Tom Gilson

Is It Wrong to Believe Your Beliefs Are True?

Chris, at Nihil Fit, and John DePoe, at Fides Quaerens Intellectum, are both blogging about something I was thinking about a while ago: Is it wrong to believe your beliefs are true? I phrased it as the question, “Come to the wrong conclusion, or wrong to come to a conclusion?

Some people consider it an affront that Christians think Christianity is true, and especially that if Christianity is true, then contradictory beliefs cannot be true.

We could try this on for size instead:

No person should hold to a belief about religion that suggests their own beliefs are better than others’.

Which suggests three questions in response:

Is that a belief?
Is it about religion?
Do you think it’s better than the belief I hold?

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35 thoughts on “Is It Wrong to Believe Your Beliefs Are True?

  1. I was thinking about this just this morning. I was thinking that Christian belief is a working model of the human condition, but unlike some other working models, it is one that requires its adherents to believe it is true for everyone. This is where it runs into trouble. I can’t say it’s “wrong” for Christians to think this way, but I can’t say it’s good thinking, either.

    What I would suggest (and I know you’ll disagree)
    is that there is a sort of dual-thinking that allows one to live within one’s own working model while also understanding that “truth” of others’ working models. It’s difficult, but doable.

  2. os, do you realize what you’re asking? If I may rephrase: Christians should convert to a postmodern idea of truth because that’s the “right” way of (dual-)thinking.

    How is this different from Christians asking a postmodernist to accept objective truth?

  3. If you escape from reason than anything and everything can be true and false. In other words no meaningful thought is possible.

    So we tend to restrict ourselves to rational thought so we can have meaningful ideas.

    If you as a Christian think your beliefs are wrong, rationally you should find another set of beliefs you think are closer to the truth.

    Otherwise you’re just being irrational.

  4. How about something like this: I believe that my working model is true, and some other person, whose experience of life has been very different from mine, believes that his working model is true. Neither of us can know absolutely for certain whether our model is true, because that information isn’t available to us (I know that Christians believe that that information is available, but as we have seen here, that is much in dispute). So the best thing for me to do is to continue to live according to my model, while also holding in my understanding that other models could also be true.

    Greg V: I said in my original comment that Christians would disagree with me. And, it’s not different than Christians asking a postmodernist to accept objective truth–BUT the advantage of my view is that it does not attempt to dominate other views while still asserting its personal importance.

  5. OS,

    You’re still not evading the problem with your view. Even in your answer to Greg, you’re still saying “the view that all views are correct is the only correct view”. Your statement about the advantage of your position is unintelligible.

    Your position is self-defeating. You can’t claim it’s wrong for Christians to think they’re right, since you apparently think you’re right as well. In your first comment, you accused Christians of “bad thinking” for assuming that some truths apply to everyone. Yet, you’re doing just that by saying that a postmodernist, relativistic attitude is the only good way to go.

    When push comes to shove, even postmodernists can’t deny that there is such a thing as objective truth. You’re either going to get hit by the train, or not. 1 plus 1 either equals 2 or it doesn’t. God either exists or He doesn’t. Jesus either rose from the dead, or He didn’t. There are situations where you apply a belief in universal, objective truth, because such truths are undeniable. You might disagree about whether Christianity is true or false, but it’s absurd to criticize it for suggesting that some things are always true.

  6. MedicineMan: Are you familiar with the concept of suspension of disbelief? I am suggesting that something similar occurs–or, we can use something similar–when considering others’ working models. (Of course, I also believe that much of Christian belief requires the suspension of disbelief, but that’s a topic for another post.)

    the view that all views are correct is the only correct view

    No, I said that we don’t know what is true. We can believe that our view is true, but we can’t know absolutely.

    I think that a postmodern, relativistic view is more moral because it is more inclusive. That’s my particular moral view; you may agree or disagree, according to your moral view. Neither of us knows who is ultimately “right,” because there is no ultimate right.

    When push comes to shove, even postmodernists can’t deny that there is such a thing as objective truth. You’re either going to get hit by the train, or not. 1 plus 1 either equals 2 or it doesn’t. God either exists or He doesn’t. Jesus either rose from the dead, or He didn’t.

