexual morality—hundreds of years ago, long before the sexual revolution, and over one particular thread: divorce.” Now, several hundred years later, “divorce in the mainline Protestant churches is not only destigmatized, it has been almost entirely emptied of moral content, period.”

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(Eberstadt does not explain the difference between an annulment, which seems not to damage the institution of marriage, and divorce, which in her view does undermine marriage.)

The doctrinal changes on divorce, Eberstadt argues, were a “template for other related doctrinal changes to come”: first divorce, then contraception, and finally homosexuality. Reformers throughout the ages intended these changes to “construct a Christianity with a kinder, gentler, more inclusive face” and thereby expand the flock, but instead, Eberstadt argues, they decimated the family and church attendance.

Her point is well-taken—changes in doctrine on marriage and sexuality have undermined the family—but I question the accuracy of her critique of Protestantism, particularly of its beginnings. At various points, she comes close to reducing the Protestant Reformation to a revolution about divorce and sex, rather than a disagreement about the authority of the pope, the status of scripture, and the nature of grace.

Eberstadt also fails to explore why there was a sizable chunk of time between the sixteenth-century Reformation and the twentieth-century Lambeth Conference that embraced contraception. Nor does she consider why the doctrinal changes on homosexuality are quite recent.

So, did the Protestant Reformation, rightly understood, lead to widespread abandonment of traditional Christian moral teachings on marriage, family, and sexuality? Or was the liberal theology that infected at least some Protestant churches 300 years later responsible? It is hardly fair to lump Cranmer in with Schleiermacher (Henry VIII notwithstanding), much less Luther and Calvin with the father of liberal theology.

In earlier chapters, Eberstadt distinguishes between mainline Protestants (e.g., Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Lutherans) and the pentecostal and evangelical Protestants. She acknowledges that “certain evangelical denominations are thriving despite the secular trend.” And she recognizes that the same thriving churches “do not have theological injunctions against birth control as such, and have a higher fertility rate than secular people.” If doctrines of family decay were part and parcel of the Protestant Reformation, one would expect all Protestant churches to suffer the same fate. And how would Eberstadt account for the recent doctrinal divisions between the Episcopalian and Anglican churches in America? The chapter would have benefited from considering each doctrinal change (divorce, contraception, and sexuality) and churches’ responses separately, rather than collapsing them in to one fluid phenomenon. While Catholic writers and theologically liberal mainliner connect all three doctrines, others (namely thriving, evangelical churches) do not.

Her arguments on the health of Catholicism merit a similar analysis. The Catholic Church as an institution resisted doctrinal changes on divorce, contraception, and homosexual activity: “the exception [to these doctrinal changes], of course, was the Catholic Church, whose issuance of Humane Vitae in 1968 both famously and infamously affirmed the traditional moral code by upholding the ban on birth control.”

Yet despite “sticking to its theological guns on the family,” Eberstadt writes, Catholicism has seen a “significant falloff in practice.” If keeping the doctrines was enough, why are individual Catholics, and even whole parishes, selectively following these teachings? While chiding Catholic scholars for arguing that secularization is a Protestant problem, Eberstadt readily admits that many Catholics are “Catholic” in name only: men and women who ignore not only the basic holy obligation to attend weekly mass but also the church’s teachings on sex.

Perhaps Eberstadt’s emphasis on these doctrines is misplaced. The doctrines on divorce, contraception, and homosexuality don’t seem to explain the whole story. Perhaps fidelity to the Nicene Creed keeps families in the pews.

Eberstadt writes that the “most vibrant areas of Catholicism are the most orthodox.” The same applies to Protestantism, but Eberstadt doesn’t explicitly say it.

Over the years, mainline Protestants have been eager to embrace doctrinal changes relating to family formation, but they balk at affirming the basic tenets of Christian faith. To put it another way: divorce, contraception, and homosexuality are no big deal, but the teachings of the Nicene Creed are controversial.

Thriving Protestant churches, to the contrary, take the tenets of the Nicene Creed (as well as traditional Christian moral teachings) seriously. Indeed, by so doing, many evangelical churches attract those raised devoid of religious faith. They also draw some of those “Catholics” in name only, who were baptized in the Catholic Church but didn’t believe in Christ (let alone follow the moral teachings) until becoming Protestant. (The Mormons, who embrace family formation but not the Nicene Creed, appear to be an outlier.) Eberstadt’s chapter on doctrinal changes would be stronger if she had explored these differences.

Eberstadt is both a great thinker and a devout Catholic. Protestantism has benefited from the intellectual heft of Catholicism on moral issues relating to marriage, the family, and natural law. Eberstadt, by failing to distinguish fully between thriving and decaying forms of Protestantism, misses an opportunity to engage with evangelical churches explicitly.

