The Atheist Con

If you wanted to find diversity, community, and humanism at Skepticon 5, you had to walk next door.

I love atheist and skeptic conferences. I really do. There’s something exhilarating about pulling into a hotel parking lot and seeing regiments of marching fish, stepping into a hotel lobby and noticing heretical trinkets dangling from seemingly everyone, and sitting down to eat in a nearby restaurant where the faithful are an obvious minority. Especially for those who live South of the Mason-Dixon line, such occurrences are rare enough that the novelty alone is usually worth the price of admission.

Which is why I was surprised to return from Skepticon 5 (the “fifth-most Skepticon yet”) weighed down by profound disappointment.

Not because the organizers did a bad job – far from it. In fact, the event itself was a fantastic gathering, a testament to their Herculean efforts and organizational proficiency. In fact, I would daresay that this year’s convention was damn near equivalent to other atheist and skeptical events with longer and more professional pedigrees.

Which is precisely the problem.

I’ve gradually grown weary of the popular edutainment and personality-driven nature of these conventions. I suppose that for the newly-unchristened, the novelty of attendance is sufficient to sustain interest, in much the same way that one’s first discovery of manual-genital congress is stimulating enough to attenuate the desire for more meaningful interactions. Unfortunately, the two most meaningful talks of Skepticon 5 were consigned to the literal margins – James Croft‘s excellent discourse on the value of secular communities, and Tony Pinn‘s crucial explanation of the challenges in reaching out to ethnically non-privileged communities. The former was placed at the earliest position on Sunday (while most attendees and other speakers were still nursing the effects of the previous evening’s debauchery), and the latter was given the final position of that day (after the vast majority of attendees had evacuated Springfield out of logistical necessity).

Croft’s talk represented the humanist soul (for lack of a better word) of the atheist and skeptical movement. It’s easy enough (relatively speaking) to stroke one’s rationality and reargue the nonexistence of gods, the silliness of creationism, and even the value of feminism. But it takes a good deal more intellectual and ethical rigor to hash out the particulars of building real value-driven communities. Particularly for atheists and skeptics, who have a poor track record of creating proactive and harmonious groups online, to say nothing of their capacity for contention in meatspace. Without community, the best we have to offer is either the intellectual one-night-stand of conventions like Skepticon or a passport to the Great Online Troll Sanctuary, where clashing tribes band together around the glow of their iPad screens and cast virtual spears at anyone who speaks differently. What we need, Croft says, are real places where people can look each other in the eye, forge long-term friendships, and celebrate life’s milestones. Or, as my friend Alix put it slightly more pragmatically, “people I can invite to my daughter’s first birthday party.”

Pinn’s presentation, delivered to a fraction of the weekend’s attendees, was particularly poignant to me. Most atheist and skeptical conventions have done a reasonable job of increasing the visibility of women within the movement, but for those from ethnically non-privileged communities, it’s been another story. Surveying this year’s larger conventions, I note with particular disappointment that non-white speakers comprise an average of 12% of each event, while African-Americans make up only about 7% (with Dr. Pinn’s appearances contributing close to half of that amount). This is, in a word, UNACCEPTABLE. These numbers should be at least twice what they are now, or higher. Pinn pointed out that the atheist and skeptical movement has not attracted minority participants because it doesn’t proactively include them, and also because it doesn’t proactively engage with the interests of non-privileged communities. And this isn’t the first time a Skepticon audience heard this message – Debbie Goddard said essentially the same thing two years ago, but the organizers apparently didn’t listen. No wonder, then, that less than 1% of the attendees this year, as in years past, were from ethnically non-privileged communities.

And most distressing to me was the breathtaking dichotomy I witnessed on Friday and Saturday as Skepticon organized on one side of the Springfield Expo Center, while the local organization Friends Against Hunger held their first “Meals a Million” event to pack low-cost, nutritious meals for needy families around the world. There had been an offhand mention ahead of time by the Skepticon organizers that this event would be coinciding with their convention, and the suggestion was made that those who weren’t attending the Friday workshops or film festival might possibly consider volunteering, but there was no official partnership or significant promotion.

