Like a lion, perhaps, in a den of Daniels, I gave a talk last week on ‘Why I am an atheist’ to theology students at Bristol’s Trinity College. It was an enjoyable event, and hopefully helped me to think through and sharpen my arguments (though not, I suspect, to change anyone’s mind). Here’s the transcript.

There are three kinds of arguments that an atheist can make in defence of the insistence that no God exists. First, he or she can argue against the necessity for God. That is, an argument against the claim that God is necessary to explain both the material reality of the world and the values by which we live. Second, he or she can argue against the possibility of God, against the idea that a being such as God is either logically or materially possible. And third, an atheist can argue against the consequences of belief in God. This is the claim that religious belief has pernicious social, political or moral consequences and that the world would be better off without such belief.

Historically, much of the discussion of God has been about the possibility of God. Christian apologetics grew out of the attempt rationally to defend the possibility of God’s existence, while atheists wanted to show that the idea of God made no rational sense. Much of the contemporary debate is about the consequences of religious belief. The so-called New Atheists, in particular, have been scathing in their attack on what they see as the wicked and malevolent social consequences of faith – from the harassment of gays to mass suicide bombings. I, too, am sceptical of the possibilities of God. And, while I do not think, as many do, that faith is, in and of itself, pernicious, I do believe that there are often social and moral problems that arise from religious belief. What I want to concentrate on today, however, is on the first type of argument. And that is because for me, as it is for many other atheists, this is the primary motivation for my atheism – I simply do not see the necessity for God.

There are three kinds of reasons often given for the necessity of God. First, there is the claim that God is necessary to explain Creation and the maintenance of the cosmos. Second, that God is a necessary source of moral values; that without God we would fall into the abyss of moral nihilism. And third, that without belief in God, there can be no purpose or meaning to life.  Let us look at each of these claims in turn.

The Christian idea that God is necessary for the creation and maintenance of the universe can be traced back to pre-Christian, pagan philosophy, to the Greek tradition, and in particular to Aristotle. Aristotle argued for the existence of a First Cause or Uncaused Cause to the universe. The universe, Aristotle argued, is forever in a state of flux.  Behind every change must lie a cause, and indeed a chain of causes, that brings about that change. But such a chain of causes cannot stretch out for ever because it is impossible to have an infinite regress of causes. The first link in the chain, as it were, was what Aristotle called he Unmoved Mover, the prime cause of all change in the cosmos, but which itself was not caused by anything. This Unmoved Mover Aristotle called ‘god’, not as an entity to be worshiped, but as ‘a supreme and eternal living being’, the most powerful, intelligent and beneficent creative force in the cosmos.

This argument, which came into the Christian tradition via the Kalam school of Muslim philosophy, lies at heart of the first three of Thomas Aquinas’ famous ‘Five Ways’ of proving the existence of God. It is often called the cosmological argument, though strictly speaking this  refers only to Aquinas’ third proof, which was so labelled by Kant. The cosmological argument is of this general form:

1 Whatever begins to exist has a cause

2 The universe began to exist

3 Therefore it has a cause

There are many variations of this general argument. For instance, what is often called the contingency argument, states that

1 Whatever exists must have a cause

2 The universe exists

3 Therefore the universe must have a cause

All variants of the cosmological argument comprise three basic elements. First, the claim that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes, so there must be a First Cause. Second, the insistence that any such First Cause must lie outside of time and space because it is itself the creator of time and space and a creator cannot exist within that which it has created. And, third, the assertion that the only being that can lie outside time and space is God. Hence, the argument runs, God is a necessity for the creation and maintenance of the universe. The problems with this argument have long been recognized, including by Christian theologians themselves. I will mention just four.

First, why insist that one cannot have an infinite regress of causes? William Lane Craig, perhaps the most cogent of contemporary defenders of the cosmological argument, suggests that the idea that one cannot have an infinite regress of causes ‘is so intuitively obvious that I think scarcely anyone would sincerely believe it to be false.’ Intuitions may be important in all manner of ways, but they do not necessarily make a good premise for rational argument nor the basis for evidentiary claims about the universe. After all, it seems intuitive that the sun revolves around the Earth, which is why the heliocentric view of the solar system took so long to accept. It does not seem intuitive to think of light as being both waves and particles, and yet physicists today think of light as possessing properties of both. And so on. In any case why should the idea of an uncaused First Cause seem any more intuitive or coherent or believable than the idea of an infinite regress of causes?

A second problem is the question of what caused the First Cause. Of course, the very concept of the First Cause is that it is uncaused. But that is simply to say, if we believe that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes, then we must accept that there must be some beginning to the chain of causes. But that simply leads back to the question of why there cannot be an infinite regress of causes.

If it is possible for God to exist without a cause greater than God, why is it not possible for the universe to exist without a cause greater than itself? It won’t do to answer, ‘Because God is of the form that requires no cause greater than itself’. We do not know what it is to be of a form that requires no cause greater than itself. Therefore the universe could equally be thought of as a form that requires no cause greater than itself.

Indeed the very concept of an infinite regress of causes is simply another way of saying that the universe is of a form that requires no cause greater than itself. In this sense the concept of the ‘Uncaused First Cause’ and that of an ‘Infinite regress of causes’ refer to the same phenomenon – our ignorance about the origins of the universe. Accepting an infinite regress of causes is simply to make explicit that ignorance; the idea of the Uncaused First Cause is philosophical handwaving to cover our ignorance and imagine that we actually have an answer.

Third, why should the First Cause be God?  The argument is that the First Cause necessarily lies outside time and space since, in creating the universe, it also created space and time. And any being outside time and space must be God. The trouble is that God, or at least the God of theists, possesses many properties that  are not implied simply by First Cause. He is supposed to omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent, loving, forgiving, and so. So, even if we accept the idea of an Uncaused First Cause, there is no reason to see that Cause as God, certainly as theists understand it.

And this leads us to the fourth problem. Aquinas defined the God outside space and time as a wholly simple God, a God without parts, without body, a God who is immutable, unchangeable, necessary. A God beyond human understanding or imagination.  But, of course, this is not the God of Scripture. The God of Scripture is not outside of space and time, but actively intervenes in both space and time, and, in the Christian tradition at least, is immanent as well as transcendent.  How could a wholly simple God outside of time and space act upon time and space?