Still, her arguments raise challenging questions for my fellow Protestant and evangelical brethren in flourishing mega-churches. Should Protestants consider children negotiable in marriage? Should pastors be indifferent to means of procreating (or preventing it)? Do we adequately incorporate children into church life and the Christian story as Eberstadt describes it? Most importantly, how often are churches growing by attracting former Catholics, instead of training up children the way they should go? Converts are great, but so are lifelong committed Christians raised in the church.

The Fate of the Double Helix

The future of the faith-family double helix is unclear. Eberstadt recognizes that predicting the future is risky, so instead she presents both a case for pessimism—fewer people are getting married and staying married; fewer people are bearing children, let alone bearing them in wedlock; and a case for optimism—as society becomes more fragmented, the need for the family increases, so decline can lead to resurgence.

If Eberstadt is right that family decline led to religious decline, then churches need to encourage and promote family formation, and religious believers need to form families. Secularization isn’t inevitable. Christianity is still strong in the United States. Can it last another generation? The answer to this question, as all Christians must acknowledge, lies with the Holy Spirit. But Eberstadt makes a convincing case that the Holy Spirit often enlists the family.

Reprinted with permssion from  The Public Discourse


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The Romanian Orthodox Church's Patriarchal Cathedral in Bucharest Wikimedia Commons
Bogdan Stanciu

Romanian news outlet sanctioned for discrimination in attacking pro-life initiative

Bogdan Stanciu
By Bogdan Stanciu

BUCHAREST, Romania -- A decision of CNCD, Romania's Council Against Discrimination, has recently become definitive, recognizing the right to dignity of all Orthodox Christians in the country.

Last year, PRO VITA Association - Bucharest branch, one of the main nonprofits in Romania defending life, family and religious liberty, filed an official complaint with the Council, showing that a blog post dated May 17, 2013 and hosted on the Adevarul.ro platform prejudiced the image of Christian Orthodox believers.

The article, signed "Alex Dumitriu," challenged the support given by the Romanian Orthodox Church to the “One of Us” European initiative, which required a ban on public funding for the destruction of embryos during research and medical procedures.

The blog post described the Romanian Orthodox Church as an “anti-human, criminal and anti-life organization, whose purpose is spreading suffering and abjectness, mysticism and ignorance for their own profit.”

The applicant argued that these allegations created a degrading and hostile atmosphere for Orthodox Christians in Romania, thus harming a whole community.

The Council agreed that the affirmations in the article referred to both the clerics and the simple believers and discriminated against the Christian Orthodox community. It concluded it was discrimination, infringing upon the right to dignity granted to persons of Christian Orthodox confession.

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The council cited the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that freedom of expression is not an absolute right in Europe, carrying with it duties and responsibilities. Also, the Adevarul.ro platform was fined a symbolic sum of 2,000 RON (approximately 445 EUR).

It is for the first time in Romania that a media institution is sanctioned for discriminating against Christians.

As a brand, the Adevarul newspaper has continued the tradition of a title established in the 19th century, but after 1989 it took over the infrastructure and human resources of the recently-deceased communist newspaper Scanteia, the official propaganda channel of the Romanian Communist Party. Today it has also developed Adevarul.ro, an online platform that is one of the most popular media channels in Romania.

Adevarul.ro has recently made it a habit of harassing the Romanian Orthodox Church with almost daily frequency, presenting negative aspects in the church and tendentious articles of opinion about this institution and about Creationism and Christianity in general, in what looks more and more like an ideological guerrilla warfare.


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Paul Russell

Nitschke heads a suicide cult that must be stopped

Paul Russell
By Paul Russell

Following The Australian's news story today about another young life lost that was related to Philip Nitschke and the Exit organisation, senior journalist, Angela Shanahan says that Nitschke and Exit must be stopped.

Shanahan opens: 

PHILIP Nitschke, contrary to his claims as an advocate of euthanasia for the terminally ill, is the chief mover of something resembling a suicide cult.

The case histories of Lucas Taylor, 26, and Joe Waterman, 25, who committed suicide after being in contact with Nitschke’s group, Exit, leave little doubt of that.

Lucas Taylor was the subject of the other article in today's paper while Joe Waterman's story was covered earlier in the ABCs 7:30 Report that created the original furore leading to the medical board suspending Nitschke's practicing licence today.

Covering the information Judi Taylor found on her son's computer after his death the story adds: 

His heartbroken mother realised that her son was not the only young person on this site. Nor was anyone on the site interested in the motivation for his thoughts of suicide, nor in helping Lucas to overcome his feelings.

“They were only interested in the ‘endgame’,” she said, including detailed advice about where and when and how to go about it.