    Perhaps. But eventually you know whether you’re going to get hit by the train; you never (at least in this life) know whether there is a God or Jesus rose from the dead. You may believe you know, but you can’t absolutely know. (Incidentally, I once saw a mathematical proof that 1 1=3, so I’m always hesitant when people use the 1 1=2 example.)

    I accept that some Christians believe that there are universal truths and carry out their lives within the context of that working model. I also accept that some Buddhists think there are some universal truths and carry out their lives within the context of that working model. I disagree, and live within a different model.

    Since I’ve been reading this blog, I’ve come to think that there are two kinds of people in the world (or at least in America)–the kind that think the way Tom et al think, and the kind that think the way I think. I wonder if it’s an inherent thing, and whether there will always be that separation.

  7. Hi OS,

    Neither of us can know absolutely for certain whether our model is true, because that information isn’t available to us (I know that Christians believe that that information is available, but as we have seen here, that is much in dispute).

    But eventually you know whether you’re going to get hit by the train; you never (at least in this life) know whether there is a God or Jesus rose from the dead. You may believe you know, but you can’t absolutely know.

    Do you absolutely know these things?
    How do you know that nobody knows whether God exists? How do you know that nobody has that information?
    How do you know this absolutely? As an adherent to this view do you think it true for everyone?

  8. Sorry, Charlie, but I’m not interested in going over that ground again. Instead, I have a question for you and the other Christians who read this blog: Do you think people who believe differently than you do, people who are Buddhists or Muslims or liberal Christians or Jews or agnostic or atheist–can lead lives that are as morally good as those who believe in Christianity the way that you do?

  9. Hi OS,
    Yes, I do. Has anybody suggested otherwise on this thread? Has Tom ever said, in contrast to the countless times he has claimed the opposite, that Christians have a monopoly on moral behaviour?

    But that has nothing to do with the OP, or your comments, or my response.

    Too bad you’re happy changing the subject to suit yourself while ignoring your own inability to live up to your personal claims once again. That behaviour falls within the domain of morality, too.

  10. Charlie,
    If you believe that–that non-Christians, even atheists, can live lives that are as morally good as Christian lives, then why does any of this–any of what is discussed here–matter? Isn’t the over-arching goal to live a morally good life? And if we can accomplish that regardless of our belief systems, then why do you need to believe that Christianity is the “best” belief?

  11. I wonder how that’s relevant to the topic Mr. Gilson raised.

    It seems a bit simplistic anyhow. We don’t start life with equal moral temperaments. A morally-inclined Atheist may seem rather virtuous. A quarrel-inclined Christian may seem rather mean. But I wonder how more virtuous the Atheist would be if they were renewed by Christ. Or how more quarrelsome the Christian would be without him.

    That we may find rubies in one pond and stones at the bottom of another pond tells us nothing of the quality of the water in each pond. The quality of Christianity isn’t discovered by anecdote.

  12. OP = original post.

    Why does truth matter, OS?
    What was it you were seeking again? Understanding you said. Understanding of everything, right?
    Without truth?
    Not possible.

    “Isn’t the over-arching goal to live a morally good life? ”
    No.
    And that’s another belief about religion. Should I believe that one?

  13. OS,

    Suspension of disbelief is fine; that’s really got nothing to do with the idea of denying that there is such a thing as “truth”. Plausibility and actuality are not the same thing.

    If you saw a ‘proof’ that 1 plus 1 = 3, it’s wrong. You may believe that it’s possible but I don’t think you’d accept a $30 charge rather than $20 at a store, even if the clerk’s excuse was that $10 plus $10 was really $30. Nor would you accept that getting married automatically makes you a polygamist, since 1 person plus 1 person equals 3 persons. That’s what I mean about postmodernists and truth. You tend to be selective about what truths you think are relative.

    Saying that an inclusive view is better does two things. First, it proves the point that you think you are correct (by being inclusive), and Christians are wrong (by being exclusive). Second, you’re assuming beforehand that there is no objective truth, which means you’re using circular reasoning. You may claim to live with a “different model” that rejects absolute truths, but you’re only rejecting certain things as absolute. After all, your view (which you think is right) is that there are absolutely no absolute truths.

