Enough Nones-sense—let’s settle for nothing but Truth

Away with the notion that a relativistic, hyper-individualized, and subjective way of living and thinking is somehow a way out of the current morass.

(Florian Pérennès @florian_perennes | Unsplash.com)

There has been a fair amount of discussion and commentary among Catholics in recent years about “Nones,” notably the work of Bishop Robert Barron, who last week “outlined five paths Church leaders should take to re-energize the religiously unaffiliated.” The same topic was taken up a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal (full article is behind a pay wall) by Timothy Beal, a non-Catholic and a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University who is, I discovered on his Amazon.com page, married to a “Presbyterian shaman”. Beal’s “take” is both informative and, I think, quite misguided—and thus misleading.

Beal provides some of the basic data: “Nones”—people who don’t identify with any religion—have increased in number from 16% in 2007 to 35% in 2018, and 44% of Americans aged 18 to 29 are Nones. He notes various reasons for this: there is “less social pressure to identify as religious, especially among young adults”; in fact, the opposite is now true—there is commonly more pressure to justify one’s religious beliefs than being None. Also, more and more children are born to parents of differing religious beliefs: “Children in such families are often raised with exposure to both identities and left to decide for themselves which to adopt. In many cases, they eventually choose neither.”

There is also a rise in “new communities” that, Beal notes, we might call “alt-religious,” which revolve around various interests: physical fitness, outdoor activities, and so forth. These movements all have a certain “myth” and various “rituals”; these all point (and this is my observation, not Beal’s) to the fact that humans are liturgical creatures, made for worship and contact with something or Someone that is other and transcendent.

Beal’s main point, however, is that in addition to these external factors, there “are things about religion, as [Nones] perceive it, that are actively driving them away.”

The two most significant reasons they give, according to a 2018 Pew poll, are that they “question a lot of religious teachings” (60%) and, relatedly, “don’t like the positions churches take on political/social issues” (49%).

Based on my own experience with hundreds of young adult Nones in my classes over more than two decades, I’ve found that the specific “religious teachings” and related “positions” they object to most often concern sexuality and science. Many of them question what they perceive as religion’s negative views about women’s reproductive rights and non-heteronormative sexuality, especially same-sex marriage and transgender rights. And they question religious teachings that appear to fly in the face of scientific research, especially with regard to evolutionary theory and climate change.

Again, not too much of a surprise here. But it’s still worth pondering for a moment, if only to note this fact: such Nones, in questioning traditional beliefs about sexuality and embracing trendy or wide-spread beliefs about evolution and climate, are undoubtedly relying upon certain sources and accepting—either knowingly or unwittingly (my bet is solidly on the latter)—the authority of those sources. This is hardly rocket science: if a 20-year-old man has been told continually and from numerous mouths and screens, from the time he was a toddler, that “love” is whatever consenting adults say it is and that the oceans are rising because of trillions of straws being dumped in them (along with other man-made factors), well, it’s hardly surprising he’ll believe just that.

Yes, of course it’s true that many young adults leave “conservative religions” and embrace more liberal, trendy views. But, again, a lot of that is due to the dominant culture, which truly dominates nearly every outlet and space, to the point that (again, as Beal notes) those who adhere to traditional views are usually the ones made to answer for being out step with the times. I was young once, and I experienced it—and I know it’s worse now in nearly every way. One key factor, and this is hardly news, is that far too few young Catholics (just to focus it on something I know a bit about) are well educated and deeply rooted in a robust understanding of the Faith that avoids both pietistic clichés and pugilistic rants.

Back to Beal and to his central assertion:

Rather, what many Nones have in common is a tragically narrow understanding of religion—namely, that a religion is a fixed set of teachings and positions, and that to be religious is to submit to them without question. It is presumed that religion is authoritative, univocal and changeless, and that religious identity is essentially a matter of passive adherence.

The Pew poll itself promotes this idea of religion with some of the response options it provides for identifying as None: “I question a lot of religious teachings” and “I don’t like the positions churches take on political/social issues.” The implication is that being religious means not questioning religious teachings and sharing the positions a religious organization takes on current issues.