This tension between Aquinas’ wholly simple God and the God of Scripture has been at the heart of much theological debate. Aquinas himself suggested that God may act timelessly to bring about an effect within time. Even the sympathetic theologian Peter Vardy says of this, that ‘It is, admittedly, hard to understand what a timeless action involves’. But, he adds, ‘If God is beyond time and space, then God is largely mysterious to those within time and space. If the existence of God is accepted, then the possibility of God acting timelessly to produce a temporal effect is not impossible.’ But this, it seems to me, is little more than saying that since God is beyond our comprehension, then there is nothing wrong with imagining God doing impossible things. Or, to put it another way, that since there are many things of which we are ignorant, so let us accept that impossible things are possible. That may not be an irrational sentiment, but it is not a particularly useful one either. Nor is it an argument for the necessity of God. Similar questions and criticisms can be made, and have been made, about other theological proofs for the necessity of God’s existence, such as the proof from teleology or the ontological proof.

In a sense, though, all these questions and criticisms are immaterial.  No one comes to believe in God because they have been convinced by the arguments for God’s existence. No one says, ‘I was unsure whether God existed, but now I have read Aquinas’ first three proofs, I am convinced that He does.’ Rather they insist, as philosopher Peter Stannard does, that ‘I don’t have to believe in God, I know that God exists – that is how I feel.’

The proofs, therefore, are a means of demonstrating not the existence of God but the intellectual soundness of belief in God, of demonstrating that such knowingness can be rational.  If you already believe in God, these proofs suggest that such belief may not be irrational.  But if you do not already believe in God, they certainly do not demonstrate the necessity for doing so.

The difference between believers and atheists is not about whether either can explain the ultimate cause of the universe. It is about how we wish to explain it. I am happy to say, ‘I do not know what First Cause is, or even if there is one. It may be that one day we discover the answer to that. Or it may be that we never will. For now I am happy to keep an open mind, accept our ignorance of First Cause and live with the uncertainty of not having one’. Believers are unwilling to say that. They insist that there must be a First Cause and that that First Cause must take the form of God. They cannot live with the uncertainty about First Cause that comes with non-belief. In Peter Stannard’s words they know – they have to know – that God exists. The difference between believers and atheists is, in other words, not simply a difference of philosophy, it is also a difference of psychological temper.

A similar distinction can be drawn between atheists and believers with respect to the second issue for which it is claimed that God is necessary – morality. ‘If God does not exist, everything is permitted.’ Dostoevsky never actually wrote that line, though so often is it attributed to him that he may as well have. It has become the almost reflexive response of believers when faced with an argument for a godless world. Without religious faith, runs the argument, we cannot anchor our moral truths or truly know right from wrong. Without belief in God we will be lost in a miasma of moral nihilism. ‘The elimination of God’, the theologian Alister McGrath writes, ‘led to new heights of moral brutality’. Though given the extent of brutality undertaken in the name of God, I am not sure that that is a particularly astute sentiment.

‘If God does not exist’, William Craig claims, ‘Objective moral values and duties do not exist’. There is a voluminous philosophical literature on the debate between moral realists and moral anti-realists, that is between those who see moral values as akin to facts, and those who reject that idea.  It is an intellectual swamp, and one into which I do not intend stepping, at least in this talk. All I would say is it is possible to believe that moral questions have non-arbitrary answers without conflating facts and values. But that is for another discussion.

What is striking, though, is that, contrary to what is claimed in this kind of theological assault on atheism, many of those most hostile to religion are also the ones who insist that moral statements are in fact objective facts about the world. The philosopher Patricia Churchland argues that it is a ‘false dilemma’ to claim that ‘either God secures the moral law or morality is an illusion’ because ‘Morality is grounded in our biology’. Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists, and perhaps the most strident of contemporary critics of faith, in his book The Moral Landscape, attacks both religion and moral relativism, arguing that moral values are in reality moral facts and as facts they can be scientifically understood by studying brain and behaviour. ‘The wellbeing of humans and animals must depend on states of the world and on states of their brains’, he writes, ‘and science represents our most systematic means of understanding these states’.   Science, and neuroscience, do not simply explain why we might respond in particular ways to equality or to torture but also whether equality is a good, and torture morally acceptable. A Christian might look to the Bible to help distinguish right and wrong, good and evil. Harris would look in an fMRI scanner.

I am highly critical of Harris’ views, often for many of the same reasons that I am  critical of theological claims about morality. This is no place to enter into that debate. All I want to show is that the claim that atheists do not believe in ‘objective moral values and duties’ is not true. Let me concentrate here on why God is not necessary for instantiating moral values.There are three broad reasons for challenging the idea that God is necessary for a moral life.

First, because moral values do not have to be defined by God to be non-arbitrary. Briefly, I see three primary sources of human values: empathy, reason and community. As humans we have a sense of empathy with others, partly natural, partly culturally given. Reason allows us to take that sense of empathy and transform it into a thought-out moral framework. And that framework is shaped not just by a sense of empathy but by the needs both of the collectives in which humans are embedded and by the history of which they are a product. All of which is why moral frameworks are both contingent and non-arbitrary. Contingent, because as human creations, values are not absolutely fixed in stone. Non-arbitrary, because empathy, reason and community all impose a framework, all impose constraints and  boundaries upon our moral universe.

Second, most of the moral claims made by Christianity are to be found in other ethical systems, both religious and non-religious. Take, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most influential of all Christian ethical discourses. The moral landscape that Jesus sketched out in the sermon was already familiar. The extensions of the Mosaic law upon which Jesus insisted were already part of the Jewish tradition.The Golden Rule – ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – is central to many religious traditions, as well as to many non-religious ethical systems, from Confuscianism to Kantianism. The insistence on virtue as a good in itself, the resolve to turn the other cheek, the call to look inwards, the claim that correct belief is at least as important as virtuous action – all were important themes in Greek Stoic philosophy.  Similarly, the concept of universalism, often seen as a key Christian ideal, was also drawn from Stoicism. Neither God in general, nor the Christian God in particular, is necessary, in other words, to derive such values.

Third, believers and non-believers face exactly the same problem when it comes to moral values.  Believers often claim that without God every human has to make up his or her own mind about what is right and wrong. There is no anchor for moral values. Rather everyone can pick and choose as to which values they accept and which they reject. All of which is true. But all of which also applies to believers. For pick and choose is exactly what believers do.

