Atheism is a cliche, like not collecting stamps is a hair color

Another persistent frustration I have with the atheist community is the cliches.  Nothing shows off freethought quite like a regurgitated meme.  In particular, I hate these memes:

Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color.

Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

My boyfriend recently suggested a more apt analogy on Facebook:

Atheism is a religion like theism is a religion.

This provoked some people to insist that, no, atheism isn’t a religion, let me explain to you what atheism is.  They’re totally not getting it.  For the benefit of people who only understand cliches, let me explain it in the form of a cliche.

Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color.

Theism is a religion like having hair is a hair color.

In other words, theism isn’t a religion because there are lots of different religions that are theistic.  It’s also entirely possible to be a theist without belonging to any particular religion, although I guess that doesn’t match the hair color analogy, since everyone who has hair has a hair color.  This analogy is stupid, let us never speak of it again.

Similarly atheism isn’t a religion, because some atheists may be religious, but clearly not all atheists, and they’re certainly not all part of the same religion.

Religion is hard concept to define, even for scholars who study the subject.  It’s particularly hard for most of us westerners who simply aren’t very familiar with eastern religions, except as they’re practiced in western culture.  Religion is a set of beliefs, it’s a cultural system, it’s kind of organization, or it’s something more.  As an ex-Catholic, I tend to think that the social structure is an important part of the definition, but maybe that’s a biased view.

The point is, a single belief regarding whether gods exists or not obviously doesn’t constitute a religion.  The atheist social movement shares more than just a disbelief in gods, but this still doesn’t constitute a religion, it constitutes a social movement.  At the same time, I do know individual non-supernaturalist atheists who consider themselves religious, including Unitarian Universalists, Wiccans, and Satanists.

It’s time for the cliche to die.

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30 thoughts on “Atheism is a cliche, like not collecting stamps is a hair color

  1. KIA October 20, 2015 / 8:22 pm

    Theism actually is a religion. Or more correctly, a class or subset of religion.
    Theism has belief in God as its center identity. How that center expresses itself in different beliefs and religions (plural) doesn’t invalidate the truth that theism is Religion.

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  2. Siggy October 20, 2015 / 10:55 pm

    @Kia, you’re arguing by assertion. And some of your phrasing, I really have to wonder where any of it comes from. What does “center identity” even mean? Are you trying to make a distinction between “a religion”, “religion”, and “Religion”?

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  3. The Barefoot Bum October 21, 2015 / 3:18 am

    I mostly agree; these cliches, like all cliches, have little content.

    Still, it’s nice to have snappy answers to stupid assertions, like “Atheists are religious, they just have a different god (science, themselves, money),” that are equally light on content.

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  4. clubschadenfreude October 21, 2015 / 4:51 am

    you do realize that theists came up with the false analogy and the meme is a response to it?

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  5. nancyabramsblogger October 21, 2015 / 8:31 am

    You make some good points here. Atheism and theism, being opposites, make a more accurate comparison than many of the things in those cliches. I don’t know that those cliches are inherently bad, but I’d argue that communicating exclusively through cliches is not creating good dialogue. If anything, it’s distancing people with different viewpoints from each other by preventing them from communicating their ideas in a way that people take seriously. Everyone knows a cliche when they see it, and they’re very easy to tune out.

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  6. Siggy October 21, 2015 / 8:39 am

    To the extent that I’m annoyed by the “atheism is a religion” analogy, I get the sense that I’m annoyed by an entirely different aspect than other atheists. The definition of religion isn’t even close to being right, and even if true, I don’t attach a negative value to religion.

    Most atheists, on the other hand, seem to agree with the definition of religion, agree that religion is bad, but disagree with the description of atheism. Atheists have failed to correct anything that is actually wrong about the analogy.

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  7. T-Bone November 13, 2015 / 2:26 pm

    I agree that atheism is not a religion because in order for “a system of beliefs” to be classified as a religion, there must be a deity in said system of beliefs; by definition, atheism lacks a deity.

    That said, what theists really mean when we say that “atheism is a religion” is that “atheism is a system of beliefs.” I think it’s a way of relating, because theism is also a system of beliefs.

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  8. Siggy November 13, 2015 / 7:36 pm

    @T-bone
    But how does that work? Theism is just one belief. Is one belief sufficient to constitute a system?

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  9. T-Bone November 16, 2015 / 2:21 pm

    @Siggy, I fail to see any complexity here; it’s rather basic. Let me simplify this as much as I can. Atheist/Theist is a declaration of belief: one believes that there is no deity and the other believes that there is a deity. Does that help?

