For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery

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Rodney Stark's provocative new book argues that, whether we like it or not, people acting for the glory of God have formed our modern culture. Continuing his project of identifying the widespread consequences of monotheism, Stark shows that the Christian conception of God resulted--almost inevitably and for the same reasons--in the Protestant Reformation, the rise of modern science, the European witch-hunts, and the Western abolition of slavery. In the process, he explains why Christian and Islamic images of God yielded such different cultural results, leading Christians but not Muslims to foster science, burn "witches," and denounce slavery.

With his usual clarity and skepticism toward the received wisdom, Stark finds the origins of these disparate phenomena within monotheistic religious organizations. Endemic in such organizations are pressures to maintain religious intensity, which lead to intense conflicts and schisms that have far-reaching social results.

Along the way, Stark debunks many commonly accepted ideas. He interprets the sixteenth-century flowering of science not as a sudden revolution that burst religious barriers, but as the normal, gradual, and direct outgrowth of medieval theology. He also shows that the very ideas about God that sustained the rise of science led also to intense witch-hunting by otherwise clear-headed Europeans, including some celebrated scientists. This conception of God likewise yielded the Christian denunciation of slavery as an abomination--and some of the fiercest witch-hunters were devoted participants in successful abolitionist movements on both sides of the Atlantic.

For the Glory of God is an engrossing narrative that accounts for the very different histories of the Christian and Muslim worlds. It fundamentally changes our understanding of religion's role in history and the forces behind much of what we point to as secular progress.

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Editorial Reviews

National Review - David Klinghoffer
[Stark] writes with a clarity and concision that make him a pleasure to read. . . . A number of fondly held myths get demolished in this book.
Christianity Today - David Neff
This is a sociology of religion that takes seriously what people believe. Stark knows that beliefs have consequences. They can even change the course of history.
From the Publisher

Winner of the History/Biography Award of Merit, Christianity Today Magazine
Winner of the 2004 Distinguished Book Award, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion

"[Stark] writes with a clarity and concision that make him a pleasure to read. . . . A number of fondly held myths get demolished in this book."--David Klinghoffer, National Review

"This is a sociology of religion that takes seriously what people believe. Stark knows that beliefs have consequences. They can even change the course of history."--David Neff, Christianity Today

"[A] provocative volume--lucid and tightly reasoned."--Booklist

"For the Glory of God . . . is an important book. It is immensely learned, consistently contentious, and filled with brilliant, if sometimes eccentric, insights. . . [F]or those who are open to a very different interpretation of the development of Western Civilization ... For the Glory of God is strongly recommended."--First Things

National Review
[Stark] writes with a clarity and concision that make him a pleasure to read. . . . A number of fondly held myths get demolished in this book.
— David Klinghoffer
Christianity Today
This is a sociology of religion that takes seriously what people believe. Stark knows that beliefs have consequences. They can even change the course of history.
— David Neff
[A] provocative volume—lucid and tightly reasoned.
First Things
For the Glory of God . . . is an important book. It is immensely learned, consistently contentious, and filled with brilliant, if sometimes eccentric, insights. . . [F]or those who are open to a very different interpretation of the development of Western Civilization ... For the Glory of God is strongly recommended.
First Things
For the Glory of God . . . is an important book. It is immensely learned, consistently contentious, and filled with brilliant, if sometimes eccentric, insights. . . [F]or those who are open to a very different interpretation of the development of Western Civilization ... For the Glory of God is strongly recommended.
The Washington Post
The burning question for sociologist Rodney Stark is: Did Newton's religious faith actually produce his innovative mathematics? In his latest book, For the Glory of God, Stark maintains that the extraordinary scientific and mathematical achievements of Newton and his contemporaries were in fact a direct consequence of their Christian beliefs. — Lisa Jardine
Publishers Weekly
In One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism, sociologist of religion Stark examined the nature of God, the wrath of God, the kingdom of God, the grace of God and the "chosen" of God. In this follow-up volume to his ambitious magnum opus, Stark investigates the role of monotheistic religions in reformations, witch-hunts, slavery and science. Such efforts represent an attempt by monotheistic religions to preserve the idea of the One True God against corrupting influences inside and outside the religions themselves. Stark asserts that, contrary to traditional notions, no single religious reformation can be isolated in any monotheistic religion. Thus, Christianity has experienced not simply the Reformation of Luther but many and various reformations that resulted in a diversity of sectarian movements that practice the worship of the One True God in their own ways. Stark also argues that science could have evolved only out of a monotheistic culture that viewed the world as God's handiwork, and that the witch-hunts of Europe could have taken place only in a culture marred by religious conflict and motivated by the desire to displace heretical religious sects. Despite its purported general focus on monotheistic religions, however, the book devotes very little attention to Islam or Judaism, a serious omission in a study that claims to cover so much ground. In addition, Stark's turgid prose and social-scientific style mar what otherwise could have been an engaging study. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691119502
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 8/9/2004
  • Pages: 504
  • Sales rank: 709,261
  • Product dimensions: 6.05 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Rodney Stark was for many years Professor of Sociology and of Comparative Religion at the University of Washington. In 2004 he became University Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University. He is the author of many books, among them "The Rise of Christianity" and "One True God" (both Princeton).
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For the Glory of God