    There are many things that we do not absolutely know before some certain time period; that does not make their truth invalid. When a contestant plays “Deal Or No Deal”, they cannot absolutely know, at the moment of decision, if the case they picked first has a million dollars in it. That doesn’t change the fact that their case either contains a million dollars or it doesn’t. That’s an objective, absolute truth.

    Plausibility helps us make decisions, but it does not create reality. You are right that it is possible to be wrong in our beliefs; but you’re wrong that it’s not possible to be right. Truth is exclusive by definition. If it’s true that I am in Texas, then it’s necessarily not true that I am in Canada. If it’s true that the Cleveland Browns won a football game, it’s necessarily not true that their opponent won the same game. Exclusivity is a property of truth.

  14. os,

    Incidentally, I once saw a mathematical proof that 1 plus 1=3

    You didn’t see a valid proof. I’m sure you knew that, but for the sake of others I’m throwing this aside into the discussion.

    There are lots of these little proofs running around out there, showing that 1=2 and the like. (Here’s one for you.) Most of them use a nice bit of trickery by which they conceal a division by zero. You don’t see it happening when it first crops up in the proof, but if you go back through and substitute the values that were derived for x, y, etc., it pops into plain view.

  15. Good points, Medicine Man. Thanks.

    os, you wrote,

    If you believe that–that non-Christians, even atheists, can live lives that are as morally good as Christian lives, then why does any of this–any of what is discussed here–matter? Isn’t the over-arching goal to live a morally good life? And if we can accomplish that regardless of our belief systems, then why do you need to believe that Christianity is the “best” belief?

    In addition to other responses above, there is this: Christianity is not primarily about learning to live a moral life or being a good person. It’s primarily about living in right relationship with our Creator and God.

    So I have to put a nuance on the answer Charlie already gave to your question about non-Christians living morally. Yes, it’s quite possible for a non-Christian’s behavior to match the morality of any Christian’s. As Charlie said, we’ve never disputed that here.

    Without belief in Christ, though, it is impossible to live in anything approaching a right relationship with God. Jesus said He is the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Him. He said elsewhere in John that to believe in Him is to do the works of God.

    And there is the incredibly crucial matter of death versus life. No matter how great your behavior may be, it won’t get you the new life that Christ offers those who will recognize they need Him and who will follow Him.

    In summary, Christianity is about behavior yes, but that’s secondary to gaining new life and living in a right relationship with God through Christ. Those primary factors indeed must come first, for they are what empower Christians to follow Christ’s ways.

    There is good news there, by the way: you don’t have to clean yourself up first to follow Christ. You start by acknowledging you need Him, and trusting Him to take it from there.

  16. There are lots of these little proofs running around out there, showing that 1=2 and the like. (Here’s one for you.)

    My first look at that example was a little unsettling because the error didn’t jump out at me. I saw the divide by zero error on my second look.

    Here’s one that legitimately proves 0.9999… equals 1. A lot of people think this can’t be true…but it is.

  17. Christianity is not primarily about learning to live a moral life or being a good person. It’s primarily about living in right relationship with our Creator and God.

    Isn’t this then a personal issue, between God and self? Why then do many Christians want to influence politics in this country?

    MedicineMan, you’re not reading what I write closely enough.

  18. Now you’re reading it as an either/or, which it is not. I did not say morality did not matter, but that the relationship with God is primary.

    You’re not reading what I write closely enough 🙂 .

  19. OS,

    No offense, but perhaps you’re not being clear. You don’t think it’s good for people to think that truth applies to everyone. You think it’s better if people take the approach that truth is relative. Do you believe the relativity of truth applies to everyone? If so, then you’ve discovered at least one absolute truth you do believe in.

    You said: “[Christianity] is one that requires its adherents to believe it is true for everyone. This is where it runs into trouble.” Unless you think that it’s troublesome to believe that 1 plus 1 equals two for everyone, then this is an invalid criticism. I could just as well criticize physicists for believing that the law of gravity applies to everyone. Or, I could criticize astronomers for believing that the existence of the sun is something that’s true for every human being on earth.

    There are some things that simply are objectively true. That’s why I pointed out the inconsistency in postmodernism, which you claimed to espouse. Which particular truths are “relative” to a postmodernist becomes highly subject to self-serving interpretation.

    You also said: “I think that a postmodern, relativistic view is more moral because it is more inclusive. That’s my particular moral view; you may agree or disagree, according to your moral view. Neither of us knows who is ultimately “right,” because there is no ultimate right.”

