Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Words with Baggage

Posted by midiguru on October 9, 2014

I have a problem with the word “spirituality.” If you spend much time hanging around a 12-Step program you’ll hear people say, “It’s not a religious program, it’s a spiritual program.” In fact, there are strong reasons for contending that it’s a religious program, but that’s an argument for another time. The question for today is, what do people mean when they say “spiritual”?

We should always be wary of people who attach new, esoteric definitions to common words. (Scientology does that quite a lot.) The word “spiritual” has several common meanings. A spiritual is a type of traditional choral music often heard in the African-American community. The lyrics of a spiritual are typically in praise of someone named Jesus. That’s not a meaning that resonates with me. A hundred years ago, a spiritualist or spirit medium was a con artist who claimed to be able to communicate with the ghosts of the dead. That’s not a meaning I care to embrace either. And then there’s the Holy Spirit, which is one of the three aspects of the Catholic God. Oh, dear.

A slightly better meaning is that someone who is spiritual is uninterested in “worldly” things, a category that would presumably include riches, fame, and 2-pound boxes of Swiss chocolate. But this meaning is slippery. Those whose lives are devoted to the study of mathematics are hardly engaged in a worldly pursuit, yet few of us would say they’re spiritual. The same could be said of philologists and grammarians. If you study ancient Greek and Latin, will people say you’re spiritual? It seems unlikely.

No, when the word is used in this seemingly generic way, it seems to refer to people whose lives are devoted to “higher” things, whatever those are. One would be inclined, for instance, to say that a scholar who studies the Old Testament (and who believes it has some sort of special relevance in human affairs) is “spiritual,” while the mathematician is not.

We might also say that someone who feeds stray puppies is “spiritual,” while a person who kicks stray puppies is not. But does the word just mean “inclined to be kind”? I’m not sure, but I suspect this usage embraces, at least potentially, the idea that the person who feeds the puppies is motivated not by mere kindness but by some sort of awareness, however tenuous, of a “higher plane of existence.”

I don’t feel comfortable with that usage either.

The best I can do is to replace the word “spiritual” with the words “life-enhancing.” If I perform that little mental trick, I can hope to deal with it when people use the word. But why should I have to lie to myself like this? Why can’t people just say “life-enhancing” if that’s what they mean?

Posted in religion | 5 Comments »

Ignorance and Bliss

Posted by midiguru on September 25, 2014

I get a little testy when someone accuses fervent atheists of being “as bad as religious people.” It’s not the atheists who are trying to shut down abortion providers. It’s not the atheists who are trying to keep gays from marrying. It’s not the atheists who want children brought up in ignorance of science. It’s … oh, wait, who is doing that? Right. It’s the religious people.

Is it the religiously devout who can’t be elected to public office in the U.S. owing to bias against them by atheists? Why, no! It’s the other way around. Atheists can’t be elected to office due to voter bias, yet the most rabid, confused fundamentalists can march off to Congress and freely promulgate their bizarre views, to widespread public approbation.

The accusation that atheists are “as bad as” religious extremists popped up today in a conversation on Facebook, and I fired back. The conversation was dominated, it appeared, by agnostics. Their idea seems to be that we’re supposed to be polite to religious people, because who really knows?

Well, indeed — who really knows? None of us knows. For all we know, the entire universe could have been created ten minutes ago by a gang of giant baboons wearing Bermuda shorts and Groucho Marx mustaches. I mean, really. It could have been. That hypothesis cannot be disproven.

It’s just not very likely. And from all the evidence that science has been able to gather over the past 300 years, the hypothesis that there is such a thing as “God” is no more likely than the hypothesis about giant baboons wearing Bermuda shorts. The scientific investigation of the God question was conducted, at least for the first 200 years, not by atheists but by scientists who quite definitely believed in God and wanted to find evidence of the existence of God and the soul. Try as they might, they couldn’t find any evidence.

That being the case, to cling to the notion that “nobody knows — there could be a God” is just intellectual ineptitude wearing a fancy suit. Agnosticism is a refusal to look at the complete failure of scientific investigations of the question. It’s an embrace of ignorance.

I am impatient with people who embrace ignorance.

