Can Faithful and Faithless Coexist? November 20, 2008

Can Faithful and Faithless Coexist?

I was asked recently what interfaith activists could do to reach out to non-religious people.

One way, I responded, could be to simply add the words “or no faith” to advertising. For example, “We are hosting an interfaith discussion for people of all faiths or no faith.”

But I added that I wasn’t sure it was possible at all.

There are a lot of atheists who don’t want to “cooperate” with other religions. They’re not mean or vengeful. They just see religion itself as the problem — it doesn’t matter which religion it is; they all advocate the same type of evidenceless-based-reason.

Why cooperate? they say. Why support the notion that religions can get along when their beliefs are mutually incompatible?

It’s a question of which outlook you prefer:


Or can you be both?

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  • mikespeir

    There are a lot of atheists who don’t want to “cooperate” with other religions.

    “other religions”?

  • Eliza

    I like the “e = mc2” in the top one – have never seen one with that before!

    What topics are typically on the agenda at “interfaith” meetings? Do they try to find areas of common belief, like working to make the world a better place, helping those in need, working toward peace, etc? Do they try to find ways to talk with people who don’t share their beliefs? If so, there could be room for atheists (humanists) to participate in such a discussion (but I agree, they might find it hard to locate some with interest in attending such an event).

    Who would be left out, if atheists/humanists were invited? Wiccans, pagans, Satanists? Would they have any interest in opening their meeting to include people with these beliefs?

    Note that such a meeting which included atheists would not be an “interfaith” meeting. I suppose it could be called an “inter-belief” or “inter-human” meeting.

  • NeuroLover

    I think we can definitely agree with both versions of the “bumper sticker” outlooks. I think religions are all wrong because of the evidenceless-based-reason, but at the same time I don’t think these mutually incompatible views have to prevent us from getting along. I can be respectful of religious people without necessarily respecting their religion.

  • Ian

    As a student (or other) secular/atheist/humanist group, we’d ask to be invited to the dialogues, have our opinion heard on equal grounds, and like the “no faith” option. My group has a few (self described) “anti-theists” but they understand that as a group we should be more welcoming, tolerant and open to opposing ideas.

    Besides, debates are always fun 😉

  • Emily

    It’s possible to be both; to think that religion is wrong but to accept that people must come to atheism on their own and to acknowledge that, in the lives of many, religion has been a positive force.

  • I think it’s possible to be both. Like Emily said, you can think religion is wrong but still work with the religious and deal with religion. You don’t convince people by refusing to present your ideas.

  • stephanie

    Sure, why not?
    I pop into UU services once in a while, just to see what they’re up to. I find it cute, and I’m not the only atheist there. I came to atheism by way of really looking around at the world and deciphering it- there’s no reason why I should shut my eyes now.

  • Secular folk aren’t the only ones with different ideas: all the faiths involved in an interfaith conference are at odds with one another; they all think all the others are wrong! Take the cross out of that second bumper sticker and you could slap it on a Christian’s car! (Okay, he’d have to be a pretty obnoxious Christian—as would the atheist who’d uses it in its current form.) This is why the foundation of every interfaith conference is the values we share, not the differences that divide us.

    I’d love to see a Humanist group involved in the Charter for Compassion or some similar “interfaith” effort, and I’m pretty sure there are lots of other Humanists who feel the same way, but I’m not convinced a secular voice would really be welcome.

  • High Church Atheist

    Those of us who had long journeys out of religion, and are glad we made the trip, find it difficult to mix with anyone who has a religious focus. Not that they are bad persons, unloving, uncaring, whatever…it is just that they are difficult to reason with until they take some baby steps to work past their “addiction.”

  • SarahH

    I think part of what many religious people get wrong involves their refusal to peacefully coexist and cooperate – instead pestering those who believe differently and occasionally fighting wars over it.

    Non-believers, for the most part, already tend to coexist quite well. Cooperation is where it’s tricky, because everyone has to set their disagreements aside in order to get anything done. Anyone, religious or not, who just can’t get past how “wrong” everyone else is won’t be able to functionally contribute to a collaborative effort to do something good.

    The hardest part (for me, personally) about collaborating with religious groups/people is the fear that they’ll end up with all the credit, and anyone who hears about it will only hear the name of the church or group or whatever and have no idea that non-religious people were also involved.

