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Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age
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92 of 100 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is a critical, historical sociology of religion of the highest order. Whether you're secular or religious or a bit of both or neither, I highly recommend reading this book.

There is much going on in this text on multiple levels, theoretically and empirically. In brief, it puts into helpful perspective a lot of questions many of us have about religion. You will learn from this book a lot about how some of the major cultural traditions of the world have developed. Robert Bellah has been thinking about the topic at least since 1964 when he published "Religious Evolution" in the American Sociological Review. In a way, Religion in Human Evolution is a general theory of religion; and, while written over the last 13 years, Bellah has been developing his theory of religion for more than 40 years of a distinguished teaching and writing vocation at Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley.

Bellah's approach recognizes the importance but partial independence of all the variables: cultural, biological, social, political, economic, etc. - but his focus is on "religion" broadly and carefully defined.

The book's subject is the way religion creates multiple realities and how those realities interact with the reality of daily life. Bellah begins with "the reality of life in the religious mode" and emphasizes that "religious evolution does not mean a progression from worse to better." Religion adds capacities to our cultural repertoire, so to speak, "but it tells us nothing about how those capacities will be used."

In part, this book is a work of critical retrieval of what in the traditions of ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India might speak to us today. It is also informed by an Enlightenment critique of tradition. It tells a very human, grand story. It helps us to understand - in wide perspective - where we've been and where we might be going and "asks what our deep past can tell us about the kind of life human beings have imagined was worth living." The book is not about modernity. But it holds a mirror up to our modern selves in a vivid comparative-historical perspective that illuminates our modernity and its meaning in a coherent, wholistic way.

A passage from the Analects of Confucius reads: "He who by reanimating the Old can gain knowledge of the New is indeed fit to be called a teacher." Bellah is such a teacher. He treats the ancient religious traditions of Israel, Greece, China, and India not as embalmed museum pieces, but as working traditions in need of reinterpretation - traditions that tell us much about who we are and the world in which we live. For Bellah, reinterpreting these traditions doesn't involve making them mean whatever we wish. It means listening and letting them open our eyes to things we would not see otherwise. Rightly interpreted, they can make us better able to deal with contemporary life. Religion in Human Evolution is such an effort.
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84 of 98 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
*****
"Robert Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution is the most important systematic and historical treatment of religion since Hegel, Durkheim, and Weber... Bellah breathes new life into critical universal history by making ancient China and India indispensable parts of a grand narrative of human religious evolution." -- Prof. Yang Xiao, J. Comparative Philosophy

Bellah's research project, using the insights of biological and cultural evolution to explore the development of religion from as early as the Paleolithic Era, continuing through tribal, archaic, historic, and modern societies, was supported by the John Templeton Foundation. Dr. Robert Bellah's research focuses on the Axial Age, the first millennium BC, when religions developed around the world that transcended the archaic fusion of divinity and kingship. It was a period of great empires in Mesopotamia, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece declaring the possibility that ordinary human beings could relate directly to a transcendent reality. The results of this research constitute the book, Religion in Human Evolution.

Anthropologists have found that virtually ancient state societies and chiefdoms have been found to justify political power through divine authority. States founded out of the Neolithic revolution, as Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, were theocracies with Chieftains, kings and Emperors performing dual roles of political and religious leaders. This proposes that political authority co-opts collective religious belief to bolster itself. Bellah's work, of exceptional erudition, is a wide-ranging project of distinction in meaning, and expression, that probes our biological past, to discover the kinds of lives that our early human ancestors, have most often thought were worth living.

The study offers what is generally viewed as a forbidden theory of the origin of religion that goes deep into cultural evolution. Bellah's treatment of the four great civilizations of the "Axial Age, in ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India, demonstrates that all these existing religions, were rooted in the evolutionary story he chronicles. The Axial Age is the period from 800-200 BCE when certain inspiring people arose around the world; figures like Buddha, 650 BC, Confucius, 550 BC Socrates, 470 BC, arguably three of the most influential individuals in human history, who have cast shadows on history, and other inspiring leaders who convinced people it made sense to make religion, not war.

