What is Religion?

Excerpted from



The answer to the question 'What is a religion?' seems obvious.

A religion is: Hinduism, Buddhism or Jainism; Judaism, Christianity or Islam; Confucianism or Shinto; one of the primal, original faiths of humankind, still found in Africa, North America and elsewhere; or one among other self-contained systems of faith.

If, however, we remove the indefinite article and ask 'What is religion?', matters are less clear. Then we are dealing with a much more amorphous phenomenon. So we need to distinguish religion from the religions, before we ask in more detail how they are inter-related. Thereafter, we shall explore whether there is more to the question 'What is a religion?' than first one might think.


We begin with religion, not a religion. The word 'religion' derives from the Latin word religio. This had a variety of interconnected meanings. Originally, it seems to have referred to fear of or reverence for God or the gods, then later to the rites offered to them. Indeed, there is some confusion about whence religio originates. It may come from relegere, 'to gather things together' or 'to pass over things repeatedly'. If so, that would indicate religion's concern for, some would say obsession with, establishing rites and rituals and reflecting on past precedent and customary practice. However, most scholars think that it derives from religare, 'to bind things together'. That would emphasise religion's communal demands. Religion is not just personal piety, though it is that too, but draws people into common rites, practices and beliefs.

Just as the original meaning of the word religio is shrouded in mystery, so is the significance of the earliest human expressions of religion. Certainly, the religious history of humankind begins from earliest times. Evidence suggests that prehistoric humans believed in an afterlife: for example, red ochre was used to stain bones in some Neanderthal burial grounds about 150,000 years ago, probably for ritual purposes. Moreover, cave paintings, for example at Lascaux (c.15,000 bce) and Ariège (12,000-11,000 bce) in modern France, seem to indicate a reverence for the world around, and may have been part of a relatively elaborate complex of rites. From 3000 bce onwards, the rituals of religion are clearly to be observed. Around that date, Sumerian poetry (Sumeria was part of ancient Babylon, modern Iraq) laments the death of Tammuz, the shepherd god. Stonehenge, in the south of modern England, may date from c.2800 bce; the reason why it was constructed remains mysterious to us. Even earlier than Stonehenge, by about a thousand years, a large prehistoric grave was constructed on the banks of the Boyne River in present-day County Meath, north-west of Dublin, Eire. Indeed, it is a much grander monument than Stonehenge, constructed by an unknown group of people long before the Celts came to Ireland. The 'royal' graves at Ur in modern Iraq and the pyramids and sphinx at Giza outside modern Cairo were built about 2500 bce. These are more clearly religious in their purpose: for example, the pyramids indicate that by this stage the Pharaoh was a god-king in Egypt; he was the primary focus of the pyramid, which was built to foster his eternal cult.

Thus it was that by the middle of the third millennium bce, the work of human piety was clearly recorded in art and architecture. Sumeria and Egypt were perhaps the first places where this began in a relatively systematic way, at least with materials that have survived the passing of many centuries. There is also evidence from China about or just after this period.

What did this phenomenon of religion intend to achieve? Nowadays, it is unfashionable to interpret religion from a single perspective. Indeed, it is unwise and misleading to do so if thereby the great diversity of religious phenomena is played down or even ignored. Nevertheless, I attach particular significance to the conviction that religion points to a phenomenon beyond itself and this mundane existence: to what theists would call God; though Buddhists, many Hindus and others would use different terminology.

All major religions believe that there is more to life than meets the eye. The five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch scan and interpret this mundane existence. Sometimes for humans the penny drops and another transformative and Transcendent dimension opens up to them. The following chapters will take up the implications of this intuitive insight and its consequences. For the moment, it is sufficient to make the point that from very early times, humans have understood there to be a mysterious depth in life, beyond the traditional senses, to be scanned by insight rather than sight, and enabled by prayer and meditation not just the optic nerve. Alongside this recognition of a Transcendent and mysterious reality, there grew up a conviction that humans could relate to it. So, as we shall see in later chapters, the concern of religion has not simply been with a remote 'force' or reality. Rather, humans are embraced within its concerns and commitments. Indeed, some religious traditions prefer to designate that reality as 'him', 'her' or 'them', to impute personality analogous to human understandings of that term.