Leviticus sanctifies slavery. It also tells us that If a ‘man commiteth adultery’, then both ‘the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.’ And it instructs believers to ‘chase your enemies and they shall fall before you by the sword.’ According to Exodus, ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. It also insists that those who work on the Sabbath may be put to death. Genesis implies that birth control is a capital offence. Proverbs  tells us to ‘beat the child with the rod’. And so on. Few modern day Christians would accept such commands. But other commands they would accept. You might say, ‘Of course that would be case. After all, the Bible was written 2000 years in a very different world facing very different problems, and with very different social and moral resources.’ And that’s exactly my point. As societies change so do moral values. So Christians come to interpret the Bible differently. But ‘interpreting the Bible differently’ means deciding for ourselves which values make sense and which no longer do.

Let us not forget that in the past, thousands of witches were burnt and millions of people enslaved, because it was believed that God had sanctified such practices. In the past such Biblical values were acceptable. Today they are mostly not. That change has come about not because God has changed His mind but because humans have. Even today, some Christians, reading passages in Leviticus and in Paul, think that the Bible justifies the execution of gays. Others, reading the Bible differently, insist that practising homosexuals are committing no sin at all. Each reads the Bible as they wish to fit into their own moral framework. Belief in God, in other words, does not obviate the need for each of us to make up our minds about what is right and what is wrong. Even those who read the Bible (or the Qur’an) literally have chosen to follow a particular set of values.

The fundamental problem of looking to God to define right and wrong was expressed 2000 years ago by Plato in the so-called Euthyphro dilemma. In his dialogue Euthyphro, Plato sets up a discussion between Socrates and Euthyphro, who is about to prosecute his father for the murder of one of his servants. Socrates is shocked by Euthyphro’s action, which appears to disregard both convention and his obligations to kin, and wants to know how Euthyphro distinguishes between the pious and the impious, the good and the bad.

Euthyphro provides a series of definitions each of which Socrates knocks down. Socrates’ key question is this: Do the gods love the good because it is good, or is it good because it loved by the gods? Unless the gods love something for no good reason, then they must love something as pious because it inherently possesses value. But if it inherently possesses value, then it does so independently of the gods. Or, as Leibniz asked at the beginning of the eighteenth century, if it is the case that whatever God thinks, wants or does is good by definition, then ‘what cause could one have to praise him for what he does if in doing something quite different he would have done equally well?’ If, on the other hand, God recognizes what is good and promotes it because of its inherent goodness, then goodness must exist independently of God. It might now make sense to revere God’s goodness. But God is no longer the source of that goodness, nor do we need to look to God to discover that which is good.

One answer may be that God cannot but be good, so the dilemma is ill-formed. If God and the good are one and the same, then we cannot ask whether God chooses good because it is good – the very question separates that which is inseparable. But we can restate the Euthyphro dilemma in a different way, to meet such an objection. We can ask: Is God good because to be good is to be whatever God is; or is God good because He has all the properties of goodness? If it is the former, then we find once more that goodness is arbitrary, since it would be whatever God happened to be. If, on the other hand, God is good because he has all the properties of goodness, then it means that such  properties can be specified independently of God. And so the idea of goodness does not depend upon the existence of God.

Believers and non-believers, in other words, face exactly the same problem: that we as humans have to decide what is right and wrong. We both have to pick and choose. Of course we do not pick and choose values simply as individuals, or as we might pick and choose a shirt or a car. We live not simply as individuals but also as part of communities, societies, cultures, histories, traditions and, yes, faiths. It is always as part of a collective that we make our choices. But choose we do. And there is no getting away from the fact that we bear responsibility for our moral choices.

The difference between believers and atheists in not, then, that one picks and chooses moral values, while the other simply receives them from God.  It is that I, as an atheist, accept that values are humanly created, while believers, having humanly chosen what is good and what is bad, then alienate this decision to God, because it seems provide those values with greater authority. So Christians who think that gays should be executed think that God has told them.  So do Christians who believe that practising homosexuals have committed no sin.

The difference between atheists and believers on the question of moral values is, as with question of Creation, not a difference in how we define morality – both have to decide what is right and wrong – but rather about how we wish to explain it.  One accepts it as a human creation, the other feels necessary to alienate that creation to God. The difference, in other words is between those who are happy to accept the unnerving thought that we live by our own morals and those who like to imagine that they can set their ethics in concrete by invoking the figure of God.

The third argument for the necessity of God is that without God there would be no meaning or purpose to life. In part the idea that God is necessary to infuse meaning into our lives derives from the belief that He is necessary for the creation and maintenance of the universe and for the establishment of an ethical framework. But if you reject both those ideas, as I have done, then the claim that one needs God to infuse life with meaning also falls.

But there is a broader issue here. In part, the argument that without God there is no meaning derives from the idea that, as William Craig has put it, ‘on the atheist view humans are just animals’. In fact I would argue the very opposite. Only an atheist view allows us to be truly human.

Religion played a vital part in the development of civilised life because it made possible the belief that there was more to life than mere animal existence.  But the price of transcendence has been enslavement to the sacred. Religion attempts to give meaning and a dignity to our mundane existence through creating a relationship between the profane and the sacred. But in doing so, the sacred becomes a means of diminishing the sense of what it is to be human. ‘The sacred order’, as Leszek Kolokowski the Polish Marxist-turned-Christian philosopher, observes, ‘has never ceased, implicitly or explicitly, to proclaim “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”.’

For me to be human is precisely to reject the idea that ‘this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise’.  It is about wanting to seize responsibility for human fate away from God’s hands so that humans can help shape their own future. Meaning and dignity derives not from the acceptance of fate, as in religion, but from our capacity to defy it.

I want to finish this talk with the French Algerian existential philosopher Albert Camus’ meditation on faith and fate in his book The Myth of Sisyphus. Written in the embers of the Second World War, Camus confronts both the tragedy of recent history and what he sees as the absurdity of the human condition. There is, he observes, a chasm between ‘the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world’. Religion is a means of bridging that chasm, but a dishonest one. ‘I don’t know if the world has any meaning that transcends it’, he writes. ‘But I know that I do not know this meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.’