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  10. Siggy November 16, 2015 / 4:01 pm

    @Tbone, It does not answer the question, and leads me to believe that you did not understand my question.

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  11. T-Bone November 17, 2015 / 3:02 pm

    @Siggy, It most certainly does answer the question and I did understand your question. It seems to me that perhaps you simply don’t like the answer. But to be fair, perhaps we are talking past each other. What then, is your question?

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  12. Siggy November 17, 2015 / 3:41 pm

    My question was, “Is one belief sufficient to constitute a system?” I still don’t understand whether your answer was a yes or no. Either you think that one belief is sufficient to constitute a system of beliefs, and therefore my belief that ice cream is great also constitutes a belief system. Or maybe you think that a belief in a deity comes with other beliefs, and together they constitute a system. Or maybe something else? Who knows?

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  13. T-Bone November 18, 2015 / 8:31 am

    OK. Now we’re getting somewhere. I think that you’ve answered your own question, and I agree with you. Let me restate your question: Is one belief sufficient to constitute a system (of beliefs)? Clearly, a system of beliefs requires there to be more than one belief, by definition; ergo, a single belief does not constitute a system of beliefs. That said, theism (ie the belief in the existence of God/gods) is no more a system of beliefs than atheism (ie the belief that God/gods do not exist.) is.

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  14. Siggy November 18, 2015 / 8:34 am

    Okay, so theism is not a system of beliefs, and does not count as a religion even in the broad sense. Which is what I had said in the OP.

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  15. T-Bone November 18, 2015 / 1:56 pm

    I thought you were annoyed at the “popular” (among theists) claim that “atheism is a religion”? That said, it’s been my experience that when people (typically theists) make this claim what they really mean is that “atheism is a belief just like theism is a belief.” In other words, one believes that God/gods exist and the other believes that God/gods do not exist. Both are beliefs; different beliefs, but both are beliefs. I assume you agree with this, correct?

    This brings me to something that frustrates me: some atheists (many these days) like to use a differently worded definition of atheism as follows: “atheism is the lack of belief in God/gods.” Right off the bat, I have no problem with this definition of atheism so long as it MEANS the same thing as “atheism is the belief that God/gods do not exist.” However, I find that many atheists insist that it does not mean that and that it means something else. When pressed on this matter, I never get anything coherent in response. Your thoughts?

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  16. Siggy November 18, 2015 / 3:02 pm

    Earlier you said religion meant a system of beliefs, and now you switched to saying it’s just a belief. I think the equivocation between those three things (religion, system of beliefs, a single belief) is what annoys me. If the claim were merely that atheism is a belief, that is nothing so extraordinary and hardly worth mentioning. But if the claim is that atheism is a religion, it sure sounds like people are trying to say something more?

    I’ve heard many many atheists say that atheism is a lack of a belief, rather than a belief, so I know what you’re talking about. Personally I think this is splitting hairs. Certainly some people lack any beliefs with respect to god, like if they haven’t thought about it or they just don’t like forming opinions about stuff. But I don’t consider that to be very laudable, nor is it descriptive of the atheist social movement.

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  17. T-Bone November 19, 2015 / 9:46 am

    “Earlier you said religion meant a system of beliefs, and now you switched to saying it’s just a belief.”
    I think you’re mistaken about that. You’re equivocating what I said about religion with what I said about theism. I have always maintained that religion = system of beliefs. I did originally and erroneously state that “atheism is a system of beliefs”, which I since corrected by saying that atheism is a single belief.

    Just to be clear:

    theism is a single belief: God/gods exist
    atheism is a single belief: God/gods do not exist
    religion is a system of beliefs centered on theism (meaning theism must be in the system)

    I think you can appreciate why there is misuse of the word “religion”, and that’s because there is no word for ‘a system of beliefs centered on atheism.’ I suppose that people just try to reuse ‘atheism’ to also mean ‘a system of beliefs centered on atheism.’

    “But if the claim is that atheism is a religion, it sure sounds like people are trying to say something more?”
    Yes. They’re trying to say that people who are atheists also operate their lives under a system of beliefs centered on atheism and whatever the atheist uses to substitute for God’s gravity and authority.

    “I’ve heard many many atheists say that atheism is a lack of a belief, rather than a belief, so I know what you’re talking about. Personally I think this is splitting hairs.”
    They use it as a way to claim that there isn’t actually any belief involved in atheism. They do this in order to not have the burden of proof in arguments whenever they’re called upon to defend their claims. Their reasoning seems to be that if there is no belief, then there is nothing to defend. The problem, of course, is that if their claim doesn’t address belief, then what does it address? What is it that they are claiming? They aren’t claiming anything and so their definition is meaningless because it does not convey anything.

