Christopher O. Tollefsen

Dismantling the new atheism

Christopher O. Tollefsen
By Christopher Tollefsen

July 5, 2012 ( - Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, collectively known as the “new atheists,” embody one of the most aggressive recent manifestations of both “scientism” and ”naturalism.” This new atheism is characterized by extreme forms of both scientism, a view about knowledge that holds that only what can be demonstrated scientifically deserves to be considered knowledge, and naturalism, a view about reality that holds that only the material world is real. Hence it is hostile to religion in all forms, viewing it as merely a kind of superstition; it is likewise hostile to much “folk” understanding, including traditional claims about the nature and source of morality.

It is thus good news for everyone that Alvin Plantinga, one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, has addressed and, I should say, systematically dismantled, the claims of the new atheists in his recently published book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Plantinga’s book, generally written at a level accessible to any educated person, is essential reading for anyone concerned not only with theclaims of the new atheists and what can be said contrary to those claims, but also, as I shall discuss below, with their way of making those claims, for they have adopted a style hostile to the very idea of public discourse, a style that now threatens almost every area of contested moral and political discourse in our country.

Plantinga defends two claims throughout his book. One is that there is “a superficial conflict but deep concord between theistic religion and science;” the other is that there is “a superficial concord and deep conflict between naturalism and science.” The bulk of the book is devoted to the first claim. Plantinga begins by discussing the conflict between theism’s claims that God acts in the world as a creator, sustainer, and guide (claims common to at least the three Abrahamic religions), and Darwin’s claim to have discovered the means—random mutation plus natural selection—by which later species, including human beings, have evolved from earlier species.

The claim of the new atheists is that Darwin’s “dangerous idea,” as Dennett calls it, proves that there is no divine agency responsible for the world. As Dennett explains, “an impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe.” But the claims of Darwin show no such thing: even if Darwinism accurately identifies the mechanism by which evolution has occurred, Plantinga notes, “it is perfectly possible that the process of natural selection has been guided and superintended by God, and that it could not have produced our world without that guidance.”

Moreover, there is a very good reason for thinking that the world as it is would not have been possible but for God’s agency, and that is the existence of creatures with minds. Theists believe, as Locke put it, that it is “impossible to conceive that ever pure incogitative Matter should produce a thinking intelligent Being.” Mind, theists believe, can only come from mind (or Mind). So, on the basis of this argument and several others, Plantinga concludes Part I of his book by claiming that the conflict between Darwin and theism is only apparent.

The conflict is somewhat greater as regards other scientific claims; in particular, many claims coming from evolutionary psychology and historical biblical criticism are, as far as they go, incompatible with some or all aspects of, for example, Christian belief. That all human action is a result of mechanisms selected because they enhance the power of one’s genes to reproduce is clearly incompatible with Christian normative demands to love one’s neighbor: one is not doing that if one’s actions are really undertaken for the propagation of one’s genes. And to varying degrees, the claims of historical biblical scholarship are either in conflict with revealed religion, if those claims deny straightforwardly the possibility of supernatural action in the world, or fall far short of the claims of religion, if they methodologically abstain from using any but naturalistic assumptions.

Yet none of these claims, argues Plantinga, provides defeaters for religious belief; and the reason for this is that the evidence base against which a Christian, for example, assesses the claims of evolutionary biology or biblical scholarship, includes claims that cannot be known only by science’s methodological naturalism.

Most prominently, Christians hold that some truths are known by faith, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; faith, like knowledge, is thus aimed at the truth. Plantinga writes, “My evidence base contains the belief that God has created human beings in his image. I now learn that, given an evidence base that doesn’t contain that belief, the right thing to believe is that those mechanisms [of faith] are not truth-aimed; but of course that doesn’t give me any reason at all to amend or reject my belief that in fact they are truth-aimed.”

In other words, if we take evidence gathered only from one source of truth, we will fail to have a defeater for a claim that appears true on the basis of all of the possible sources of truth: so even though the witnesses say they saw me slash a colleague’s tires (perceptual evidence), if I remember being out of town that day (memorial evidence), then the witness claims do not defeat my belief that I did not slash the tires.

