Are Atheist-Thumpers Dividing Secular AA?

By Vic Losick

Are atheist-thumpers dividing Secular AA? 

Yes.

Rather, it’s those in Secular AA who smear non-believers as “Atheist-Thumpers” that are doing the partitioning.

It’s an old, ugly tactic intended to purify the ranks, and force the silence or removal of those with whom they disagree.

I think we all concur that we choose to attend Secular AA in order to avoid the religiosity of “conventional” or “traditional” AA.

The dictionary definition of “secular” is non-religious, not anti-religious. However, AA describes itself as “not religious, but spiritual.” Yet, religion and spirituality are both non-fact-based belief systems.

What are we to make of these seemingly contradictory claims?

To many in Secular AA this “religion vs. spirituality” argument is a distinction without a difference.

When asked for the difference between a religion and a cult Richard Dawkins responded, “About 2,000 years.”

Just to be clear: I do not wish to argue for or against anyone’s personal beliefs or non-beliefs. In fact, I have no interest in what anyone believes or does not believe. That is why I attend Secular AA.

Each of us attends AA meetings with our personal beliefs or non-beliefs intact.

And we are free to express those beliefs or non-beliefs during any “conventional” AA or Secular AA meeting, whether we are leading the meeting or sharing from the floor. The overriding issue here is how Secular AA and ICSAA as organizations define themselves.

I do not question the sincerity of people’s various beliefs or non-beliefs. However, the mere rejection of organized religion does not then open the door for other non-evidence-based belief systems.

It should be noted that there are believers in Secular AA who want to talk about god only in church, so they can talk solely about alcohol in AA.

I am glad to note that the Secular AA Mission & Vision Statements as part of the by-laws (and are to be voted on tomorrow) make no claim for either spirituality or a Higher Power.

I was also pleased to see that this year’s theme is “Inclusion & Diversity.” And I was prepared to dismount from my “spiritual” hobbyhorse until I checked this year’s program schedule and spotted “The Biology, Psychology and Philosophy of Spirituality” with Dr. Vera T. and John Ma.

I guess just one panel this year is an improvement over our past two conventions.

As you will remember, the Santa Monica convention presented: “How Can an Atheist Pray?” and “The Power of Vow.” And in Austin: “Spiritual Life is Not a Theory,” and “Spirituality Minus Religion.”

And we should also remember the choice of keynote speakers:

In Santa Monica we famously heard the Rev. Ward Ewing, a pleasant and friendly man. But the mere selection of a high-ranking clergyman is an embarrassing plea on our part for acceptance. To me his presence was as surreal and absurd as having say, the CEO of Budweiser address any AA convention, “traditional” or Secular.

As to the pick of the Grapevine‘s Ami B to address the Austin convention I refer you to John H’s writings and talks.

As a sample here’s a Grapevine quote from earlier this month that John H. sent to me: “Spirituality is not based on logic, it is faith-driven. Faith makes the impossible possible.”

These subjects and speakers would be better presented at a “traditional” AA convention. I do not attend Secular AA conventions to learn or study about any belief system.

So what is it with Secular AA and “spirituality?”

Why is spirituality given a secular free pass?

Let me try to explain myself from a slightly different angle: I assume that the over-whelming majority of Secular AA members do not believe that the Bible or the Koran is the inerrant word of god, just as I believe that we are convinced by the scientific evidence that the earth is more than 6,000 years old and that climate-change is seriously affected by the contributions of man.

Yet, I would also guess that in our science-based cohort there are a few who never-the-less believe that commonly recommended vaccinations for children are both somewhat lacking in efficacy and have a good chance of causing significant harm, if not autism. It’s that sort of “reasoning” arrived at by “I just know” with which I take issue.

And yes, I also realize the futility of using reason to argue with those who have arrived at their positions through unverifiable intuition. And if you are thinking: “I don’t care what you say, Vic, that’s how I feel, and that’s all there is to it!” I rest my case.

AA in general has been severely lacking in one area, science. It seems that AA’s initial success led it to believe that it had found the answer. But as we all can see by the addiction rates now engulfing the world AA is not the only way.

Mind you, total abstinence, a day at a time is the only approach that works for me and I assume most of, if not all of you.