The “God” hypothesis has been used for millenia as an explanation of anything that people didn’t know how to explain in any other way. Love, seeds sprouting, being healed of disease, the movement of the planets in the sky — it was all God’s handiwork, right? But as science has learned about the real physical nature of these phenomena, there has been less and less need for the God hypothesis. The God of liberal religions today, some sort of vague cloud of universal love, is no more than a faint shadow of the God whose supposed acts were trumpeted by the old-time religion.

Liberal religious groups have retreated for a very good reason: The “God” hypothesis doesn’t actually explain anything. It’s a useless and waterlogged piece of intellectual flotsam.

It seems to me that self-proclaimed agnostics want atheists to sit down and be quiet because they want everybody to be polite. Especially, we should be polite to religious people, because, you know, they might turn out to be right after all. Or at least in the name of tolerance.

Given the amount of mischief (a euphemism for bloodshed) perpetrated by religious people over the past few thousand years, I feel disinclined to remain polite. And as a member of a minority that is widely misunderstood and discriminated against in various subtle ways, I can’t help feeling that asking me to tolerate religious people and their views is being a bit one-sided. We know perfectly well that a broad swath of conservative religious people do not and will never tolerate atheists. Every time we open our mouths to express our views, we’re a threat to them. It’s not just that they don’t understand us, or that they fear we’ll force them to question their beliefs. They think we’re evil. A source of social degeneracy and blah blah blah.

Should we be asked to tolerate people who think we’re evil?

You can read a good summary of the atheist point of view here. This article is a little repetitive; reasons 1, 4, 7, and 10 of the ten reasons are a lot alike. And we could debate about reason 9, because the more glaring awfulness of many sects with long histories has in fact been moderated over the centuries. Nonetheless, anyone who thinks agnosticism makes sense should give it a read.

What I think people mean by the “just as bad” comment is not that atheists’ views of social policy are bad, but rather that atheists sometimes express their views of religious questions in terms that are just as uncompromising. Atheists can be stubborn and confrontational.

But why shouldn’t we be? We’re right. We have logic and science on our side. The religious believers have only tradition (poorly understood or selectively cherry-picked), emotion (treacherously fickle), assorted legends (worthless), and the herd mentality (never reliable).

You hand me an empty bushel basket. You tell me, “There might be a diamond in the basket.” I look in the basket. There’s no diamond. I tell you, “There’s no diamond in there.” You tell me, “No, there might be a diamond. Really. Maybe you just haven’t looked hard enough.”

If that’s the kind of intellectual tap-dance you enjoy, congratulations. You’re an agnostic.

Posted in religion | 2 Comments »

One Nation Under What?

Posted by midiguru on September 9, 2014

Sometimes I get a little steamed up. This morning on Facebook, one of my friends posted an item about the addition of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. This led immediately to a diatribe from one of his Christian friends (whose name I will omit, because I’m a considerate person):

“I visited this site and I read all the comments regarding the pledge. You know full well that this nation was founded on religious principles…..specifically the principles of Jesus Christ. To deny that is foolish. All one has to do is read the writings of the founders to know their heart. I was deeply offended by the incredibly noxious comments and vicious screed directed at those of us that are followers of Christ. And all this from a crowd that preaches tolerance. I simply can’t believe that you could align yourself with something this low.”

Another friend of my friend responded to this ridiculous statement as follows:

“With all due respect, you do know that Thomas Jefferson had his own version of the Gospels. He took out all the voodoo and the Hocus Pocus and left the direct words of Christ. This country was not found on religious principles and most decidedly NOT on the principles of Jesus Christ. That is why the Constitution has a provision that mandates that NO RELIGIOUS TEST be required for ANY Constitutionally mandated position in our government.”

I then added my two cents’ worth:

“As a matter of historical fact, you’re wrong. The founding fathers were very careful to keep religion OUT of political life. The fact that you fail to understand this shows very clearly exactly WHY they chose that path. It should also suggest to you why people get a little testy on the subject. To be specific, the Christians in this country fucking don’t get it.”