  • The second bumper sticker is no different than religions. Everyone thinks everyone but themselves are wrong. So what? There’s no reason we can’t get along with people who don’t agree with us on various topics, even important topics.

    Forget about groups. Just talk to your neighbors, friends, colleagues, family members. Be out, but not obnoxious. Most of the atheist community is obnoxious. The reason people leave out “or no faith” is because they are usually unaware that there are large numbers of people with no faith all around them.

    High Church Atheist, I had a long journey out of religion and I don’t find it difficult at all to relate to my relatives or old friends who are still religious or to “mix with anyone who has a religious focus” at all. What you are saying is no different than fanatical Christians or other religious folks refusing to befriend “heathens” or “infidels.” There’s no excuse for people who are allegedly rational and tolerant to act like this.

    We’re all just people trying to get through this life. For Pete’s sake, let’s stop picking on our differences and realize that we are mostly the same.

    Thanks for the post Hemant. I’m so sick of the bickering and arguing and anger and hate of anything “other” and this comes from all parts of the spectrum. Atheists are just as guilty as fundamentalists. It’s why I’ve mostly dropped out of the atheist movement completely.

  • What about the “They’re all wrong, you can’t trust any fat priest further than you can throw him, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so let’s have a drink.” approach?

  • Aj

    Most people have limits. I tolerate free speech, I don’t tolerate those that don’t. If religious people can’t deal with expressed dissent from their beliefs then I probably couldn’t coexist with them. It’s an ethical problem, since I’m a utilitarian it’s on a case by case basis. My ability to coexist and cooporate with religious people is proportional to how much harm they’re doing. Most of the time religion is not an issue, people act in a secular way, and I’m perfectly happy to coexist with everyone.

  • Awesomesauce

    I can see the value of having an Atheist representation at one of these. I often find that what turns people away from atheists is that they’ve never met any.

    It’s easy to form negative opinions about atheists if you’ve never had a chance otherwise.

  • Yes, I pretty much agree with both both bumper stickers. Yes, I think atheists and believers can coexist and co-operate, while at the same time disagreeing.

    For instance: I think atheists and progressive ecumenical believers can be allies on issues such as separation of church and state, and the role religion should play in politics. (Just for one example, I will happily work with believers in overturning Prop 8.)

    But when it comes to the role religion should play in life? We’re just not going to agree. I think religion is a mistaken hypothesis about the world, and I think that, on the whole, it’s a belief system that does more harm than good.

    So I think the question is: What are the interfaith activists in question trying to accomplish? is it some political or charitable or artistic purpose that we can be allies about? Or do they have a religious and spiritual goal, that we’re completely at odds about?

  • And writerdd, I’m afraid I disagree. The second bumper sticker is different from religions. When atheists say “Religion is mistaken,” we’re (usually) prepared to back up that statement with solid arguments based on evidence and reason. Religion isn’t. That’s a big difference.

    What’s more, I have sympathy with High Church Atheist. He/she isn’t saying that their experience should be true for everyone. They’re just describing their own experience. And I have sympathy with it.

    To draw an analogy: A lot of people, when they come out of the closet as gay or lesbian, only want to socialize with other queers for a while — not because they think straight people are bad, but because they want to be surrounded by people who truly understand their experience and who they don’t have to explain things to all the time. I didn’t have that… but given what I sometimes went through with straight people in the early days of my coming out, I sure understood people who did.

  • There’s also something I think you’re not considering about interfaith activists. Many of them are members of one Abrahamic faith reaching out to members of another, on the premise that “we all worship the same God.” I’ve seen the “Coexist” bumper stickers and the like, but most of the times I’ve actually encountered supposedly interfaith events they were really only geared towards Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Getting members of those groups together is tricky, but finding unity among their faiths is certainly not as hard as arguing for unity among all those represented by the symbols above. And including atheists in a group specifically unified by their general sort of agreement on a supreme being? No way.

  • The funny thing about the “you’re all wrong” design is that it could be also used by Christians (if the cross were blacked out), Jews (if the star of David were removed), and Muslims (without the star and crescent).