However, there are those who might be able to moderate their drinking. Science may well provide future methods that will most likely help such people, and will most likely include medications.

So I am thankful to ICSAA for inviting Dr. Ray B. to lead a panel here in Toronto. Furthermore, I hope future Secular AA conventions will include scientists as keynote speakers.

As cited at the beginning many in Secular AA unfortunately pay lip service with respect other’s convictions.

Here are a few descriptions mentioned in the post-Austin conference survey: “militant atheist,” “angry atheists,” and “atheist fundamentalist.”

Will someone please explain to me this antipathy? Atheism is a school of thought, a line of reasoning. It does not describe one’s character or deeds.

I may be wrong, but I am persuaded that many spiritual and non-spiritual members of Secular AA are afraid of and don’t want to be associated with the taint of the label, “atheist,” especially when combined as “alcoholic atheist.”

So are we talking past each other? Perhaps.

I do think we are dancing around each other.

We need to face this secular/spiritual divide or we will end up as a bunch of irrelevant backbiters.

Only we can and should define ourselves.

So how would you like to see Secular AA?

Two questions:

Do believers feel that they are being discriminated against?

Are the Secular AA Mission & Vision Statements that omit spirituality and a Higher Power seen as a deal killers?

I can state with assurance that non-believers feel that Secular AA is the only refuge of reason within AA.

So will we split into Secular AA and Spiritual AA? I hope not.

As Dierdre S. so eloquently explained in Austin, not only is Secular AA AA, it special a interest group not unlike LGBTQ, Spanish-speaking, or women’s groups.

Secular AA as it now stands is but a thin slice of AA as a whole, which itself is but a small part of society at large. A schism would be a clear indication of our inability to respect each other’s personal views, and almost assure us as being utterly beside the point in the future.

I come to Secular AA to share my experience, strength and hope with fellow AA members, and to learn from their experience, strength and hope.

I strongly urge that Secular AA & ICSAA as institutions continue to welcome anyone who has a “desire to stop drinking,” while remaining indifferent to religion and/or spirituality.

© Vic Losick MMXVIII All Rights Reserved


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  1. Gerald September 24, 2018 at 4:31 am - Reply

    An open mind and a closed mind are opposites. Religion and science are not opposites, and each has both open-minded & closed-minded members (!)

    I frequently employ Dr. Silkworth’s term “moral psychology,” and use it interchangeably with “spirituality.”

    I am atheist yet I pray – frequently – as per the Big Book’s directions. I believe that I’m the only one to hear my prayers, yet prayer works! Perhaps it works because I have taken a moment to become aware of my emotional state. Then I respond to reality constructively instead of self-destructively with the ol’ knee jerk PTSD reaction to life, the ol’ Beat Dog attitude, and the Blame and Complain game.

    It’s OK with me if believers in AA want to attribute to God what I attribute to the moral psychology of AA’s simple program of action.

    Religion can make men great – or it can make men childish. Non-believers in AA, however, who refuse to experiment with the BB’s suggested program of action – because the G-word is all over the place – are childish. Or adolescent, but certainly – by definition – are unscientific in their approach.

    … I was that kind of non-believer the first couple years sober in AA. My life improved when I started following the BB directions. Lucky me, I got some good advice for getting through steps two and three:

    – Pray anyways. Pray with absolute, unqualified disbelief, but pray anyways.

    – Put the God stuff on the back burner for now. Just do the steps and see what happens.

    – You’ll know you’ve taken your third step when you start writing out your fourth step.

    … Science can make men great – or childish. I worked in medical research for several years, got an inside look at the “peer review” process and how funding works.

    Believe me 🙂 , there’s a lot of “received truth” & “orthodoxy” in the medical research industry. The power of the purse is how they shut down non-conformists, and peer reviewed can mean peer pressured.

    You can lose your career for applying the Scientific Method to the received truths 🙂 It happens.

    Thanks

     

  2. Stephen B Nocita September 23, 2018 at 11:09 pm - Reply

    In decrying those of us concerned about the diviseness of “angry atheists,” “militant atheists,” etc. Vic either misses or ignores the point.