Standing outside the convention center Saturday morning while chatting with some Christian “protesters,” I noticed ever-growing groups of people entering the doors behind me while wearing shirts marked with their church’s logo. At first, I was impressed that there were church members, apparently in large numbers, coming to Skepticon. After walking inside, I was disappointed to find that the Christians were walking downstairs with the atheists, but then turning to walk the opposite direction. When I realized that the Christians were there to pack meals for the needy, while the atheists were there to purchase snarky T-shirts and congratulate themselves on their intellectual acuity, I was disappointed again. Disappointed in us. As I stood at the bottom of the convention staircase, Christians and atheists walking in opposite ethical directions, I knew that I couldn’t in good conscience join those selling “humanist” buttons without first acting like one.

And so, irony be damned, I stepped in line behind a group of middle-aged Lutheran women, because I wanted to spend some time with real humanists at Skepticon.

I don’t share this to brag (I only had time to work a couple hours before I had to meet back with my family), or to unreasonably condemn the Skepticon organizers and attendees. I understand, people traveled from far and wide to attend and speak and meet other atheists and skeptics. I did too. But the lack of practical and positive expressions of humanistic values within the Skepticon crowd should be addressed by this time next year. For example, the convention organizers could partner officially with Friends Against Hunger, or a local blood bank, or some other worthy cause. But there needs to be SOMETHING, otherwise the labels we pin on ourselves are as superficial and meaningless as the aluminum and plastic from which they’re made.

Which brings me back to Croft and Pinn, both (like Friends Against Hunger) kept to the periphery of the Skepticon experience (intentionally or otherwise). At his website, Croft says that he seeks to create communities that inspire people to “build a better future for humankind.” So do I, and so do (I presume) most of the Skepticon attendees, organizers, and speakers. Pinn said about his frustration with the ministry, that “what [he] was saying and preaching was not translating into ethical action.” How much more do those words also convict those of us who attended Skepticon primarily to go drinking and take pictures with our favorite bloggers?

It is time for atheist and skeptical conventions to aspire to more than this. It is no longer enough to trot out some well-known names, hand out trophies, and show everyone to the nearest bar. The time for self-congratulation is over. Until we take seriously the need for practical humanism, until we set aside our privilege to listen to our non-privileged brothers and sisters, we don’t deserve the warm and fuzzy feelings that we get on our way out of Springfield. It’s time to stop the circlejerk, and get our hands dirty planting real seeds of humanism.

31 thoughts on “The Atheist Con

  1. Excellent piece, thank you. I’ve been to Skepticon twice but missed this year. Wanted to hear Sean Carroll, but too many good things going at home.

    Movements have their growing pains and dysfunction. I enjoy conferences, but I attend a UU church when I want real humanism the way the grown-ups do it. Which is every Sunday and Wednesday. With my daughter.

    I suppose it’s not for everyone, but UU is already doing what Alain de Botton and James Croft are talking about. Whenever possible, I like to remodel rather than build from scratch.

    • I like UU churches, they do some great things. And in many respects they beat the average secular group in terms of sheer humanistic output. But they’re not strictly secular, and that can be a challenge for many. Still, I think it’d be great for them to be an example to our movement.

    • I don’t understand your assertion that UU churches are “real humanism the way the grown-ups do it.” I find the idea that one needs to go to some sort of church services in order to be an “adult” to be offensive. I consider myself an atheist/secular humanist, and I “observe” my humanism every time I volunteer, donate to organizations that are important to me, go to political rallies, learn about science, provide my friends with open ears and a shoulder to cry on, and advocate for the separation of church and state, among many other things.

      I also agree with a great deal of what Zachary wrote here. I just don’t see how your condescending attitude towards lifestyles that differ from your own has anything to do with it.

      • >I don’t understand your assertion that UU churches are “real humanism the way the grown-ups do it.”

        I just meant that my UU church is a mature, stable organization that basically holds a Skepticon every weekend. I felt a thrill at my first Skepticon, but 5 events in 5 years is a bare beginning.

        Like you, many of the Skepticon attenders are grown-up humanists who live their principles all year long. That’s great. I just think the atheist community has a lot to learn from other organizations. In fact, the best approach may be to not be an organization at all, but infiltrate city councils and school boards (as PZ Meyers has suggested), UU churches/fellowships and such. Why reinvent the wheel

        We can, of course, do both.