The Christian guy then fired back with this:

“First of all, my comments were directed to [the original poster], not any of you. Your revisionist view of history is typical atheistic garbage. Jim, I don’t fail to understand anything. I have devoted most of my sixty years to intensely studying the Bible and history and all I can say is that you and your ilk have succeeded in turning this once great nation into a third world rat hole. By the way, don’t use that kind of offensive language when you address me.”

Of course, there are numerous deep-seated problems with this, most remarkably the bizarre notion that the United States would be a wonderful nation today if it weren’t for the atheists. Also, I find myself wondering whether this fellow has ever done a point-by-point comparison between, say, a nice clean suburb in Southern California and an actual “third world rat hole,” such as, oh, maybe Somalia or the slums of Bangladesh. Probably not. The supposed horrifying collapse of the United States is not entirely in his mind — things have gotten pretty bad around here, though they weren’t exactly great in the 1950s, were they? There’s also a whiff of racism about his phrase, isn’t there? Just a little whiff.

In any case, I lost it, okay? Here’s how I responded:

“So you’re an intolerant asshole and an ignorant schmuck. I might have expected better of a so-called ‘Christian,’ but I don’t, usually. And fuck yourself in the ass if you don’t like my language, you piece of dogshit.”

I’m afraid I’m just not very tolerant of religious people anymore. Religious patriots are worse. Ignorant religious patriots … well, that’s a redundant phrase. All religious patriots are ignorant, by definition.

I do think it’s charming that this guy is posting on Facebook and thinking he has the right or can expect to control other people’s use of words like “fuck.” That level of cluelessness is a highlight of the conversation.

But the underlying problem is not that the guy is ignorant. We’re all ignorant about various things. The underlying problem, and the reason I get so tweaked about his brand of idiocy, is this: His religion forces him to be ignorant. His religion is one-size-fits-all. There is no room in his world view for divergent opinions. As far as he can see, Christianity is the One Holy Truth, and because he loves his country (a separate failing, and a topic for another time) he cannot conceive that his country was founded on other than Christian principles.

The logic (if you want to call it that) seems to be this: All good things come from God. Therefore, anything that is not good is due to people’s failure to worship God.

Never mind that the God of the Old Testament was, according to the documentary evidence, a sadistic motherfucker. Pay no attention to the deity behind the curtain.

Last night I was part of a very interesting discussion about tolerance. It seems to me that tolerance is a two-way street. Religious people tend to expect (if not demand) tolerance for their views — but many of them fail to return the favor. Their dogmatic belief is that they’re right — and if they’re right, atheists must be wrong. The stakes being (in their pathetic little minds) very high, they have little hesitation in striding out forthrightly to smite and bring low the evils of atheism. Of course they’re quite willing to love you as an individual … but only after you become a convert to their brand of hoo-hah, whatever it happens to be.

Last night somebody said, “Tolerance is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t mean you have to put up with assholes.” If a religious person demands that you be respectful of their religion, while they’re refusing to be respectful of your secular values as an atheist, and then they accuse you of being intolerant because you ask them to hop off of their high horse and come down to earth — no. Fuck that.

Posted in politics, religion | 4 Comments »

Reality Check

Posted by midiguru on July 16, 2014

The local public library has hundreds of books on religion, but only a handful on atheism. Yesterday I checked out The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, by Alex Rosenberg. At first glance, it seems sensible enough, but problems soon develop.

Rosenberg is absolutely right to insist that science provides the only usable source of information with which to address life’s important questions. He gives himself a quick pop quiz, and gets the answers right: Is there a God? No. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Does prayer work? Of course not. Is there free will? Not a chance!

He’s also correct, I think, in noting that a big part of the appeal of religion is that the human brain is hard-wired by evolution to relate to stories. Religion is a huge repository of stories — charming, inspiring, or scary. Science is hard for people to grasp because it isn’t a collection of stories.

Where he runs off the rails is in his discussion of science. He doesn’t get his facts straight. Instead, he starts telling stories. Okay, there are no people in the stories, but they’re fables nonetheless.