But to Bellah, the term and period primarily reflect a turning point in religion, he would deliberately start as far back as one can get to tell a story of multiple successive beginnings. These beginnings of play, ritual, myth, theology, extend to include the beginning of religion. He offers both a general theory of religion as a cultural systems and a full account of his general theory of religious evolution. Religion in Human Evolution, both prophetic and mystic, supports the call for a critical history of religion based on the full spectrum of human culture and traditions. While bands and small tribes possess supernatural beliefs, these beliefs do not serve to justify a central authority, justify transfer of wealth or maintain peace between unrelated individuals.

Randall Collins, author of The Sociology of Philosophies, sums it up eloquently,"Bellah's reexamination of his own classic theory of religious evolution provides a treasure-chest of rich detail and sociological insight. The evolutionary story is not linear but full of twists and variations. The human capacity for religion begins in the earliest ritual gatherings involving emotion, music and dance, producing collective effervescence and shared narratives that give meaning to the utilitarian world. But ritual entwines with power and stratification, as chiefs vie with each other over the sheer length, expense, and impressiveness of ritual."

The Search for God in Ancient Egypt
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on January 4, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is not an easy book to read. Its subject matter is indefinite, its scope extremely wide and deep, and it is very long (it took the author 13 years to write it - see page 567). Saying that, it is engaging (most of the time) and with patience (lots of, I have to say) one can see its underlying themes and ideas.

To understand it, firstly one need to understand the definition of religion in this book: "religion is a system of beliefs and practices relative to the sacred that unite those who adhere to them in a moral community" (page 1) and "the sacred" is "something set apart or forbidden" (same page). It does not matter whether you agree with this or not - I resoundingly don't! - but this needs to be kept in mind when one tries to comprehend the next 600 pages.

Next, the concept of "play" is introduced and is very important to the author. Again, I cannot agree with him entirely but this idea is prominant and pervasive throughout. He believes religion is a kind of "serious play" (page 109-116 and 569-576). That, I think, is contestable.

Another key theme is the gradual development of a "theoretical" view of the world on top of a "mimetic" and "mythic" culture, i.e. the ability to reflect and abstract ideas concerning in particular society and religion. However, no matter how much we want to be "rational", we retain the innate desire to form narratives. But the ability to reflect facilitated the blossoming of egalitarianism and democracy, so the author claims, limited and feeble as they were.

The main bulk and main theme of the book (pages 175-566) describe how the structure of a society influences that of its religion, and vice versa - this is the "evolution" bit in the title. There is a sense that the very first communities were comparatively egalitarian. Then hierarchies developed but later on more "democratic" and thus more "egalitarian" cultures prevailed again. The author claims that we can observe similar developments in their associated religions. Examples to illustrate this are drawn from ancient Middle East, Greece, China and India.

After expounding all of the above views, in the conclusion (Ch.10), the author exalts religious pleuralism and tolerance and thus finishes the tome.

So what's the verdict? This is a giant behemoth at times almost chaotic that is worthwhile to conquer but it will take much time and effort. Four stars.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
"Even though, as it is widely believed, morality and religion are evolutionary emergents, evolution cannot tell us which one of them to follow." (48) This "discouraging but indisputable truth," for Bellah, demonstrates the challenge of finding meaning "only in evolution" for today's scholars and thinkers. This review, in-depth as far as small space allows, looks at how Bellah's work compares to recent surveys by other scholars of the Axial Age. A life's work, for a sociologist born in 1927, remains a formidable contribution in six-hundred narrated pages and, as he acknowledges, stopping 2,000 years before our era, it's long enough. It gives prolonged attention to what Max Weber and Emile Durkheim pioneered: the study of religious aspects as they culturally evolved.

