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October 2007 online edition

Sam Harris Sacrifices
Human Reason


by Joel McDurmon


Sam Harris
Sam Harris, along with Richard Dawkins,
Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett,
is one of the Four Horsemen of the Atheistic Apocalpyse.
Image of Sam Harris courtesy of Wikipedia
An Atheist Responds
to R.C. Metcalf


by Martin Hohner


Martin Hohner

Martin Hohner is an amateur war game designer, and internet pundit of extremely minor note. He studied History at Illinois State University, and lives in Chicago with his family.

R. C. Metcalf's article, Atheist Diversionary Tactics makes the case that the current crop of pro-Atheism books by authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are going after the wrong target. He accuses the books of concentrating too much on Christianity, especially an antiquated interpretation of Christian teachings that focuses on the nastier bits of the Old Testament, and all but ignores the much greater threat posed by Militant Islam. In doing so, Metcalf misunderstands Atheism, Christianity, Islam, and the entire publishing industry.

Metcalf's article does touch on one of my own problems with my fellow Atheists. They spend too much time skewering the nastier bits of the Bible, as well as historical atrocities such as the Crusades and Spanish Inquisition. As Christians and others often point out, the vast majority of believers rightly reject the burning of witches and the stoning of Sabbath-breakers; while supposed atheists such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao have compiled their own impressive body counts.

It is the danger posed by people who take their theology too seriously and literally that often makes us such angry atheists, just as the excesses of Stalin are what spurred many who already disagreed with Communist ideology into more actively opposing Communism during the Cold War. But the excesses of historical Christian atrocities and Muslim terrorists are not what make us Atheists in the first place. We are not Atheists because Christians or Muslims are often nasty people, any more than Christians are Christians because Stalin was a jerk. We are Atheists because we believe that gods and the afterlife do not exist.

Atheist books do exist which make more detailed and scholarly attacks on the heart of Christian theology. But, just as Gary Wills' book Papal Sin, chock full of juicy murders and sexual deviancy, sold better than more scholarly works on the history of the papacy, Atheist books that consist largely of salacious lists of obscene and bizarre Bible passages sell better than books that attack theology from a more philosophical angle. Books that sell well are much more likely to engender popular discussion outside of academia and generate far more comment in the blogosphere, not to mention making more money for the author and publisher. Aside from crass commercial considerations, of course, we Atheists get the Bible quoted at us by Christians on a regular basis; so whenever we get a chance to point out that the Bible also has some very silly (and frequently obscenely distasteful) passages in it, we seize the opportunity with both hands.

Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins in particular rightly point out that all those nasty bits in Leviticus are indeed still in the Bible. So long as "moderate" religious people still give lip-service to the idea that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God (or at least mostly the Word of God and a generally-good guide to living a moral life), believers who actually read those books will come across those nasty bits, and a disturbing number of them will take them seriously. Christians who actually try to live out the nastier bits of the Bible may be limited to Fred Phelps and the Dominionist movement, but so long as Christianity and the Bible are with us, we will always have their ilk around to remind us what formal Christian scriptures really do say. Moderate religious sects, while posing little immediate danger to Atheists or other religious groups, are the incubators and protectors of extreme religious sects that pose a great danger to everyone. This is why Atheist authors don't spare "moderate" Christians when it comes to attacking the evils we see in religious scripture and dogma.

Dawkins especially has another good reason for trashing Old Testament laws so often. Christians often claim that their sense of morality is entirely derived from their faith and the scriptures behind it. By pointing out horrific laws permitting slavery and demanding the stoning of Sabbath-breakers, laws that most Christians agree would be horribly immoral to enforce today, Dawkins seeks to show that Christians in fact do not judge society by the morals of their faith, but they judge their faith by the morals of their society. Christians who are moral people derive this morality from the same sources as everyone else: the rules of their secular culture, and the instinctual sense of fair play and altruism that has been honed by 500 million years of vertebrate evolution. Atheists are sick and tired of Christians telling us that we need fear of eternal damnation and the surveillance of a giant Santa Claus in the sky in order to force us to be moral people, and we refuse to cede the moral high ground to people who unthinkingly promote a bronze-age book which is full of horrifically bad moral advice.