He accepts the hypothesis of a multiverse as fact, when in fact it’s no more than a vague guess, unsupported by a shred of evidence. He asserts that the entire physical universe is made up of fermions and bosons, even though physicists have no idea what sort(s) of particles dark matter (if it even exists) may be composed of. He dismisses the anthropic principle without troubling to explain that there is a weak anthropic principle (which is quite sensible) and a strong anthropic principle (which is silly).

Or consider this passage: “The physicist’s picture of the universe is the one on which all bets should be placed. The bets are not only that it’s correct as far as it goes, but that it will eventually go all the way and be completely correct. When finished, it will leave nothing out as unexplained from physical first principles (besides those principles themselves).” [Italics in original.] This reminds me of the apocryphal comment, made toward the end of the 19th century, that the Patent Office might as well be closed, because all of the devices that could be invented had already been invented.

As any reader of Scientific American knows, the frontiers of physics are very fuzzy indeed. The essential problem — and it’s not just a practical problem, though it is that; it’s essential — is that the things physicists would like to study are so very small or so very distant in space and time that we’re reaching the limits beyond which it will be impossible to gather raw observational data.

And while we’re on the subject, where exactly did those first principles in physics come from? This is not a trivial question. As Einstein once remarked (or so I’ve read), “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Why exactly should all electrons behave identically? And isn’t that question one that physics should be prepared to investigate?

No, Mr. Rosenberg, physics will never be complete.

His discussion of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is conventional, but flawed. (I’m sure this same flaw is found in physics textbooks. You don’t have to thank me.) Here is how Rosenberg puts it: “The second law tells us that in any region of space left to itself, differences in the amount of energy will very, very, very probably even out until the whole region is uniform in energy.” A few pages later, he says the second law “requires only the extremely probable increase in entropy from moment to moment in a closed system — the whole universe or some isolated part of it.”

There are two related problems with this formulation.

First, there is no such thing as a closed system. You can build an iron box if you like, and pack it full of gas molecules, and observe how they mix. That’s the sort of “closed” system theorists like to talk about. But every second, millions of neutrinos will be zipping straight through that box, as if the iron walls weren’t even there. The iron walls themselves, not having been cooled to absolute zero, will be radiating heat into the interior of the box while simultaneously absorbing heat from whatever is outside the box.

Yes, the Second Law will describe what’s going to happen in the box, unless some outside source of energy intervenes. If an improbable distribution of gas molecules shows up, you look for the outside source of energy. That’s very sensible, but let’s not talk about closed systems, shall we? There are always outside forces acting on a “closed” system.

Second, and more important, we don’t know that the universe as a whole is a closed system. It may be infinite in extent. The part we can observe appears to be finite, though extremely large — but there is an edge past which we can’t see. We don’t know what may be out there past the furthest objects we can observe. If the universe is infinite, then the Second Law becomes meaningless as applied to the universe as a whole, because somewhere out there, there will always be regions of improbably high energy density.

And that’s just the chapter on physics. Having barely started on the chapter about biology and evolution, I stumbled on this howler: “Darwin estimated that at least 300 million years had been required for natural selection to provide the level of adaptation we see around us. (He was off by three orders of magnitude….)” Sorry, Mr. Rosenberg. The difference between 300 million and 3 billion (the actual time span) is only one order of magnitude, not three.

With friends like this, atheism may not need enemies.

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Reading the Bible as Literature

Posted by midiguru on April 11, 2014

I just don’t seem to be able to let sleeping dogs lie. Having aroused some contention over the question of whether the Bible qualifies as literature, I bethought myself to examine one of its better known fables in that light. Let’s not dwell on the barbaric laws or the preposterous historical chronicle — let’s look at a story.

How about the story of Adam and Eve? For those who are following along at home, this would be Genesis chapters 2 and 3. The story is too well known to be worth reiterating here, so let’s jump straight into the literary analysis.

The first moral we might draw from the story is this: Disobeying orders is a really bad idea. But in fact this is a corollary of an underlying, implicit idea, which is that you have a superior, a personage who is completely in charge of your life. This personage will give you orders, and the orders must be obeyed.

A second corollary is that your superior may be malicious or simply incompetent, and may in consequence set you up to fail. For no apparent reason, he may put a major stumbling block in your path. No point in complaining about it, though: He’s your superior.