Again, this destroys any pretence that Nitschke and Exit are only involved in advising sick and dying people about how to commit suicide. This is a macabre and clandestine death industry. Hope joins with Angela Shanahan in calling for this organisation to be stopped and is joined now in our call for a National Inquiry into Exit and other euthanasia organisations by the mothers of both of the young men mentioned in this article.

Shanahan closes by saying: Nitschke’s claim of political persecution is risible. He and his organisation must be stopped.

Reprinted with permission from NoEuthanasia.org.au.


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Hilary White Hilary White Follow Hilary

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Leaving the Matrix: what is the cost of conversion?

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By Hilary White

What do you do when you decide to leave a sexually disordered lifestyle? What do you do, when all the people you have contact with, all your friends, even your family, have accepted and embraced a way of living and thinking about life that you have realized is harmful, psychologically and morally destructive, and which you know you must leave? What is the cost of conversion?

We can easily get caught up in the tumult of the ever-escalating legal, political, and cultural war against the traditional worldview and anthropology, so much that we forget that the “issue” is about real, individual human beings and how they should, concretely, order their lives. We culture warriors must remember that what we are asking people to do is difficult, that it can incur huge sacrifice and loss and will often require enormous upheaval and change. We are asking people to leave not only a “lifestyle” of sexual activity, but an entire world, populated with family, friends, co-workers, colleagues, and an entire global culture that embraces and aggressively promotes it.

I include not only the experience of leaving the “gay lifestyle,” but of leaving a worldview, a cultural paradigm that accepts and promotes sexual license of any kind in general. It is more than the questions surrounding the so-called “ex-gay” movement, and more than the issue of living chastely in an increasingly sexually obsessed world.

How ought a person who experiences same-sex attraction react when it begins to dawn on him that, for whatever reason, he cannot continue to live according to the world’s paradigm? We know how the homosexualist movement says he ought to react, and we know that the secular world (nearly all the world, therefore) is in more or less complete agreement. He should reject such self-negating thoughts. He should embrace his “orientation” and start to seek out same-sex sexual relationships, and carry on in the way that they tell us life is now normally lived.

He should engage in sexual encounters with various people, sometimes setting up “relationships” for varying lengths of time, breaking up, moving on, finding someone else, perhaps cohabitating, and maybe, some day, “settling down” with one person, either in “marriage,” or not, as the mood strikes. This is what the world now presents to us as normal. Nearly every television show and movie set in our times says this is just how people live nowadays. 

It is only too easy for those of us who live out here in The Real to forget how totally different our lives are from that of the majority of our fellow men. We shout, “jump!” because we see a whole other lush, green and happy world, but they see nothing but the shadows on the cave wall.

But those few of us left who think this is not a very good way to live, that it is morally and psychologically destructive, have in large part to forge our own way in life, figure out a set of rules and standards to live by alone, all the while fighting the pressure to conform. Even for those of us not plagued by sexual feelings towards people of the same sex it isn’t easy.

It is particularly not easy for those of us who have decided later in life to try to embrace a different path, but who had previously followed the world’s advice, and who had never known any other way of living. What does it take to totally change a worldview, a method of organizing one’s life and all social relationships? How hard is it to reinvent a way of life that the world has not only abandoned, but aggressively rejected and condemned?

The cost will usually be, at least, the loss of nearly all one’s friends, sometimes even very close friends. Very often it will include alienating, sometimes permanently, one’s own family. Since the Sexual Revolution’s paradigm has now been embraced by three or four or more generations, it will often mean alienation from parents and siblings.

It will sometimes mean the loss of good relations with co-workers and colleagues, and sometimes even the loss of jobs and careers. I know a man, a previously highly respected author, who was totally rejected by the entire literary establishment of his home country, a heavily secular nation, when he embraced Catholicism, including its sexual moral teachings. He told me that he expected he would never be published again outside the Catholic niche press. None of his previous friends would speak to him and for the first two years his mother had refused to take his calls.

He had been asked again and again why, if he felt he had to become a Christian, he could not have become an Anglican. And why this “sudden obsession” with “outdated” and “retrograde” sexual morality? He said that, in essence, he was treated as he would have been in the 19th century had he “come out” as a homosexual. Chastity, in other words, is the new perversion.

It is a momentous decision to leave that world, and people who make that transition compare it to leaving the Matrix: a painful, shocking and revelatory experience of a totally new and previously unguessed-at world that can leave the person disoriented, feeling as though he is now living in a kind of “parallel universe” in which he is alone and alienated from friends and family and fellow citizens.

There is an increasing number of us “converts” to a more morally sane life, who often find that once we have made the transition we are alone again. And even when we find others, a new community and friends – usually in a church – we learn that we must keep the door to the past closed. It’s not that we fear rejection, far from it, and it is not even a matter of shame.