    While Vic is correct that “Atheism is a school of thought, ….  It does not describe one’s character or deeds,” the concern is not with atheism, it is with the anger or militancy of some atheists, who excoriate & seek to exclude non-atheistic viewpoints in Secular AA, whether it be Ward Ewing, secular spirituality, or any point of view (or “school of thought,” to use Vic’s term) other than atheism. Some of these angry & militant seem to forget that we are Secular AA, not “Atheist AA.” 

    Whatever Vic’s preference might be, our Conference Title “Inclusion & Diversity” embraces the broader viewpoint, accepting both self-styled atheists as well as non-atheist labels and view, including spirituality. If someone is unable to accept this, to accept secular spirituality for example, then I submit that this person has too narrow a view of spirituality.

    • John S September 24, 2018 at 1:21 pm Reply

      Actually, I don’t think that atheism is a school of thought or a philosophy or any sort of belief system. Atheism is simply the lack of theistic beliefs. I lack a belief in a deity. I have no belief in a God, I have no religious beliefs I am an atheist. That is all there is to atheism.

  3. John Huey September 23, 2018 at 5:58 pm - Reply

    This discussion is useful and I have gone on, at length, about much of this in other places.

    Like my dear friend Vic L I take vigorous issue with our Australian correspondent PJ in terms of the characterizations of “nasty” , “divisive” , “Disruptive Argumentive Atheism”.

    You are not the thought police PJ! I don’t know you and, to my knowledge, have never interacted personally with you but as one of the more vigorous atheist voices out there who has had quite public questions about the currency of 12 Step dogma (as originally written or re-written by people with a need to do so) as well as any kind of regard for the ‘Big Book’ or its Oxford Group inspired and motivated roots and applications I feel I have to respond.

    In terms of what this determined (formally known as militant) atheist thinks in my latest talk from Toronto (were you in the room?)and my post Toronto analysis originally printed at Atheisticaa.com I am very clear about how these issues about spirituality and religious dogma dressed up as “secular” are viewed by this “disruptive” loudmouth.

    Take a look at these and come back and reason with this, based on what was actually said. Then you can return and try, as you might, to suppress freedom of expression and categorize fellow members in a manner I would never dream of characterizing you. You seem to have no real ideas, just opinions. I would suggest you develop some before you come back to attack the likes of us. Good Luck!

    Links with some actual ideas and supported opinions follow:

    Are Determined Atheists Anti-AA?

     

  4. Vic L September 23, 2018 at 3:02 pm - Reply

    While I was disappointed by John S’s lack of full disclosure that he was going to post another, countervailing post opposite to mine I am happy that someone has attempted to respond to my arguments. Unfortunately I find PJ’s post just ugly, nonsensical rantings.

    The dictionary definition of “secular” is non-religious, not anti-religious.
     

    “Mindless Religious Dogma”
     
    I will only refer to two categories of alcoholics, those who believe in a god (theists) and those who don’t (atheists). This reflects my own experience as former believer and present atheist.
    This is a rather simplistic understanding of people’s beliefs which are, of course much more complex.
    There are those in Secular AA who describe themselves as “atheists” yet assert their belief in a “Higher Power,” a “non-anthropomorphic Higher Power” or even just a “force” greater than themselves. While people are free to describe themselves as they wish the general interpretation of “atheist” is the understanding that there is no “god,” since such an assertion is unverifiable.
    The crucial life-saving AA principal of the inclusion of every alcoholic who seeks a sober life is violated and sacrificed by these religious dogmatists.
    I would apply that to this post.

    “Disruptive Argumentative Atheism”
    I guess just “Atheism” is not divisive enough.

    “I interpret the term Higher Power as the human power of the AA fellowship that keeps me sober…
    Perhaps if “Higher Power” were not capitalized then its use would be not be seen as some sort of divine source.

    “They reject the theistic element of AA but develop their own workable recovery program.”
    Well, yes.

    “What I am referring to are those atheists who remain in AA but are antagonistic and constantly critical of fellow AA’s and their sobriety. They show little regard or respect for anyone else and once again the line of intolerance separating Us and Them is drawn.”
    From my post:
    “Each of us attends AA meetings with our personal beliefs or non-beliefs intact. 
    And we are free to express those beliefs or non-beliefs during any “conventional” AA or Secular AA meeting, whether we are leading the meeting or sharing from the floor. The overriding issue here is how Secular AA and ICSAA as organizationsdefine themselves.”
     