How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery

By Rodney Stark


Copyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-6680-9


God's Truth: Inevitable Sects and Reformations

Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise, so help me God. Amen. —Martin Luther

Every October, Lutheran churches around the world celebrate Reformation Sunday in remembrance of the religious drama played out by Martin Luther and his opponents in Germany during the sixteenth century.

Most people still use the term "Reformation" this way, but that definition has become much too narrow. Even the most partisan Lutheran historians no longer ignore the English Reformation, nor do they any longer dismiss Calvinism as a mere aftermath. Instead, they acknowledge the diversity of the Reformation even in Germany. Respectable reference works also reflect this expansion of the subject: The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions defines the "Reformation" as "Movements for reform in the Christian Church in the West, which took place in the early 16th century."

But this definition is also out-of-date. Many contemporary scholars now refuse to restrict the Reformation to sixteenth-century events, noting that Jan Hus was burned for precipitating a Bohemian Reformation long before Luther was born—hence the title of James Tracy's recent book: Europe's Reformations, 1450–1650. But even Tracy's time frame ignores the fact that John Wyclif planted the seeds of the English Reformation during the fourteenth century. Moreover, historians have begun to expand the Reformation to include early medieval "heresies" as well as efforts at reform that developed within the Church as early as the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

However, even this greatly increased scope is inadequate. In this chapter I will define a reformation as efforts to restore or renew standards of religious belief and practice to a more demanding level, within a religious organization. Although reformations begin as efforts within a religious organization, if they are thwarted they will often be externalized, thereby becoming sects—groups offering high-intensity religious alternatives to the conventional religious bodies. Thus defined, reformations have occurred not only in Christianity but in Judaism and Islam, and in less dramatic fashion within polytheisms as well, and sect movements are endemic in all forms of religion. Moreover, not only have reformations taken place in past times; they can be observed even today—albeit on a smaller scale. However, the early and medieval Christian Church was unusually prone to reformations as well as to sect formation because these phenomena are chronic, inevitable, and extremely bitter whenever efforts are made to sustain a religious monopoly.

Seen from this perspective, Marcion may have attempted the first reformation of the Christian Church way back in the second century and, having failed, formed an early and important sect. To amplify this assertion, an overview of what follows may be useful. I will argue that religious diversity is a fundamental feature of societies, reflecting the fact that people differ in the level of intensity they seek in religion. Where free to do so, this diversity of taste will manifest itself in a diversity of organized religious options. However, if organizational diversity is suppressed, the demand for high-intensity religion will serve as the mainspring for reformation, as those committed to high standards will be forced to work from within. But when efforts at reform fail, they will tend to erupt as external challenges to the prevailing establishment.