  2. I just want to point out that I do charity work throughout the year, I don’t think one weekend of buying snarky tees makes me less caring in some way.
    I think if we had donation boxes for canned goods or Toys for Tots, they would have been filled up. It’s my experience that atheists are just as generous as Christians, and I don’t think I’m alone in that feeling.

    • Sarah, I’m sure that you and other Skepticon attendees have a great track record of charitable giving. But the numbers don’t support your generalization. Christians outgive atheists by at least a 2:1 margin, and here in DFW our survey showed that they beat us by an order of magnitude. That’s embarrassing. And that’s not just tithing to their church, they beat us in giving to organizations like Toys for Tots as well.

      • Meh.
        Maybe Xians give to their pet charities, and secularists try to improve government to improve lives on a larger and more systemic scale. I’ll take systemic and efficient every time.

        • Wow. That’s a heartless sentiment. Let’s help those that are in immediate help while also building a system that will be beneficial for generations. Let’s not just be happy with either or.

        • This I interesting: the same point was made in a question after my talk: “perhaps secular people think government should do the work rather than charity, which is why they give less to charity.” Even if secular people are more in favor of government intervention, as Chas says, this is no reason for them not to also be charitable. The one does not follow from the other.

      • Ah, but they give to “charities” that often aren’t really charities, imho. Is giving to your church so they can build stained-glass windows and distribute Bibles to starving people really “charity?”

        • Heina, Christians outgive atheists in non-church giving as well. And while there are many churches whose charity is largely self-serving, there are just as many who are doing real humanist work.

          • Hm, a lot of Christian charities don’t do what I’d consider to be actual charity. There are lots of proselytizing orgs that are counted as “Christian charities.” After all, Focus on the Family is tax-exempt.

          • The problem isn’t just with churches. There are lots of proselytizing orgs that are counted as “Christian charities.” After all, Focus on the Family is tax-exempt.

      • Another thing to bear in mind is that Christians do an enormous amount of social damage with their more bigoted anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-atheist, anti-science policies. As a result, it is totally reasonable to expect Christians to have to give more to charity to make up for the social damage their religion causes.

  3. First, thank you for the kind words on my talk. I’m glad you appreciated it. I was actually surprised at the positivity of the reception, given that I’m sometimes canny about talking about community development at events and communities dedicated to skepticism and atheism because I never know how well it will go down. I have sometimes had extremely negative responses, and this was the most forthright I’ve been on the topic in such a setting (I’ve certainly never mentioned the North Texas Church of Freethought in my talk before, for instance, because the simple use of the C-word can turn an audience against you!).

    To the meat of your post, I was very sad that I myself had to fly out too early to hear Pinn speak. I believe his time-slot may have been due to hi schedule, but nonetheless it was unfortunate for such a topic to be addressed at that time when, as you say, so many people had left. I think with issues of diversity in general, what we’ve found at HCH is that when you start presenting your community in a different way, and changing what your offering (more service-oriented, more concern for developing relationships between members etc.) you actually see a significant shift in membership demographics. And that suggests to me that we are missing out, as a movement, on a lot of people who would be interested in joining us if we talked about what we did differently and acted a little more obviously on the values we espouse.

    I do think, too, that there is a problem in our community with an ethic-action gap. Certainly not in all cases and not everywhere, but we find it difficult to motivate our members to turn out for service projects sometimes too. I remember when the HCH organized a bulb-exchange project for the last day of the AHA conference last year and out of the many hundreds in attendance we got maybe 30 people to come. And we racked our brains after that to try to figure out why.

    I do NOT think it is because atheists are worse people than the religious. Rather I think we have developed these cons for a particular set of reasons and people come expecting certain things, and it takes some brave leadership to offer something quite significantly different. Also, I think our community is in-transition. People are beginning to ask the question “after religion, what’s next?” – but first there’s a post-religious period of legitimate anger at all the harm religion often cause people. I believe the ship is turning, though, an that in a few years our community will look very, very different – you won’t be alone behind those Lutherans ;).

  4. I should say, too, that I’m certain there was no hidden agenda behind the time I am Pinn spoke. I am, frankly, not a well-known figure in the movement and not someone who has spoken at Skepticon before, and the organizers knew very little about what the speakers were going to address beforehand (they just asked us for a title), so I feel very happy to have even been asked to speak at all 🙂

    • James, I agree, and did not mean to imply that the organizers had callously shunted your topic to the wings. But selecting only one community-building speaker, and including just one token diversity presentation, were decisions that were made. Out of ignorance or out of pragmatic deference to popularity, the effect was the same. Next year, it’s my hope that these topics are covered broadly enough, and featured prominently enough, that one person’s scheduling issues don’t diminish their impact.