Camus does not know that God does not exist. But he is determined to believe it, because that is the only way to make sense of being human. Humans have to make their own meaning.  And that meaning can come only through struggle, even if that struggle appears as meaningless as that of Sisyphus, who, having scorned the gods, was condemned by them to spend eternity in the underworld forever rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, only for it to roll all the way down again. The certainties of God – though not just of God, of course -  provide false hope and in so doing undermine our humanity by denying human choice.

For Camus, religious faith must be replaced not with faithlessness but with a different kind of faith: faith in our ability to live with the predicament of being human. And in so doing, Camus made fate a matter of human action, not of divine intervention or of natural cause. It was a courageous argument, especially in the shadow of the Holocaust. It was also a challenge that remains as important today as it was then.

The human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net. No God, no belief in God, no amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human. That can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. Being human, the choice is ours.

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  1. Good piece, but you leave out a few points worth mentioning. First, Craig argues that an infinite regress is impossible, because actual infinity cannot exist. Think of a library with an infinite number of books, divided in two colors, red and black. How many black books are there? Infinite. How many black books are there? Infinite. How many books combined are there? Infinite. This is absurd. A number divided by two cannot be the same number. Thus, something must be wrong with the idea of infinity as a real thing. It can only be an abstraction. It’d be nice to try to reply to Craig.
    As for the moral argument, we agree that we do not need God to know the difference between evil and good. But, there is a tougher question: is it possible to have the motivation to do without God? Here is the age-old question: why be moral? If nobody is watching, why sacrifice yourself to help someone you will never see again? This is the dilemma posed by Plato with this account of Gyges. And, although I’m not a believer, I must admit that, without God, it is very difficult to meet this challenge. Kant himself argued thus: the belief in a Final Judgment is necessary to achieve some moral motivation. Otherwise, what’s in it for me?
    Finally, you do not mention the greatest argument in favor of the existence of God: teleology and the anthropic principle. How can we explain the apparent fine-tuning of the universe?

    • Dick Alstein

      Regarding your point about infinity, Craig needs to familiarize himself with mathematical concepts about infinity. Hilbert’s Hotel paradox for example, shows that we may get results that seem counterintuitive, but that still are logically consistent and useful.

      About fine-tuning: many arguments against fine-tuning have been raised, and you can find them on the Internet. In my view, the most important counter-argument is that fine-tuning tacitly assumes that it is possible for physical constants to vary, when we don´t know yet if they can vary. It reasons about different values for those constants, but current physics has no validated hypothesis that tells us how the constants came into being, and if they could have had any other value at all. Arguments on fine-tuning may be like arguments on different values for Pi.

      • Gabriel Andrade

        Dick, Craig is fully aware of Hilbert’s Hotel ( But, precisely, he argues that such a paradox proves that infinity is absurd.
        As for the fine-tuning argument, there is a difference between contingency and necessity. Pi is clearly necessary: there is no possible way that it is not 3.14. Instead, gravity is 9.81 m/s2, but it could very well be something else. You have no trouble imagining someone falling off a plane at a faster or slower pace. On the other hand, you can’t imagine that the division of a circle’s diameter and its circumference is not 3.14. So, in as much as the constant of physics are clearly contingent, they could vary.

      • Hilbert’s Hotel formalises the argument, but it still leaves it open to the same critique – that though infinities may not be mathematically forbidden, it makes no statements supporting their actual existence.

        More convincing, perhaps, is the modern conception of the universe among physicists. Prevailing opinion is that the whole universe (distinct from the observable universe) is infinite in both extent and content. This may not be relevant to the topic of infinite regresses in causation, but it does deal with the objection to the “absurdness” of infinities.

        (Modern physicists also argue that many observed events are acausal, too, though I suppose that’s a bridge too far for these philosophers.)

    • Gabriel, on infinity: the question I was raising is ‘Why is the concept of infinity more absurd or implausible than that of God?’ On morality: the idea that one only behaves morally if Big Brother (divine or secular) is watching over you is both to rob morality of its meaning and to diminish human capacities. On fine-tuning and the anthropic principle: I will return to this in another post.

      • Kenan, yo your question, “Why is the concept of infinity more absurd or implausible than that of God?”, Craig answers: because actual infinity cannot exist, and he provides the example of a library with infinite books, divided in two sets. This, Craig asserts, is absurd.
        Regarding morality, I agree with you, but I think Kant and Glaucon’s challenge is greater than philosophers are usually willing to admit. What is the point of offering your seat to an old lady in a bus, if you won’t get any reward? I suggest you consider the age-old question for your book on ethics: Why be moral?

      • There are infinite integers.

        Within the set of integers, there are infinitely many non-prime numbers.

        There are also infinitely many non-prime numbers.

        So the “absurd” example by which he proves that infinity cannot exist, in fact does exist.

        I have found Craig’s sense of absurdity–or his knowledge of mathematics, or of quantum mechanics, or relativity–to be a faulty guide to, well, anything.

      • addicted44


        I don’t know about you, but when I offer an old lady a seat in a bus, I usually feel better than I did before. If I am too tired to offer her a seat in the bus, I feel guilty throughout my trip. So the reason for me is simple. It feels like the right thing to do.

        There are physiological, cultural, mental, etc. reasons why that feels better. But at the end of the day, the “right” thing to do almost always ends up being the thing you do without feeling guilty about it. I don’t need fear of Big Brother to tell me it isnt the right thing to do.

        Even ignoring all this, don’t you feel that jumping from “we cant explain why we should do right” to “there must be a God whom we fear which makes us do right” seems a bit of a cop out? Basically, God is, once again playing the role of default answer to questions we havent answered yet.

      • @addicted. The problem is, that there are sadists in the world. They clearly do not feel bad about not giving the seat, or good about giving it. So, what’s in it for them? How can you persuade them to be moral? Kant does not argue that the fact that we can’t explain morality makes us invoke God as an explanation. He only says that, inasmuch as there is no clear motivation to be good, God -inspired morality is the one that makes the most sense.