This definition of reformations provides for the fact that they may or may not succeed—Hus failed and so did Luther. That is, Luther may in some sense have reformed Christianity, but he did not reform the Roman Catholic Church—that was accomplished by the Counter-Reformation. Luther's efforts at reformation were thwarted, and what he actually did was to create a new sect. He differed from Hus only in that his movement survived, and so did he. Consequently, I will credit Luther with initiating the "Protestant Reformation," thus reminding readers that Luther did not reform the Catholic Church, but that instead he established the Protestant alternative to the Roman Catholic Church. In addition to attempting to explain why reformations occur, this chapter also explores the conditions under which sect movements and attempts at reformations attract widespread public support, devoting extended analysis to the rise of Protestantism.

However, the chapter is of much greater scope than would be needed simply to trace the gathering of religious dissatisfactions and pressures that burst forth in the "Protestant Reformation." A principal aim is also to provide an outline of medieval European religious history to serve as an adequate context for the subsequent chapters. In doing so, I attempt to dispel a number of incorrect, but widely believed, claims about what went on and why. Three especially important examples of these incorrect claims are:

1. That the medieval period was an Age of Faith during which the average person was deeply religious.

2. That the great medieval sect movements were expressions of lower-class suffering and antagonism.

3. That the Roman Catholic Church, especially at the parish level, tended to be dominated by religious fanatics who tried to impose repressive and unnatural morality on the laity.

In addition to these, the chapter confronts at least a dozen other significant misconceptions about religion in medieval Europe, but it will be adequate to consider them as they arise.

I begin by explaining some simple, but very fundamental, social scientific principles that will be applied in subsequent sections and will be useful in other chapters as well.

Religious Diversity

In much previous work I have demonstrated that pluralism is the natural or normal religious state of affairs—that in the absence of repression, there will be multiple religious organizations. One reason for pluralism is that in any normal population people seem to differ according to the intensity of their religious desires and tastes. That is, some people are content with a religion that, although it promises less, also requires less. Others want more from their religion and are willing to do more to get it. Max Weber expressed this point by noting that "in every religion ... people differ greatly in their religious capacities"; hence in every society some people qualify as "religious virtuosi." Building on this observation, I have proposed that the religious diversity in all societies is rooted in social niches, groups of people sharing particular preferences concerning religious intensity. I argue that these niches are quite stable over time and quite similar in their fundamental outlook across societies and history.

Put another way, in all societies people can be ranked according to the intensity of their religious concerns and tastes, and hence in the level of demands they are willing to fulfill to satisfy their needs. Most people want some intensity in their religion and will accept some costs, but not too much of either. Some people will have little religious interest and will prefer to be involved as little as possible. But in any society, as Weber noted, some people will aspire to a high-intensity faith. Given the diversity of religious demand, other things being equal there will be a corresponding diversity in religious supply: hence pluralism, the existence of multiple religious organizations. Thus in any society where diversity is not suppressed by force, the religious spectrum will include a full range of religious organizations, from some that demand little and are in a very low state of tension with their surroundings to some that offer very high-intensity faith. Enrollment in these groups will tend to resemble a normal curve, with the moderate faiths commanding the largest followings.

Even in very small, very "primitive" societies, pluralism exists in the distinct totemic cults, each with its separate initiations and rites. In these societies, of course, individuals lack an opportunity to choose, and therefore the totemic cult groups probably tend to be similar in their level of intensity, although they may differ considerably from time to time because even here individual levels of religiousness will vary. However, in somewhat more complex cultures, religious pluralism will be quite evident because religious choices are "not inescapably prescribed by tribal or family adherence," but take on "a voluntary, personal" aspect. Indeed, in polytheistic societies where the Gods are conceived of as specialized and of small scope, pluralism flourishes since it takes a substantial pantheon of such Gods to satisfy the range of things humans seek from supernatural beings, and people patronize particular deities as they see fit. Thus any ancient Roman, Greek, or Egyptian city sustained separate temples devoted to each of a score or more major Gods, with a scattering of temples to lesser deities. Within monotheism, however, the diversity of religious desires and tastes results not in a diversity of Gods but in a diversity of groups, differing in their approaches to the same God.