It is important not to reduce the importance of that Transcendent dimension in religion. It is certainly true that religion has been used to justify social, economic, political or other concerns. For example, the pyramids were no doubt built for a variety of reasons. Probably, the pharaohs Cheops and Khafre intended to strike awe into their subjects for themselves, as well as for the gods of Egypt. Withal, this does not eliminate or even reduce the Transcendent dimension to which religion points.

Yet, in the modern Western world, there has grown up the assumption that the Transcendent dimension to religion can be dismissed as a fantasy of people who knew less about reality than we now do. The contemporary malaise of religion in the West is not a new phenomenon, though it has been a very minority position in the history of the human race. There was a strand of scepticism in the classical Greek and Roman worlds. According to Plato, Protagoras had observed in the fifth century bce that 'man is the measure of all things'. He was reportedly banished from Athens and his book burned in the marketplace for his repudiation of the city's gods. He observed: 'About the gods, I do not have [the capacity] to know, whether they are or are not, nor to know what they are like in form; for there are many things that prevent this knowledge: the obscurity [of the issue] and the shortness of human life.'

Centuries later, Edward Gibbon, in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote that:

The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. (Gibbon, 1910, p.53)

This wry definition, however, tells us at least as much about the strands of eighteenth century English society Gibbon inhabited or aspired to belong to, as it does of the world of high and late Classical Antiquity. Indeed, the modern and postmodern European world has provided many sceptical definitions of religion. A particularly amusing interpretation was offered by Ambrose Bierce in his The Devil's Dictionary, begun in 1881: religion is 'a daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable'. (It is, of course, undoubtedly true that the heart of religion is unknowable if the only accepted tool of knowledge is unaided human reason, but this is excessively reductionist.)

The Origins of Religion

The decline of religion in the West can be illustrated by the nineteenth century quest for the origins of religion. Nowadays, most unbiased and fair-minded scholars of religion acknowledge that it is impossible to discover the origins of religion: both in the sense of detecting the earliest moment when religion began; and in uncovering what that moment signified about the intention and truth of the religious life. The impossibility of finding the beginnings of religion, and what it then meant, is because religious origins lie in the swirling mists of prehistory, before writing began and even before artefacts were made that could have survived the erosions of time. Yet most exponents of the quest held that they could explain the origins of religion as arising from a non-Transcendental source.

Despite the impossibility of the enterprise, in the late nineteenth century there was a quest among some European scholars to locate the origin of religion. Why was this project undertaken? It was part of a wider exploration about the origins of humankind and what it means to be human.

In fact, this pursuit was deeply influenced and even driven by a fashionable scepticism about the existence of God or of any Transcendent dimension or dimensions to life. Many such scholars assumed that, although people expressed religion with reference to such a reality, in fact their rites and even beliefs really reflected other concerns within their societies and groups. Very often, its proponents assumed that the origins of religion, when they were located, would explain religion as a wholly human-centred occupation, explicable as an important component in the lives of primitive people but unworthy of the commitment of educated and rational modern humans. Thus, this quest was far from being an objective search for knowledge.

One problem for the credibility of religion in the modern West is that many secular people assume that such a quest has been objective and 'scientific' despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some of which we shall shortly examine. Many who pursued this investigation were founders of the relatively modern disciplines of sociology, anthropology and psychology, or were originators of great political movements like communism, or exponents of the developing physical sciences. Figures like (for example) Spencer, Tylor, Freud and Marx are rightly held in great esteem. But that admiration should be given for their achievements in (respectively) sociology, anthropology, psychology and the political sciences, not for their speculative and unreasonable opinions about religious origins or about religion itself.

A landmark in this endeavour to discover the origins of religion was the publication of On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection by Charles Darwin (1809-82) in 1859. This book sought to explain the origins of humankind from the viewpoint of 'evolution'. Darwin was not himself an important figure in locating religious origins but his work encouraged others to observe everything to do with the process of being human from an evolutionary perspective.