After that one marginally good point, about Atheists harping too much about outdated Old Testament laws, Metcalf brings up several very questionable points.

First off, he complains that recent Atheist books tend to mostly pick on Christianity. This tendency exists because authors like Harris and Dawkins are writing in English for a Western Euro-American audience, an audience that is steeped in the Christian tradition. Other authors, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born former member of the Dutch parliament who worked with murdered filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, write with an Islamic audience in mind. Her books, such as the recent Infidel, spend most of their time picking on Islam. In their speeches available on YouTube, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens spend a good amount of time skewering Islam, particularly picking on Islamic terrorism and theocratic governments. While they arguably fall into the trap of complaining about bad acts by Muslims, rather than about the existence of Allah, or the truth of the revelations of Mohammed, but once again, their books are aimed at a general audience, not specialists.

Secondly, Metcalf harps on for several paragraphs about the demographic decline of Western nations and the population boom in the Islamic world. Such complaints, such as those of Pat Buchanan, always make me distinctly uncomfortable, for they smell strongly of racism. While Metcalf complains loudly about Muslim immigration into Western Europe, I wonder why he fails to mention the tidal wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe, many of whom lack any formal religion after decades of Communist rule in their homelands. Does he feel less threatened by them because of their apparently acceptably pasty complexion?

At first, I thought it ironic that he was apparently using what amounts to an evolutionary argument to oppose noted Darwinian Richard Dawkins and his ilk--Muslim people are reproducing more and threaten to outnumber Atheists, therefore Atheists are less fit in a Darwinian sense. But that doesnít seem to be his argument. He seems to be saying that those dusky Muslims are out-breeding us all, and Atheists are not helping this situation. And, in a sense, he may be right: I can't recall a single instance of a prominent "New Atheist" bemoaning the fact that we were being out-bred by rival belief systems. Perhaps they have and I donít remember it, or perhaps Atheists arenít quite so unduly alarmed about the swarming numbers of browner-skinned people in the world.

The West is in demographic decline not due to Atheism, but because of wealth, industrialization, and development. In a modern technological society, it makes Darwinian sense to have fewer children, and heavily invest in the education and well-being of each one. With their basic survival and economic opportunity all but assured by modern healthcare, abundant food, and security, those investments are not likely to go to waste, and their children will be well-equipped to become wealthy themselves and attract high-quality mates. In a less technologically advanced society such as most of the Third World (and the poorer areas of the First World, such as Muslim banlieues in France, or black ghettoes in America), where basic survival and economic opportunity are less assured, it makes more sense for parents to invest in quantity of children rather than quality. This link between societal affluence and lower birthrate is fairly consistent across religious and ethnic lines.

Metcalf even goes so far as to blame "gender equality" for the declining birthrate in Western Europe, and he's right. With women finally approaching equality with men in the West, another Darwinian force is coming into play. Female instincts tend to focus on quality rather than quantity with their offspring, as a woman can only carry one pregnancy at a time, whereas a man can theoretically have many women pregnant by him simultaneously. Increased female empowerment means their instincts are getting the chance to at least partially balance out the male instinct to favor quantity over quality and simply have as many children as possible. In this sense, perhaps Atheists are at least partially to blame, as the Christian establishment wasnít exactly helpful in the early days of the Womenís Liberation movement, while Atheists were particularly prominent in that field. But I doubt Metcalf really wants to criticize us for supporting equal rights for women, at least not within earshot of his beloved wife.

Finally, Metcalf brings up the Iraq War for no clear reason. Like "New Atheist" author Christopher Hitchens, I personally support the "War on Terror" in general and the campaign in Iraq in particular. I have my own personal problems with some of the tactics and strategies chosen by our present political-military leadership in these struggles, but I agree that their aims are noble ones and I fervently hope for victory. My problems with their tactics and strategies are generally a complaint that weíre not doing enough. We're not sending enough troops, or spending enough money and effort on reconstruction and propaganda (including raising the standard of living for ordinary Iraqis), to ensure victory in a reasonable timeframe.