    Now you’re claiming moral superiority, meaning you think it’s more “right” to have your view, which is not very inclusive. You’re excluding the exclusivists, so to speak. Unless you are deliberately doing that which you feel is immoral, you presumably think it’s okay to believe that you are right and others are wrong.

    You’re also claiming that there is no such thing as “ultimate right”, which I can only assume means “absolute truth”. That’s why I pointed out that you do, in fact, believe in absolutes, one way or the other. Trying to deny absolute truth is self-defeating.

    Lastly, you’re positing “inclusiveness” as a virtue. Again, this is an area where postmodern attitudes self-destruct. There is always some line that you’ll draw, beyond which you don’t think certain things are acceptable. There’s nothing wrong with calling some things wrong, like rape, for example. Yet, to do so is to exclude and be intolerant of the rapist. I’m suggesting that treating inclusiveness as a virtue in and of itself is also self-defeating.

    If there is something there I’m not understanding, please let me know.

  20. Tom,
    I will change my question: Isn’t this then primarily a personal issue, between God and self? Why then do many Christians want to influence politics in this country?

  21. We want to influence politics because morality matters.

    We also believe economic well-being matters, and justice matters, and national security matters, and environmental policy matters, and roads and schools and public safety matter…. I mean, why does it seem strange to you that Christians would want to have some influence? Who doesn’t?

  22. MedicineMan:

    I think I’m being as clear as I can possibly be. It’s a complicated issue. But others have spoken on the same issues here much more eloquently than I have, so perhaps your criticism is justified.

    You don’t think it’s good for people to think that truth applies to everyone.

    No, I think there’s no way to know what the absolute truth is, if there is an absolute truth, which I doubt.

    You think it’s better if people take the approach that truth is relative.

    No, I think it’s more inclusive, and my particular moral position is that being more inclusive is more moral; however, I accept that others disagree with me.

    Do you believe the relativity of truth applies to everyone? If so, then you’ve discovered at least one absolute truth you do believe in.

    This argument has been tried before here. I neither believe nor disbelieve that the relativity of truth applies to everyone. I suspend my disbelief, holding a dialectical position that both may be correct, or neither, or parts of some, or both may be incorrect…who knows?

    Now you’re claiming moral superiority, meaning you think it’s more “right” to have your view, which is not very inclusive. You’re excluding the exclusivists, so to speak. Unless you are deliberately doing that which you feel is immoral, you presumably think it’s okay to believe that you are right and others are wrong.

    Nope. I’m holding my own moral position while respecting and suspending my disbelief, so to speak, about the value of others’ positions. For all I know, the exclusivists may be “right.” But I have to live within the framework of my own value system and my own working model of the human condition.

    Lastly, you’re positing “inclusiveness” as a virtue. Again, this is an area where postmodern attitudes self-destruct. There is always some line that you’ll draw, beyond which you don’t think certain things are acceptable. There’s nothing wrong with calling some things wrong, like rape, for example. Yet, to do so is to exclude and be intolerant of the rapist. I’m suggesting that treating inclusiveness as a virtue in and of itself is also self-defeating.

    To call rape wrong in my own moral view is not to be intolerant of the rapist. We’ve gone over this before here, although I don’t think you were part of those discussions.

  23. I’d also like to pick up on this line and work with it a bit:

    I was thinking that Christian belief is a working model of the human condition, but unlike some other working models, it is one that requires its adherents to believe it is true for everyone. This is where it runs into trouble. I can’t say it’s “wrong” for Christians to think this way, but I can’t say it’s good thinking, either.

    It’s subtle, but there’s a misconception here: that Christianity requires its adherents to believe it is true for everyone. I’m going to ask you to stick with me for a moment and catch what’s wrong with this. It’s largely right, so it will take a bit of work to tease out the error from among the truth.

    The truth is that Christians believe that the Biblical account of God and Christ is true. We believe that it is true for everyone, and that to enter a relationship with God through Christ, every person must agree with at least the basics of that message.

    That’s very close to what os wrote, but it’s not the same. The difference is in the assumption, unspoken here but explicit in later comments, that one could accept a truth as true, while not believing it is true for all persons. Thus os thinks we “require … adherents” to believe Christianity is true for everyone. Others, says os, can hold to their religious beliefs while acknowledging that others can just as rightly and validly hold to different beliefs. So Christianity “runs into trouble” through its exclusivity.