The first significant figure to interpret religion from this viewpoint was Herbert Spencer (1820-1904). The contemporary Comparative Historian Eric Sharpe has perceptively written that Spencer's major contribution was to establish evolution as less a theory than an 'atmosphere' (1975, p.34). In Spencer's First Principles, published in 1862, he moulded the development of (among other phenomena) society, language and law to an evolutionary framework.

He tended to regard religion, not so much as an entity in itself as an aspect of how society is organised and governed. Spencer was hostile to the Transcendental claims of religion. Late in his life, in 1904, he trivialised the Christian view of God as belief in 'a deity who is pleased with the singing of his praises, and angry with the infinitesimal beings he has made when they fail to tell him perpetually of his greatness'. In a more measured moment, he had earlier proposed that 'the rudimentary form of all religion is the propitiation of dead ancestors, who are supposed to be still existing, and to be capable of working good or ill to their descendants' (Sharpe, 1975, p.33f.). This unsubstantiated assertion was to have a long and often discreditable history.

The French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857) invented the term 'sociology', and Herbert Spencer's text Social Statics was its first major work (these two scholars are counted as 'fathers of social science'). However, Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), by birth a Jew then briefly a Roman Catholic but an atheist by conviction for most of his life, has had the most impact in establishing, in many people's minds, the interpretation of religion as, above all else, a social fact. Durkheim defined religion as 'a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden - beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them' (Sharpe, 1975, p.84).

These beliefs and practices sustain and prolong the identity and life of the community committed to them. They are given authorisation by being underwritten and sanctioned by a supernatural being or beings. However, such beings are in reality not as important as the clan or other social grouping, by which they are created in the senses and the imagination as forces for social cohesion. The gods therefore have no ontological reality; in other words, they do not exist as independent realities, but are social constructs created to explain or even mould the way individuals behave in society. Durkheim put it like this in his The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1913): 'In a general way a society has all that is necessary to arouse the sensation of the divine in minds, merely by the power that it has over them; for to its members it is what a god is to his worshippers.'

Durkheim located the beginning of religion in the totemism practised, so he held, by the Australian aborigines, whom he believed were an example of the earliest human social system. In his view, the totem has a mysterious power (mana), which punishes violations of tabu, which is the sacred in its most basic form. He interpreted the totem as a symbol serving two functions: it is a symbol of the tribal god or gods; and it is also a symbol around which tribes gather and by which they identify themselves. In Durkheim's view, because the totem serves both functions, it shows that god and totem are alternative expressions of the collective group, of society. He held that in more advanced, modern societies, dogmas and rites are prescribed for the faithful by 'society', which separates all things into the two categories of sacred and profane.

Durkheim's view of totemism was deeply indebted to the work of the anthropologist William Robertson Smith (1846-1894), who was rightly criticised by some of his contemporaries for seeing totemism everywhere. He located it, controversially, behind biblical sacrifices. He believed that when sacred animals were sacrificed and eaten, their meat and blood bonded them to their worshippers. Among others, Max Müller, about whom more below, was highly sceptical of this interpretation.

This tendency to view religion as embodying the rather infantile practices of 'primitive' people characterised much early anthropology as well as sociology, and continued well into the twentieth century. When the distinguished Christian Comparative Religionist Geoffrey Parrinder (b.1910) first went to West Africa in 1933, two groups of Western people actively disparaged ancestral faith there: some Christian missionaries and, especially, anthropologists. Parrinder set about challenging their views. Chapter 2 of his book West African Religion (1949, p.11-17; Forward, 1998a, pp.74-82) severely criticises the works of distinguished anthropologists, especially Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939), for creating and reinforcing the notion of a universal 'primitive religion'.

Lévy-Bruhl was certainly among those who used anthropological data to argue that primitive peoples' thought was qualitatively different from that of modern humans. He believed them to be prelogical, unable (for example) to separate cause from effect, thus conceiving the universe differently from lettered people. Although he did not describe them as illogical, it was a short step for others to take that they were innately inferior to civilised human beings. Such anthropologists lumped African tribes together with Australian aboriginal groups although, in Parrinder's view, many of the former had progressed far beyond the totemistic conceptions of the latter.