Of course, it's bolstered by what science knows now vs. when his predecessors labored to make sense out of religion's roots and branches. His opening starts slowly, as "Religion and Reality" shuffles various capabilities of how we know concepts which in turn will contribute to varieties of religious experience. It's not as compelling as I wished, but chapter two, about evolution's "metanarrative," picked up the pace.

Still, Bellah admits he's as baffled by cosmology as we are, while he tries to cover the enormous span of physical evolution in an alternately meticulous and halting manner that doesn't do as much justice to his primary concerns as they merit. He proposes that we regard ancient accounts as "true myths," and he urges respect for religion on its own terms the same as science, revamping Stephen Jay Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" as overlapping, each sphere usefully based in not reductionist but emergent explanations, to borrow from biologists, that take on the field at its own level. Science and religion both, Bellah notes, appeal to a sense of awe when their most eloquent advocates attempt to articulate the persistent mystery at the heart of how each field of inquiry unfolds over eons.

These eons, as empathy in its "motor mimicry and emotional contagion" shows over a hundred million years of primate evolution, stretch into pre-linguistic ritual and what Bellah regards as "sacred play" in such activities. While Bellah correctly critiques in passing both Nicholas Wade's "The Faith Instinct" and Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God" (both reviewed by me in 2011), I think Bellah's analysis wanders into territory that the main narrative did not need, and that Wade offers a more cogent popularization of the pre-linguistic stages, despite the monotheistic limits of both Wade and Wright which Bellah attempts to counter with his massive analysis and compendium. I still did not find as clear an explanation of ritual play as I expected, even after a lot of research here. But I did learn how only our species can march in step or dance as one troupe...

He applies, loosely, Merlin Donald's mimetic, mythic, and theoretical stages of human culture (these augment the hybrid system we have that diverges from the episodic consciousness we share with higher mammals) to parallel his own enactive, symbolic, and conceptual religious representational types. This chapter uses three traditional societies today which offer glimpses into mythic cultures once upon a time. The Kalapalo of Brazil, the Australian Aborigine Walbiri, and the Navajo demonstrate how ritual and narrative produce meaning. Bellah seemed more confident in this chapter, as after all he draws on the Navajo, the subject of his earliest research decades ago.

Tribal egalitarianism, he posits, does impose the will of the collective on the will of each, and its intermediate position between the despotism of primates and that of archaic states gains coverage with two Polynesian entities, Tikopia and Hawai'i, where a comparatively better documented record survives of what a kingdom bent on imposing its will on a people subjected to a relentless social system under brutal control under dominant males meant, in terms of taboo, ritual, and--as with many such societies--human sacrifice. There's no romanticizing "pre-contact" Polynesia in these pages.

With the Hawaiians, we benefit from a written history of what was still oral memory via David Malo's testimony; for Mesopotamia, the records of course exist, but much about belief must be extrapolated from tablets and archeological sites. Next, Bellah contrasts the Mesopotamian "heterarchy" with the Polynesian archaic states; as for the Egyptians, we are "creatures of myth" as inescapably as they were, for after all, "we are what we remember." (228)

Archaic states, with "vertical" enforcement where the king acts in league with the gods to order the cosmos and the polity, replace the imposed solidarity of tribes. In turn, the axial age enables the "moral upstart who relies on speech, not force," appears to stay alive long enough to appeal to ethical standards and to call for reflection. Karen Armstrong's "The Great Transformation" (reviewed immediately prior to Bellah's book) reminds us of this shift towards compassion and self-analysis. Bellah favors a more academic tone than Armstrong, and the details she highlights tend to be overshadowed by the scholarly colleagues Bellah introduces and answers in his dense discussion. However, Bellah cites Karl Jaspers: "The Axial Age too ended in failure. History went on." (qtd. 282)

While Armstrong, as Rodney Stark's "Discovering God" (reviewed also in late 2011), prefers a more optimistic, if guarded, spin on the meaning of the Axial Age if we regard it as beneficial. Bellah opts for nuance. A clan of frontier Canaanites worshipped a generic, or a high, god "El" from the pantheon, but El did not seem to matter much "at the level of family piety." (qtd. 288) He and Asherah have children, including Baal and Yahweh; gradually as a jealous "god among gods" Yahweh shoves aside and then denies the other gods until only he is regarded as legitimate.