But can’t the new atheists simply help themselves to the premise that science is the only source of knowledge? We might wonder on what basis they could: surely it is not a claim of science that science is the only source of knowledge. But this, as we will see, is only one way in which extreme naturalism threatens to be its own worst enemy.

In the third part of the book, Plantinga turns to the question of whether in fact theism might be in concord with contemporary science, rather than in conflict. After looking at, and giving a fairly weak endorsement to, some arguments in support of intelligent design and fine-tuning, Plantinga argues that in fact the theistic worldview is as a whole deeply consonant with the goals and successes of contemporary science.

This is because theism holds, as atheistic naturalism denies, that God has created us in his image, as rational beings. But as rational, yet finite, beings, we are truth-seekers, and for the theist it makes perfectly good sense to think that God has also created a world that is available to us to know: “God created both us and our world in such a way that there is a certain fit or match between the world and our cognitive faculties.”

Plantinga then identifies a number of features of our world, and our cognitive relationship to that world, that are much more likely, and make much more sense, on a theistic than on an atheistic picture: the reliability and regularity of nature, and its working in accordance with law; the role of mathematics in the understanding of nature; the possibility of induction; the appropriateness of theoretical virtues such as simplicity; and even the empirical nature of science, which Plantinga argues is underwritten by the contingency of divine creation. In all these respects modern science is deeply compatible with theism, a fact that renders unsurprising the further fact that all the great founders of modern science were theists, working from a deeply Christian background.

So the conflict between science and religion is, Plantinga shows, largely bogus (and I have only scratched the surface of his arguments here). But things are even worse from the standpoint of naturalism, for on the naturalist account, there is no good reason to think that our cognitive faculties are truth-tracking. After all, it is not because those faculties contribute to true beliefs that they are selected for in the Darwinian account; it is because they are likely to contribute to survival.

Can the naturalist expect, as the theist clearly can, that her cognitive faculties are reliable, i.e., that they lead to true beliefs? Since natural selection does not select for truth, or truth-tracking faculties, but for other unrelated properties, we have no reason to expect so given naturalism. Of course, we have very good reason to think our beliefs are reliable; so this claim should not bother most people. And non-naturalistic theists will believe that even if evolution is true, God has overseen evolution with a view to the reliability of our cognitive faculties. The naturalist cannot rely on any such claim.

But since the inability to rely on cognitive faculties as reliably truth-tracking is a defeater for any belief whatsoever, it is a defeater also for naturalism; accordingly naturalism turns out, on Plantinga’s argument, to be self-defeating, and cannot be rationally accepted.

So Plantinga gives a wealth of argument for the theist to use against the claims of atheism. And in this, it must be said, he exercises considerably more intellectual virtue than his opponents. Plantinga’s early chapters are devastating in revealing that the prime architects of the new atheism almost inevitably gravitate toward straw-man characterizations of their opponents’ views, attribute venal motives to their opponents, and fail to investigate the intellectual sources of Christianity, giving no weight, for example, to the classical arguments of Aquinas and Locke, or the arguments of contemporary theists such as Swinburne and van Inwagen. Their rhetoric is inevitably condescending, as the development of the recent cult of the “flying spaghetti monster” makes clear.

But what is worse, some of the new atheists seem to have adopted this strategy deliberately. Plantinga quotes from a blog post of Dawkins in which he says that those unconvinced by the new atheists “are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.”

Plantinga speaks of the “melancholy” with which one should view this spectacle; yet it seems increasingly characteristic of an important strand of intellectual, if the word is appropriate, approach to the most contentious issues of the day. Those who dissent from academically “respectable” views about religion, evolution, global warming, sexual ethics, the nature of marriage, and the value of unborn human life are increasingly addressed with scorn and public shaming rather than intellectual argument and reasoned discourse; and their opponents are often unwilling even to acknowledge their good will and good faith. This is not a strategy compatible with a love of truth or a love of neighbors, and those on its receiving end should not, of course, respond in kind. The wealth of argument in Where the Conflict Really Lies points to an altogether better path.