    Essentially, by this thinking, Christianity errs in saying that it is right while other beliefs are wrong.

    Christianity claims “there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” The shortest word in that phrase is “is,” but it’s crucial. This is a claim about reality. When a person affirms that there is one God, and has a good robust understanding of what the word “God” means, then there is no longer any question of contrary beliefs being true. And there is no requiring people with that belief to believe other beliefs are false.

    The requirement as such is in the law of non-contradiction. If there is one God, then pantheism, polytheism, and atheism are all false. If there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, then all other claimed paths to God must perforce be false. For we have shown (as if showing it were necessary!) that claims that 1=2 are false. If there is one mediator, there are not two.

    So Christians just believe there is one God and one way to God; and we respect the law of non-contradiction enough to know that this means contrary paths are not genuine.

    Think of it this way. Christianity says that Jesus Christ died on the cross, killed unjustly following horrific toruture, so that we might be brought to God. os says it’s fine if we believe that, but we ought also to believe other ways to God are valid and effective, too. It’s too bad God didn’t get the word a couple of thousand years ago. We could picture Him in heaven weeping and wailing and crying out, “My Son died! My Son died! They tortured Him! They killed Him! All this time I thought His death was necessary to restore My relationship with the people I love–but look! They’ve found a thousand other ways to do it! I DIDN’T HAVE TO LET HIM DIE! If only I had known!”

    So os is saying that Christianity is one of many valid truths, and God is an idiot for letting it be so. Christians must reject that, for obvious reasons.

    But I know many Christians who are less committed to non-contradiction; they believe in Jesus as their way to a relationship with God, but they think other ways may also be valid. os might think they are closer to the truth than someone like me, who says Jesus is the way and absolutely the only way. I would say instead that they are infected with fuzzy thinking. They have enough faith in the truth to be genuinely Christians, but they’re subject to a lot of confusion as well. This is not an epistemologically superior position, and it’s not morally superior either; it’s just confused. To turn around os’s quote above, “I can’t say it’s good thinking.”

    According to os, this exclusivity is where Christianity “runs into trouble.” Now this is true, we do run into trouble there. We run into trouble in the form of unpopularity, social disapproval, being called intolerant, and so on. But I will accept that kind of trouble. It’s better than the trouble one runs into by saying Christianity is true, and so are the religions that contradict it!

  24. By the way, I edited my 1:24 comment, almost immediately after I posted it, to add a second paragraph. If you read it in the interim you might not have seen that, and I thought you might want to know.

  25. OS,

    I certainly agree that it’s a complex issue. After your last response, I get the feeling that you’re really espousing a “leave me alone” kind of system. “We can’t know anything for sure, so we can’t judge anything either.”

    It may sound a little insensitive, but…your remarks give me the impression that the primary goal of your view is evading any accountability for anything at all. “If no one really knows, and no one judges, then nothing I do is ever wrong.”

    That might not be the case, but I can only go by what I’m seeing here. As you said, I was not part of prior discussions on the topic. You seem to be advocating a policy of “who knows, so who cares, leave me be.” Even your answer about the rapist was carefully couched as “wrong in MY moral view” (emphasis mine), implying that there might be a legitimate view where rape is moral.

    You seem to be primarily interested in making sure that there’s always some ‘wiggle room’ in everything. Giving up the ability to call anything absolutely true or false conveniently frees you from having anything you do be considered really right or wrong. What you’re describing isn’t really tolerance, it’s immunity.

    Your thinking may not be as inwardly-directed as all that, but you’re really going out of your way to avoid calling anything “right” or “wrong.” For what it’s worth, that’s the impression your comments are leaving on me.

  26. MedicineMan,
    Actually, it’s very, very important to me to act ethically, in both my personal and professional life. (I work in a profession that places a high value on acting ethically, and has a code of ethics that I must follow.) I call things “right” or “wrong” all the time, but I am always aware that this “right” and “wrong” is a judgement that takes places within a particular context. So, you see, “Giving up the ability to call anything absolutely true or false” does not “conveniently free [me] from having anything [I] do be considered really right or wrong.” If anything, it makes it necessary for me to be even more aware of all the implications of my actions.