But questioning religious teachings and positions has always been an essential part of religion. No faith is fixed or changeless. On the contrary, reinterpreting inherited scriptures and traditions in light of new horizons of meaning is critical to the life of any religion. Think of Jesus or the Buddha; think of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Hasidic Judaism, or Dorothy Day, who helped to create the Catholic Worker Movement. Religion’s ongoing vitality depends on those who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions. Without such engagement, any religious tradition will die from the inside long before it begins to lose adherents.

I find that when my students, including the majority Nones, are given access to religion not as a set of teachings and positions but as a space for active engagement with enduring questions, they lean in. Indeed, they find this way of thinking about religion a refreshing change from their generally polarized political interactions and personalized newsfeeds.

Several points could be made here; I’ll stick to three:

(1) I think Beal is partially correct in identifying how many young people view religion: as an oppressive, even coercive, set of beliefs that cannot be questioned. But I think he also sets up a false conflict between “a fixed set of teachings and positions” and the possibility of asking questions. The questions here, I insist, are both simple and fundamental: Can we know truth? Does truth exist outside of ourselves? And, if so, shouldn’t we want to know it?

Catholicism, for its part, says, “Yes, yes, and yes!” to these questions—which is to say, it insists there are fixed teachings (it’s called dogma) about God, man, life, death, and so forth, and we should ask plenty of questions while being receptive to hearing good and true answers. “The Catholic,” wrote Chesterton, “is much more certain about the fixed truths than about the fixed stars.” Along the same lines, Catholicism is indeed “authoritative, univocal, and changeless” in certain, essential ways—but that doesn’t lead to “passive adherence.” Or, at least it shouldn’t. Love of Truth, which is ultimately love of Jesus Christ, is about an active, transforming relationship with the Triune God; it is only “passive” in the sense that God always initiates and we respond, in both humility and love. Alas, yes, Catholicism can be practiced in a manner that either obscures or crushes in on this inner dynamism, but that’s a somewhat different matter.

(2) Is it not revealing that Beal, from what I can tell, accepts without question various secular/skeptical dogmas about religion, without ever applying his same questions and criteria to secularism and skepticism? After all, secular humanism (using the term broadly but, I think, fairly) has a very fixed set of teachings and positions, and there’s plenty of evidence that is demands full acceptance and passive adherence! The Reign of Gay is an obvious example, as well as the growing Tyranny of Trans, never mind the Cult of Climate Change, the Church of Borderless Nations, and the Fellowship of Non-Judgmental Multicultural Bliss. Beal himself, not surprisingly, lauds the ridiculous and radical books of Nadia Bolz-Weber, author of Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, a book which “urges us to take antiquated, sexist ideas about sex, gender, and our bodies and ‘burn them the f*ck down and start all over.’” Frankly, that sort of puerile nonsense (dangerous, yes; nonsensical, also yes) is dull and boring. The perpetual insistence that pursuing genital pleasure while flipping off The Man is edgy and exciting is actually just old and shallow, no matter how many tattoos and piercings are involved.

(3) “What we need,” says Beal, “is sustained conversation in a context that allows and even welcomes different experiences and points of view. What do you mean when you self-define as religiously None? What is the story behind that box you checked? What are the teachings and positions that you question? Did you always question them, or did something in your life lead you to think differently?” On one hand, these are legitimate questions. But they are also quite self-serving and mostly lead to navel-gazing dead ends.

Again, I think we need to insist on the ancient and perennial questions: What is truth? Do I desire it? How can I find it? And then, more specifically: What do you say about Jesus Christ? Who is He? What do you do with Him? For Catholics, Jesus Christ is the Fixed Teaching and Teacher, the Alpha and Omega, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is fully God, fully man. We declare it in the Creeds—which are, by the way, fixed rules of faith.

Beal, in short, is trying to sell the notion that a relativistic, hyper-individualized, and subjective way of living and thinking is somehow a way out of the current morass. In fact, that’s the very essence of that morass, which has old roots (Satan’s rebellion, gnosticism, sexual deviancy, etc.) and is always trying to dress up in new clothes. “Error may flourish for a time,” wrote Saint John Henry Newman, “but truth will prevail in the end. The only effect of error ultimately is to promote truth.”