  5. Hi Zach,

    My name is Micah Weiss and I am program director for Skepticon. We haven’t had our post-con board meeting yet (some of us are still traveling home), so this email reflects my opinions and is not the “official” stance of Skepticon. Also, I haven’t gotten rest yet so please forgive me if this email is rambling or full of typos. This will likely become loopier as the night rolls onward.

    First off: thank you for your honest, negative, thoughtful, feedback. This the most useful kind of feedback and if you have more of it, I would be happy to hear it. In fact, anyone who registered should expect a feedback request by email in the near future. Everything will be read. Everything.

    On a lot of your points, I agree and think we can do better. More than that, we have already spent months working on solutions to the problems you mention, and a lot of them are ready to be implemented for next year. However, in this article you seem to ascribe motives that are off-base to the point of insult. I do not believe you are a jerk in any way, but that there is a communication problem. Hopefully, this email can help clear some of this mess up.

    On speakers,
    Tony Pinn is a BAMF. Our original schedule has Pinn speaking for our opening night. Why the switch? We are not the only ones who think he’s a rockstar. This October, Tony was elected to the board of AHA. Unfortunately, his new duties caused a schedule conflict and we had to switch his time. He closed Skepticon 5 because we like to end with a bang. JT Eberhard closed Skepticon 4 and left the audience in tears[link]. He was originally set to close this year. Addicted to audience tears, he wanted to end this year’s talk by proposing to his girlfriend. Switching the two made a lot of sense.

    As program director I am in charge of speaker selection and scheduling. James Croft is not only one of my favorite speakers, but a friend. The Humanist Community at Harvard meets Sunday mornings for brunch. It seemed to me that there is a beautiful parallelism in having a such a strong humanist presence on the Sunday morning of Skepticon. Incidentally, every year we get flack from fans of people scheduled to speak in the morning. In light of that feedback we have pushed the convention’s opening 30min later in the day than last year. If you still perceive an anti-humanist bias, please consider the fact that David Silverman spoke at 9:00am last year at Skepticon 4.

    On the ethnic gap,
    Demographic homogenization can cause privilege to become systemic. We take this very seriously, which is why I solicited Pinn. On a personal level, I am part of the local NAACP and I would love for them to table at Skepticon. Dialogue is one of the best ways to educate ourselves out of the blindspots of our backgrounds. As for speaker selection, that is my failing. I didn’t know of the useful lists of speakers and largely relied on word-of-mouth to find speakers. As an organizer, I failed to realize that word-of-mouth is heavily biased in favor of the status quo.

    On philanthropy,
    Thank you for volunteering to help with our neighbor’s event, Meals a Million. You and other attendees donated your time and efforts to a worthy cause. We like this and support this action! We know there were other attendees helping because our registration desk explained and directed them to the event. In fact, we plug their event right on our schedule ( There were some cases of attendees being turned away, but we have known that some of their sessions would be full. Our executive director, Jeffery Markus, has been talking to them this since we found out about them this summer.

    I am deeply disappointed that Meals a Million was turned into a Christians vs. Atheists story. Especially in light of the lovely thank you we received from their director:

    Thank you for encouraging your attendees to volunteer at Meals A Million. We were able to ship over 1 million meals. We packaged 960,000 and included raw ingredients to allow them to make more meals another 150,000 meals. 308,000 meals were shipped to the east coast for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Another 120,000 were distributed in and around Springfield at area pantries and feeding programs and the remaining meals were shipped out of the country.

    We also had plans of philanthropy of our own. The original plan was to use the upstairs room for a blood drive while we collect food and books. You may have noticed this room was empty. We decided not to do the blood drive out of safety concerns. “Feed a Body, Feed a Mind” our food and book drive was publicized but not nearly enough. Next year will have the blood drive, implementation is straightforward. The lack of publicity for the existing drives was my fault and I will do better next time. Bring books and food next year.