    “The line drawn by argumentative atheists only allows enough room for one person on their side, themselves. There is no room for anyone else; the life-saving power of fellowship created when alcoholics share their experience strength and hope is quickly destroyed.”
    See above.
     
    “I have observed and experienced this nasty and divisive phenomena first hand in secular AA.”
    Not by me.
     
    “When I got sober, many of the old timers impressed upon me the importance of being able to take criticism.”
    Hear, hear.
     
    “The main problem with criticism from argumentative atheists is that you can’t respond in the same way as you do to the religious dogmatists. With them you can quote their own material back at them making it difficult for them to counter quote.” 
    ?????????????
     
    “In comparison, argumentative atheists only wish to continue arguing and to win at all cost.”
    Might you give an example?
     
    “I was advised that when sharing I should remember that there might be someone in the room at their first meeting, walking that line of alcoholic uncertainty. I was told, “Choose your words carefully, you could be holding someone’s life in your hands.” 
    “Indeed.”
     
    “Argumentative atheists may be few in number but substantial in effect. They not only potentially discourage alcoholics’ participation in secular AA but cause an even greater problem as a loud and in your face embodiment of a commonly held belief in society of what an atheist is — disruptive, disrespectful, undisciplined, and uncontrollable.”
    These are not factual statements, but declarations made up out of whole cloth.
     
    “Their argumentative tirades only serve to undermine the efforts of mainstream secular atheists trying to build a greater level of acceptance for themselves within the greater AA community.”
    From my post:
    “Secular AA as it now stands is but a thin slice of AA as a whole, which itself is but a small part of society at large. A schism would be a clear indication of our inability to respect each other’s personal views, and almost assure us as being utterly beside the point in the future.”
     
    “Dealing with argumentative atheists in online forums is much easier to manage since they are generally privately run with rules for participation. It is easy, although not necessarily desirable, to ban argumentative atheists from participation.”
    I am very skeptical of censorship.
     
    Face-to-face meetings, on the other hand, are obviously much more difficult to manage. Do you allow total freedom of expression or do you impose rules to ban participation by argumentative atheists?
    I’m one of those who favor free speech, especially face-to-face.
     
    When I first got sober in AA I saw how troublesome alcoholics were excluded from sharing at meetings. In some instances, the troublemaker would be ejected from the meeting but told to come back. This seemed a bit harsh, but then I observed in other meetings where these troublesome characters were accommodated, a corresponding drop in attendees often followed leading in some cases to meeting closure. Irrespective of how argumentative atheists are dealt with, the healing atmosphere of an AA meeting will almost certainly suffer damage. To be honest, I really don’t have a satisfactory answer for this problem.
    All AA meetings are autonomous, and each meeting I trust can resolve such matters.
     
    From my observations the religious dogmatists and argumentative atheists are very similar in nature. Like all alcoholics they face the challenge of dealing with ego and keeping it right-sized. But for them, their ego is colossal with a corresponding sense of their own self inflated importance. This makes them egotistical in the extreme with an insatiable demand for attention and accolades. Underpinning this oversize ego is an infantile psyche. 
    This is certainly “name calling,” and according to your above assertion would be stricken by online censors.
     
    “ I cringe when I recollect some of my own outbursts and unnecessary criticisms of others.” Developing the ability to recognise when this destructive egotism becomes active in myself is essential for both my own peace of mind and that of those around me. When my ego inflates I need to be able to recognize when this is happening, deflate it and bring myself back to right-size.
    Ahem
     
    Alas, PJ’s screed is an emotional rather than a rational response to my post. No where does he address any of the arguments that I put forward. I truly wish someone would read my post and respond in a courteous, factual manner.
     
    Vic L.
     

    • John S September 23, 2018 at 3:17 pm Reply

      Vic, PJ was not writing in response to your post. He wrote this and we had it prepared for posting weeks ahead of time. We just have an abundance of material available to post so rather than wait several months to post your article, we posted it today in addition to PJ’s article which had already been scheduled for today.

      I think that both articles provide valid points of view, were thought provoking and stimulated conversation.