    As Dawkins reminded us, we atheists merely disbelieve in one more god…

  • I tend to fall into the “all wrong” category. In my opinion, there ought to finally be a hard-line backlash against what the religious right has been pulling for the past 20-30+ years. Yes, I realize they’ve been doing this much longer (read: Socrates, Galileo, etc.) but in the modern American context, I think that period is the most culturally relevant in terms of what we’re seeing/dealing with today. Don’t even get me started on Islam.

    In short: I’ll lay down my guns after they lay down theirs.

  • Richard Wade

    I was asked recently what interfaith activists could do to reach out to non-religious people.

    My response would first be to ask what exactly is meant by “reach out.” Understand our concerns, our values, our thoughts and feelings? Include us in mutual projects? Or would reaching out actually be attempts to evangelize and convert?

    If they want to have an endless and futile multilateral debate then they can talk about their gods and spirits. If they want to actually get something useful done, they will have to talk the things they have in common.

    What they probably have in common are general human values which they all share, such as civil liberties, compassion, preserving peace, love of family, honesty and respect for persons. If invited, humanists might end up guiding the discussions because those values are their main focus and expertise.

  • Beijingrrl

    Given a narrow enough goal, atheists and believers certainly can work together.

    I homeschool my kids and when I was living in California I started a small group which has both atheist and religious families. The large, secular group in our area wasn’t working as a place for my kids and I to build community as some people chose to “unparent” as well as “unschool”, the latter of which I think works for some families and the former of which sucks for all of the surrounding families.

    Our group is over a year old and still going strong because the families involved all have a similar idea of the social interactions we want our kids to have and the idea of building community as individuals as well as in our community at large. We’ve done a few charity activities, some religious-based and some not.

    Religion really hasn’t been an issue in our group until recently. Apparently, Prop. H8 is causing some division in the group. I’ll be returning home from China in about 2 months and I’m afraid of tearing our group apart because I will not be silent about how awful it is and I, like Aj above, have my limits. It bothers me that some of my friends and family think there is something wrong with homosexual marriage, but I think everyone should be free to believe whatever they want. Once people start trying to force their beliefs on others through legislation, I have to draw the line.

    I’m sincerely hoping it doesn’t come up at my brother-in-law’s wedding in January. His younger son is pretty homophobic, which is not encouraged at home I think, but by his Catholic school classmates.

  • TXatheist

    My wife loves that coexist bumper sticker. I find it ok until confronted and told I’m wrong for not believing in their god and I easily switch to you are wrong since I feel I’m on the defensive at that point.

  • Sometimes it seems like Hemant is the only “friendly” one around here.

  • Well the thing is, if you say we can’t coexist what are you suggesting? Coertion? What are you advocating? A war against religion? Can’t we find a better way?

    I am a member of an interfaith blog network that has been discussing precisely the issues that Eliza raises – Who is it open to? How do you define it? I have personally advocated openess to all comers – christians, buddhists, atheists, wiccans, satanists, anyone is willing to dialogue respectfully. I have also raised the issue that the word “interfaith” is deeply problematic, not only for atheists but also for wiccans (who, in contrast to Christians, place much more emphasis on ritual and shy away from faith language no less than you). We are not ignorant of these issues. We are not myopically focussed on Abrahamic religions either. Some of the initial contributors were NeoPagans by the way. If you entered into the dialogue you’d find out more.

    Coexistance does not imply agreement, it just implies non-violence. Surely that is a cause Atheists could be more open to? If any of you are up for the challenge I can offer an invitation.

    The only ground rule is that contributors exercise common curtesy and learn to differentiate between (1) disagreeing with other ideas and (2) demeaning other people. If I, as a Christian, can manage that with Satanists I am hoping humane dialogue wouldn’t be beyond enlightened bods like yourselves either. The same rules go for everyone, Christians included. The common aim is understanding. What say ye?

  • stogoe

    Sometimes it seems like Hemant is the only “friendly” one around here.

    “Friendly” doesn’t mean doormat. I’ll work with believers – hell, I attend a UU church, we work with other religious communities all the time. That doesn’t mean I want to be proselytized at or badgered for having the ‘wrong’ faith. You’ll excuse me if, to turn a phrase, the sheep is hesistant to join the wolves for dinner.

  • Can faithful and faithless coexist?

    I ask myself that every single day of my life.

    I bet others do too.

