Michel Onfray

Translated from the French by Jeremy Leggatt




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First published in France in 2005 by Editions Grasset & Fasquelle. English-language translation published in Viking Canada hardcover by Penguin Group (Canada), a division of Pearson Canada Inc., 2007. Simultaneously published in the U.S.A. by Arcade Publishing, Inc., New York.

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Onfray, Michel, 1959-In defense of atheism : the case against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam / Michel Onfray ; translated from the French by Jeremy Leggatt.

First published 2005 in French under title: Traité d'athéologie.

ISBN-13: 978-0-670-06724-4 ISBN-10: 0-670-06724-5

1. Atheism. 2. Religion — Controversial literature. 3. Monotheism—Controversial literature. I. Leggatt, Jeremy II.Title.

BL2747.3.05413 2007a 211'.8 C2006-906697-3

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication data available upon request. American Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication data available

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The concept of "God" invented as a counter-concept of life — everything harmful, poisonous, slanderous, the whole hostility unto death against life synthesized in this concept in a gruesome unity! The concept of the "beyond," the "true world" invented in order to devaluate the only world there is — in order to retain no goal, no reason, no task for our earthly reality! The concept of the "soul," the "spirit," finally even "immortal soul," invented in order to despise the body, to make it sick — "holy"; to oppose with a ghastly levity everything that deserves to be taken seriously in life, the questions of nourishment, abode, spiritual diet, treatment of the sick, cleanliness, and weather! In place of health, the "salvation of the soul" — that is, a folie circulaire [manic-depressive insanity] between penitential convulsions and hysteria about redemption! The concept of "sin" invented along with the torture instrument that belongs with it, the concept of "free will," in order to confuse the instincts, to make mistrust of the instincts second nature!

— Nietzsche, Ecce Homo


Preface xi Introduction 1

Part One:Atheology

I. Odyssey of the Freethinkers 11 1. God is still breathing 11 2. Seeking a name for freethinkers 14

3.The fruits of antiphilosophy 17

4, Theology and its fetishes 19

5. Naming infamy 21

II. Atheism and the Escape from Nihilism 27

1. The invention of atheism 27

2. Planned obscurity 29

3. Philosophical earthquake 32

4. Teaching the case for atheism 35

5. Plate tectonics 38

III.Toward an Atheology 41 1. Spectrum of nihilism 41 2.A Judeo-Christian epistemology 43

3. Vestiges of empire 46

4. Garden-grown torture 49

5. On Christian ignorance 51

6. Christian atheism 55

7. A postmodern atheism 57 8. In Defense of Atheism takes on three challenges 59

Part Two: Monotheisms

1. The Tyranny of Afterlives 65

1. Monotheism 's somber vision 65 2. Down with intelligence! 61

3. Litany of taboos 69 4. Obsession with purity 72 5. Respecting the body 74

II. Bonfires of the Intelligence 77

1. Producing the holy books 77

2. The book's bias against books 78

3. Hatred of science 81

4. Negation of matter 83

5. Bakeshop ontology 86

6. Epicurus: not an enthusiast for Hosts 88 7. Forever missing the boat 89

III. Seeking the Opposite of the Real 95

1. Inventing the afterlife 95 2. Birds of Paradise 96

3. Seeking the opposite of the real 98 4. Solving the woman problem 101 5. Celebration of castration 104

6. Down with foreskins! 106

7. God loves the maimed 109

Part Three: Christianity

I. The Construction of Jesus 115 1. Enter the forgers 115

2. Hysteria crystallized 111

3. Catalysis of the miraculous 120

4. Construction outside history 124 5. Tissues of contradictions 126

II. The Pauline Contamination 131 1. Ravings of a hysteric 131 2. Infecting the world with neuroses 132

3. A weakling's revenge 134 4. In praise of slavery 137

5. At war with intelligence 138

III. The Totalitarian Christian State 141 1. Hysteria (continued) 141

2. Constantine's coup d'etat 143

3. From victims to victimizers 146

4. The name of the law 148

5. Vandalism, autos-da-fe, and the culture of death 150

Part Four: Theocracy

I. Selective Exploitation of the Texts 155 1. Historical extraterritoriality155 2. Twenty-seven centuries in the making 156 3. Monotheistic grab bag 159