  2. greetings kenan

    my education is very lacking in these matters so thank you for that lovely concise summation of the arguments

    i wonder if you have come across the work of christopher alexander, the author of ‘the timeless way of building’ and ‘a pattern language’

    in ‘the nature of order’ he presents the core of a new cosmology that will hopefully guide our efforts in the future to heal the earth and ourselves

    for that reason and contrary to richard dawkins i recently nominated christopher for the templeton prize

    i would be most grateful if you would take a look at ‘the nature of order’ and judge its merits as i may have been danced into the land of woowoo

    i warn you it is over two thousand pages but there are lots of pictures

    best regards


  3. Matthew Wright

    The fine tuning issue raises several points, some of which point up assumptions which are almost never noticed. Without these assumptions modern science would not operate. These include the idea that the universe can be understood, that it is homogeneous and isotropic with space and time, and therefore we can talk about universal laws and constants. These assumptions appear to work really well. Where did they come from? Medieval theologians mainly, who extended a few simple biblical propositions. The idea of the Jewish God has been very helpful to science, giving us a reasoned basis for our faith in science. The fine tuning argument simply shows our lack of a rational basis to believe in constants or not outside of this.

    • It is one thing to say that were the universe not lawful in the way it is, then science would be unable to understand it in the way it does. It is quite another to suggest that it is only so because it was so designed by God. Similarly, it is one thing to note that, historically, the idea of God as commanding a lawful universe helped lead to the notion of natural laws. It is quite another to suggest that therefore there is truth in religious conceptions of God.

      • Gabriel Andrade

        You are absolutely right, Kenan. Pace Max Weber, the Calvinist idea that God has predestined salvation for a few, was paramount to the origins of capitalism. That does not imply that Calvinism is necessary today for Capitalism. Likewise, a Judeo-Christian worldview may have historically helped the rise of science; that does not imply science needs religion today. Even Rodney Stark acknowledges this.

    • addicted44

      The “fine-tuning” argument can be proven wrong from a simple historical example. You ask how is it that these assumptions work so well? The simplest answer is because the assumptions are sufficient to explain the universe at the level of detail that we are capable of observing it in.

      If you had lived in the years immediately after Newton, you would have said the same thing about Newtonian explanations of the world. But we know since then that Newtonian physics is almost completely wrong. The uncertainty principle questions the idea that the universe is deterministic in the first place, undermining nearly all science that is practiced today). However, in the scales at which humans interact with the world, those approximations are good enough. Good enough to send a man to the moon.

      So the answer to why our assumptions seem to work so well, is simply that we are looking at a very tiny sample size of data.

      • bruce

        To say that Newtonian physics is almost completely wrong is a completely wrong answer. Newtonian physics is still correct they are simply less accurate than Einstein’s theory of relativity
        The mathematical equations of motion in Newton’s mechanics can still tell us everything we would ever need to know about the universe and his theories assumed that everything runs at the same time . This is now found not be accurate enough because time and space arn’t fixed as Newton assumed.Einstein introduce the fact that time and space changes depending on how fast the observer is going. Who knows in a 100 years Einstein’s theory could be found to be inaccurate because he didn’t consider the effect of a string theory

  4. Matthew Wright

    BTW, the section on the Old Testament and all it’s ills, especially slavery, plays a little fast and loose. Revelation is always understood as progressive, we rarely get it all at once. It is legitimate to compare the Bronze Age/ Iron Age Israelites with their contemporaries in the Middle East or the Celts and other Europeans. Needless to say, the Jews come off pretty well in such a comparison. For instance, all Jewish slaves were to be set free every seventh year, or if not, every fiftieth year. Secondly, slavery was a fact of history, anywhere on the globe. The fact that Europeans regarded the church as sanctimonious do-gooders in condemning slavery long before it was abolished shows that the church’s own logic worked against such things. In the end it was Christians that abolished slavery in the modern world. I cannot think of a parallel in the history of any other civilization.
    As for the lack of originality in the Sermon on the Mount, aside from the overstating of your case, it has long been admitted that truth can be found outside the teachings of Jesus, as we are all, “made in the image of God.” However, many have observed a distinct difference in quality, not just quantity, between Jesus and the rest. Jesus summed up the progressive revelation, but added so much more. Interestingly, Jesus engaged people in the reality of their humanity, not in philosophical abstraction. A more humanising and human influence in the history of the world is impossible to find: salvation based on a loving relationship with him. An intriguing concept, even if it were not true.

    • You misunderstand my argument. I was not using slavery as an argument against Christianity. I was pointing to the changing Christian attitudes to slavery as an illustration of the fact that morality is humanly created, and shaped by changing human needs, ideas and possibilities.

      The claim that ‘it was Christians that abolished slavery in the modern world’ is far too facile. Certainly some Christians opposed slavery, others defended it. The campaign against slavery was populated by Deists, atheists and anti-theists as much as it was by Christian theists and, as Jonathan Israel has shown, the anti-theistic arguments of the Radical Enlightenment was crucial to the modern arguments for equality (I discuss some of Israel’s ideas in the last section of my essay on ‘Rethinking the Idea of “Christian” Europe’). Most importantly, there was the role of the slaves themselves, particularly in the Haitian revolution, which drew its inspiration from the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

    • Gabriel Andrade

      Why would God through progressive revelation? Why doesn’t He just reveal everything at once? What’s the point of going so slowly?

  5. I have to say I’m impressed, I’ve always thought there must be an inherrent human mechanism for creating morality that is able to move with society and therefore cannot be absoloute. I tried to deal with some of my internal conlict over moral relativism in my own blog – but I have to say I didn’t even get close to this.

  6. Chet

    There are three kinds of arguments that an atheist can make in defence of the insistence that no God exists. First, he or she can argue against the necessity for God. That is, an argument against the claim that God is necessary to explain both the material reality of the world and the values by which we live. Second, he or she can argue against the possibility of God, against the idea that a being such as God is either logically or materially possible. And third, an atheist can argue against the consequences of belief in God. This is the claim that religious belief has pernicious social, political or moral consequences and that the world would be better off without such belief.

    This misstates the case, I think. The third argument is not an argument against God – for if God did exist, we should believe in God regardless of the political or moral consequences, because it would be true – it’s an argument for making the first two arguments in the first place. God is likely nonexistent based on the first two arguments; the third argument is the reason atheists shouldn’t just accept that and let people remain in error. The third argument is the reason why it’s important to talk people out of their mistaken belief in God.

    • Michael

      Concur. This is related to the problem that I have (only a small one) with Bart Ehrman and folks like him who have decided that God doesn’t exist (among other reasons) because of all of the pain and suffering in the world.