Parrinder also had stern things to record about the word 'fetishism' as an adequate description of West African religion. This word was introduced by the Portuguese who called the African charms and cult objects feitiço, meaning 'magical', and was popularised and made respectable by Auguste Comte. Parrinder deplored the fact that it lingered 'in the mind as a handy, but undefined and therefore practically useless, description of queer practices in Africa . . .(and) still appears in some books on religion and anthropology. . . (and) is still commonly employed by too many missionaries'. In his view, words like fetishism, juju and gree-gree 'need to be relegated to the museum of the writings of early explorers'.

Parrinder had kinder things to write about Edward Burnett Tylor's (1832-1917) introduction of the word animism as a good step forward from fetishism, because it acknowledges a spiritualistic rather than materialistic view of the world which lies beyond objects of reverence. In 1884, Tylor was appointed Reader in Anthropology at the University of Oxford, the first such post ever to be established (between 1896 and 1909 he was the university's first Professor of Anthropology). He defined religion as 'the belief in Spiritual Beings'. He borrowed the term 'animism' from a German chemist, Georg Ernest Stahl (1660-1734), who held that all living things derive from anima, 'soul' or 'mind'. Tylor located 'animism' in the current 'atmosphere' of evolution, and employed it to depict the culture of humankind progressing from lower to higher forms, for the most part in an unbroken flow. Animism is the earliest form of religion, and can be studied through 'survivals' from the past.

Hence, one can study surviving 'primitive people' to understand how ancients must have lived and organised their social customs and ways of life (Sharpe, 1975, pp.53-58). Parrinder believed that animism, though an improvement upon other anthropological terms, was basically a dismissive word employed by unbelieving and alien scholars. He wrote that: 'To talk of animism would reduce religion to a system based on a delusion, the supposition that there is personality or life, in or behind objects that, in the view of European science, have not got them.' In other words, Parrinder was inclined to think that anthropologists in his heyday and a little before it had overlooked the most obvious source of the meaning of religion: that is, belief in a God who actually exists and relates to human beings, who can experience his will and even his nature in this present life.

There are now interesting attempts by scholars of religious studies to integrate anthropology into the multi-disciplinary field of religious studies; for example, a brave attempt has been made by Clinton Bennett to do so (1998, passim). However, they often fail sufficiently to understand and overcome the lingering scepticism that many modern anthropologists have inherited from their nineteenth century ancestors. There are still indications that many anthropologists fail to understand the claims of its adherents that religion fundamentally witnesses to a Transcendent rather than to a human or social reality, even though it may cast light on these areas. For example, although anthropologists working recently in West Africa are far less secular-minded than they were, many still play down the Transcendent element of traditional religion (Forward, 1998a, pp.73-97). For this reason, scholars of religious studies need to refract other perspectives, including anthropology, through the basic religious assumption that there exists a dimension to life beyond the remit of secular disciplines. Later in this chapter, we shall explore how this might be done, by looking at Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son.

Early sociologists and anthropologists assumed that the structures of human society and beliefs actually express only a 'this-worldly' perspective of what it means to be human. What, however, of the claim that humans can relate to that Transcendent reality? Can the origins of religion be located there? Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) was one of two impressive figures who helped shift the emphasis away from primitive beliefs to that of primeval religious experience. He was a Professor of Systematic Theology, first in Breslau and thereafter at the University of Marburg from 1917 to 1929. He had visited India in 1911-12. Notions of Christ or Christianity as the fulfilment of Indian religious experience were then becoming commonplace: significantly, J.N. Farquhar's The Crown of Hinduism was shortly afterwards to be published (in 1913). Although this branch of Christian theology magisterially conformed other ways of faith to its own interpretation of truth, it did at least posit or imply an innate if ill-defined capacity for spiritual growth in all humans. This emphasis was influential upon Otto.