  • Yesterday, near the end of a blog post I wrote, I said this:

    “I still intend to do what I can to combat religious fundamentalism”

    The thing is, I don’t want to use words like “combat” or “fight” or “destroy.” I don’t think violence (even verbal violence) is the way to stop fundamentalism.

    I think the way to weaken any kind of extremism is to get to know people who in the extremist camp and be their friends. Yes, that may mean you have to put up with them trying to convert you. But it’s only by having friends and getting to know people who are truly different than we are that we can come to realize that “those people” are no different than we are. Most people are good. There are good Christians, good atheists, good Jews, good Muslims, good Hindus…. good ___________ (fill in the blank). When we isolate ourselves and only associate with those who agree with us, it is too easy to forget this.

    So, if you are worried about fundamentalism, become friends with some fundamentalists. If you are worried about atheism, become friends with some atheists. If you are worried about socialism, become friends with some socialists. If you are worried about homosexuality, become friends with some gays and lesbians. No doubt you will disagree on many things, but you will probably agree on many things as well. And, in the end, you will see that the people you were afraid of are not really so scary after all. I believe this is the only way to spread tolerance and understanding.

  • That’s a happy, feel-good answer. I then invite you to my former home in Lincoln, IL, where my neighbors were southern baptists. They’re biblical literalists. The children were not allowed to walk ahead of their father, nor was his wife, citing their belief that the man should rule the household. I’m not sure what that has to do with walking a few blocks to the grocery store, but okay.

    They’ve frequently tried to preach at my wife and I, handing us literature and whatnot, even though I’ve told them before that I’m not interested. Hell, on third night after we’d moved in, he came over to our house to welcome us to the neighborhood, with the ulterior motive of asking “do you know Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” How insincere! It’s in very poor taste to ask someone to convert their entire lifestyle to your beliefs when you haven’t even exchanged names.

    This is not a rare example. I went to a Christian high school for two years and was exposed to a wide variety of denominations and visited a wide variety of churches. This “storm the castle, take no prisoners” mentality is pervasive among people with a fundamentalist mindset. I remember, when first going to school there, being labeled a “Demoncrat” because I liked President Clinton. I could go on and on and on, and will, if you want me to.

    The reality is that this kind of open-minded togetherness you’re describing between fundamentalists and people with different beliefs simply doesn’t exist. Not in my experience, anyway.

    That being said, I absolutely agree it’s easier to get along with them on a one-on-one basis. But among fundamentalists, any attempt by our side to work with their side will be seen by many as the devil working his way into the church. More will probably see it as an opportunity to proselytize.

  • I know what it’s like. I lived in the South. I went to Bible School. I spent 20 years being a born-again, spirit-filled Christian, etc. etc. etc. I still think it’s possible.

  • To clarify, these people are your neighbors, right? If you know they have a sick kid, ask them if you can pick up anything at the store for them or bring them some home made chicken soup. If it’s Christmas, bring them some home made cookies, maybe even go to church with them for a holiday service (OK, that’s pushing it). If you’re mowing your lawn, mow theirs. If you see them outside working in their yard, be sure to wave and say hello. Be an extra good neighbor

    Let them witness to you. So what? It won’t kill you to listen to them. But they will not be able to use you as a negative stereotype and they may start to wonder in the back of their minds just a little bit if they could be mistaken.

    There are lots of ex-fundies. Something gave them the trigger to start thinking and doubting. They don’t all become agnostics and atheists, but so what? If they can get out of the trap of fundamentalism, it’s good for everyone. I remember the first few times I met unbelievers who were nice, generous, compassionate people. It really rocked my boat and made a crack in the wall I’d built around my brain.

    Also, they may believe some stuff that is stupid and even some demeaning stuff, but if you get to know most of them, I guarantee that they are not all stupid, mean assholes.

  • Soitfoes

    This quote sums it up nicely for me:
    “Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.” Emile Zola

    In other words, they’re all wrong.

  • Ex-neighbors–I moved.

    Anyway, there’s no way am I going to bend over backwards. For respect to exist, it has to be mutual or nothing at all. If I ask them not to preach at me, they need to accept that, no questions asked. This isn’t 15th century Spain; people of other faiths or lack thereof exist and, as people, deserve to be treated with respect, even if you don’t agree with their beliefs. I don’t shove atheism in their faces, I expect the same in return. Allowing them to behave badly with you only sets a precedent for them to behave badly with others.