4. Cherry-picking the scriptures 161

5. The whip and the other cheek 164

6. Hitler, Saint John's disciple 166

7. Allah's problems with logic 167 8. Roster of contradictions 169

9. Everything and its opposite 170 10. Contextualization and sophistry 172

II. In the Service of the Death Fixation 175 1. Selective bones of contention 175 2. The Jewish invention of holy war 178 3. God, Caesar & Co. 180 4. Christian anti-Semitism 182 5. The Vatican admired Adolf Hitler 184 6. Hitler admired the Vatican 187

7. Christianity and National Socialism: points in common 188 8. Wars, fascisms, and other pursuits 189

9. Jesus at Hiroshima 191 10. Love of one's neighbor (continued) 192 11. Colonialism, genocide, ethnocide 195 12. Repressions and the death fixation 197

III. Toward a Post-Christian Secular Order 199

1. Muslim thirst for blood 199

2. The local as universal 201

3. Yellow stars and Muslim tattoos 203 4. Against the closed society 204 5. Muslim fascism 206 6. An ayatollah speaks 207 7. Islam: structurally archaic 208 8. Fascist thematics 210 9. Fascism of the fox, fascism of the lion 213 10. Against"religious " secularism 215 11. Substance and forms of the secular ethic 216 12. Toward a post- Christian secularism 218


Desert memory. After a few hours on the trail in the Mauri-tanian desert, I saw an old herdsman traveling with his family. His young wife and his mother-in-law rode camels; his sons and daughter were on donkeys. The group carried with them everything essential to survival—and therefore to life. The sight of them gave me the impression that I had encountered a contemporary of Muhammad. Burning white sky, scattered, scorched trees, uprooted thorn bushes blown by the desert wind across unending vistas of orange sand ... the spectacle evoked the geographical and psychological background of the Koran, in the turbulent period of camel caravans, nomad encampments, and clashing desert tribes.

I thought of the lands of Israel, Judaea and Samaria, of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, of Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Places where the sun bakes men's heads, desiccates their bodies, afflicts their souls with thirst. Places that generate a yearning for oases where water flows cool, clear and free, where the air is balmy and fragrant, where food and drink are abundant. The afterlife suddenly struck me as a counterworld invented by men exhausted and parched by their ceaseless wanderings across the dunes or up and down rocky trails baked to white heat. Monotheism was born of the sand.

It was nighttime at Ouedane, east of Chinguetti, where I had traveled to see the Islamic libraries long buried in the sand. Even today, sand dunes are patiently but inexorably swallowing up whole villages. Abduramane, our driver, unrolled his prayer mat under the stars in the courtyard of the house where we were staying. I was quartered in a small room with a makeshift mattress. As the full moon shone on Abduramane's black skin, the blue-gray light caused his flesh to appear purple. Slowly, as though impelled by the ancestral movements of the planet, he knelt, lowered his forehead to the ground, and prayed. Light from dead stars reached down to us in the hot desert night. I felt that I was witnessing a primitive ritual, similar to humankind's earliest act of worship. As we continued our journey next day, I talked with Abduramane about his religion. Surprised that a westerner, a white man, was interested in Islam, he challenged every assertion I made. I had just read the Koran, pen in hand, and I had memorized several passages word for word. But his unquestioning faith led him to deny that any verses in his holy book were contrary to basic Islamic principles of goodness, tolerance, generosity, and peace. Holy war? Proclamation of jihad against unbelievers? A fatwa issued for the execution of an author? State-of-the-art terrorism? Madmen did those things, certainly not Muslims . . .

Abduramane did not like it. There I was, a non-Muslim, reading the Koran and pointing out that, despite the many chapters that comforted him and supported his beliefs, there were just as many verses in the same book that justified armed fighters wearing the green banner of martyrdom, Hezbollah terrorists wrapped with explosives, the Ayatollah Khomeini condemning Salman Rushdie to death, the kamikaze attackers flying commercial aircraft into Manhattan's towers, and bin Laden's disciples beheading civilian hostages. I was skirting blasphemy. We lapsed into silence in that landscape devastated by the sun's fire.