So, how did these marginal hill-dwelling Israelites grab so much attention? By using the tension between particularism and universality. Hostile prophets provoke Israel and Judah to repent; the kings lose clout as exclusive mediators with the divine powers. Monarchs weaken; a covenant model based on fidelity to "Yahweh alone" rallies Judah's bastion against the Assyrian empire. Yet, the twist comes as the prophets assert Assyria's also subordinate to Yahweh, who punishes Israel via that empire for infidelity. The Deuteronomists promote Moses as half-Lenin, half social-democrat, to borrow Michael Walzer's critique. Still, Moses refused to be a king; the people make the covenant.

Bellah takes Stephen Geller's argument that the norms of the Torah supplanted priestly sacrifice as the central way the "chosen people" communicated with a just God. Yahweh internationalizes (as Stark and Wright agree), and this relationship, as a covenant, enables Jewish success even in exile. Narrative is employed to force the archaic trio of God, king, and nation into ethical freedom. We inherit a "metanarrative" that justifies moral, social, and political programs, ever since the Bible. The Muslim Umma and the Christian Church emerge from this "entering wedge" of a people defined without a monarchy, who submit to rule by divine law instead of the machinations of a secular state.

Ancient Greece features a warrior cult and in the polis a steady evolution from pre-state. I wish we knew more of Anaximander with his "boundless" apeiron preceding creation, or Xenophanes' skepticism: if horses and cattle could draw, their gods would resemble them. Bellah's presentation lacks Armstrong's knack for the telling anecdote or excerpt from a primary source--he likes citing scholars--but it's similar in scope; with Heraclitus we approach "mythospeculation," the verge of philosophy. Plato reforms the synthetic hybrid system with theory but does not replace it--Bellah cautions that this had to wait until the "emergence of Western modernity" in the 17c. (395)

Back to China, while Plato followed the Seven Sages, Confucius preceded all major Chinese thinkers. Ritual was analyzed, meritocracy grew, and nobility turned into a status that birth alone might not attain, but adherence to an elitist, elaborately implemented, top-down mandate from heaven (mixed in Mencius with populism). But, Bellah mentions (more as an aside) how universal values embed themselves in the Analects. Warfare also depended on merit in a fluctuating time, and Mozi's contributions towards "right views" of rulers and a utilitarian concern towards all are less remembered today, thanks to Confucian rivals. The Dao, in #6, 15, 28, gains welcome if brief explication for its evocations of how weak overcomes strong; oddly #53 may in its primitivism find common ground with Legalism, if a small patch.

Xunzi as a final "Warring States" moral reformer merits mention: "I once spent a whole day in si 'reflection,' but I found it of less value than a moment of xue 'learning.' I once tried standing on tiptoe and gazing into the distance, but I found I could see much farther by climbing to a high place."(qtd. 474) Bellah integrates more primary passages in discussing the Dao and Xunzi, sharpening his study.

As Bellah tells us at the end of this Chinese chapter, the problem with Greece and Israel is that we are so familiar with the latter cultures compared to Asia, that it is tempting in those two "to find what at the moment our culture wants to find." (475) This can be charged to Armstrong, Stark, Wade, and Wright, naturally, and all of us as reader-critics. He notes how all he can do is give an interpretation. At least with China, its distance from our cultural legacy forces Westerners to approach cautiously. The question persists: who rules? Is a "junzi/ gentleman" from a hereditary caste, or a moral elite?