      As you note, if God exists, God exists. Where is there a rule that says that God has to be benevolent, fair, just, etc.?

  7. phhht

    People who “just know” that gods exist are like Ms J., a woman who just knows that George Clooney really loves only her. She is unable to say how she knows, beyond her claim that Clooney communicates with her by visions which she alone experiences. No invocation of logic or appeal to objectivity can sway the certainty of her “knowledge.”

    There are two arguments against the existence of gods that seem convincing to me. The first is an extension of Laplace’s Retort. He famously answered Napoleon’s question about the absence of gods from his work by saying “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la.” (I had no need for that hypothesis.) In fact, today, in all the vast body of scientific, technical, engineering, and mathematical work which comprises our knowledge of the world, there is no need whatsoever to appeal to gods, and indeed, no such appeal occurs. As far as anybody can tell, gods are the very opposite of necessary.

    Another powerful argument against the existence of gods is the utter absence of any unequivocal, empirical evidence for their existence. Such evidence exists for everything from apples to zebras, from cosmic background radiation to the Higgs boson, but not for gods. Why not?

    Maybe because gods are like unicorns and leprechauns?

    • Michael

      Your second is most compelling to me and, IMO, all that is necessary. Hitchens and Dawkins both like(d) to say that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs.”

      The claim that God(s) exist(s) is an extraordinary one. The “proofs” are miserably lacking.

      As Deists haven’t their burden of proof, there isn’t even a need to “disprove.”

      I no more have a need to disprove the existence of God(s) than I have to disprove the existence of the Easter Bunny or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

      • addicted44

        “The claim that God(s) exist(s) is an extraordinary one.”

        This, IMO, is another major point difference between an atheist/agnostic/deist and believers. Due to social and historical pressures, for the latter, the claim that “God exists” is the default one, and the claim that “there is no God” is the extraordinary one.

  8. Suzy

    I especially like the way your article ends, because we all have to confront this “moral tightrope” of being human. We’re put onto it with very little idea how to balance, but try we must. However, for the same reasons, I’m not as impressed by the arguments against the “necessity” of God. The assumption throughout seems to be that believers DO need God–need God as a first cause, as a moral anchor, and to provide meaning or purpose to life. To the extent that believers make these arguments, then yes, your replies are excellent. But why should believers make such arguments? Would Camus, for example, have made such demands? If they don’t, then we’re not really learning anything about the psychological differences between believers and non-believers here, as was suggested.

  9. ked

    I was born in a country that is deeply atheistic and now leave in Japan, which is also mostly atheistic (buddhism and shinto do not have gods in the same sense that islam and christianity have a god, they don’t believe gods exist).

    From this standpoint, never having the christian background of an existence in god, it definitely makes atheism easier and god-believing religions harder for me to understand.

    Most people in the societies i have lived in are family loving, law abiding nice people who happen to not believe in any god. They just don’t see the point. And i have not seen anything that would lead me to think there is such a god. Of course we cannot disprove there is no god, no more that I cannot disprove Santa Claus but the ball is on the other side.
    Please define what you mean by god and bring arguments that make your theory better to explain what is happening than the theory that there is just no god.

  10. Todd

    My brother, an atheist felt I should make a comment or two on your post. I am follower of Jesus and as you set out your arguments I simply disagree with some of your foundational thoughts.

    Maybe I am a very different person of faith than you ever encountered. Let me first let me take issue with a few things you take issue with.

    First, the argument about the “neccessity” of God. you write: “There are three kinds of reasons often given for the necessity of God. First, there is the claim that God is necessary to explain Creation and the maintenance of the cosmos. Second, that God is a necessary source of moral values; that without God we would fall into the abyss of moral nihilism. And third, that without belief in God, there can be no purpose or meaning to life. Let us look at each of these claims in turn.”

    The problem becomes the idea of “necessity”. This just ins’t an accurate picture of what someone of faith believes, at least, I don’t know anyone who argues about the “necessity” of God. What do you and I both know about the beginning of time, space? Was there a beginning or was it just always there? We don’t know. As a person of faith, I say I don’t know. I don’t say well I don’t know, but the only answer is there must be a “god” to explain it all. I simply don’t know. Yes, I know of Christians who might say that, I’m not sure I know them personally, but I am sure there might be some. Maybe the “necessity” of God argument has been out there and maybe some really well thought out person said it, but it is a flawed argument from the beginning.

    However, just because we don’t know doesn’t mean that we can’t push at the thoughts. Was there a beginning? Science is pointing toward a beginning. It is rational to think there is a beginning because the evidence is in our every moment of life. However, it doesn’t prove God. But it begins the subtle point to things that we know about beginnings and ends. Like a baby, it has a beginning because it is the cause of two people creating it by the mix of egg and sperm. It took something to make a beginning. It couldn’t make itself. It doesn’t prove that you can take that argument and take it to that level, but I could keep going down the line of how things begin and most if not all the time it points to a creator. It proves nothing, you and I still don’t know, but it begins to make a reasonable argument toward the possibility of a first cause.

    So later on when you quote someone to show your viewpoint and say, “For now I am happy to keep an open mind, accept our ignorance of First Cause and live with the uncertainty of not having one’. Believers are unwilling to say that. They insist that there must be a First Cause and that that First Cause must take the form of God. They cannot live with the uncertainty about First Cause that comes with non-belief.”

    That is simply untrue and I know I could get any Christian to say that we simply don’t know. I don’t “INSIST there is a GOD” and this is where your word choice get you caught. I simply have found that the evidence that surrounds me, tells me that a reasonable human being could come to that conclusion that a First cause is possible. I guess I do “insist” that it is one of the possibilities. That seems reasonable to me.

    If you however, are “insisting” that is unreasonable then could I not say that when it comes down to it the problem with an atheist is they “insist that when it comes to a first cause they will take any idea that doesn’t include an attachment to a God as a First creator.” Then simply you are not as open as you say. Are you as open as you say?

    I guess we will find out. I want you to admit that it is reasonable to conclude by things we see around us everyday that it’s possible that there could have been a First cause. I’m not asking you to explain the first cause or say it could be a “god” just that it must be in your realm of possibilities.