      I’ll try to be more upfront when I post an article to let the author know another may accompany it. The truth of the matter is that I sometimes won’t know until I get right up to the time of posting. I’m not complaining about our wealth of material to post, but it brings with it some challenges.

  5. John Runnion September 23, 2018 at 12:16 pm - Reply

    “Yet, religion and spirituality are both non-fact-based belief systems.”  this, it seems to me, is a cognitive bias at play and not necessarily true. 

    There are many people now writing from a scientific perspective about “spirituality” defined much differently than one might suppose.  Here are a few:
    Infinite Awareness: The Awakening of a Scientific Mind by Marjorie Hines Woollacott (a neuroscientist),
    Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century by Edward F. Kelly, et al.
    (an old one by F. Myers is Human Personality: and Its Survival of Bodily Death,  Frederick W. H. Myers  https://www.esalen.org/ctr-archive/book-hpsurvival.html#title
    Biology of Desire, Marc Lewis, Ph.D.
    and The View from the Center of the Universe, Primack, Joel R. and Abrams, Nancy E.

    As the Bard once wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” 

    We may need to move beyond belief in an age of quantum mechanics and open our minds to more than scientific materialism.

    Our freethinkers group uses this phrase in our format: “As a group, we are secular.  That is, we do not endorse or oppose any system of belief, nor do we have any quarrel with any form of religion.  Our only wish is to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in A.A. without having to accept anyone else’s belief or having to deny their own.”

    If Secular AA means that i can’t keep an open mind about such things and attempt to understand where others are coming from, and let them share their own form of belief, non-belief, or experience, then perhaps (as a non-theist who finds the terms “spirituality” useful) i don’t belong in Secular AA either.

    imnsho, ymmv.

    • steve b September 23, 2018 at 2:23 pm Reply

      John, I did a quick fact-check on your citations, and they are favorable to paranormal claims and the survival of the mind after death. These are not scientific claims; they are irrational and not accepted by mainstream scientists. In their own way, they are just as daffy as religious beliefs. But, not to worry: I don’t have to accept your beliefs and you do not have to accept mine for us both to be at home in secular AA.

  6. life-j September 23, 2018 at 11:56 am - Reply

    I think we are all frustrated by Bill’s manipulative ways. Here he quoted Dr Jung on page 27:

    …once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.

    – entirely secular, but already on the next page he makes some of us retch:

    Here was the terrible dilemma in which our friend found himself when he had the extraordinary experience, which as we have already told you, made him a free man.

    We, in our turn, sought the same escape with all the desperation of drowning men. What seemed at first a flimsy reed, has proved to be the loving and powerful hand of God.

    – total manipulation, pure and simple.

    and it is this manipulation that we have had to sit through reading and listening to, and all the other irrational BS in the AA literature that has given even Dr Jung’s definition of spirituality a bad name, and of course all religious people work hard to co-opt it.

    Yes, it is so tainted that it is a term almost impossible to safely use. It is probably better to speak in terms of a moment of clarity than of a spiritual experience.

    Anyway, it is important that we focus on being secular rather than being agnostic, atheist or whatever. Secular is the only thing that in the long run can be an umbrella for all of us together. Privately I of course think believers are irrational, childish creatures, but I recognize the absolute need to have as much respect for the universe of childish people as that of children. Out in the political world dealing with childish people has its challenges to say the least, but in here in AA love and tolerance must be my code.

  7. Mark C. September 23, 2018 at 11:28 am - Reply

    Too bad the responses were not recorded. Or were they, and just not included in Vic’s presentation? Anyone know?

     

    • John S September 23, 2018 at 12:00 pm Reply

      Yes, Mark they were recorded but the audio was so bad, we didn’t post the audience comments.

  8. Jack Blair September 23, 2018 at 10:42 am - Reply

    As I was reading Vic’s opinion I was thinking nearly the same thoughts as in Johns’. My AAAA home group experiences no such divisions nor have I encountered such divisions in other quad A groups anywhere I’m wandering, (wandering damn near anywhere and when I choose is THE most glorious privilege of being retired)

    Schisms? Haven’t seen any. Differences of opinions? Hell ya!! Lots n lots of em!! That’s not a problem, it’s just plain old differences of opinions. It’s called growing pains, it sure as hell ain’t anything to sweat over. There’s lotsa monsters under beds without us searching for ‘em.