Personally, I bemoan the fact that many of my fellow Atheists, apparently motivated by dislike for the overtly religious rhetoric of President Bush in particular, have an annoying knee-jerk reaction against the Iraq War and pretty much anything else that Bush and/or the United States have done in recent years. But Atheists are hardly unique in unfortunate knee-jerk reactions against U.S. Policy. Many Christians are also unreasonably pacifistic, and regrettably cannot seem to see the distinction between a just war waged for just reasons and unjust wars of aggression and conquest.

So, while I agree in part with at least one of Metcalf's points, I think he misunderstands the current Atheist mindset. Many of us are neither motivated by anger over the past injustices of Leviticus or the Inquisition, nor by annoyance at President Bush and his Evangelical political allies. We are motivated by the belief that all theistic religions are fundamentally wrong, not by the wrongs wrought solely by fundamentalists. And Metcalf also misunderstands his own fellow Christians. I will always be fascinated by the gulf between the formal scriptural doctrines and the actual beliefs of most ordinary believers. Metcalf himself is not about to march me off to be stoned to death (in accordance with Deuteronomy 13), any more than he is about to strap on a bomb vest and march himself off to glorious martyrdom. Yet some of his more dogmatic fellow believers would do just that, if given half a chance. So long as he and his fellow religious moderates continue to provide a patina of intellectual respectability to Theism in general, and the divine authorship of the scriptures in particular, we are all in danger, Atheists and moderates alike. For no matter how angry they get at outright infidels and non-believers such as I, nothing makes a fundamentalist more furious than a co-religionist who has fallen from the bosom of his prescribed orthodoxy. This is ironically illustrated by the article in question: as a follower of the God of Abraham, Metcalf is basically demanding that outright non-believers ally with him in attacking Muslims, apostate followers of the God of Abraham, whose faith differs only slightly from his own.

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"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:12-13)

In another example of what has come to typify his militancy as an atheist, Sam Harris has blazoned the gruesome subject of blood sacrifice. In his recent article for Newsweek Magazine, The Sacrifice of Reason,after enumerating instances where pagan tribes slaughtered humans in rituals everywhere from simple burnings to child sacrifice to eating people alive, Harris sees it necessary to conclude, "It is essential to realize that such impossibly stupid misuses of human life have always been explicitly religious."

Despite Sam calling his point "essential," his lust to paint all religion with the same blemish has once again led him into intellectual extravagance. For starters, it was the spread of Christianity that put an end to such practices for the most part--at least as far as it has spread--and this was due to the fact that the principles found in Scripture where recognized as supernatural (and genuinely "essential") truth. In fact, it was part of the most ancient Jewish tradition that God condemned human sacrifice, and judged the pagan nations for it--Lev. 18:21; 20:2; Deut. 12:31; Wisdom 12:6. That aside, Sam's continuing efforts to smear all faith as inhuman heresy has "blinkered" his own eyes from seeing simple, easy to find facts of history.

Incidentally: No, such atrocities have explicitly not always been religious in nature. Thus, Sam's conclusion to the previous quote can only draw a grimace from any genuine student of religion. He insists that since all of the pagan human sacrifices were the products of religion, therefore they are

"the product of what certain human beings list of binary options trading platforms think they know about invisible gods and goddesses, and of what they manifestly do not know about biology, meteorology, medicine, physics, and a dozen other specific sciences that have more than a little to say about the events in the world that concern them."

This is where some real scholarship may have benefited our militant pundit. Many of the civilizations that indulged, ritually and/or publicly, in human sacrifice, have been the most civilized, prosperous, and otherwise rational peoples in history. Such was the concern of one of our most respected historians and champions of human freedom, Lord Acton, in his early essay, "Human Sacrifice." The twenty-nine year old scholar took, implicitly, as his opponent no less than the historian Lord Macaulay, who had denied that the civilized Romans could ever have been involved in such barbarism as human sacrifice. In page after painful page, Acton proves him wrong. Some of the nuances of such a study--which nuances any student of the subject should feel bound to honor--appear in Acton's work. The expert thinks critically, and draws important distinctions:

"When a nation of fanatics wages a war of extermination against those who do not worship its gods, and piles up pyramids of bodies, the idea of honoring the divinity does but dimly tinge the savage thirst for blood."