Ontologicaljackal. After hours of silence and the same unchanging desert scenery, I returned to the Koran and the prospect of paradise. Did Abdou believe that the Koran's fantastic description of paradise was meant to be taken literally or as a symbol? Rivers of milk and wine, beautiful virgins, beds of silk and brocade, celestial music, magnificent gardens? Yes, he said, adding: That is what it is like ... And hell? Just as the Koran says it is .. .What of Abduramane himself, a man of near-saintly ways — considerate, tactful, willing to share, ever mindful of others, gentle and calm, at peace with himself, with others, and with the world—would he one day experience those delights? Yes, I hope so ... I wished it for him with all my heart. But deep down, I knew that he was wrong, that he was deceived.

After another silence, he went on to say that before entering paradise he would have accounts to settle. He was worried that his whole life as a pious believer would probably not be enough to make up for a certain error that he had committed, one that might well cost him peace and life everlasting . . .What crime? A murder? A mortal sin, as Christians say? Yes, in a way: once, in his car, he ran over a jackal. Abdou was driving too fast that night, over the speed limit. But it was a desert trail, and approaching headlights were visible from miles away. The road was clear, he saw nothing ahead . . . when suddenly a jackal leaped out of the shadows, and two seconds later it was dying under the wheels of his car.

Had he obeyed the rules of the road, he would not have committed that act of sacrilege — killing an animal when he had no need to eat it. Apart from the fact that the Koran makes no such stipulation, surely we cannot be held responsible for everything that happens to us! But Abduramane believed that we are. Allah is behind even the smallest of incidents. Allah used this event to demonstrate the necessity of submission — to the law, to rules, to order, because even the most trifling transgression brings us closer to hell. It can even lead us there directly.

The jackal long haunted his nights, keeping him from falling asleep, and he often saw it in his dreams, barring the road to paradise. As he spoke of it, his emotions resurfaced. His father, a wise old man in his nineties who had fought in World War I, was uncompromising: clearly, Abdou had failed to respect the law, and would have to account for his crime on the day he died. In the meantime, he must strive in his smallest actions to atone as best he could. The jackal would be waiting at the gates of paradise. I would have given anything for the animal to disappear and liberate the soul of this honest man.

It may seem truly remarkable that this good man with his humble aspirations should share the same faith as the September 11 pilots. One bore the burden of a jackal inopportunely thrown to the dogs, the others rejoiced in their annihilation of the greatest possible number of innocent people. Abdou believed that paradise might deny him entrance because he had turned a carrion-eater into carrion; the 9/11 terrorists believed they had earned eternal bliss by consigning the lives of thousands — including fellow Muslims — to ashes. Yet the same book inspired both types of men operating at opposite ends of the human spectrum, one aspiring to saintliness, the others carrying out an act of inhuman cruelty.

Mystical postcards. I have often seen God in the course of my life. There, in the Mauritanian desert, under a moon that repainted the night in blue and violet. In the cool mosques of

Benghazi or Tripoli, in Libya. On my trip to Cyrene, the home of Aristippus. Not far from Port-Louis on Mauritius, in a shrine dedicated to Ganesh, the colorful elephant-headed Hindu god. In a synagogue in Venice, with a yarmulke on my head. Hearing the choir of Orthodox churches in Moscow. Waiting at the entrance to the Novodevichy Monastery, while inside priests with magnificent voices, gold-robed and swathed in incense, prayed with grieving family and friends over an open coffin. In Seville, standing before the Virgin de la Macarena, among women in tears and men with ecstatic faces. In Naples, in the Church of San Gennaro, god of the city built at the foot of the volcano, whose dried blood is said to liquefy at set times. At the Capuchin convent in Palermo, filing past eight thousand skeletons of Christians all dressed up in their most splendid clothes. At Tbilisi in Georgia, where passersby are invited to share boiled, bloody mutton under trees fluttering with small votive handkerchiefs hung there by devout Christians. On Saint Peter's Square one day when I had neglected to check the calendar: I was there to revisit the Sistine Chapel, but it was Easter Sunday and John Paul II was projected on a giant screen. His miter had slipped on his head, and he might have been speaking in tongues as he mumbled his divine message into the microphone.