    “Certainly some people lack any beliefs with respect to god, like if they haven’t thought about it or they just don’t like forming opinions about stuff.”
    Sure, and so they have not conveyed anything. They haven’t answered the question of belief; they haven’t answered anything at all. That’s not atheism.

    “But I don’t consider that to be very laudable, nor is it descriptive of the atheist social movement.”
    We are in agreement. :o)

    I myself am an agnostic-theist, and I assume that you are an atheist from what you’ve written. But I was curious to know what you consider yourself: agnostic-atheist or a gnostic-atheist?

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  18. Siggy November 19, 2015 / 11:09 am

    @T-bone, you originally claimed, “theism is also a system of beliefs.” You are now denying that claim, so I will assume you misspoke earlier.

    I do not agree that religion is a system of beliefs centered on theism. As discussed in the OP, I think religion is hard to define. We basically seem to have an idea of what things should count as religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, etc.), and we come up with a definition after the fact to match the desired set. Unfortunately, most people in the US are not very familiar with the eastern religions, and thus fail to come up with good definitions. Several eastern religions are non-theistic. I also brought up UU, Wiccans, and Satanists.

    I reject the agnostic/gnostic dichotomy. I have an old post about it. I’m not really interested in it as a topic.

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  19. T-Bone November 19, 2015 / 3:13 pm

    @Siggy, I should have made it more clear: “I did originally and erroneously state that theism/atheism are systems of beliefs, which I have since corrected by saying that theism/atheism are singular beliefs.”

    “I do not agree that religion is a system of beliefs centered on theism.”
    Interesting, but every religion you listed in parenthesis has a deity (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism.) The exception might be Buddhism but many point out that Buddha is their god. I understand that Buddhists claim that Buddha is not god and that they have no god, but they also claim that Buddhism is not a religion. If that’s the case, then I’d have to agree with the latter.

    As far as Wicca & Satanism go, they both have deities: god & goddess for Wicca and Satan for Satanism. I understand that there ‘denominations’ that do not have Satan as a deity, but it seems to me that those also don’t consider themselves religions (more at philosophies.) UU I don’t see as a religion either, more like a philosophy. Can you detail any eastern religions (or non-eastern for that matter) that are non-theistic?

    Being as how you don’t agree on my definition of religion, what’s yours?

    I understand you reject the agnostic/gnostic dichotomy, but how do you then address knowledge of God’s existence or non-existence? Atheism/theism addresses belief while agnostic/gnostic addresses knowledge.

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  20. Siggy November 19, 2015 / 4:01 pm

    There are many buddhisms and also many buddhas. Some forms of buddhism are theistic, some are not. It’s actually hard to tell because obviously God is an English word, and whether you translate a foreign language concept to “God” or not depends on your choice of translation.

    I think you could very well commit to the idea that religion requires theism, and then subsequently choose your translations such that every eastern religion is indeed theistic. However, I don’t think this would be a very good framework, as it seems to be more committed to a particular definition than it is committed to an accurate understanding of other cultures. There are a lot of important differences between a buddha and a god. A buddha is just an ordinary person who learned a lot, like a role model or teacher. Buddhas often have supernatural properties, but they don’t play important roles in eschatology.

    The wiccans, Satanists, and UU people I know all consider themselves to be part of religions, and not philosophies. They are also nontheistic. One Wiccan I knew was even a fan of The God Delusion. I mean, I guess you could still call them philosophies, but FWIW you’re going against the self-identification of the people involved.

    I don’t really know how to define religion. I took a course on history of religion once, and it’s the kind of thing everybody argues about in the first seminar. Your point of view is a common one, but I think it doesn’t hold up.

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  21. Siggy November 19, 2015 / 4:08 pm

    I have a coblogger (on the other blog) who studies Japanese religions. Once she said that in Japan, State Shintoism was allowed to coexist with the idea of separation of church and state because Japan used western definitions of religion to argue that Shintoism doesn’t count. I find this amusing to read about.

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  22. T-Bone November 20, 2015 / 8:56 am

    Now for some humor:
    “We seem to be playing a game of show and tell: you’re showing me everything but you’re telling me nothing.” -Vincenzo Voccotti, (movie True Romance.)