A third corollary is that, as far as you need be concerned, your superior is Never Wrong. The possibility that Adam might have confronted God about the nasty trap that God set, might have asked for an explanation or a second chance — the story doesn’t go there.

The story’s second moral is that the knowledge of good and evil is a Bad Thing. You’re better off by far not knowing the difference between good and evil. The knowledge will cause no end of trouble. As a corollary, even seeking knowledge is portrayed as a mistake. Your superior wants you to remain ignorant. Given that so much of the rest of the Bible sets out detailed rules whose sole purpose is to explain what’s good and what’s evil, this is an odd place to start the book. But that’s what we’ve got. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in religion | 4 Comments »

Is the Bible Literature?

Posted by midiguru on April 10, 2014

A friend of mine recently suggested that intelligent people view the Bible not as “the word of God” but as literature. Let’s leave aside the fact that Jesuit priests are reputed to be highly intelligent. I don’t know any Jesuits, so I can’t ask them how they view the Bible, but I suspect most of them probably view it as something more than a work of literature — as do faithful Christians in other denominations. Let’s also leave aside the post-modern idea that “literature” is a subjective construct of some sort; we’ll assume that we know what the word refers to — printed matter like Don Quixote and The Sun Also Rises.

What I think my friend was suggesting was that one can appreciate the content of the Bible as a collection of fables or folk-tales, without being drawn into or distracted by a discussion of its other facets.

The first question that one might ask is, is that how the authors intended their work to be understood? Probably not. Even the most charming or morally uplifting stories in the Bible were probably intended to be read not as works of the human imagination but as fact. But the question of authors’ intentions, while useful as an aid to literary analysis, can be treacherous; it can lead us back in the direction of post-modern literary analysis. So let’s leave it aside too.

If we examine the text itself, we find not only stories but also bits of speculative genealogy, accounts of battles, and numerous sets of rules. Many of the rules are quite explicit — horrifyingly so. It’s difficult to think of a work of literature (or, if you prefer, another work of literature) that devotes so much wordage to telling people what they should and shouldn’t do, much less prescribing severe punishments if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. The most charitable interpretation would be to say that the Bible is part literature, part history (inaccurate history, at that), and partly a really inadequate self-help book.

If we consider the Bible a piece of literature, we might compare it to The Canterbury Tales, or to the Iliad and Odyssey. All are ancient. All contain bits that may be inspirational or morally uplifting. But there are important differences. The Canterbury Tales was definitely written by one person (though he borrowed freely from older tales) and was understood to be a work of fiction. The Iliad and the Odyssey may have had multiple authors, and may have been conceived as history rather than as fiction, but each of them exhibits a unity of plot that is nowhere in evidence in the Bible as a whole. Even the Decameron has a frame-story and an overall structure that give some sense of unity to the collection, in spite of its diversity. Read the rest of this entry »

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Biblical Scholarship

Posted by midiguru on March 16, 2014

Here’s what I’m trying to understand. Quite a lot of Christians are good, decent people. And yet, when they go to church on Sunday, up at the front of the church is a big fat book with a bunch of really disgusting, nasty stuff in it, and they revere that book.

If you ask them, they’ll tell you that the coming of Jesus sort of cancels out the nasty stuff in the Old Testament. And they sincerely believe that. But this is no more than a pathetic and transparent dodge.

In the first place, if the Old Testament has been rendered irrelevant, why is it still in their holy book? Why haven’t they ripped out those pages? None of them have ever done that. Those nasty old stories are still in every copy of the book, and the book is still in every church. So evidently they still find some value in a text that they claim has been rendered superfluous.

In the second place, they still like some parts of the Old Testament. Some of them like the Ten Commandments. Some of them feel that the story of Adam and Eve is relevant. Some of them even think the story of Noah is literally true. What’s really going on is that they’re ignoring the parts of the Old Testament that are inconvenient (such as the bit where God insists that they wring the necks of pigeons and sprinkle the blood around the altar), while cherishing the bits that they like. Yet even the bits that they’re ignoring, the bits that they will tell you quite sincerely have been rendered null and void by the coming of Jesus, are still right there in the book.