I have seen God elsewhere too, and in other forms. In the icy waters of the Arctic during the landing of a salmon caught by a shaman, damaged by the net and ritually returned to the cosmos from which it had been extracted. In a back kitchen in Havana, where a Santeria priest performed a ceremony that involved a crucified, smoked agouti and a handful of volcanic rocks and seashells. In a voodoo temple deep in the Haitian wilderness, among basins stained by red liquids, the air filled with the acrid smells of herbs and extracts, the walls decorated with drawings to gain the favor of the Loa. In Azerbaijan, at Surakhany near Baku, in a Zoroastrian fire worshippers' temple. In Kyoto in Zen gardens — excellent exercises in negative theology.

I have also seen dead gods, fossil gods, gods as old as time itself. At Lascaux, I was stunned by the cave paintings in that earthly womb where the soul ebbs and flows under vast layers of time. At Luxor, in the royal burial chambers, located deep underground, watched over by men with dogs' heads, by scarabs and inscrutable cats. In Rome in the temple of Mithras, who slew the cosmic bull and whose cult might have transformed the world had it possessed its own Emperor Constantine. In Athens, climbing the steps of the Acropolis on my way to the Parthenon, as my mind dwelled on the city below where Plato had met Socrates . ..

In none of those places did I feel superior to those who believed in spirits, in the immortal soul, in the breath of the gods, the presence of angels, the power of prayer, the effectiveness of ritual, the validity of incantations, communion with voodoo spirits, hemoglobin-based miracles, the Virgin's tears, the resurrection of a crucified man, the magical properties of cowrie shells, the value of animal sacrifices, the transcendent effects of Egyptian saltpeter, or prayer wheels. Never. But everywhere I saw how readily men construct fables in order to avoid looking reality in the face. The invention of an afterlife would not matter so much were it not purchased at so high a price: disregard of the real, hence willful neglect of the only world there is. While religion is often at variance with immanence, with man's inherent nature, atheism is in harmony with the earth—life's other name.



Keeping company with Madame Bovary. In Flaubert's novel, Madame Bovary relieved her despair by pretending. Many people do the same. Without romantic daydreams, their lives would be utterly desolate. A man can certainly avoid facing tragic reality by imagining himself as somehow different from the being he truly is — but only at the cost of turning himself into something unrecognizable. I do not despise believers. I find them neither ridiculous nor pathetic, but I lose all hope when I see that they prefer the comforting fairy tales of children to the cruel hard facts of adults. Better the faith that brings peace of mind than the rationality that brings worry — even at the price of perpetual mental infantilism. What a demonstration of metaphysical sleight of hand — and what a monstrous price!

Having realized all this, I experience the feeling that always arises deep within me when I am confronted with the symptoms of indoctrination and deception: compassion for the sufferer, coupled with burning anger toward those who perpetuate the deception. No hatred for the man on his knees, but a fierce resolve never to collude with those who urge him to adopt this humiliating posture and keep him there. Who would not sympathize with the victims of fraud? And who would not approve of battling the perpetrators?

Spiritual poverty engenders self-renunciation; it is just as significant as other deficiencies, whether sexual, mental, political, or intellectual. How ironic that other people's credulity should bring a smile to the face of the man who is supremely unaware of his own! The Catholic who eats fish on Friday derides the Muslim who refuses pork—who in turn scoffs at the Jew for refusing shellfish. The Lubavitcher swaying at the Wailing Wall looks askance at the Christian kneeling on a prayer stool and at the Muslim laying out his prayer mat in the direction of Mecca. Yet none concludes that the mote in his neighbor's eye might be smaller than the beam in his own. No one reaches the opinion that the critical mind, so relevant and always so welcome when applied to others, would be put to good use in a scrutiny of one's own beliefs.

Human credulity is beyond imagining. Man's refusal to see the obvious, his longing for a better deal even if it is based on pure fiction, his determination to remain blind have no limits. Far better to swallow fables, fictions, myths, or fairy tales than to see reality in all its naked cruelty, forcing him to accept the obvious tragedy of existence. Homo sapiens wards off death by abolishing it. To avoid solving the problem, he wishes it away. Only mortals have to worry about death's inevitability. The naive and foolish believer knows that he is immortal, that he will survive the carnage of Judgment Day.