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About Carl E. Olson 1122 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

28 Comments

  1. Clear, concise, devastatingly logical.

    Thank you for demonstrating once again how easy it is to dismantle the arguments of the dim-bulb cultural arbiters who so blithely pass judgment on two thousand years of — gasp! — “organized religion”.

  2. My guess is that those belonging to the None religion have never had a serious conversation with a Catholic of the caliber of a Carl Olsen or a Peter Kreeft. Such a conversation would be too dangerous.

    • Given the demands of space and time, it is quite likely that the Nones have never encountered, even online, Carl E. Olson or Peter Kreeft.

      I have been interested in where Americans get their beliefs, and whether they hold to their beliefs of eternal consequence more tenaciously than they hold their beliefs about the relative merits of various consumer products, since the 1970s. I am not interested in picking up bogus ideas about either subject. It does take a bit of work, and one must be willing, in the words of Paul Fussell, to read to be surprised, rather than to have one’s notions confirmed.

      For those of you researching the topic of “spiritual but not religious”:

      Spiritual but Not Religious: The Search for Meaning in a Material World, by John Bartunck, L.C.:

      The horizons of the heart are vast, and often treacherous – which is one reason why so many people today hesitate to explore them. Father Bartunek is a wise guide who leads you deeper into your own self as he shows you how to continue your unique search for lasting meaning in an overly materialized world.

  3. I think we need to make a distinction between “reasons” and “excuses” when it comes to why anyone, especially young people, stop practicing their religious faith – specifically Christian faith. I believe that when a person says they have problems with what a particular faith teaches about sexuality, science/evolution, Galileo etc., these are “excuses” that they can readily toss out. I think the real “reason” is the lived experience of Christianity in their families and faith communities – especially for males. In other words, they don’t see a reason to stay. Sure, we can blame poor catechesis, but it really comes down to “what are they observing in their daily life, and do us fellow Christians give them a reason to stay?” I have read the study results for surveys of teen attitudes toward religion (spoiler alert – Catholic teens are at the bottom) and say what you will about the “church” of LDS (who are at the top of the surveys), they make faith a priority.

  4. The starting point in science for “evolution” (in all realms?)is indeed Darwinism, in philosophy, Hegel with the application of Hegel being found in Marxism along a spectrum. Ironically (or not) much of Cultural Marxism, an example being the use of the word “heteronormative” requires quoting “science” the way the Devil quotes Scripture or directly forbidding contrary scientific conclusions, the prime example being the area of transgenderism. Check out Communism under Stalin…where “agricultural science” can even be used to starve people! This is not to deny “development” in nature or religion BTW. But how concerned about “science” are the Nones especially when it comes to human sexuality? Are they seekers of all available medical information…and statistics? Does science support or deny that life begins at conception?

    Is Darwinism really a settled matter?
    https://www.claremont.org/crb/article/giving-up-darwin/

    More specific to relativism and the “tyranny of relativism” that Benedict identified, are the Nones (and may I add Millennials?) seeking freedom really, less authority or actually even greater authoritarianism…not from religion…but from a State that would guarantee and enforce “rights?”

    Beal’s analysis excludes the reality of Nones (and Millenials) having less and less objections issues with an increasingly authoritarian State…indeed preferring greater legislation, more restrictions on declared “hate crimes” as supported by polls and one could dare say evidenced by the climate on most college campuses. And how much love for “science” is there in all of this, where “science: would include all data?

    Great analysis, Carl. Should be sent to all those in the hierarchy starting with Pope Francis. But I will say this here: the sogginess and fogginess does indeed start on the parish level. And that’s minus the scandals (on the parish level).

    Beal wears it very well, the standard issue T-shirt emblazoned with the motto “Synodality Now!”

    Yes, seeking “science” with the required position being no final cause to anything.

    • The Millenials begat the Nones. Responsibility lays with the elders.

      One might also note that younger folks are more willing to surrender to the sate because of the extremes and abuses of capitalism and the evil people who run them. Nothing could be more offensive, and contrary to the teachings of the Church, than to hear a politician say “Corporations are people, too ya know” and have almost all of the traditionalist wing of the Church stand mute.