Religion is hardly necessary for people to begin ritually butchering each other for any number of reasons. Human avarice can trump any faith, or even none at all (did such a thing exist). Likewise, civilized peoples can use religion, ideology, or non-religion to justify their crimes against humanity. Sam's charge hardly applies to religion alone.

Indeed, ancient Assyria and Phoenicia, which "led the civilization of Asia, and invented the alphabet," also gave us "the most enduring form of human sacrifice concerning which we have definitive history." Likewise, human sacrifice was incredibly prevalent in ancient Greece, mingled with the advance of philosophy, astronomy, medicine, even the origin of the Hippocratic Oath (". . . never do harm . . ."). While a couple of their own writers may have despised the sacrifices, it took the advance of Christianity to bring them to an end, or at the very least drive them under-ground. Human sacrifice in many ancient cultures did not depend on a lack of scientific knowledge, nor for that matter did it necessarily depend on religion itself.


Codex Mendoza
Human sacrifice, as practiced by the Aztecs, from the Codex Mendoza
Image courtesy of Wikipedia



"Yet there is an essential distinction to be made between those cases in which a religious idea has been superadded to a barbarous custom, giving it an outward hypocritical varnish, and those in which the inhuman rite can be directly traced to a theological idea."

An important distinction! One we see not even a hint of anywhere in Sam's writings. Only broad, unbelievably crude generalizations. And yet such distinctions are so vital that Acton concludes, "Without this distinction the subject will remain obscure, and its discussion will only lead into profitless generalities."

The Sacrifice of Identity

"Profitless generalities." That phrase could stand as a description of nearly all of Sam's criticism of religion, which so often echoes to the common ear something like, "Radical Muslims fly planes into buildings; radical Muslims have faith; therefore, all faith is bad!" And mine is no unique rebuke. Many of Sam's critics--whether conservative, liberal, or fellow atheist--have called him out on such "profitless generalities." But, I suspect, as long as book sales and paid speeches continue, they're not so "profitless" for at least one person.

It may be our atheist's obvious retort to say that I am splitting historical hairs. Even if some of the sacrifices Acton outlines were not carried out as religious rituals--real-time bloody liturgies--they were still the product of religious cultures, and given a religious sanction. Is it not clear that even in these cases it is religion that justifies "such impossibly stupid misuses of human life"?

But if we fast forward just a bit to the--and here we go again--explicitly atheistic rule of, say, Bolshevik Russia, the same argument fails. It is here that our atheist strains in order to say that such atheists were just bad atheists, and that the incredibly wicked abuses of human life in that milieu did not actually happen "in the name of" atheism. Well, I'm sorry, but only devout atheists are buying that line. The millions of humans sacrificed on the pyre of the Atheist-Marxist tradition were, without question, the direct result of atheists reasoning from their atheism, as atheists, essentially asking the question, "Given that God doesn't exist, how can we now 'scientifically' restructure humanity, law, economics, society?" And the bodies piled up. Given the assumptions of that society, sacrificing humans made reasonable economic sense.

But for Sam to concede this point would blow his whole case that religion as religion is bad simply because all religious faith is bad. So he continues, even though he has been criticized for it numerous times since his first book, to parade before us the worst religious atrocities of history, and then announce, "Here is a picture of how you Christians believe!" This is no exaggeration. After his parade of pagan human sacrifices, he lines up the Sacrifice of Christ as just one more example, quoting the Gospel for emphasis, "Behold the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). (One must appreciate our hip leftist's use of the Authorized Version. It betrays that underneath his rudeness to faith in general, he has some taste.)

For Christians worldwide, the willing sacrifice of Christ is the beginning of the salvation of humanity, and demands the end of all ritual human or other vicarious sacrifice. For Sam, John the Baptist's announcement is a "bizarre opinion." He believes we should use his very narrowly defined "reason" like "Occam's razor": to shave away from our worldview everything we cannot see or touch. For Christians, the fact that Christ was murdered by unbelievers exemplifies how refusing to see the truth of religion itself can lead to human sacrifice. Only by sacrificing the unique identity of Christianity, and crudely lumping it with paganism, can Sam maintain his argument.