  27. Tom, I understand what you’re saying, and I understand why your model (Christianity) leads you to think and act the way that you do. But it leaves us so far apart–at opposite ends of the spectrum. How, short of us all accepting your model, do you see us closing the space between us–or don’t you?

  28. OS,

    I’m not in any way questioning your ethics, or your character. I’m just pointing out that the way you describe ideas like “right” and “wrong” always leaves some way to deflect any possible criticism. That, because you could always brush off any indictment as a product of a ‘different view’ of morality (and not fully valid). And, that deflection requires using different standards for truth, depending on what areas of reality they refer to.

    That’s one of those concepts that’s just a “worldview” issue. Issues like these are based on assumptions and presumptions applied to experiences. In my opinion, I think you should be able to see the inherent contradictions in the view you’ve set up, and act to change your view accordingly.

    Turnabout is fair play, of course. I’ve made changes to my worldview (which is never easy or comfortable) on the basis of that kind of reflection, and I’d be willing to do so again, given sufficient reason.

    I think it’s worth saying that Christians have the logical advantage, since our view allows for the kind of absolute truths that everyone, even a postmodernist, has to acknowledge, without creating irrational exemptions. The Christian worldview does indeed have the market cornered on self-compatible, internal consistency.

    As this discussion (I think) has shown, Christians don’t have the market cornered on claims to universal truths. Every worldview includes some non-negotiable truths that which aren’t considered subject to personal opinion.

  29. ordinary seeker,

    “How, short of us all accepting your model, do you see us closing the space between us–or don’t you?”

    I am constrained by what I cannot change–even if I wanted to, which I do not. It’s what I’m referring to at the top of every blog page here–being held by the truth. I sincerely hope that what I’m presenting is not my model, but a decent representation of the unchanging truth, which was here long before I was.

    I would have to be strongly convinced otherwise in order to move very far from my current position. There are many things I’m still learning and understanding anew, but what we’ve been talking about here is firm in my beliefs.

    I really appreciate your question–closing the distance between us would be great. But in doing so I wouldn’t want to open any kind of new or greater distance between myself and the truth–and that’s an even stronger consideration for me.

  30. Hi again OS,

    No, I think there’s no way to know what the absolute truth is, if there is an absolute truth, which I doubt.

    Is that, there’s no way for anyone to know, or no way for you to know? If you mean the former, then you’ve just established that there is one thing that is true for everybody, and your statement becomes self-referentially absurd. If you mean the latter, then maybe there’s no way for you to know, but how could you say I can’t know? You have epistemologically limited your ability to speak to anyone’s ability to know this outside of your own.

  31. Aaron, I think the former is not self-referentially contradictory.

    We can say that there is no way to know absolute truth, and that statement may or may not be true. Who knows, there may be a way to know the absolute truth; and maybe there isn’t. We may never know that for sure (or we may someday). The uncertainty of the “maybe” removes the contradiction that depends on certainty.

  32. It’s all a matter of presuppositions. When it comes to epistemology, there are three dominant worldviews:
    – the Christian one (which says that we can know truly but not exhaustively because there is an external absolute who does know truly and exhaustively);
    – the modernist one (which says, ultimately, that there is no external absolute, but starting from ourselves as an observer, we can know things truly). For a long time, it was assumed that it would be possible with this epistemology to know things exhaustively, ultimately – but then quantum mechanics, Heisenberg and Godel got in the way, which was partly what led to the collapse of modernism as an epistemology;
    – the postmodern one (which says that there is no external absolute, and we can only know things “privately”). This worldview doesn’t even support itself – how can anybody know that there is even an external other with whom communication is possible, let alone that symbols shared by two supposed “minds” actually denote the same thing. And yet this didn’t stop postmodernism dominating intellectual discourse for nearly a century! The tide seems to be going out for this now, as it ultimately prevents meaningful communication (OS’s points notwithstanding).

    The point of saying this is that real communication with somebody who has different epistemological presuppositions is going to be a struggle. “Presuppositional apologetics” is the term given to Christian engagement at this level – and I would like to challenge OS to explain how he knows the truth of what he believes. And if he doesn’t, why does he base his behaviour on his beliefs?

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