      • “Responsibility lays with the elders.”

        Some of it, perhaps; but people are also responsible for themselves, and that would include the Millenials.

        Corporations are made up of people, so “Corporations are people” is not inaccurate.

        Capitalism is run by evil people? Good grief.

      • And as we all know from history, corporations have never done any good; the state is made up of entirely good people who only want to serve humanity and have never done anything extreme or abusive. Good grief.

      • Randell,
        Don’t you think that part of what young people seek in socialism and the state is their expectation of being taken care of? I think many millennials of middle and upper income families are fearful of real responsibility and adulthood. A nanny state just continues what they’re already familiar with.

  5. Olson writes of Beal: “There is also a rise in ‘new communities’ that, Beal notes, we might call ‘alt-religious’, which revolve around various interest: physical fitness, outdoor activities, and so forth.”Floating in “the cloud” are three other huge and impressionistic ALT-RELIGIONS, also impervious to the dynamic that Olson presents as truly religious.

    Let’s take a quick look at Darwinism, Technocracy, and the Accidental Universe of Richard Dawkins which midwifes the “tyranny of relativism.”

    First, of DARWIN-ISM and in his own Autobiography, the real man Charles Darwin presents himself as a Deist, explicitly not as an atheist (and therefore not a suitable hood ornament for what passes as overarching Darwinism today). He laments his “curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes,” which “may possibly be injurious to the intellect [!], and more probably to the moral character [!]” and the fact that “I could never have succeeded [!] with metaphysics [!] or mathematics.”

    Second, as to “intellect and character and metaphysics”, what is one to say about the malignant Industrial-Educational Complex that we know as TECHNOCRACY (STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—increasingly at the expense of the lamenting Darwin’s obsolete core education)? What does it mean: what we CAN do, rather than what we OUGHT to do? Said the site engineer to a morally-conflicted Oppenheimer, the bomb-inventor of morally-ambiguous nuclear power (on July 16, 1945 from the bunker at the first nuclear test detonation at Alamogordo, New Mexico): “Well Oppie, now we’re all sons-a-bitches!”

    And third, the total rebuttal to Dawkins’ ACCIDENTAL UNIVERSE came a century and a half ago from “Topsy”, the slave orphan in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when he was asked the biological (and metaphysical!) question “do you know who made you?” Dawkins in rags: ““Nobody as I knows. . . .I ‘spect I (just) grow’d.”

    The alt-religion of “spiritual but not religious” is not enough.

    • Amen, Brother! We boomers are utterly responsible for much of the mess in the world today: arrogant, entitled, selfish, and pathologically narcissistic.

      Personified by the current squatter in the White House, our credo is “it’s all about me.”

      • “Personified by the current squatter in the White House”

        Oh, you’re being far too modest. I’m sure you personify it quite admirably.

        In any event, that “squatter” was duly elected in accordance with the Constitution. He is not a squatter, he is there by legal right. “Waaaaaaaaah! I don’t like him!” doesn’t overturn an election.

  6. Much is said about the “Nones’, those that identify with no religion. They keep being told that religion is restrictive and uses no thinking, when Christianity has been the very spark that shifted us into higher values, higher principles and higher thinking, far away from worshipping ourselves and our sins and its lowest incarnation: worthless tyrannical elites.

    Christianity IS, at its very core essence, freedom to think and live, Dogma is just the frame of the canvas, we paint one absolutely unique life-painting inside of it. Dogma is the frame that pushes us to our God-given very best. Otherwise, we create over-celebrated, over-priced, generic, poisonous trash. On the other side of Christianity, these “Nones” are pushed into an “amazing freedom and diversity” that just creates non-thinking, cult-minded, identical clones. If True Christianity, following the accusations, were this cult-like entity, we wouldn’t have been so assailed for two millennia by so many infiltrators, saboteurs and traitors, both Laity and Clergy, and still today. Yet, we stand because we stand on Truth, freely accepted, that blesses and grows the mind and heart like nothing else ever in history.