Christopher O. Tollefsen, Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina, is the editor of Bioethics with Liberty and Justice: Themes in the Work of Joseph M. Boyle. Tollefsen sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse. This article has been republished from Public Discourse with permission.

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Court strikes down Wisconsin law requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges

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By Ben Johnson

CHICAGO, November 24, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) - In a split decision, a three-judge panel ruled to strike down a Wisconsin law requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the law, signed by Gov. Scott Walker in July 2013, had no rational basis in the law.

"A woman who experiences complications from an abortion...will go to the nearest hospital, which will treat her regardless of whether her abortion doctor has admitting privileges," ruled Richard Posner, a Reagan appointee, and David Hamilton, an Obama appointee.

Their ruling affirmed a decision by U.S. District Judge William Conley, an Obama appointee, who declared the law unconstitutional in March. Judge Conley wrote that pro-life laws will "almost certainly" cause "irreparable harm to those women who will be foreclosed from having an abortion."

Affiliated Medical Services, which brought the lawsuit together with Planned Parenthood, argued the law would force it to close the AMS Milwaukee abortion office.

Judge Daniel Manion, a Reagan appointee, issued a strongly worded dissent calling his colleagues' views an "extreme position."

"Every circuit to rule on similar admitting-privileges laws like the one at issue here has uniformly upheld them," he wrote. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled such laws are "obviously beneficial."

Supporters of the law say that requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges assures continuity of care in the event a woman suffers a botched abortion. "Between 2009 and 2013, at least nineteen women who sought abortions at Planned Parenthood clinics in Wisconsin subsequently received hospital treatment for abortion-related complications," Judge Manion wrote in his dissent.

After Tonya Reaves died from complications from an abortion in a Chicago Planned Parenthood, doctors accused the facility of "abandonment of a patient."

The Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the constitutionality of a Texas law requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges, which closed more than half of the abortion facilities in the state.

"Last night, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled that the admitting privileges portion of Sonya's Law is unconstitutional," Wisconsin Right to Life said following Monday's ruling. "Now, we must look to the Supreme Court for the protection of women's health and safety after an abortion complication."

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Father Bill Miscamble
Lisa Bourne

Notre Dame forces priest-professor to back off project promoting authentic Catholic education

Lisa Bourne
By Lisa Bourne

NOTRE DAME, Indiana, November 24, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) -- Notre Dame University has made an apparent move to squelch the effort of one of its venerable professors to provide Notre Dame students information to help ensure they get an authentic Catholic education.  

Holy Cross Father Bill Miscamble, longtime Notre Dame history professor and prior History Department chair, was compelled to disassociate with a website created for him to help students and parents identify faculty and courses that best foster a Catholic education at the University.

Two days after went live, Father Miscamble had to make the announcement, “I regret that I can say only that I am required to end my involvement with the NDCatholic site and am not at liberty to say why.”

LifeSiteNews inquired with Father Miscamble on the situation, and he responded, “I am very sorry, but I cannot comment on this matter. God bless you.”

LifeSiteNews inquired as well with Notre Dame and did not hear back by press time. was launched November 9 by Sycamore Trust, a group of Notre Dame alumni who formed in 2006 over concern for Notre Dame’s weakening Catholic identity.

Sycamore Trust “was born of intense concern over the loss by Notre Dame of its historic claim to a robust Catholic identity,” according to its website.

The school, long regarded as the nation’s premiere Catholic university, has been the center of troubles over its Catholic identity for decades. In recent years, it has come under strong criticism for its decision to award President Obama an honorary doctorate in 2009, and over its handling of the HHS contraception mandate. It is also frequently criticized for various events and speakers hosted on campus in contradiction of Catholic teaching, and the actions of some faculty.