Just as religious "consumers" differ in the intensity they desire from religion, the primary basis for the diversity of religious organizations, in both polytheistic and monotheistic settings, is the level of intensity and sacrifice imposed on members. As Benton Johnson noted in his seminal essay, religious bodies "range along a continuum from complete rejection to complete acceptance of the [cultural and social] environment in which [they] exist." This has come to be known as the "church-sect dimension," churches being religious bodies in a low state of tension, sects being bodies in a high state of tension. The level of tension between a religious group and the rest of society translates directly into the costs imposed on membership: sects ask far more of their members in terms of sacrifice and the intensity of their commitment.

But why will they do it? Why will people choose to pay high religious costs? For centuries, starting with the earliest founders of the field, social scientists have answered that question by invoking abnormal psychology: ignorance, fear, anxieties, illusions, and, when more intense levels of faith are involved, mental pathology. On April 6, 1723, in one of his celebrated Cato's Letters, John Trenchard characterized piety as a common form of madness, "doubtless [caused by] a fever in the head ... The enthusiast heats his own head by extravagant imaginations, then makes ... God to be the author of his hot head ... because he takes his own frenzy for inspiration." More than two centuries later, Gordon W. Allport, Harvard psychologist and one of the founders of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, allowed that mature adults could share his very mild ("intrinsic") religiousness, so long as they continued to have constructive doubts, but he dismissed stronger affirmations of faith as "primitive credulity," and as "childish, authoritarian, and irrational." At the time, this was the conventional view, and it is still held by many social scientists despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Thus it came as a shock, even an affront, when in 1972 the late Dean Kelley, a distinguished liberal Protestant clergyman and Director for Civil and Religious Liberty for the National Council of Churches, published Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.

Kelley had wanted the title "Why Strict Churches Are Strong," but the publisher overruled him in favor of one more apt to provoke attention. The task he set himself in the book was to explain why, in an era when membership in the liberal Protestant churches such as the Methodists, Episcopalians, and United Church of Christ was rapidly declining, "strict" groups such as the Southern Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, and Assemblies of God were growing rapidly. His conclusion can be expressed in simple economics. Price, or cost, is only one factor in assessing an exchange; quality is the other, and combined they yield an estimate of value. Therein lies the key to the appeal of more demanding religious groups: despite being expensive they can offer greater value; indeed, they are able to do so partly because they are expensive. That is, religions that ask more from their members are thereby enabled to give them more—in worldly as well as spiritual rewards.

Initially, Kelley's work was almost universally rejected, and he was subjected to considerable personal abuse. But the liberal churches continued to decline and the conservative churches continued to grow, and by now objective social scientists agree that Kelley was right. A persuasive empirical and theoretical literature confirms that, within limits, higher-tension faiths offer a far more rewarding experience to members than do permissive, low-cost faiths. This is not to suppose that one day most people will belong to high-tension sects. Most people will usually prefer a somewhat more moderate level of tension. However, it does mean that very low-tension faiths will fail (if permitted by the state to do so), and that sects will always enjoy a substantial appeal and will be able to generate the highest levels of member commitment. This, combined with the tendency of higher-tension groups to drift toward lower tension, makes the formation of new sects inevitable. Moreover, where sect formation is prevented, high levels of religious dissatisfaction and angry demands for religious reform are to be expected.

These tendencies are not peculiar to the United States, or to Christianity, or to modern times. They are universal. That high-tension sects abound within monotheism is easily demonstrated. Not so obvious is that this is true within polytheism as well.