    I find it odd that you can’t tell me what “religion” is but you can tell me what it’s not. In part, you say, because the English concept of God may not translate universally, but then that means the word theist may not translate either as that word literally means God. Semantics rears its ugly head!

    While the word “God” is an English word (actually German gott) the concept it represents is not exclusive to English or German; it seems to be quite universal. Let me be clear on my usage: when I say “God” I am speaking of the Judeo-Christian god and when I say “god” or “gods” or “deity” or “deities” (from the Latin deitas amd Greek theotes meaning gods) it means the Judeo-Christian god as well as all others. I think it was already clear, but I mention it just in case. At this point, we’ve covered about 1/2 the planet from the Americas to Europe, and to some extent, the Middle East: not just England. My definition of religion means that it is a system of beliefs that revolves around a central belief that there is a God or gods. This means that I am not referring only to the English concept of God, but rather all gods.

    Then there are the other words we are using like “theist” or “non-theistic” which are meaningless or unclear if the word God is meaningless or unclear: theist from the Greek Theus / Zeus = God. I don’t see how there’s a translation to pick: the concept is either present or it’s not. If there is no concept of a deity then by extension there is no concept of religion (according to the definition I presented.) The point of defining religion isn’t to accurately understand other cultures, that’s the job of anthropology. Oddly enough, if you don’t define religion, how can we accurately understand other cultures with respects to religion? One cannot.

    I agree that there are a lot of important differences between a buddha and a god, but I wasn’t referring to a buddha but rather the Buddha. Some Buddhists say Buddha himself was a theist; some say otherwise. In Buddhism there are devas, the Eternal Buddha, veneration and worship: all things revolving around god or gods. It’s rather clear that Buddha is (or buddhas are) their supreme being(s): a deity or deities. You mention eschatology, but that doesn’t speak against my definition of religion: I never mentioned eschatology. Interestingly enough, there is Buddhist eschatology.

    The fact that wiccans, Satanists, and UU people consider themselves to be part of religions, doesn’t mean they are correct. We live in a time where there are many that encouraged the practice of obfuscating terminology in order to promote an ideology, and this Machiavellian endeavor is harmful to society. As such, it doesn’t surprise me that many people would mistakenly self-identify; at one point in history, there were those that self-identified as a supreme-race, that doesn’t mean they were correct. It seems to me that these people either mistakenly identify themselves as religious (if they are truly atheists) or mistakenly identify themselves as atheist. If I had to put money on it, I’d say the latter.

    You say that my point of view is a common one but that it doesn’t hold up, to which I say: how do you know it doesn’t hold up? According to you, you’re not qualified to make that determination because you said that you don’t really know how to define religion. You might refer to those that self-identify a certain way as evidence to oppose my position, but how do you know it opposes my position: it could be they (ie Wiccans, Satanists, UU) with the views that don’t hold up? I don’t think you’re suggesting an argumentum ad populum, are you?

    Coming back full circle: with such nebulous definitions for “religion” and “god/gods”, I can’t possibly see how you can honestly reject “atheism” as a religion, if you don’t know what religion is? It’s quite the semantic spiderweb! While it might seem to you that I am adamant about my definition of religion, I am not. I am willing to hear other evidence but what I’ve heard so far is not compelling.

    I had heard about State Shintoism in Japan, but was not learned in the details. The article on Wiki was enlightening. Seems to me that the Japanese basically tried to hide that they had separation of church and state minus Shintoism! Today in the US, the phrase “separation of church and state” has been used to upend so many American traditions. Oddly enough, the phrase appears nowhere in our Constitution.

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  23. Siggy November 20, 2015 / 10:36 am

    When I said that the definition of religion is discussed in any history of religion course, I was suggesting that it’s a subject that you can look into on your own. You’d get better results with google than by asking me. Less politely, let me fucking google that for you.

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  24. Siggy November 20, 2015 / 10:47 am

    In googling it, you will of course find many views. The idea that religion requires a deity is a common naive view but is not adopted by many scholars. I have most sympathies for the social constructionist perspective.

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  25. Sara K. November 21, 2015 / 9:08 am

    @ T-Bone

    “when I say “God” I am speaking of the Judeo-Christian god”

    The term ‘Judeo-Christian’ is a curious choice. Are there specific qualities about this god you are referring to which are Jewish and not exclusively Christian, yet at the same time do not apply to Islam and other Abrahamic religions (i.e. is there a reason why ‘Judeo-Christian’ captures your intended meaning better than the term ‘Abrahamic’ or even ‘Christian’?)