“The University’s honoring of President Obama in opposition to the policy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and in defiance of its own bishop, together with such other unsettling events as The Vagina Monologues and The Queer Film Festival, have raised serious doubt whether Notre Dame retains a vibrant Catholic identity,” the Sycamore Trust's website states. “The dramatic shrinking of the Catholic faculty, measured against the school’s Mission Statement, confirms that it does not.”

The NDCatholic site launched November 9, “for students who are seeking an authentic Catholic education at Notre Dame — one that will allow them to grasp the complementary nature of faith and reason, to develop a deep understanding of and love for the truth, and to gain a clear appreciation of the Catholic moral and social vision.”

“For a Catholic institution to live up fully to its promise, it must have devoted teachers and scholars who aim to stir in their students a hunger for the truth,” Father Miscamble is quoted as saying with the announcement of

LifeSiteNews did not hear back from Sycamore Trust with comment prior to press time.

The group stresses on its website that it does not take issue with non-Catholic faculty at a Catholic university, and in fact, Father Miscamble's list of 100 or so recommended teachers is not limited to Catholics. Rather, “It is a question of balance, and unhappily the necessary balance in favor of Catholic faculty has been lost over the years at Notre Dame in its drive for secular acclaim.”

The NDCatholic website had been enthusiastically welcomed and commended, Sycamore Trust states in its announcement of Father Miscamble’s being removed from involvement in the site. apparently crashed on its first day due to heavy demand.

The site had opened with a video of Father Miscamble explaining its content, along with his longer written introduction, both of which the priest later requested Sycamore Trust remove because of his being directed to disassociate with the site.

Sycamore Trust Chairman Bill Dempsey says Father Miscamble told him he must disassociate himself from the website the day after it launched.

Dempsey emailed Father Miscamble the next day, telling him he was surprised and deeply disappointed, and also that he was concerned Notre Dame would look bad in the matter without a solid explanation for the decision. Dempsey asked Father Miscamble what reason should be given.

This prompted Father Miscamble’s statement that he could only say he’d been required to end his involvement with the NDCatholic site and was not at liberty to say why.

Father Miscamble, a former seminary rector who is also an author, has been a permanent faculty member of Notre Dame since 1988, also completing an MA, Ph.D. and Master of Divinity at the University prior to joining the faculty.  

He is also known for his pro-life support, founding Faculty for Life, and for speaking out about concerns over Notre Dame’s Catholic identity. Father Miscamble was among many who criticized the University’s scandalous 2009 honoring of Barack Obama in light of Obama’s rabid pro-abortion stance and policies.

In 2013 he released his book For Notre Dame - Battling for the Heart and Soul of a Catholic University.

“Where I see a kind of two faces is Notre Dame is a school that wants to be the preeminent Catholic university to a variety of constituencies, yet we face all the temptations to conform to all the universities with which we want to compete, and that is done often at a cost to our Catholicity,” he said at the time. “I say that we worship at the golden calf of U.S. News and World Report’s rankings, with all that implies.”

“There is a real struggle going on for the future of Notre Dame, a struggle for what kind of place this will be,” he said. “Notre Dame needs to be held accountable.”

Despite Father Miscamble being made to pull out of participating in the website, the Sycamore Trust is moving forward with

“For our part, we deeply regret this development, which we think a disservice to students and parents and, indeed, to the university,” the group states. “Even though Father Miscamble must withdraw, we will build upon what he has given us in continuing this project.”

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Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins
Lianne Laurence


The ‘tyranny’ of sex-change surgery and its political sycophants

Lianne Laurence
By Lianne Laurence

TORONTO, November 24, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) – A recent move by Ontario’s Liberal government to expand referrals for sex-reassignment surgeries (SRS) opened yet another front in the decades-long political and ideological war over the perception and treatment of gender dysphoria.

This mental disorder is characterized by a repudiation or aversion to one’s sex, and whether surgically altering genitalia is legitimate treatment, or a mutilation vainly done to satisfy a mental delusion, is the most consequential question for transgendered persons themselves, and one of the more controversial issues surrounding “transgender rights.”