    In conclusion,
    A lot of our problems stem from a lack of communication with the public. Thankfully, we are already planning steps to remedy that problem. If a heart attack, cancer, and a hurricane couldn’t stop Skepticon this year. I don’t think anything can.

    Thanks for reading,

    PS Sorry for this half-email half-blogpost format. I figure I’d post this as a comment and email you as well. You are welcome to use any and all of this message. I don’t mean to sound at all scathing. People say nice things about you behind your back and I look forward to getting (hopefully better) feedback from you next year. If the comment is unsightly, I totally understand deleting it.

    • Micah, thanks for your comment!

      First things first, I want to make it clear that you and the other organizers did a great job pulling off yet another fantastic convention. I hope that you take the time to decompress, have a drink (or three), and put my criticism to the side. It’s not my intent to discourage you, or even to single Skepticon out as the worst offender. I know that many of my comments were in reaction to Skepticon specifically, but I also tried to indicate that these are wider problems.

      I’ll send the rest of my response via email.

  6. Oh, and in your first paragraph you mention something being worth the price of admission. Skepticon is free and no one, speaker or organizer, makes a dime.

  7. Hi Zach,

    Thanks for a fantastic, well thought out post. There is one thing I would like to comment on though. The issue of lack of diversity of ethnic groups among speakers.

    I live in South Africa and am well versed in issues of race (as you can imagine). After the 1994 elections, the government brought in it’s BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) policies. We had BEE companies springing up left right and center, and their only job in the economy was to be black. They added no substantial value to the white-owned companies that were forced by law to partner with them (for fear of losing huge amounts of business) and yet they had shares in the company and a share in the profits. They ended up costing a lot companies a lot of money without adding anything significant to the value chain and end up just being a drain on the company and the economy as a whole.

    The point I’m trying to make is that opportunity should be given based on merit. We don’t want to increase the number of black speakers simply to appear not racist. If non-white atheist communities want to be involved then it’s up to them to get involved and make make a valuable contribution. Or why don’t they run their own Skepticons? For me, it’s not about the color of your skin, but rather the value you add that matters.

    I do absolutely agree that it would be awesome to see a more diverse community, however, it’s completely useless to complain about figures and stats when the people on the ground have no interest in adding any real value.

    If there are people who want to add value and are being specifically excluded based on race, then yes, I agree, this is totally unacceptable, but people must want to contribute. If they don’t then I can’t force them, but then they must not come back later and complain about it. Instead of complaining, why don’t they just become involved and contribute?

  8. Was Skepticon 5 meant to be a Skeptical convention or the most important event in all the land. Is it a “breathtaking dichotomy” to see two different events staged in opposite sides of a hall? Shouldn’t both sides have felt shame that they were not curing cancer or doing even more important work? Are you kidding me with this?
    The finger wagers are getting a lot of traction lately on how bad we Atheists are as a group. I know it is a noble pursuit to shake your head at the horrors of people buying snarky tee-shirts and fly home to blog about it. If you feel guilt that you are not humanist enough by wasting your time at a humanist meeting, that’s on you, don’t project your negative feelings on the rest of us. It was a Convention, nothing more nothing less.
    This also goes for the percentage bean counting of diversity. Rather than projecting your white guilt on the rest of us, do something about it. Contact the organizers and the speakers that will give you the solution to the “particular disappointment” to seem to find.

  9. Pingback: The Same Old Same Old | Considered Exclamations

  10. I was one of the Skepticon Attendees who also volunteered for a 2-hour slot with Friends Against Hunger. I didn’t even know what it was on Friday, but once I figured out what it was I knew I had to go. I had no idea other Skepticon people went, so it’s good to hear that other people did actually go.

    And this is all true and needs to be heard. I do think that atheists/skeptics/humanists/secularists/etc. do need a space where they can “circlejerk” and get some intellectual stimulation among like-minded people, but we certainly need to emphasize that community service and humanist actions can go right alongside that (and maybe sometimes overshadow it).

    I also love the idea of atheist/humanist communities, but there’s the common worry of looking & sounding too much like a church or religion. I recently made a post on Facebook about how atheism should necessarily lead to secular humanism (in the sense of promoting progressive ideals), and the backlash was ridiculous– as if pushing that sort of thing is a horrible risk and should be avoided, because we might accidentally turn into progressive cult nazi zombies. One person actually made the implication that atheists would turn *violent* if we, you know, start emphasizing a strong connection to secular humanism. “FEED THE POOR OR DIE!” will obviously be our motto one day if we band together to actively promote community & volunteer service.