Sam's Double Standard

Just as well as making a distinction between good atheists and bad atheists, why not at least try to see the ancient distinction between true religion and false doctrine? By way of example, the classic French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) wrote a rambling though interesting essay "Of Cannibals." He describes savage tribes--much like the ones Sam describes--that had been discovered and related by travelers of his era. His account of the cannibals' religion shares a striking similarity with how Christianity is often described: "They believe their souls to be immortal, and that they who have deserved well of the gods have their abode in that quarter of the heavens where the sun rises." We could take from this surface commonality that since Christians believe in immortality and heaven just like the savages did, they therefore open themselves up to "other" misguided and irrational propositions like killing for God; and therefore Sam does well in judging the followers of Christ with as much shame and suspicion as those vicious man-eaters. Could the parallel really mean something this ominous?

Those who seek for clarity know better. Montaigne continues of the cannibals, "[T]heir moral teaching contains only these two articles: resoluteness in war and affection for their wives." In the light of this scant moral code the apparent similarity with Christianity contrasts nearly as much as atheism with Christianity. While most Christians would support faithfulness and resolve in a war (were it a just and necessary war), such a virtue is far from the essence, or even half the essence, of our faith. As well, even though Christians would preach the need for affection toward one's wife, such affection is a special instance of the greater imperative to love your neighbor in general. Not to mention, Montaigne's cannibals were polygamists, and thus their "affection for their [many] wives" had as much to do with gaining more wives as a mark of status than it did with anything rivaling Christian love.

It is no wonder that when Christianity spread and encountered tribes like this, it reformed their concepts of affection and resolve, and it lifted their moral code beyond the primal urges of war and sex. Christianity replaced vengeful human sacrifice with the willing self-sacrifice of Christ in our place. This act of transcendent love is the example that begets our own love for neighbor, family, wives, and even intellectual opponents. The twin pillars of love for Christ and love of neighbor transformed society, instilled the foundations of peace and prosperity, and will continue to do so today when honored. So you can see that delving just a little bit beneath the surface of names and vague generalities, and engaging with the articles of faith, can expose a vital distinction between good beliefs and false--or at least incomplete--beliefs. When this is done, a huge chasm opens up between religions, and the kind of comparisons Sam makes are exposed for the intellectual bait-and-switch that they are. It would have been as easy for Sam to search out these differences himself, as it was for him to try to define "good atheists" over against the atheistic mass murderers of the twentieth century, but he has not even addressed the same possibility among religious faiths. The double standard belies either a failure or a refusal to take journalistic responsibility seriously.

Rather than his knack for subtly making outrageous parallels, one would like to see Sam demonstrate an ability to make critical distinctions where proper, or at least respect the fact that millions of equally intelligent and widely read people make them both thoughtfully and effortlessly. On top of this, he could perhaps show some deftness with religious sources as well; which brings us to another point. It has been a joke in the "new atheist" world--with Richard Dawkins especially--to brush off the criticism that the new atheists have not read, let alone taken seriously, any essential works of Christian or other religious tradition or scholarship. The dismissal comes in the form of one internet writer's polished prose which can be summed up, "Why waste time waxing eloquent about the fineries of royal fashion, when the point is that the Emperor has no clothes!" Or, as Dawkins himself has put it, "Do you need to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in them [leprechauns]?"

Go ahead, it's OK to laugh. I chuckled, myself. It is as easy to laugh at as to reply to. One of our atheist's self deceptions here is to affirm the case up front--that the Emperor is indeed naked, or that the subject is indeed as mythological as fairy tales--which are the very questions up for debate. Some of Dawkins' critics may be a bit green, and his book sales have brought him a pot of gold, but done with the real debate we are not. You have two wishes left, Dick. And so this instance from Harris only highlights the need for these atheists to engage more genuinely with the subject matter, and the sources they pretend to refute. We get none of this from Harris. Only what amounts to this: "Ancient pagans sacrificed humans; Christianity involves the sacrifice of Christ; therefore, Christianity is every bit as dumb, 'depraved and fantastical,' and cannibalistic as those pagans were."