Profiteers waiting to pounce. I cannot fault those who need a metaphysical crutch in order to bear their lot. On the other hand, I am diametrically opposed to those who preach the ascetic ideal — and who also care for themselves in so doing. We are on opposite sides of the existential barricade. The traffic in afterlives benefits the men who engage in it by providing them the means to bolster their faith, for they find in it the material essential for reinforcing their own need for mental help. Just as psychoanalysts often treat others in order to avoid questioning themselves too closely about their own weaknesses, so the vicars of monotheist gods foist their vision of the world on the faithful — and day by day their own convictions become more secure.

Masking one's own spiritual poverty while exaggerating the same weakness in others, avoiding the display of one's own shortcomings by dramatizing those of the world at large, are tactics crying out to be denounced. No one is faulting the believer. But with the man who claims to be his shepherd, the case is different. As long as religion remains a purely private matter, we contend simply with neuroses, psychoses, and other personal factors. We deal with what aberrations we can, provided they do not threaten or endanger the lives of others . . .

My atheism leaps to life when private belief becomes a public matter, when in the name of a personal mental pathology we organize a world for others. For between personal existential anguish and management of the body and soul of our fellow human beings, there exists a whole world in which those who profit from human anguish lurk in concealment. Redirecting their own death fixation toward the world at large neither saves sufferers nor alleviates their suffering—but it contaminates the universe. The attempt to avoid negativity merely spreads negativity around like manure — ushering in a wholesale mental pandemic.

In the name of Yahweh, God, Jesus, and Allah — those convenient excuses — Moses, Paul of Tarsus, Constantine, and Muhammad exploit the dark forces that penetrate them, that work so powerfully within them. By projecting their somber visions on the world they blacken it still further—and with impunity. The pathological grip of the death fixation does not heal itself through chaotic and magical muckspreading but by philosophical work upon oneself. Well-conducted introspection dispels the dreams and delirium on which gods feed. Atheism is not therapy but restored mental health.

Rekindling the Enlightenment. This work on oneself requires philosophy. Not faith, belief, fables, but reason and properly directed thought. We must fight against obscurantism, that fertile loam of all religions, with the weapons of the Western rationalist tradition. Sound use of our understanding, rational ordering of our minds, implementation of a true critical will, general mobilization of our intelligence, the desire to evolve while standing on our own feet—all these are strategies for dispelling phantoms. In other words, we need a return to the spirit of Light, of Enlightenment, that gave its name to the eighteenth century.

There is certainly much to be said on the historiography of that luminous century. With the French Revolution fixed firmly in their memories, and writing in its wake, the historians of the following century gave retrospective preference to whatever seemed to have contributed to that still recent event. They invoked the ironic deconstructions by Voltaire, by Montesquieu with his separation of the Three Powers, by the Rousseau of the Social Contract, by Kant and the cult of reason, by d'Alembert the master builder of the Encyclopedic, etc. But these dazzling Enlightenment figures — respectable, indeed politically correct—are the boldest that nineteenth-century historians could stomach.

I prefer sharper, more direct, and much bolder shafts of light. For behind their seeming diversity, all the revered figures mentioned above were united in deism. They strenuously rejected atheism. And they added an equal and sovereign contempt for materialism and the sensual. In other words, contempt for a host of alternative philosophical options that effectively constituted a "left wing" of the Enlightenment, a pole of radicalism that was soon forgotten but which might be usefully invoked today.

Kant is a monument of timid audacity. The six hundred pages of his Critique of Pure Reason contain the ingredients for blowing Western metaphysics sky-high, but the philosopher ultimately shrinks from the task. His separation of faith and reason, of presiding deities and concrete phenomena, is a step in the right direction. A little more effort would have obtained for one of these two world — reason — the right to claim precedence over the other—faith. It would also have made possible an unsparing analysis of the whole question of belief. But Kant stops short. In declaring the two spheres separate, he allows reason to abdicate its powers: he lets faith go scot-free, and religion is saved. Kant can then postulate (why did he need so many pages in order merely to postulate . . .) God, the soul's immortality, and the existence of free will, three pillars (along with the death drive) of all religion.