    • phhht


      You say

      “If you however, are “insisting” that is unreasonable then could I not say that when it comes down to it the problem with an atheist is they “insist that when it comes to a first cause they will take any idea that doesn’t include an attachment to a God as a First creator.” Then simply you are not as open as you say. Are you as open as you say?”

      The problem for this atheist is that there simply is no reason to suppose
      the existence of gods. That hypothesis is unnecessary.

      I say it’s unreasonable to postulate gods as creators because there is not the slightest evidential basis for doing so. Or do you have some evidence?

      • Todd


        To say that for this atheist there is simply “no reason to suppose an existence of gods” is to throw out a possibility at a very early stage of the whole discussion. A possibility that has a merit.

        At this point in the discussion, we are talking about reasonable possibilities behind the beginning. To say there is no evidence to think there was a creator behind the start of the universe is to deny a reasonable possibility. I wouldn’t argue at this point that there is a god or gods, but simply that a first cause could be a creator of some sort. If you can’t agree that could be possibility than I would say your Atheism will hold you back from accepting much I would say. I’m not interested in a discussion with a closed mind that is trying to prove me wrong. I’m interested in a curious mind that is willing to discuss the possibilities.

        So to go to your question is there any evidence that there is god? The answer is yes. But I can’t tell you about the evidence unless you are open to it? The greater question is whether you would accept the possibility of the evidence? Are you open to the possibilities?

        I would like to suggest that you don’t ask the question if you already made up your mind about what the answer is? Do you want evidence? Don’t answer that because you already did. You answered it by saying, “there is not the slightest evidential basis” right before you ask for evidence?

        It is reasonable for me to conclude that you are not truly open. So whatever I would say would fall on deaf ears. I think then it would be reasonable not to continue down this road. Sounds reasonable to me.

      • phhht

        I say it is unreasonable to postulate gods as creators without any evidential basis. You imply, coyly, that you have such evidence, but won’t reveal it until I reassure you I’ll consider it.

        Well, let’s hear it. If you have evidence for gods which I have not met before, I’ll not only consider it, I’ll buy you beer and a week’s worth of skittles.

        What it usually comes down to is unsupportable assertions that gods really really do exist, but are different from unicorns and leprechauns, which don’t.

        No, Todd, gods don’t exist. You can prove me wrong, of course. All you need is one single solitary piece of unequivocal empirical evidence for their existence.

        But I’ll bet you a beer you don’t have any.

    • Todd, thanks for this.

      ‘The problem becomes the idea of “necessity”. This just ins’t an accurate picture of what someone of faith believes, at least, I don’t know anyone who argues about the “necessity” of God.’

      Both historically and in contemporary debate, these are precisely the arguments, though of course not the only arguments, made for God. Read, for instance, Aquinas or Craig. Remember, too, that this was a talk given to a class of theology students. They naturally disagreed with me. None, however, had a problem with the idea that of God being for them a ‘necessity’.

      ‘I don’t “INSIST there is a GOD”… I simply have found that the evidence that surrounds me, tells me that a reasonable human being could come to that conclusion that a First cause is possible.’

      Nobody would deny that ‘a First cause is possible’. The difference between a believer and a non-believer is that while a non-believer accepts the possibility of First Cause, a believer insists on its necessity, and usually insists, too, that it must take the form of God. And for that, as phhht points out above, there is no evidence.

      ‘I guess I do “insist” that it is one of the possibilities.’

      I cannot see how you could be a believing Christian without insisting on more than simply that First Cause is ‘one of the possibilities’. You must insist that it is the case, and also that such a First Cause must take the form of God. Otherwise you would, at best, be an agnostic.

      ‘It took something to make a beginning. It couldn’t make itself… I could keep going down the line of how things begin and most if not all the time it points to a creator.’

      As I pointed out in my talk, the idea of God is no more plausible (and in many ways is far less so) than that of an infinite regress of causes.

      • Todd

        I appreciate your thoughtfulness and openess.

        See I would disagree that infinite regress of causes could be more plausible. I would say it is just as plausible.

        The next step for me is to look around and I shared that when I see beginnings and ends in all of life which leads me to a first cause. It’s reasonable to assume by faith that this could be accurate.

        Then I need to take another step and say if there is a first cause what could it be. Which would lead me to the question about whether we are somehow random or that there is someone design.

        I’m sure you can guess where I fall in that category because I see the evidence helps to reason that design is all around me.

        The next big hurdle is if there is a design, how did the design come about? Was it just there or is there a designer? Both ideas are plausible.

        Then the next step in the questions for me is “If there is designer, what was the purpose of our and the universe design?”

        In many of these questions there are lots of plausible explanation, but I when I go down certain roads like random design I run in to moments where thinks don’t make as much sense and I find the evidence lacking. So I continue down a road and continue to find evidence that is reasonable. It doesn’t mean that you can’t explain it away in some other fashion.

        The greatest stretch in belief is not in whether there is God, for me the biggest question of faith is Jesus who he claimed to be. That is where all my faith truly hinges.

        I may not post again, but I have appreciated that you were willing to post back. I also appreciate that in all these debates that we are honest, authentic about our limitations of what we know. We are very limited in the grand scheme and I hope that your path is crossed by more people of faith that live in that humility.


  11. bruce

    You are right for most folks in the West they appear to have a loving family, appear to be law abiding nice people who do not believe in any god and they just don’t see the point.
    However to explain God in some sort of theory is like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. It just doesn’t fit.
    That is the problem with atheist and Christianity.It is like electrons going around in two different orbits around the nucleus of an atom. One orbit is about demanding proof and facts and other orbit is about giving answers in terms of faith. Unless there is a massive input of energy the electrons remain in their respective orbits.
    So the real question is not whether one can get a way to fit a round peg into a square hole but simply deciding what is our “functional non-negotiables” and recognise that we are in different orbits.
    When face with difficult issues that questioned our functional non-negotiables we re-examine them but only to make small changes. The only time when there could be a complete change of orbit is when some catastrophe happens in our lives that it completely shatters our functional non-negotiables and we then are open to a move into a different orbit.
    This analogy is not quite full proof as electrons tend to go back and sometimes is not a catastrophe that complete changes our worldview. It could be a continual questioning of our functional non-negotiables that makes us decide to enter the “proof “orbit and leave the “ faith” orbit or visa versa.