    We True Catholics are totally FREE to be repentant-faithful-Peter or willful-traitorous-Judas, every single instant of every single day, just like the Saints. Never coerced, the Saints became Saints by saying YES to the tough love God and NO to sentimental evil, and repenting quickly every time they failed. There’s no higher level of freedom, awareness, individual power, growth and intelligence than this. Ever!! That’s why we are so attacked. No one declares such level of vicious war to elves, unicorns and fairies.

  7. What is so sad to me is that one cannot show someone a way to know the meaning of it all, and their eternal place in it, when they do not seem to have any thirst to know the meaning of things, whatsoever…they do not care.

    They drift along, devoid of meaning or purpose, and unreachable in that uncaring fog, far more obsessed with latest tattoo, piercing, tunes, or high, and simply are emptiness in the flesh, vacant, and seeking nothing but latest generally crude pleasure.

    Answers are only for questioners, and today, the questions are only bestial urges to next titillation, and vapid past that…they are losing entire what separates men from beasts, and lacking higher aspirations, are losing even the ability to think. They are turning into wilfully blind herd or hive animals….

    And how do you reach through that?

    • As for the mentality of the “blind herd of hive animals,” How do you reach through all that?

      Sometimes even the brainwashed/brain-stem zombies of all ages are still responsive to the baked-in principle of non-contradiction. Real contradictions don’t sit well together. As in exposure of the modern-day fixation on Galileo’s critics who were not willing to view the external universe through his telescope, while young girls in our smug “scientific age” are prohibited from viewing an internal universe—-an unborn child with unique DNA—-through the ultrasound; and as in our cultural regression (not Darwinian evolution!) especially with today’s late-term abortions (“sacred ground” according to Pelosi, 2013) when set alongside, say, Aztec non-voluntary open-heart surgery/human sacrifices.

      For whatever it’s worth, this kind of approach is part of a book by yours truly (“A Generation Abandoned: Why ‘Whatever’ is not Enough”, 2017), with a CWR author interview at this link: http://www.catholicworldreport.com/2018/03/29/a-generation-abandoned-why-whatever-is-not-enough/

      But I missed the mark totally. Who of the opposable-thumb/smartphone generation still reads books?

  8. “I stopped my motor home along a country road near Prattville, Ala., lured by a roadside display called Cross Garden. Hundreds of crudely painted messages warned of hellfire and damnation, some on wooden crosses up to telephone pole height, some on plywood signs, some on a variety of junked appliances. An old, rust-colored refrigerator door, leaning in dry brush, lamented, ‘In hell from sex sex,’ like some sorry fornicator out of Dante” (Timothy Beale). What the Oregon MA in divinity PhD Religion Women and Gender Studies Emory spouse of an Ohioan Presbyterian woman shaman resettled in Denver [they have children she must be a real firecracker] from Ohio has is the ability to identify what matters the inability to heal. That as Essayist Olsen critiques is Beale’s moral lacuna. Beale’s apostleship is an academically distilled amoral response to the None resulting in “navel gazing” and accommodation. A pity for an obviously talented man. Whereas ever responsive Bishop Barron ever well meaning offers us more, never ending reasonable points for converting the None that in the past haven’t gotten us anywhere [most of what he says is old hat]. The None is too deeply entrenched in his rational convictions of moral choice equanimity. How then if not what The Apostle learned after his Areopogas embarrassment. To thereafter preach the very contradiction to contemporary wisdom the enigma of the Cross.

  9. Carl E. Olson presents a cogent and insightful response to Beale and those of similar ilk. However, I would offer that while pointing our finger at Beal, there are three or four pointing back at each of us. As it has always been, those claiming Christ are the most egregious impediments to the proclamation of His message.

    Our sins (individually and corporately) are too numerous and repugnant to enumerate here, but (based upon more than 40 years professional ministry in the Church and churches) the vast majority of our people are not in love with the Savior. The crux of this phenomena is our unwillingness or inability to confront the fact that we are a sin-full people.

    More than once, I have been asked about the best and worst things about getting old. While aches and pains are a bother, the really difficult thing about getting old is looking back at the horrible things I did as a child, in youth, and as an adult. And, the many things I failed to do.