    If the day ever comes when I dont see any differences of opinions at groups, I’ll be out the door so dam fast you won’t even see my dust.

    Love to all,

    Cheers,

    Jack.

  9. John L. September 23, 2018 at 10:38 am - Reply

    Vic, I agree with you.  A couple of points:

    On “spirituality”: Definitions go all over the place, and are sometimes just platitudes or sermons.  I think “spirituality” is best defined by its antonyms.  To me, opposites of “spirituality” are “reality” and “sobriety” — both of which I value.  If people privately wish to enhance their “spirituality” by listening to late Beethoven or walking in the woods or contemplating their navels or whatever — that is their privilege.  If they wish to discuss these things briefly in an AA meeting, then that is their right.  But I think that official “spirituality” is out-of-place in secular AA.

    On abstinence: It’s not always easy to distinguish true alcoholics from non-alcoholics going through a rough time and drinking too much.  Recovery for true alcoholics means total abstinence, period.  Some heavy-drinking non-alcoholics may be able to moderate their drinking — although they may later become alcoholics.  The best books on making this distinction are by James R. Milam; I reviewed them in Beyond Belief:

    Under the Influence and Ending the Drug Addiction Pandemic by Dr. James Milam

     

  10. John S September 23, 2018 at 9:03 am - Reply

    I experience AA at the local level for the most part. Secular AA to me is my home group, “We Agnostics Kansas City,” and I haven’t seen any division at my group. Some of us express our experience using spiritual terms, others like myself prefer to focus on more practical terminology. There are members of my group who have no use for the 12 Steps, and others like myself who choose to adapt them to our own secular worldview. We don’t use the Big Book at all, but some people find some use for it and others think it’s no use at all.

    A commonality is that the meeting itself is neutral, there is no opening or closing prayer. In fact at my group, we don’t use a moment of silence nor do we recite the responsibility statement. We have business meetings to decide how the group operates and we seem to respect each other’s differences. I bet the same is true for other secular AA groups as well.

    When I attend the International Conference of Secular AA, and I”ve been to all three of them, I am exposed to people from hundreds of groups from around the world and with that comes differences, especially with the language used to express their experience in AA.

    Why are there such differences and why do people feel that there is division when we get together at an International Convention? I think the answer is two-fold.

    First, most of us spent time in traditional AA with the prayers, and chants and old books. I know in my case there was a gradual evolution away from that to a more secular approach. I’m a much different person today than I was in 2012, or even in 2014 after attending the first conference in Santa Monica. I bet this is true for a lot of us, that our views and our language is evolving. Some like myself may find themselves moving away from language laden with spiritual terminology and others may hang on to it. So, at ICSAA there will be people in various stages of their journey.

    I remember back in 2014 being shocked that a person in AA openly spoke about not working the Steps, but now I am much less rigid about them. I truly feel they are optional and not really necessary. They are useful and somewhat practical, but not magical. I may feel differently about them when we meet again in 2020.

    Secondly, there are also a good number of us in larger cities on the east coast and west coast who have had secular AA meetings for decades and even their traditional meetings are nothing like what we have in the Midwest or in rural communities. I think people who have had that experience feel frustrated when they hear from people who are new to a secular approach to AA. I feel that frustration myself now.

    At the Conference in Toronto, I was feeling the frustration when people from the audience were questioning I think the “Afternoon With Atheists Panel” and some audience members were perplexed at how people can stay sober, happily without the steps. I can’t speak for them, but I know for myself that I spent decades in AA as a conformist. It took me a while to get out of that mindset. Not saying that’s where those people are coming from, but that’s just my thought based on what I went through myself.

    So, I think that there is no way to avoid at ICSAA the panels that have “spiritual themes” because there will always be atheists among us who for whatever reason are comfortable with that language and with that approach at that particular time.

    In Kansas City, there is no division among Secular AA members, and I bet the same is true for New York. However, get a bunch of us together from all over and yeah, there will probably be division.

    Sorry for writing so much. I was not near as coherent and thoughtful as you were Vic. I appreciate you taking the time to share this. Your thoughts, opinions and views are always welcomed here.

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