  12. greetings kenan

    my comment above reads as if its written in green ink. my apologies

    and the three book titles sound like the product of a cult but are in fact published in the center for environmental structure series from oxford university press

    i admire your work very much and value your rationality. it may be a large thing to ask but i wanted you to try and tear alexander’s logic to pieces, destroy his arguments and raze his theory to the ground

    an upgrade to moveable type 5 is currently disabling my attempts to send you permalinks but should get you to the front page of a blog

    the sixth post down is a letter i sent to richard dawkins about my reasons for nominating christopher for the templeton prize and the eighth post down is the rationale for the nomination

    i hope you get an opportunity to consider these ideas as i promise they will repay your study

    best regards


  13. God is such an integral part of the human experience, why would you want to rationalize him away? We can do without God, sure! We can also do without reason, love, hair, 2 of the five fingers…etc. if you have never experience God in your life you are missing one of the greatest experience of being human.

  14. 5ecular4umanist

    An excellent dismantling of the God proposition. Level-headed and thorough. I’d be surprised if some believers in your audience were not, at least, given cause to question their beliefs.

    As an atheist, I am happy to live in a universe where we don’t understand everything, while at the same time seeking to learn more.

    The arguments of the likes of William Lane Craig are close-minded, leading nowhere. Why shouldn’t there be an infinity of universes or of regressed causes? It’s no less likely (more so, if anything) than some external super intelligence.

    As to the fine-tuning mentioned by some commenters, the concept of a multiverse accounts for this… our universe appears fine-tuned because we are here to observe it. In fact, our universe is pretty hostile to life… if a superior being had made it, wouldn’t it be more in tune with our needs?

    This is the first post I’ve read in this blog (found via 3quarksdaily). I am pleased to have found it and now sub’d :)

  15. 5ecular4umanist

    Reblogged this on 5ecular4umanist and commented:
    An excellent post by Kenan Malik, based on a talk he gave recently. His arguments against the need for a God are well-put and perhaps the most eloquent I have read on this subject.

  16. Hi Kenan – we met in Halifax (Canada) a few months ago and I tried to ask you this very complicated question and I am not sure if I got an answer (you were feeling a little under the weather and I do not know how well I explained it), so I thought I would try to put it out there again as it pertains to the topic of religion.

    Here goes:

    Camus suggests that human absurdity arises out of the fact that we are meaning hungry creatures thrown into a world devoid of meaning; the universe is thus ‘unintelligible’ in any way that could matter to humans. In The Myth of Sisyphus he outlined some ways we may attempt to escape this absurd condition through either regressive despair (e.g. suicide) or a metaphysical leap into unreasonable hope (e.g. philosophical suicide). Most of us can easily identify ‘religion’ as being a prime example of the latter, though Camus also suggested that ‘unreasonable hope’ would involve any meaning-sustaining illusion or ideology invented by human beings. In this way Camus is consistent with Ernest Becker, who in The Denial of Death claimed that one of the primary roles of ‘culture’ is to prescribe these illusionary, yet life-sustaining meaning systems. Terror Management Theory (TMT) has since shown, through social psychology experiments, how different aspects of culture can serve as a kind of societal defense mechanism to avoid the terror of fully realizing our own finitude and the meaninglessness of life. I hope you are with me up until now.

    I believe that Becker and Camus were both advocating for human beings to learn how to walk this existential tightrope without illusions that would cause us to fall into either despair or unreasonable hope. But I think they were also somewhat skeptical about the idea that many of us could actually do this in practice. Camus, for example, was critical of Sartre – no intellectual slouch by any means – for buying into communism and critiqued his illusionary faith in finding meaning in ‘history’. It is my view that secular or scientistic belief systems (e.g. the ‘New Atheist’ movement, or even the proliferation of what Tallis calls ‘darwinitis’ or ‘neuromania’) can be just as dangerous to rational thinking as traditional religions. According to Camus and Becker, it seems that we are, as human beings, extremely susceptible to subscribing to an ‘absolute’ meaning system of one kind or another. It seems too uncomfortable for us to live in the ‘waterless deserts’ that Camus had advocated. I am not suggesting here that we should not try… on the contrary, I think part of life – indeed perhaps the whole of life, could involve learning how to walk our existential tightrope without buying into ‘absolutes’ – but if you understand what I am asking, I wonder what your opinion might be about whether you think it realistic that we might ever achieve a rational society that is devoid of illusion? If we expel religion, will it not just be replaced with a secular equivalent?

  17. Philip

    The issues of morality and meaning are irrelevant. Take the theist’s worst case: without a god to guarantee them, life has no meaning and morality is a fiction. So?
    A similar situation exists with regard to the “fine tuning” issue: We exist because, out of a presumably wide range of parameter values, only a certain set holds. So?
    Unless you start out with the assumption that a universe without morality, meaning, and human existence is unthinkable, there’s no reason to give weight to any of these arguments for a being responsible for ensuring them.

  18. gabe

    These arguments, about what kind of objects exist, miss the significance of most religious discourse, which is expressive and transactional rather than causal-explanatory. Perhaps this is just to say that you should have focused on consequences rather than arguments of necessity and possibility.

    In my view the “necessity” that properly applies to religious memes is the conditional necessity of a language-game: if you are going to adopt this vocabulary (in order to express and reason about a basic set of human valuations), then you can’t question the “existence” of its basic metaphors.

    When the believer says “I believe in God”, it is most useful to interpret the meaning of the sentence as a statement about that person’s sense of the meaningfulness of life — even if the person happens to be afflicted with objective conceptions of the supernatural. Many “believers” are not so afflicted, and intuitively understand the religious language-game as having explicitly moral — not causal-explanatory — implications. And what the latter intend and experience is the same core phenomenon experienced by those who pay lip-service to an objectified mythology. (You can see this at congregations in which literalists and nonliteralists happily mix, focusing on their moral agreements.) It’s just that the objectifiers have covered over their experience with an explanatory overlay.

    I’m a big admirer of the viewpoint expressed by Camus. But many believers follow this same dynamic, which they express as a wavering of faith and inability to discern the path that is divinely preferred. In my view the mass of people unable to read Camus are better served by metaphorical proxies for explicit existential reflection, than by an ideology of atheism that shrugs off the desire for meaning as a kind of neurosis.

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