An even more powerful experience upon Otto was a trip he made to a synagogue in Tunis. There, hearing the words of the Jewish prayer about holiness, he experienced a deep sense of wonder, drawn forth by an impression of the numinous, the mysterium tremens et fascinans, a tremendous and fascinating mystery. In Otto's The Idea of the Holy (1917), he wrote of this 'non-rational' or 'suprarational' core of religion. He called it the 'numinous', from a Latin word meaning a supernatural entity. The numinous communicates a sense of awe and otherness. It arises out of faith, rather than being rationally demonstrable. Indeed, Otto's contention was that the holy or the numinous cannot be described or defined but only 'evoked' or 'pointed to'.

William James (1842-1910) has been as influential a writer as Otto in the realm of religious experience. His The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) stresses the individual's religious life rather than social expressions of religion. He coined the phrase 'stream of consciousness' to introduce his readers to a wide range, or perhaps deep flow, of religious experience. His pragmatic perspective emphasised the fruits of religion, not their doctrinal foundations. He understood conversion in a psychological way as breaking through to a form of consciousness that fully realises the 'spiritual Me'. However, this is only one of the ways to realise the 'spiritual Me'. The other, possibly more common route, is by the 'once-born' cultivation of the healthy-mindedness from childhood through adulthood. James was to have an important impact upon other psychologists who were not always as sympathetic to an interpretation of religion as expressing a real phenomenon as were Otto and James.

One of the most important of these sceptical figures was Sigmund Freud (1856-1938), a giant figure in the emerging school of psychoanalysis. He depicted the role of religion in individuals and societies in a largely disapproving way. His Totem and Taboo (1913; English translation 1917) asserts rather than argues that the beginnings of religion, ethics, society and art meet in the Oedipus complex. This phenomenon is the repressed sexual desire for the mother by a male child, which sets up a rivalry with the father. Indeed, in Freud's view, all neuroses have their origin in introverted and sexual childhood experiences, so religion must be bound up with some repressed experience in the childhood of the human race.

His The Future of an Illusion (1927; English translation 1928) develops his argument that religion is a collective expression of neurosis, an attempt by people to escape from the realities of an unfriendly world. They seek this comfort in the illusory world of fantasy, in a God and a heaven that are mere projections but have no independent reality. Although anthropologists largely dismissed Freud's views as an expression of capricious irrationality, like many other nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scholars of religion he assumed an evolutionary framework for the development of religion. Even so, whether in its primitive or more advanced forms, for Freud, each stage of religion's evolution still betrays its status as a beguiling yet false interpretation of how things really are.

Yet Freud has pertinent warnings for the religious person. His most important book, Civilization and its Discontents (1930), written late in life, describes mystical experiences in terms of an 'oceanic feeling' of 'oneness with the universe' which arises from the helplessness of childhood and is especially pronounced in the religions of India (1982, p.9f.). Within this rather superior comment by a European about phenomena of which he knew nothing of importance, understandable in the imperialistic context of his day, lies the important point that religion can be nothing more than a childish fantasy or illusion. Most of us know religious people whose faith is immature or even abusive. Yet one may wish to argue against Freud that faith, if expressed in infantile fashion by some people, may be more developed and integrated in others. Freud makes the mistake of describing religion at its worst rather than its best.

The Age of Nationalism and Internationalism

The nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western view of religion as an inappropriate option for civilised human beings grew up in the context of massive political, social and economic changes on the continent of Europe. As the earliest sociologists, anthropologists and other pioneers of the human sciences were articulating their new ideas, the world around them was in flux. The changing times deeply influenced their developing conceptions.

In mainland Europe, the revolutions of 1848, though not initially successful, brought a form of constitutional government to France (though that soon faded away) and even shook the Hapsburg throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That same year, there was a revolt in Rome. The papal premier, Count Rossi, was assassinated and Pope Pius IX (whose pontificate lasted from 1846 to 1878) fled to Gaeta.