Unfortunately, to avoid such subtle and menacing logical pitfalls requires one to draw distinctions and to be slow to draw conclusions--neither of which traits has Sam exhibited for us. So, I think Actonís conclusion is safer, at least for now, that the pagans (and we could add some atheists, too, for that matter) embraced all forms of human sacrifice, not because of faith and religion in general, but because their faith and religion were warped. In their slaughters, they

"sacrificed the most precious thing on earth, because they were ignorant of the death of that Victim who alone could take away the sins of the world."

Following the example of such a respectable scholar and defender of human liberty as Acton, it behooves us to make at least the fundamental distinction between types of religions, as well as their respective propositions about the meaning and value of human life (among other things), before we lump them together en masse as first-class cannibals (an ancient slander of Christians, by the way--nothing new with Sam). Until our atheist shows an ability and willingness to make such distinctions, he will continue to prove his numerous critics right--that Sam Harris is bent on gross generalization in order to maintain that all religious folk are intellectual kin to morons and terrorists. Of course, in the logic of that world, every atheist is a Bolshevik, too, and Occam's razor a guillotine.

Human Sacrifice Today

What goes unstated or unnoticed is that human sacrifice continues openly today despite the advance of every measure of science and reason. In fact, we could say that the butchery is often aided and promoted by the march of both science and what passes as science. Likewise, human sacrifice in the "open society" is carried out by the most prosperous and self-appointedly rational people on earth: most of Western Civilization. The massacres continue under two main guises: abortion and unnecessary war.


fetus in the womb

Image courtesy of www.abortioninfo.net



The case of war is no less controversial, but no less clear. Without any intended reference to the current occupation of Iraq, it should be obvious that if any war is waged unjustly, and troops are killed in that battle for an ungodly cause, then the perpetrators of that war have offered human blood as an agent of social change, rather than relying on godly principles. This is human sacrifice pure and simple. Christians should not be afraid to oppose war, to oppose it vigorously, and to oppose hasty wars especially. Well does the Prayer Book of my denomination include in its military prayer, "Ever spare them from being ordered into a war of aggression or oppression." I have referred to the cannibals of Montaigne's essay as having a moral code based in war and sex. With these foundations--the devolution of nearly all societies left to only the devices of man--it is no wonder that cannibalism and human sacrifice found center stage. The scary part is that the parallel to twentieth century life jumps out immediately. War and sex--revolution and abortion. The modern instances of human sacrifice are built upon the same sands as the cannibalism Montaigne and Acton describe.

What keeps our own civilization--as the influence of Christianity wanes (so we are told), and is constantly attacked--from complete savagery? One thought for now: our own times are delayed from devolving into utter barbarism partly due to the fact that our two instances of human sacrifice are held dear, for the most part, by two separate and competing factions, Left and Right. It is the sin, primarily but not exclusively, of the Right to over-glorify war; and it is the sin, primarily but not exclusively, of the Left to demand every possible right to abortion. This has not always been so--for both revolutionary violence and abortion grew popular amidst the atheistic-Marxist tradition in the twentieth century--but currently conservatives tend to promote perpetual war, and liberals abortion on demand. If ever the twain should meet, we will brink the down-slope to civil and societal collapse. For now, we are only creeping in that direction.

Conclusion

Human sacrifice thrived--and sometimes still does--within many civilizations throughout history, for both religious and explicitly non-religious reasons. It took a powerful religion to end the practice in many parts of the world. It is ridiculous to argue that it is religion that opens the door for such mindless ritual murder when it is obvious that religion is neither necessary nor sufficient in many cases, and that it is religion that most often has prevented it.

To imply that the meaning of the crucifixion of Christ within Christendom is on par with a savage eating his enemy's heart in order to acquire his courage and power is a stupid misuse of information, and a devious swindle on the reading public's mind. The stupid misuse of human life will continue until we gain a respect for each other as divine creations, as images of the divine, and until we find an orientation toward divine law and judgment. While humans sacrificed each other in vengeance or greed, God himself entered history, took on our flesh and blood, and then gave himself for the world. That's not just more of the same, Sam. It's the hope of humanity, and an example to be followed.

"No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself." (John 10:18)

"This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:12-13)


Comments are welcome. All comments will be read, not all comments will be posted. We may invite authors of the best comments to respond in full articles, to be published in our November edition.

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