These have “emerged as the next big thing” in the United States in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision that homosexual “marriage” is constitutionally protected, says Peter Sprigg, policy analyst for the Washington-based Family Research Council (FRC), and co-author of the June 2015 report “Understanding and Responding to the Transgender Movement.”

And the “trans” lobby has been abetted by political, medical, academic, and cultural institutions that are “both imbued with and ruled by the false sexual ideology that already has normalized homosexuality and imposed gay ‘marriage’,” says Dutch psychiatrist Gerard van den Aardweg.

Author of On the Origins and Treatment of Homosexuality and The Battle for Normality: Self-Therapy for Homosexual Persons, the Catholic van den Aardweg says that “giving in to the lure of SRS” is the “greatest danger for a person with some form of this so-called gender dysphoria.”

He regards sex-reassignment surgery and “accompanying hormonal administrations” as “sort of a half-suicide, an act of despair,” he told LifeSiteNews in an email.

“People who are obsessed with the idea – which is an idée fixe – that their happiness depends on ‘changing’ their sex suffer from a mental sickness that cannot and will not be cured by surgical and physiological tinkering away at their body which disguises them as persons of the opposite sex,” he warned.

“For SRS is indeed an operation of disguise through the causing of irreparable damage to the body. The victim is no less a man or woman as before, so the whole thing is in fact a big comedy, or actually, a tragedy.”

Post-surgery suicide rate soars

Echoing that view is Dr. Paul McHugh, who as chief psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins, which pioneered sex-reassignment surgeries in the 1960s, discontinued the procedures there in 1979.

And most medical institutions thereupon followed Johns Hopkins’ lead, says Sprigg.

“There are actually very few places that perform gender reassignment surgery, even in a country as large as the United States,” he told LifeSiteNews. “The people who are experts in medicine, like the large university hospitals and teaching centers and so forth, they don’t do sex reassignment surgery, and they haven’t done it for decades.”

The Catholic McHugh has since become an outspoken critic of transgenderism, describing it as a “pathogenic meme” in June 2015. “The idea that one’s sex is fluid and a matter open to choice runs unquestioned through our culture,” he wrote, and is “doing much damage to families, adolescents, and children and should be confronted as an opinion with out biological foundation wherever it emerges.”

And in a controversial June 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed, McHugh explained that Johns Hopkins stopped SRS after observing no demonstrable difference in “psycho-social adjustments” in patients who had had surgery than in those who had not. Such negligible benefits “seemed an inadequate reason for surgically amputating normal organs.”

A Swedish long-term study published in 2011 tragically vindicated this decision, McHugh noted. It revealed that about ten years after sex-reassignment surgery, transgendered patients “began experiencing increasing mental difficulties.”

“Most shockingly, their suicide mortality rose almost 20-fold above the comparable non-transgender population,” he wrote. “The high suicide rate certainly challenges the surgery prescription.”

The transgendered “Catch-22”: mentally ill yet normal

But transgender activists have demonized such views as McHugh’s, and discount evidence in favor of “personal testimonies and political demands,” points out Sprigg.

“People on the left tend to say, ‘We need to have evidence-based policies,’ and they’re very self-righteous about that everything needs to be evidence-based, but the transgender movement is not evidence-based,” he said. “It just is not.”

Transgender activists have also benefited from the “broader LGBT movement” that “has been very successful in framing what they do as a civil rights issue, in the public, and in major cultural institutions like academia, and the new media and the entertainment media,” Sprigg told LifeSiteNews.

“No one wants to, or very few people, want to be portrayed as standing against some group’s civil rights.”

At the same time, transgendered persons face what Sprigg calls a “Catch-22”: they want to be perceived as normal, yet retain the benefits of being ill.

The “gay rights” movement lobbied successfully to have homosexuality removed from the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), in order to normalize that behavior, Sprigg said.

“Transgendered people can’t use the same strategy entirely, because they are seeking medical care and insurance coverage for their medical care, and therefore they have to have a diagnosis.”

That’s where the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) comes in.