But we understand that in a civilized society, no one wants to hear about barbarity, and we learn that to keep our past life closely in mind is to allow it to continue to rule the present. Close friends will know about our past, but, outside the most intimate circles it is passed over silently. We have reinvented ourselves and moved on, but the price is sometimes to become people with no past. To be wholly remade, it is necessary to leave behind the person we were.

It works. I can say that it is possible to be radically morally rebuilt, that one can reconstruct an entire personality, consciously dismantle past habits of thought and approach to life and replace them with better ones. The damage from the previous life, whether physical or psychological, can be permanent, but it is possible to construct a way of living that is morally and psychologically and physically healthy, and reorder a life in such a way that the damage does not rule your present. 

But it’s expensive. For me, it started when I was still living in British Columbia. I felt something new beginning in my mind and felt a yearning spring up that could not be satisfied by anything I’d experienced… the usual convert’s tale.

I’d been aware all my life that the kind of world we lived in, and the kind of life we lived in it, was somehow just not right. I loved old films and television shows that depicted a totally different way of living. I was close to my grandparents and wondered why we no longer lived that way. When I moved to the mainland in my early 20s, I somehow started going to Mass again, and that was when the real struggle began. I knew full well that the way I lived and thought about life was deeply at odds with the Church.

But I was alone. None of my friends were Catholic and none of them could begin to understand what it was I had begun to talk about. And I had made no friends at the large inner city parish I attended. I had tried to join a few things, and had volunteered a bit, but I could see that I had nothing in common with them. It seemed as though these people lived in another universe, one I could not even want to enter. A priest suggested I get involved in the pro-life movement, and I rejected this idea out of hand as totally absurd.

I thought I could only ask God for help. I prayed for “Catholic friends.” This brought no change, so I scaled down and said, “All right then, just one. Just one Catholic friend.” In the end, I simply got up and left one day. I’ve written elsewhere that I just got in a car and went “on holiday” out east, and never returned. When I landed in the far-eastern Canadian town where I was to undertake my own radical conversion, I only stopped there because I had run out of continent.

And it was there I discovered a whole new world, a moral universe of whose existence I had been previously totally ignorant. I met my “Catholic friends,” and was able to start the painful task of first deconstructing and then rebuilding my entire worldview, my character, my beliefs, my total understanding of life, the universe, and everything.

“Painful”? I barely survived. It took a year but I emerged a new kind of person in a new kind of world that I had never suspected existed. I met a group of other people who had undergone the same experience and we traded war stories. We agreed that it was like living in a parallel universe, and we bonded over the loss of previous friendships and family relationships. We helped each other, this little group of Catholic refugees on the rain-washed East Coast, to figure out a way to live in a world to which we no longer belonged. 

We talk about the programs set up by various individuals and groups that propose to help people, (mainly men) leave the homosexual lifestyle. We defend the right of psychotherapists to offer healing and help for people who have been damaged by their own choices and by the violence and sins of others. We lobby our Parliaments, we write articles, we even argue in comment boxes on the internet. We sometimes get brave and give talks and engage in public debates where we confront our ideological opponents in public venues. In all this, we rightly speak against the New Paradigm that the world has embraced and we urge people to reject it. It’s a form of evangelization.

But I think we need to keep in mind, while we are doing this good work, that what we are asking people to do, concretely, is momentous. Indeed, from the point of view of heaven, it is of cosmic significance. In less exalted terms, however, we are asking something almost unimaginably difficult of people ensnared in a way of living and thinking that they may not even completely understand themselves.

So much of our anti-culture, our death-culture, has been simply absorbed unconsciously, so much of it has been fed to us with our Fruit Loops and Saturday Morning Cartoons from earliest childhood, that we often have no way of knowing anything else exists. We have become people trapped in Plato’s Cave, knowing only the vaguest shadows of reality.

It is only too easy for those of us who live out here in The Real to forget how totally different our lives are from that of the majority of our fellow men. We shout, “jump!” because we see a whole other lush, green and happy world, but they see nothing but the shadows on the cave wall.

Ultimately, the Matrix is not only unreal, it is designed to make men miserable, but in such a way that they are hardly aware of being miserable. It not only enslaves, but tortures its victims. There is a reason that suicide, divorce, drug use, violent crime, self-harm, eating disorders, depression, … misery, in short, have grown to such colossal proportions in our societies.

If I may make a suggestion, maybe we could start writing and talking about how much better it is to live in The Real. How much happier it is possible to be when living a morally integrated life of self-control, not being pushed around either by lust or by the merciless demands of a lust-worshipping culture...a life of real freedom, in other words. It might help make the jump less frightening.


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