Sects within Polytheism

Our impression of Greco-Roman polytheism has been badly distorted by the depiction of the Gods in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Here, the Gods of Olympus are represented as superior to humans only in their powers, having the same ethical and moral shortcomings as do mortals, hence their constant intrigues, outrageous behavior, and selfish pursuits. This prompted Xenophanes (ca. 570–480 B.C.E.) to complain that "Homer ... ascribed to the gods all things that among men are a shame and a reproach—theft and adultery and deceiving one another." Indeed, while these stories of heroic deeds and the Gods were popular in ancient times, they were not religious texts. Consequently, to depend upon Homer for our impressions of Greek religion is tantamount to basing our depiction of Christianity on Arthurian legend rather than the New Testament. This is not to say that the actual Grecian religious texts, such as those compiled in the Orphic Rhapsodies, present an attractive picture of the Gods—Zeus is reported to have raped his mother, who thereupon bears his daughter Persephone, whom Zeus then rapes to sire Dionysos, and so on. What is so different from Homer's tales is that in these accounts the Gods do not devote themselves so fully to trivial concerns. Rather, issues of death, afterlife, justice, penance, and sacrifice are central themes.

Contrary to common images of Greek and Roman religious practice as consisting mainly of feasting as a tribute to philandering Gods, and the making of votive offerings in pursuit of favors from fickle deities, the concept of "sin" was highly developed among some groups in classical times, as was the idea of penance. Thus some of the religious groups and organizations offered extremely demanding, costly, high-tension faiths. Among the more demanding and austere of these were the groups associated with Orpheus and Pythagoras. Walter Burkert noted that, in contrast with many other Greek religions whose origins are unknown, Orpheus and Pythagoras were the "founders of sects."

The identity of Orpheus is unknown, and the name is probably a pseudonym. He is presented as a singer and poet, and the works attributed to him go back as far as the middle of the sixth century B.C.E. However, Pythagoras (ca. 580–500 B.C.E.) was undoubtedly a historical figure. He was born in Samos and recruited followers to his religious views in southern Italy. Both faiths stressed the individual's responsibility to pursue moral perfection, and Burkert linked this to the fact that these were among the earliest Grecian religions to rely mainly on the written rather than the spoken (and memorized) word: "The new form of transmission introduces a new form of authority to which the individual, provided that he can read, has direct access without collective mediation."

E. O. James argued that the Orphics represented the "first really serious attempt in Greece to make human destiny depend upon character and conduct in the present state of existence." But the Pythagorean view was quite similar, holding that life on earth was punishment for sins in former lives. Thus both faiths imposed quite stringent ascetic demands upon those who would belong, for both taught that one must suffer punishments in this life as atonement so that one might enter "a festive existence" in the afterlife rather than "suffer terrible things" that are in store for "evildoers." Thus for both Orphics and Pythagoreans, "as one rises or goes to bed, puts on shoes or cuts one's nails, rakes the fire, puts on a pot or eats, there is always a rule to be observed, something wrong to be avoided." Orphics observed elaborate dietary restrictions: they ate no meat, eggs, or beans, and they drank no wine. Suicide was prohibited, and so were various forms of sexual expression—indeed, many adherents embraced celibacy. Some of the most devout Orphics became wandering beggars. Pythagorean asceticism was quite similar. They, too, observed extensive dietary laws, wore white garments, obeyed elaborate rules concerning ordinary daily activities, and did not speak in the dark; husbands as well as wives were forbidden extramarital sex.


Excerpted from For the Glory of God by Rodney Stark. Copyright © 2003 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii
Acknowledgments ix
Introduction: Dimensions of the Supernatural 1
God's Truth: Inevitable Sects and Reformations 15
God's Handiwork: The Religious Origins of Science 121
God's Enemies: Explaining the European Witch-Hunts 201
God's Justice: The Sin of Slavery 291
Postscript: Gods, Rituals, and Social Science 367
Notes 377
Bibliography 419
Index 465
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  • Posted August 1, 2009

    Protestant Reformation and the Rise of Science

    I recently read the above very interesting book that discusses how ideas about GOD shaped history and culture in Western civilization - for both good and bad. While the book is Christian-centric, the "God" being discussed is certainly the Judeo-Christian God and I feel covers the Jewish traditions, as well.