Once again, what was the Enlightenment? We know that Kant wrote a 1784 essay entitled What Is Enlightenment? Is it still readable over two centuries later? Yes. We can and we must subscribe to the Enlightenment project, which remains as viable as ever. It aims to lift man out of his infantile condition and set his feet on the path to adulthood; to remind him of his own responsibility for his infantile state; to inspire him with the courage to use his intelligence; to give himself and others the capacity to attain self-mastery; to make public and communal use of his reason in every field, with no exception; and not to accept as revealed truth what emanates from public authority. A magnificent project . ..

Why then did Kant have to be so un-Kantian? For how can we permit the attainment of adulthood and at the same time prohibit the use of reason in the religious sphere, which prefers the faithful to have the minds of children? We may of course think, says Kant; we must have the courage to ask questions, including of the teacher and the priest. Why then should we stop there, having reached such an encouraging point? Full steam ahead, surely! Let's postulate the nonexistence of God, the death of the soul, the nonexistence of free will!

So a final push is needed to rekindle the flames of Enlightenment. A little more Enlightenment, more and more Enlightenment! Let's be Kantian in opposition to Kant, let us pick up the gauntlet of boldness he throws down — without daring to act boldly himself. His mother, an austere and rigorous pietist if ever there was one, must have been holding her son's hand when he finished his Critique of Pure Reason. It must have been Frau Kant who helped defuse the unparalleled explosive potential of Kant's argument.

Atheology's dazzling light. The luminaries who succeeded Kant are well-known: among others, Ludwig Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. The "age of suspicion" gave the twentieth century a genuine decoupling of reason and faith, and then redirected the weapons of rationality against the fictions of belief. At last the battlefield was cleared and a new space set free. On this virgin metaphysical terrain an untested discipline saw the light of day. It is time to introduce atheology.

The term is to be found as early as March 29, 1950, in a let ter from Georges Bataille to Raymond Queneau. In it, Bataille wrote that he would like to see a new edition of his books, previously published by Gallimard. For the three-volume collection, he proposed the overall title Summa Atheologica. In 1954, Bataille embarked on another project involving several texts announced four years earlier but not yet written, others still in the outline stage, and the internal integrity of the whole in constant flux. A fourth volume was announced, Pure Happiness, and then a fifth, The Unfinished System ofNonknowledge. None would see the light of day in the form envisioned. These works exist today only as a collection of incidental writings and selections from his notebooks.

The unfinished state of this important body of work, the abundance of plans and projects, the obvious equivocations in Bataille's correspondence on architectonics, his fierce insistence that he really did not want to be a philosopher—all this is evidence of an abandoned construction site. Above all, he gave up the project—founding a new religion — that had inspired his early reading, thinking, and writings. Atheology was left an or-phan.Yet it is a brilliant concept.

Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault understood concepts as instruments in a toolbox at the disposal of anyone aspiring to philosophical work. That being so, I am adopting Bataille's term "atheology" for my own use. I am not, however, advocating Batailles version of atheology—especially since it would require a tremendous amount of painstaking research and would likely yield only unsatisfying results. I am proposing the concept of atheology as a countercurrent to theology, a channel to carry us past discourse on God and flow upstream to the source, where we may examine the mechanisms of theology up close. On a world stage saturated with monotheism, it is high time to expose the back side of the theological scenery. This is an opportunity for philosophical deconstruction.

Beyond this preliminary In Defense of Atheism, then, the effort requires a mobilization of multiple disciplines. Psychology and psychoanalysis: consideration of the mechanisms of the fable-generating function. Metaphysics: plotting the genealogy of transcendence. Archaeology: giving a voice to the substrata beneath the surface geography of religions. Paleography: establishing archival texts. History of course: acquainting ourselves with the epistemologies and their development in the areas where religions were born. Comparative psychology: establishing fundamental principles of thinking, learning, and behavior in various time periods and widely separated regions. Mythology: research into the details of poetic rationality. Hermeneutics, linguistics, languages: stressing local idiom. Aesthetics: tracing the iconic propagation of beliefs. And then of course philosophy: for philosophy seems best fitted to preside over the organization of all these disciplines. And the stakes? A physics of metaphysics, a true theory of man's inherent nature (immanence), a materialist ontology.



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