    Tragically, our “never apologize” culture has all but destroyed our (individual and corporate) ability to admit our mistakes and failures. If we are without sin, there is no need for a Savior. If there is no need for a Savior, the notion or need of a triune God is, at best, irrelevant.

    Before the creation of the Cosmos, God was desperately in love with each and every one of us. God knew who and what we would become, and yet loved us still. Until Christians confront their own brokenness and sin-fullness, and genuinely fall in love with and surrender to all three persons of the Trinity, we will not be effective in sharing that message with others.

    • Thanks, Randell, for your thoughtful remarks. I agree, in ways, with your point, or at least your concern. But I would also note that if addressing falsehoods was a matter of being perfectly sinless, well, very little truth would get put out there. The difference is this: I know I’m a sinner and I struggle with sin–but I do not promote or push things that are sinful and claim they are somehow good or Christian. Truth is truth, regardless of the messenger. That said, our witness as aspiring, struggling saints is vital and central. It always has been and always will be. But, on the flip side, those who would dismiss Christianity because of my sins or the sins of another Christian would be either confusing Truth with the messenger or, worse, using the messenger as a means to avoid the Truth.

      • Mr. Olson. Thank you for all you do. I agree with every point you make.

        Lacking the gift of cogent and incisive writing that you are blessed with, the hoped-for focus of my little diatribe was not to tie the message to the messenger. But rather, that we who claim Jesus confess our own sin-fullness as we proclaim His message.

        The word truth, and truth as a concept, has become so perverted that most post-moderns (with good reason) are immediately suspicious of anyone claiming to have “The Truth”. Typically, what those who claim to have the truth are actually saying is “believe like I/we do, or go to hell.” At least in the 21st century, that is not what our Church teaches.

        The “never apologize” heresy has infected the Church just as it has society at large. A little humility from those of us claiming to have “the truth” would go a long way as we struggle to proclaim the Gospel. And, one must confess, it’s the best way to disarm the “you’re all hypocrites” argument.

  10. “There is also a rise in ‘new communities’ that, Beal notes, we might call ‘alt-religious’, which revolve around various interest: physical fitness…” and therefore the faithful Jews of the Maccabean age were right to resist to the death the Greek gymnasium with its more obvious idolatry. Ken’s mention of the difference between “reasons” and “excuses” is also important since the will contributes just as much if not more than the mind to the decisions of the “none”. Carl – what is your opinion (or what do you foresee as your opinion) if the new evangelization (NE) continues to bleed churchman? No doubt the new evangelization has its fruit in some areas, but it seems already that we are playing defense. When does the Benedict Option come into play or is it coming into play more just by the percentage of increased nones each year? When does this loss plateau? At your level the NE may have some meaningful progress, but in the dioceses around me it seems like the bishops’answer to secularism etc. is just more gymnasiums – and more bleeding.

  11. “And wherever they will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that city or that house.”

    Matthew 10:14

    • But then there is that doggone parable about the lost sheep. The shepherd didn’t “wash the dust off,” he went looking…. to seek and to save that which was lost. And like a good and faithful parent, I doubt that he would have ever stopped.

      • We should never use parables, especially parables we don’t understand very well, to overthrow the very words of Jesus on the subject at hand. The parable doesn’t tell us what the shepherd would have done if the lost lamb, upon being found, had simply refused to be saved and had chosen to remain lost. Even the finest of shepherds might have said at some point “Well then, to hell with him.”

  12. Thank you Mr.Olson. I shared with my daughters. The young people are open and have so much to offer – idealism and energy. They dont see so much the sins of their parents as they do the passive-aggressive, manipulative culture that seems to dominate. It is not a culture that reflects our Faith in Christ. I do not mean the wider secular culture; I mean the dominant expression of “culture” within the Church. When these young people see authenticity, then they will engage and things will be shaken for the better. That is my challenge as a father and friend to young people who are not “Nones”. They are waiting, watching and wanting something much better than we offered them. They want reality in all of its deepest forms.
    I have great hope! We have a lot of foundational work to do and that is a good thing.

    Thank you,
    Dan Hoffman

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