    So no, I disagree with you. Frankly, I’ve given up enough ground to these types, and I don’t intend to let it go any further. It doesn’t mean I’m going to go out of my way to be rude to them, and I didn’t while I was living there. Conversely, I’m not going to suffer through their schpeel, which I’ve heard countless times before, just to appease them and get them to like me better.

    To be perfectly honest, if they only want to talk to people they think they’re going to convert–which, during the entire year I lived there, is the only time any of them have said anything to me–or they only consort with people who believe exactly as they do, then forget it, I don’t want to know them anyway.

    I understand your idea and think your heart’s in the right place, writerdd, but there are certain things we don’t have to stand for, and nor should we.

    I say that because, in every case I’ve come across in my area, “interfaith dialogue” is a code word for “converting people.” There is no interest in actually discussing faith, religion, atheism, etc. To tell you the truth, I’d be very interested in such a discussion. But it isn’t going to happen, not among fundamentalists. Too many souls (dollars) to earn (take) for Jesus (their church) to bother with any kind of understanding, you know.

    Anyway, that’s all I have for you. Sorry about the rant.

  • Whatever. I’m so sick of the atheist movement that I’m going to stop reading this, the last atheist blog I’ve been keeping track of. What a bunch of self-righteous, arrogant assholes. It embarrasses me that I even tried to participate in this movement for the last few years.

  • stogoe

    Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

    EDIT: I mean honestly, is it too much to ask that our values and beliefs be respected when you ask us to respect theirs? To ask that we not be harangued by Jesus-guilt-trips when we’re working together to combat hunger and homelessness in our cities?

  • Richard Wade

    I’m sad to see you go. I’ve very much appreciated your thoughtful input and your ability to tell your truth every time, and still not lose your compassion and respect for people. I’ve learned much from you. You’re always welcome back as far as I’m concerned. I hope your life goes well.

  • Stogoe: No it’s not too much to ask for respect. Most believers, I think, would give that respect if they got to know some atheists. But many have been taught their whole lives that atheists are evil, or that they hate god, or whatever. If these people never have the chance to get to know an atheist because atheists avoid them like the plague (sometimes understandably), then how will they ever learn by experience that what they were taught is wrong? In an argument, you can’t win because they will stick to what they have been taught. But experience that doesn’t match the teaching can disrupt the teaching, even though it could take a long time.

    I recently got in touch with an old friend from church. She said “I was disappointed and appalled when I saw the atheist stuff on your website. But then I realized that our friendship was cemented a long time ago, and it’s OK if we’ve gone in different directions.” Maybe she’ll think differently next time she hears that someone she doesn’t know is an atheist.

    There are some idiots — perhaps your ex-neighbors — who could never do that. And there some idiot atheists and skeptics who can’t respect anyone who believes in anything. I think it’s pretty even actually.

    Richard: Thanks. I’m never good at staying away. :-/ But I am really tired of all the anger and fighting and I really don’t want to get sucked into it any more.

  • Friendly Antitheist?

    It is constantly surprising to me that so many atheists not only defend religion, but insult atheists who do not. I see modern religion as something that will (hopefully) eventually go down in history as something comparable to Egyptian religion, or the idea that demons cause sickness. Eventually science will overrule religion. So, yes, I think these people are wrong, and why would I want to perpetuate a belief that is (factually, if not morally) wrong? Religion holds back science and rational thought. I don’t have problem with religious people personally, most of them are good people with bad ideas, but I certainly don’t want to vindicate their ignorance.

  • Who’s defending religion?

  • So, since know one has responded to my question do I take it that no one is interested in widening the dialogue then? Am I the only one who sees an incogruance between complaining about the unfriendliness of Christians on the one hand and avoiding invitations to friendly conversations on the other?

  • Matt, I’m interested in hearing more about what you have to say. Sorry I didn’t reply to your original comment. Do you have a link?

    I put a link to my personal website on my name here and you can contact me privately from there if you want to discuss this offline.


  • Pseudonym


    What topics are typically on the agenda at “interfaith” meetings? Do they try to find areas of common belief, like working to make the world a better place, helping those in need, working toward peace, etc? Do they try to find ways to talk with people who don’t share their beliefs?