The third problem is more theological, but nonetheless it’s quite perplexing. I’m pretty sure most Christians would tell you that God is perfect and eternal, and that God is a God of love. Undercutting that idea, however, is the unmistakeable fact that the God depicted in the Old Testament Read the rest of this entry »

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True Believers

Posted by midiguru on February 24, 2014

Prompted by idle curiosity, I read the first part of Inside Scientology, by Janet Reitman. It’s fascinating, in a queasy way. One of the thought-provoking bits is the description of life on L. Ron Hubbard’s yacht, where the inner circle of the “religion” hung out while it cruised the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. By this time, Hubbard had become a strict disciplinarian — a tin pot dictator. Those who failed to meet his expectations were punished by being exiled to a roach-infested compartment in the bowels of the ship, where they slept on pee-stained mattresses.

What’s amazing about this is that everybody who was there put up with it. Nobody (or almost nobody — the book is not specific on this point) said, “Well, fuck this,” and left. This fact gives us a deep insight into the human psyche. Most of us have a deep need to be part of a group, a need to belong. We will put up with almost any sort of treatment, and engage in any sort of bizarre behavior, in order to remain part of the group. Not only that, but our instincts will coerce us into believing that our own group is special. We will feel loyalty to it and affection for it. The thought of not being part of the group will make us nervous.

This is true of people in business settings, in political parties, and indeed in nations. It’s true of the police and the military. It’s true of drug gangs and the Mafia. Being part of the group is more important than being kind. It’s more important than using your intellect to understand what’s going on.

With secular groups, though, there can be a point where the individual says, “Enough. I’m leaving.” When the group is doing bad stuff, the pain of separation eventually becomes Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in random musings, religion, society & culture | 1 Comment »

Head Hurts — Please Stop

Posted by midiguru on January 25, 2014

Today’s most memorable quote (though to be fair, it’s only 10:30 in the morning) comes from Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes for Health. This gentleman is a scientist, but also says he believes in God. In a discussion on HuffPost Live, he apparently said this about evolution: “…if you are a believer in God, it’s hard to imagine that God would somehow put this incontrovertible evidence [for the reality of evolution] in front of us about our relationship to other living organisms and expect us to disbelieve it.” You can read the whole article, if you like, here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/25/francis-collins-davos_n_4635338.html?utm_hp_ref=politics&ir=Politics

The point of his statement was, I think, to suggest that folks who reject the idea of evolution are both ignoring evidence and being disrespectful of God’s motives. However, there is certainly a strain of Christian belief that insists we shouldn’t use reason, because reason is a tool used by Satan to tempt us into doubting the word of God. For folks who really believe that, it’s actually quite easy to ignore the evidence, because the evidence was put there by Satan.

Okay, so the head of the NIH doesn’t understand fundamentalist belief systems, or pretends not to. But there’s more to the story than that. The HuffPost article also quotes Collins as follows: “For me, somebody who is a ‘show me the data’ kind of scientist, but also a believer [in God], I don’t see a discordance there.” In other words, he’s a ‘show me the data’ kind of guy when it comes to science, but when Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in random musings, religion | 1 Comment »

That Big Bang

Posted by midiguru on January 25, 2014

We have no clear idea about how the universe came into existence. Scientists have some hazy theories, but the theories are packed with assumptions that may be wrong.

People who are inclined toward religious belief tend to assume that some enormously wise and powerful entity called “God” created the universe. This idea explains nothing, but I guess it’s comforting.

It explains nothing because, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out, in order to create a complex universe — one with finely tuned physical laws — God would have to be complex. A simple God (a God with no internal features) couldn’t do the necessary equations. If God is complex, then we can’t dodge the question of where God came from. It’s an infinite regress. If you’re going to assume that a complex God “just is” and doesn’t need explanation, you might just as well assume that the universe “just is” and doesn’t need explanation.

Still, it’s a fun idea to think about. Let’s assume for a moment that the universe was created (13.8 billion years or so ago) by an unimaginably vast and powerful entity that we may as well call “God.” Sadly, nothing in the physical universe gives us any clue about the nature of this God. We might entertain any number of hypotheses, all of them equally Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in random musings, religion | 2 Comments »


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