    Jews (religious and non-religious) often dislike the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian’ since a) most people who use it really mean Christian and b) Jews have a long history of oppression and coerced conversion by Christians, so we are not exactly thrilled with a term which implies that Christianity is the natural progression of Judaism.

    I have to agree with Siggy that it is difficult to translate ‘god’ across languages, and that you could choose translations to support the thesis that all religions have gods, but that would probably ignore a lot of important cultural differences. For example, in Korean shamanism, there is a word which is translated into English as all of the following: ‘ghost’, ‘spirit’, and ‘god’. As you may guess, a lot of Korean shamanism is based on interacting with certain dead people and, for example, trying to appease them so that food will be plentiful for the living. Does that mean that these dead people are their gods, and if so, would lumping these ‘gods’ with the Abrahamic gods clarify, or obscure, the meaning of this religious practice?

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  26. T-Bone November 23, 2015 / 6:36 am

    @Siggy, perhaps we’re just talking past each other, but I wasn’t discussing religion with a “history of religion course” or “Google” but rather with Siggy. It wasn’t a “history of religion course” or “Google” that made statements that I challenged, but rather it was you, Siggy. You are again showing me everything but telling me nothing.

    You “Googled that” for me and curious enough, the very first answer backs my point of view: “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” But what was your point in this, most things you Google will yield a plethora of varied results? Again, I am asking you to defend your positions so I can’t really Google the defense of your positions, now can I? Regardless, I think that I made some very good points that went uncontested.

    @SARA K., I suppose Abrahamic would work as well. That said, I am in deed a Christian, and we do consider Christianity as the natural progression of Judaism; after all, Jesus was a Jew. While there is a long history of oppression and coerced conversion by Christians, there’s also a more recent history of support, kindness, and the prevention of Jewish extinction. This last view, seems more apt nowadays, at least here in America.

    I understand that it is difficult to translate ‘god’, but it is not impossible. As a Catholic, it’s not surprising for me to see the words ‘ghost’, ‘spirit’, and ‘god’ to be used to refer to the same thing. Taking Siggy’s advice, I Googled it and found this:

    “Korean shamanism, also known as Muism (Korean: Mugyo ‘mu [shaman] religion’) or Sinism (Singyo ‘religion of the shin [gods]’…. Other names for the religion are Sindo (Korean: ‘Way of the Gods’), Sindoism (Korean: Sindogyo ‘religion of the Way of the Gods’)…Gosindo (traditional Chinese; Korean: ‘Way of the Ancestral Gods’)…” -Wiki.

    See a recurring theme?

    “As you may guess, a lot of Korean shamanism is based on interacting with certain dead people and, for example, trying to appease them so that food will be plentiful for the living.”
    Interacting with their gods.

    “Does that mean that these dead people are their gods…”
    Yes.

    “…and if so, would lumping these ‘gods’ with the Abrahamic gods clarify, or obscure, the meaning of this religious practice?
    It describes the meaning of this religious practice, why would that obscure it? What obscures things, is having nebulous terms.

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  27. Siggy November 23, 2015 / 7:43 am

    @T-bone, now you’re pretty much demanding that I respond, which goes against my comment policy. It also suggests that you’re more interested in arguing than truth-seeking, since truth is best acquired from a variety of sources, while the continuation of an argument can only be acquired from one person.

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  28. T-Bone November 23, 2015 / 2:47 pm

    @Siggy,

    “now you’re pretty much demanding that I respond, which goes against my comment policy.”
    Technically, I didn’t demand anything; however, the alternative is you not responding and that’s fine because I can’t force you to respond. That said, I am rather confused because you have responded several times already, going against your own comment policy.

    I’m not sure what the difference is between arguing and truth-seeking, since they are not mutually exclusive; not to mention that some of us sometimes use debate as a way of seeking truth. I am also confused as to your comment regarding multiple sources, as if one cannot have a discussion or debate while citing multiple sources. One can, and I have done so myself during the course of our discussions. What one cannot do is use multiple CONFLICTING sources, because that is inconsistent…which means there is a contradiction…which means there is a falsehood…which is the opposite of truth.

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  29. Siggy November 23, 2015 / 3:18 pm

    If you devalue conflicting sources, I can only imagine what value you derive from arguments between conflicting viewpoints.

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  30. T-Bone November 25, 2015 / 7:04 am

    Strawman much? The problem is not the conflicting sources, but rather the formation of a conclusion from conflicting sources. For the record, it’s not me that says that, it’s the basic rules of logic.

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