Medically necessary, says WPATH

WPATH, which incidentally denounced McHugh’s Wall Street Journal op-ed as a “conservative” smear job, was founded the same year Johns Hopkins stopped doing sex-reassignment surgeries, and took the opposite tack.

Its list of “medically necessary sex reassignment procedures” includes, in part: “complete hysterectomy, bilateral mastectomy, chest reconstruction or augmentation as appropriate to each patient (including breast prostheses if necessary), genital reconstruction…facial hair removal, and certain facial plastic reconstruction as appropriate to the patient.”

WPATH’s guidelines, “although they give a veneer of science and medical legitimacy to the process, are very biased in favor of gender re-assignment,” Sprigg says. “Usually both the people who are making the recommendations for surgery and the people who are conducting the surgery are committed ideologically to the position that surgery is the solution.”

Van den Aardweg is even more blunt.

“Any really scientific international standard must be based on reality and not on ideological assertions,” he told LifeSiteNews. “Everyone can see that the gender ideology that promotes the normalization of transgenderism and SRS is being imposed on the world by powerful international organizations and political bodies.”

“These arrogantly establish norms and criteria, proclaim by decree that what is abnormal will henceforth be normal, what is healthy unhealthy, what is ethical unethical, and pretend there is scientific consensus for their insane theories, while it is just a question of political and ideological pressure, of tyranny.”

Moreover, the claim that people are “critically examined and that only non-disturbed people are admitted” for SRS rings “hollow.”

“There are no tests to differentiate possible ‘successful’ from ‘unsuccessful’ cases so the selection is fully arbitrary and, as I noted, the outcome is terrible anyway,” he stated. “The transition industry is a very expensive example of medical charlatanism.”

Ontario follows WPATH

As for the Ontario Liberal government, it adopts WPATH standards of care and has funded sex-reassignment surgeries since 2008.

According to Ministry of Health figures, the province approved surgeries for 604 people at a total cost of $8,943,000 in the seven years since, with $2.3 million spent in the last fiscal year for surgeries approved for 141 people.

But because SRS can only be approved through the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Health Minister Eric Hoskins announced earlier this month that he will “dramatically” increase the number of qualified professionals who can assess and refer for SRS in order to reduce a two-year waiting list of some 1,200 people.

This involves an amendment to Ontario’s regulations, posted on the government’s registry until December 21 for comments from the public, which won’t be made public.

It’s expected the amendment will receive the lieutenant governor’s approval, after in camera cabinet discussions and endorsement, in early 2016.

The ministry also confirmed that “at this time, there are no providers of genital SRS in Ontario” and most people go to Quebec for the surgeries. Hoskins told media that he is looking into “the provision of the surgical services.”

He also stated when announcing his proposed amendment November 6, that: “Every Ontarian has the right to be who they are.”

Resist the “sex-ideological tyranny”

Van den Aardweg views Hoskins’ decision as “intellectually and ethically…very primitive” and “obviously inspired by the gender ideology that has stupefied the minds of so many politicians.”

“Politically, it is a further step toward the implementation of the revolutionary sexual ideology that aims at the normalization of any and all sexual deviations and at equal rights for their practitioners, that is, equal to the rights of normally married people and families,” he added. “So it is about a lot more than only about the fate of the individuals on the waiting lists.”

However, the fate of those individuals is most likely to be tragic and potentially fatal. “The realistic help they need, they don’t get,” he pointed out. “They will be confirmed in their mental confusion and false identity.”

“Of course, speaking about rights, all this is contrary to their ‘right to be who they really are’, the sole right in this connection. There is no right to sickness, merely a right to health (care) and realistic compassion.”

“The sex-ideological tyranny of the establishment must be countered by the sustained spreading of correct and honest information and public pressure on the responsible politicians and political parties,” added van den Aardweg.

“Regardless of success or defeat in immediate skirmishes, this line of action will always bear fruit, sooner or later,” he pointed out, “and greatly help the victory of truth and real human values over lies and un-values at the time the tide of the present moral and spiritual war will take a turn for the better.”

Those wishing to comment on Ontario’s proposed amendment, go here.

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