Bellah opens the Indian chapter confessing freshman-level instead of grad-student competence. He covers the standard Vedic formulations, and he considers India in Upanishadic times as religiously axial, but archaic in ethics, social structure, and rational discourse (as in Japan). The Buddha's breakthrough as a teacher of ethics accessible to all remains that tradition's axial contribution. Bellah quotes Steven Collins on the path demanding action, leading to nirvana, the "city without fear." Ethical universalism, in turn, sparked a similar promotion by theistic Hinduism and King Ashoka.

He comes around to serious play in the conclusion, realizing accurately it demanded more depth. He looks at renouncers as "moral upstarts" in archaic states who paved a stealthy way for social protest in the axial centuries by prophets, reformers, and teachers. Their utopias--Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Lyceum, Buddhist parables or Second Isaiah--combined political criticism and religious reform. Bellah transfers this to animal play, "flow," and "theoria" as a heightened consciousness. This last chapter, for those pressed for time, serves well as a coda and an exegesis of the major narrative's themes, especially the "relaxed fields" of play and culture which were sometimes buried in the text.

Summing up, Bellah explains how he gave the West less attention than China and India. While parts of this feel like other, shorter texts in their necessarily wide-ranging "metanarratives" from primordial soup to Brazil nuts, and while parts could have been edited (as in frequent give-and-take with his colleagues), it remains a valuable reference, for it brings into one big book the gist of such research.