    There’s a lot of work to do, I think.

    • Thanks, Liz, I’m glad you made it over to donate some of your time as well. Pity we were in the minority.

      I’ll be much more worried about looking and sounding like a church once we’ve figured out how to take care of peoples’ physical and emotional needs better than churches do right now.

  11. I just now realized you wrote this! I feel a need to post this here…

    OK, here’s my two cents on this.

    First, I’ve been part of those programs for the homeless in churches. What disturbs me (both now and when I was a Christian) is that they generally don’t LISTEN to the people they help. They aren’t necessarily doing their works for the person, they’re doing it for God. Which means they are more interested in hearing what God has to say than in what that person thinks or feels.

    I know this because I’ve been a major part of several church pow-wow sessions about this problem. Countless meetings about how it’s not a numbers game (and I see this creeping in within the article — it seems as if I am the 7%, lol). Other meetings about how giving them food or belongings is “easy” but actually being their friend and listening to them is “hard.” Rarely is the truth spoken, which I know from years of firsthand experience — the truth is that we are trying to convert, and we aren’t really interested in talking to people we can’t convert. The truth is that the people don’t really matter as much as the church. I’m NOT saying the church isn’t helping these people. But it’s external help — the internal is often open to judgement (there have been several “unpacking sessions” I have been part of where nonchristian homeless are dismissed as “cynical” and even showing the “influence of Satan” or “demonic forces” that were simply the exhibition of people craving drugs).

    I think it’s good that so many atheists converse and talk with people. That’s a strength, not a weakness. And we do “good” things all the time — at least I do. I just don’t want to be pressed into service.

    When it comes to obligations to the “atheist/freethinkers/skeptics community,” here’s my philosophy: I don’t HAVE to do anything. I don’t have to do crap. Nothing. Zero. Zilch.

    The last thing I want is for Atheism to be linked to an unjustified moral code whose DOING contributed to a vacuum of THINKING, and whose ALTRUISM empties everyone of their thoughts, emotions, desires, and personality. I’m an Agnostic Anti-Theist; I don’t believe in a Theistic God. I know what unjustified moral pressure feels like, and I came to my belief, in part, to escape it.

    What I see in non-Christians is less of an attempt to control individuals and brainwash them to our dogma with money — and that my sound cruel to religious people, but that’s an agenda religious people have that secular people, generally, do not. And they shouldn’t. We should give regardless of religious status — which is why we fight for a more liberal government, in which you don’t have to be in the church’s (or in the atheist’s, for that matter) good graces in order to be respected as a human being even when times are the roughest.

    I am not in competition in any way, shape, or form with Christians. In a major sense, I see Christian morality as causing many problems in culture today — the prejudice of the moral code of religion, in many cases, actually causes the downtrodden positions in the first place. Prison chaplains are mostly Christian (and “convert” most inmates) because the Christian code is the reason why most of them are there; in many cases, prisons seem to be a mechanism to convert people to Christianity. Religion is the cure, so it comes out looking spot-clean — but what ideologies began the drug war? What ideologies put people on the street in the first place? Like many other beliefs, religion is the cure often because it caused the problem as well.

    As an Agnostic Anti-Theist, I am prone to rebel when someone says, “You MUST act this way, just because.” No. Show me how it is in my best interests. Make it something I want to do rather than something I have to do, and I may consider it.

    Christians have a powerful incentive. They think they’re going to heaven and that God’s in control, so they act accordingly.

    We have a powerful incentive. We think the greatest good is ourselves and we’re in control of our destinies.

    If we say “do good things because I/God said so,” we’re going to lose the game. Religion has far more experience with it and is several moves ahead. Frankly, that’s a game I don’t want to win.

    But if we say, “this is in your best interests because of XYZ,” then we empower the individual, not some Godlike moral code. This is more in our vein, I think.

    So go on the message boards. Write on Facebook. Hang out in the coffee houses and the bars and the slums. Get to know the world while you’re here. You may feel more like a friend to the world than a stranger, and then you’ll be able to help, not out of obligation, but out of love.

    And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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