In 1870, the Prussians defeated the French in a series of battles. The French Emperor Napoleon III went into exile and the Second Empire was replaced by the Third Republic. The following year, King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed Emperor of Germany at Versailles, near Paris in France. Meanwhile, Italy was gaining its freedom and unity at the expense of the papacy, which had hitherto ruled much of the Italian peninsula. In 1870, Italians entered Rome and named it their capital city of a united country. Pope Pius IX retreated behind the walls of the Vatican. The reforms of the first Vatican Council that year, which promulgated the dogma that, in certain matters and on certain occasions, the pope could speak infallibly, can be seen, historically, as a conservative and essentially anachronistic response to the massive political changes that the papacy had to face. In fact the great years of papal political power and influence after which Pius nostalgically yearned were centuries past.

England had had its more modest share of social upheaval some years earlier. The Great Reform Bill of 1832 had extended the franchise to the upper-middle classes. Four years later, the Chartist movement demanded universal suffrage and vote by ballot; it could be claimed that this was the first national working-class movement in Great Britain. Thereafter, political, social and economic reform tended to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

The point is that the age of nationalism, inaugurated by the French Revolution, swept through nineteenth-century Europe. It brought in its train tantalising glimpses of a more liberal form of government, placing people rather than their rulers at the centre of things, holding out the hope to each person of citizenship of a state in place of being the subject of a monarch. At the risk of overstating matters, it could be said that many progressive people in nineteenth- century Europe preferred to be subject to the brotherhood of man rather than to the fatherhood of God. For in these tumultuous times, religion, specifically the Christian religion, often seemed to be part of the forces of reaction rather than of reform. It was no doubt for this reason, among others, that academics who sought after the origins of religion often did so in the assumption that the phenomenon of religion had become an anachronism. For them, its real meaning lay in the mists of time, in prehistory, and its relevance was now over.

Probably the most famous critique of religion in the nineteenth century is that found in the works of Karl Marx (1818-83), the German social and political theorist. His searching criticisms of religion arose from his conviction that the real meaning of religion lay beyond itself in the aspirations of the socially and economically oppressed. In his view, religion may originally have had certain positive features. Specifically, it may initially have been a real attempt to revolutionise society and abolish exploitation. Yet its failure to do so made it otherworldly rather than this-worldly. Thus, the religious life is symptomatic of unfulfilled human existence. People attempt, in their religious life, to have in fantasy what, in reality, they do not possess: affirmation, hope, love, faith in the future and so on. The idea of God expresses the reality of social alienation. Once the ills of society are remedied, then religion will wither away. Even before the revolutions of 1848, Marx had written his most famous statement, in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, published in 1844:

Religion is the sob of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (1970 edn., p.131)

For Marx religion had become an oppressive structure, since it supports the governing classes, which it suggests are placed there by divine will. Marx's ideas were much indebted to the work of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) whose theory of projection was widely influential (notably upon Freud, as well as Marx). Simply put, in relation to religion this means that in worshipping God, people are worshipping themselves.

Marx's importance was in the way others used his ideas to change the shape of society. He is the father of communism, which has usually been virulently anti-religious, and which dominated the ideological beliefs of much of the world's population from the October 1917 Revolution in Russia until the fall of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Unsurprisingly, given Marx's analysis of religion, for much of the twentieth century avowed communists and milder socialists have regarded that phenomenon with great suspicion; not just Europeans of Christian or Jewish origin, but others of a different religious background. For example, Jawarhalal Nehru, the cultivated first Prime Minister of independent India (from 1947 until his death in 1964) and rather an upper-class socialist, wrote in his marvellous book, The Discovery of India, that:

We have to get rid of that narrowing religious outlook, that obsession with the supernatural and metaphysical speculations, that loosening of the mind's discipline in religious ceremonial and mystical emotionalism, which come in the way of our understanding ourselves and the world. (1956, p.552f.)

Nehru, although from a Hindu background, was very much a secular rationalist who, as an adult (he joined the Theosophical Movement at age thirteen), in terms of religion favoured an eccentric interpretation of the Chinese way (Tao) of ethical endeavour tinged with religious scepticism (1936, p.377). Yet he and other socialists and Marxists might have taken on board the criticism of Marxism by Sigmund Freud, himself no friend of religion, that:

The writings of Marx have taken the place of the Bible and the Koran as a source of revelation, though they would seem to be no more free from contradictions and obscurities than those older sacred books. (In his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, 1973 edn., p.217)

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