He ends by warning us that we face the sixth extinction moment unfolding now, as we destroy our planet, in our deep history. He finds some hope that today's serious sociologists of religion do not elevate Christianity above all other faiths, and that in such acceptance a mature pluralism might allow us to advance in understanding on each others' own tolerant, peaceful terms. No universal category, by its very nature, after all, can free itself from its own particular emphases. He rushes past this admission, but he closes by acknowledging that theory needs to remain anchored in a cultural context, lest it "can assume a superiority that can lead to crushing mistakes." (606)
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Few books are written that explain a subject so carefully and masterfully as RELIGION IN HUMAN EVOLUTION by Professor Robert N. Bellah. What I appreciated most is that I could tell it was written by someone that has spent years researching the subject, probably his whole life, at least from his own "Axial Age." This book explains human life on Earth from a wide swath of time, from about 1300 BCE up until the Axial Age, which was; well, he takes great pains to explain when that was. There's something interesting to read on each page, and it was like reading something from someone that cares about the subject enough to gently explain it. RELIGION IN HUMAN EVOLUTION is certainly not half about evolution and half about religion. In fact, it's mostly about religion, though his evolutionary discussion is a fair and balanced account, albeit brief. Here is a book written to give a general reader an overview--a carefully cited and concise overview--about the two subjects juxtaposed that leaves a lasting impression. Prof. Bellah has provided great insight and I highly recommend this book, all the more because of the two or three other books that I read--and the twenty others that are on my list to be read--as a result of his recommendations. Cheers... - lc
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on September 5, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I hesitate in giving it only three stars, for it is certainly a major contribution to the study of religion, the work of a master scholar whose recent death I sincerely mourn. Yet, the massiveness of the book intimidates many, perhaps, most readers. Bellah's thoroughness and scholarship is impressive. The work will stand up well for years to come. Yet, it is a long, sometimes tedious read for even a well read follower of religion and history.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is Bellah's greatest work to date. An insightful, brilliant inter disciplinary study of one of the most important developments of humanity. It is not merely a collection of facts which are listed and then analyzed. Rather, Bellah presents us with a coherent explanation of cultural and biological evolution. This erudite work needs to be read and reread to enhance one's appreciation of it. It certainly rivals such authors in similar studies as Durkheim and Weber.
Thank you, Professor Bellah, for another demonstration of what true, authentic scholarship is all about.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Religion in Human Evolution is a meticulously constructed academic tome (700+ pages) that effectively explores Bellah's understanding of how religion developed within the larger framework of human evolution from the paleolithic to the axial age. The account of religious beginnings and formation is interdisciplinary and comparative, displaying the author's incredible knowledge of the subject matter. Finally, the extended treatment of four axial cases (Israel, Greece, China, and India) provides a solid summary of recent scholarship while also displaying the author's humility (e.g., his appraisal of his own limited knowledge about ancient India prior to his research for this book - p. 481).
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 27, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This book was a wonderfully ambitious undertaking, but it lacks a certain conceptual tightness I was hoping for. I appreciated the honesty of attributing many of his thoughts to the work of others, and to that degree, I can see this man does not have a large ego to feed and is willing to invite others to his dialog. And that he certainly did .... With the complexity and dense nature of the material, I may have missed it along the way, but I would have enjoyed more of his personal analysis and conclusions. I loved his discussion of play and the world of work, and how these two worlds can be woven together into the tapestry of life. His suggestion was that religion is merely an elaboration, at least in part, of the propensity of all creatures to engage in play. Although this may seem offensive to some, I got his point without agreeing totally with his (or his sources') analysis. Although I found myself wondering whether the content was consistently true to the theme of book, and I was tempted many times to simply give it up, I endured to the end and found some helpful focusing in the final conclusion. But even the conclusion was not what I hoped it would be. The author is undoubtedly a lot smarter than I am, and being put at a disadvantage if I analyze this, I give it 3 stars.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2014
Format: Hardcover
This is an ambitious but disappointing work. To start out with what may seem a petty gripe: the work lacks a bibliography, which in a work of this scope is an indispensable courtesy to the reader. By listing the titles of works consulted under their authors' names, a bibliography helps the reader to a clearer idea of where the information is coming from. This work brings together the ideas of a numerous scholars and thinkers, but the material is not digested so as to form a new whole -- the book makes the impression of a gigantic patchwork.
The subtitle seems to promise a chronological survey of human religious development, insofar as it can be traced, up to the "Axial Age." What Bellah does in fact is to try to identify the "capacities" involved in religious activity and summarize some theories of how they evolved. Then he discusses, as first stages, "tribal religion" and "archaic religion," mostly as observed in present-day or recent primitive societies, which stand in for the Paleolithic and the Neolithic. This seems to me highly questionable. Many things besides technology change over time, and nothing from the societies he discusses resembles the Cro-Magnon cave paintings or the figurines from Old Europe, or Minoan culture which he barely mentions. Admittedly, inferences about religious practice from the archaeological evidence are questionable, but so are conclusions from the present about what took place 50,000-10,000 years ago.
Speaking of Old Europe, Bellah does not see fit to mention Marija Gimbutas, whose Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe makes a solid case for an early stage of religion that was less androcentric than the Australian and Polynesian societies from which Bellah draws his conclusions. Nor was Gimbutas the first -- Bachofen's Das Mutterrecht and Erich Neumann's The Great Mother are other classics on the subject. Bellah gives the topic of "the Goddess" short shrift, and says almost nothing about the female deities that were worshipped for millennia alongside the male ones. His interest in warriors and chieftains causes him to overlook the fact that even where warfare became an overriding concern, nurture continued to hold a place in human devotions.
After this skimpy treatment of prehistory, half of the book is devoted to the "axial age" -- in Israel, Greece, China and India -- and often seems to be more about history than religion. Again, the androcentric bias is glaring; for instance, the discussion of Greece there is no mention of the Eleusinian mysteries, which persisted through the "axial age." The "axial age," by the way, is a term that has been widely questioned. First coined by Karl Jaspers, it posits a religious "breakthrough" that took place in widely separated cultures at the same time and gave rise to something like a universal ethic. But this breakthrough was by no means the whole story in any of those cultures.
Come to think of it, the book's main title is a rather odd one, since by the time religion got started evolution had pretty much finished with us -- except for the intergroup pressures favoring increased aggressiveness, which religious development both mirrors and resists. But Bellah's suppression of the feminine side of religious history prevents him from confronting this honestly. There is need for a book that would bridge the gap between our knowledge about our evolution and the way religion has taught us to regard ourselves. This is not that book; if a better attempt has been made, I would be very much interested to hear about it.
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