    The author, Rodney Stark, covers 4 episodes in the history of Christianity, the first two I found very revealing: the Protestant Reformation and the Rise of Science.

    In the introduction, Stark differentiates between "magic" and religion. He also talks about "godless" vs. "godly" religions as well as the rise of monotheism. Our Judeo-Christian God is defined as a conscious being, compared to "essences" found in Tao. Monotheism has tremendous capacity to mobilize human action, far beyond that found in polytheism.

    In the first chapter Stark points out three "incorrect claims":

    1. That the Medieval period (the "Dark Ages") was an age of faith during which the average person was deeply religious
    2. That the great medieval sect movements (various "heresies", Luther, Calvin, etc.) were expressions of lower class suffering
    3. That the Church (Roman Catholic) was dominated by religious fanatics

    Religious diversity is the norm in society. In the absence of repression, people seek different intensities in their religious behavior. Stark cites the differences between the Jewish groups of the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes in their intensity. That said, religious intolerance in inherent in monotheism. Organized pluralism is the norm, only unless one group has the power to suppress the other groups.

    Stark goes on to discuss the history of the fall of the Roman gods and the rise of Christianity, the corruption that ensued, the persecution of the many "heretics" over many centuries, that finally gave rise to "reformations". Stark contends that there were actually two Christian "churches" during Medieval times - the Church of Piety and the Church of Power, the latter being the one causing all the corruption and troubles, and the one killing all not of like-mind, not just Jews but many Christians, as well. (It was considered heretical to translate the Bible into the vernacular - one could be burned at the stake! Only those well-off enough to be educated in reading Latin could read the Word of God for themselves!)

    In the second chapter Stark dispels the common misconception that religion and science are at odds. He starts with the Columbus story and states that, contrary to the story we all learned in elementary school, every educated person at the time of Columbus' voyage already knew that the earth was round - as early as the 7th century this was already a popular notion!

    Stark contends that Judeo-Christian theology was essential for the rise of science, not its enemy.
    What is "science" exactly"? Not merely a technology. "A society does not have "science" simply because it can build ships, smelt iron, or eat off porcelain dishes. Science is a method utilized in organized efforts to formulate explanations of nature, always subject to modification and corrections through systematic observations."

    In other words, science consists of theory and research. It is limited to natural reality - it's observable. But just observing is not sufficient. The "why" is important. Stark goes on to say that the early Greeks were not "scientists." They were either onl

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 11, 2009

    Greatly enjoyed this book!

    I loved this book, and it's very thorough and interesting. Even though you have to concentrate when reading, it's straightforward and understandable. This is the first book I've read on this subject, so I wasn't able to point out errors, but I agreed with his conclusions when he compared his to other historians/sociologists' opinions/conclusions. In fact I found some of his wry comments about his colleagues' views humorous, and his honesty when he critized them was refreshing. If you're interested in early church history that's intellectual but not too difficult to read, this is the perfect book. I can't wait to read his next book, "The Victory of Reason".

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2007

    Typical Stark

    This is what we have come to expect from Rodney Stark. Thorough research, clear and concise writing, penetrating insight, and a fresh and revealing look at the topic under study. Not to mention the shattering of old and often cherished myths. I have only one negative criticism. In his preface, Professor Stark declares that he is not, and never has been, a Roman Catholic. (An excellent prophylactic - no pun intended - given what is sure to be taken as his approving comments about that church in the body of the book.) His unfamiliarity with Catholicism does, however, twice lead him into error or confusion. To wit, his application at times to the Christian church of western Europe during the first millenium of its existence the name, attitudes, and mode of governance of the Roman Catholic church of the late sixteenth century and after. And his seeming lack of understanding of and failure to explain what apostolic succession is and why the Anglican church might consider it important or desirable.

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