    That’s pretty much it, yes. The two main points to cover are:

    1. How do we get along?
    2. Now that we peacefully coexist, how do we work together to make the world a better place?

    If so, there could be room for atheists (humanists) to participate in such a discussion (but I agree, they might find it hard to locate some with interest in attending such an event).

    I’m not going to go into details, but that, interestingly, was the precisely the problem last time Wicca tried to get in on the action. (The specific incident that I’m thinking of was actually to do with university chaplaincy.) Wicca has no organising body, and as such, it was pretty much impossible to keep up the momentum required to inter-operate.

    At least there are Atheist organisations. So if nothing else, there’s someone to talk to.

    Note that such a meeting which included atheists would not be an “interfaith” meeting. I suppose it could be called an “inter-belief” or “inter-human” meeting.

    That, no doubt, would be Item 1 on the agenda.

    BTW, you don’t have to wait. You don’t even have to get up. One of the most significant interfaith events ever is happening right now on the net. They have called for Atheist/Humanist involvement, but few if any have stepped up so far. So now’s your chance.

    Friendly Antiatheist:

    I see modern religion as something that will (hopefully) eventually go down in history as something comparable to Egyptian religion, or the idea that demons cause sickness. Eventually science will overrule religion. So, yes, I think these people are wrong, and why would I want to perpetuate a belief that is (factually, if not morally) wrong?

    Do you realise just how much like a fundamentalist religion that sounds? “Religion holds back science and rational thought”? That’s pretty much identical to “Atheists can’t be moral”.

    It’s not the disagreement that gets to me here. I can deal with people who honestly think I’m completely wrong. It’s not even the superiority complex. It’s the apparent unwillingness to get along.

    One of the most important ideas that I was taught as a Liberal Christian (and it was never quite as overt as I’m about to put it, but it was always there) is this: My personal beliefs are not for everyone.

    Two final things.

    Matt Stone: I’d also like to endorse your blog network. I regularly read a bunch of blogs on the network, and I really appreciate the stuff that you people do.

    Donna: I don’t know how many times or in how many different venues it’s possible to say “don’t let the arseholes put you off”, but here’s yet another. You are one of the most thoughtful, compassionate, respectful and still personally uncompromising Atheists I’ve ever come across outside of my own country, and your input will definitely be missed here.

  • Donna, I have sent you an invite as per your directions.

    Pseudonym, thanks, and we’re actually trying to broaden the conversation beyond the two agenda points you mention. Beyond mere getting along, I actually want to understand people who think differently to myself. My own faith has been enriched by engagement with Wiccans and Buddhists and Atheists over the years, much as I disagree with them at times. I appreciate being stretched. How do different paths approach the issues of pain? hope? beauty? truth? goodness? At times I find this even more rewarding than the initial, how do we get along?

    And beyond understanding, I enjoy the friendships that come out of it. It might be a surprise to some that Christians and Wiccans can have genuine friendships, and not just liberals but evangelicals, that we can actually share a drink together in preference to BBQing each other. But that’s what we find happens.

    And if people can’t imagine it, well, can I just encourage an opening of minds. Be open to the evidence that it happens.

  • Pseudonym,

    It’s not the disagreement that gets to me here. I can deal with people who honestly think I’m completely wrong. It’s not even the superiority complex. It’s the apparent unwillingness to get along.

    Yeah, that’s what bugs me, too. It is amazing to me that people apparently want to make enemies so badly. And the unwillingness of some people to own up to the obnoxiousness of their own words and behavior gets on my nerves, too.

    You are one of the most thoughtful, compassionate, respectful and still personally uncompromising Atheists I’ve ever come across outside of my own country, and your input will definitely be missed here.

    Wow, that’s about the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me. I think I’ll try to hang around a little more. I need to learn how to not get so worked up over stuff, anyway. In case I get real hate mail when my book finally comes out. 🙂 I’m the opposite of people who are probably nice in person but who are annoying on the internet. I’m much more bitchy in real life. (Besides, I like Hemant.)

    Where’s your own country, BTW?

  • Matt, got your email and will get in touch after Thanksgiving.

    And yeah, I’m an atheist and I am friends with Christians, even some fundies & evangelicals.


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