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Why militant anti-theism is a God-send


Why militant anti-theism is a God-send In the course of an interview for Frontpage magazine (published on 10 December 2003), Christopher Hitchens made a stunning admission:

"Watching the towers fall in New York, with civilians incinerated on the planes and in the buildings, I felt something that I couldn’t analyze at first and didn’t fully grasp until the day itself was nearly over. I am only slightly embarrassed to tell you that this was a feeling of exhilaration. Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose.'

This belated confession added fuel to the already raging fire sparked by Hitchens' full-throated support for the American-led military intervention in Iraq earlier that same year. Even more baffling to his erstwhile comrades on the left is Hitchens’ on-going advocacy of this gruesome war, despite the complete unravelling of the stated grounds for the occupation and in the face of mounting public pressure to withdraw. It is only with the publication of his new book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, that the basis for Hitchens’ unwavering commitment to this cause becomes clear: the struggle in Iraq is but a symptom of the real war now being waged, and that is against religion itself.

This war, to which Hitchens silently pledged himself that day, must be fought wherever the enemy is encountered, whether in the guises of global jihadism and vulgar American fundamentalism, at one extreme, or in the West’s more urbane agnosticism — which amounts to little more than a self-congratulatory 'Dunno', a position lacking both intellectual stamina and moral courage, all the while priding itself on being open-minded — at the other. As he demonstrated in The Missionary Position, a devastating exposé of Mother Theresa (and effectively the prequel to his latest book), neither the most saintly instances of religious belief nor the most seemingly innocuous should be left unopposed because "all religions are versions of the same untruth", and, as such, are "positively harmful."

This same sentiment — one of sheer, unmitigated aggression, the "exhilaration" to which Hitchens referred earlier — drives Richard Dawkins’ contribution to the contemporary assault on religion. The God Delusion emerged from a deep sense of the intolerability of a situation that had been allowed to fester for too long. As he wrote just days after the event in September 2001:

"It is time to stop pussyfooting around. Time to get angry. And not only with Islam … Only the wilfully blind could fail to implicate the divisive force of religion in most, if not all, of the violent enmities in the world today. Those of us who have for years politely concealed our contempt for the dangerous collective delusion of religion need to stand up and speak out."

Why militant anti-theism is a God-send And this, perhaps, is one of the most striking characteristics of the current wave of intellectual atheism: its affective content, the fact that there is little measured or polite about the way it expresses itself. Even the term 'atheist' seems a little too mild, too respectable a designation for the position occupied by Hitchens and Dawkins (to which list one should also add Ayaan Hirsi Ali). They are anti-theists, opposed in principle to every last attachment to the divine, leading many to accuse them of a kind of inverted fundamentalism, a failure to exhibit the core modern virtue of tolerance or respect for others.

But is this heedless intensity really so bad? It is hard not to be taken by the seriousness of anti-theism, particularly when compared to the suffocating cultural and religious lethargy from which it has emerged. Indeed, it is the very impotence of so much Western Christianity — having long since been content to give succour to people’s basest fears and to acquiesce in the 'spirit of the age' as yet another vendor of personal satisfaction and spiritual meaning — that has created the intellectual space for the current debate to occur.

It is at this point that T.S. Eliot’s Notes towards a Definition of Culture is more important than ever. He forecast that the indiscriminate unification or harmonizing of a culture would achieve naught but its own debasement. In our time, when cultural diversity (to use Francis Fukuyama’s astute formulation) is little more than an "ornament to liberal pluralism", supplying the otherwise dull veneer of Western culture with a certain culinary and aesthetic flair, the multiculturalist refusal to, as Hirsi Ali puts it, "classify cultural phenomena as 'better' or 'worse' but only neutral or disparate" actually reinforces the barbaric treatment of women within Islamic communities. What is called for is not intellectual tolerance and mutually-degrading respect, but rather division.

We should be thanking these anti-theists for picking a fight that we should have started long ago. The only question now is, as Christians, will we have the courage to oppose our common foe — what Barth rightly termed "religion as unbelief" — or will we retreat to the safe-ground of religious obsolescence?



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Existing comments

It's a hilarious double-standard that you actually have to pick up a gun and kill somebody to be considered a 'militant' believer, but all you have to do to be considered a 'militant atheist' is write a book.

Ray Ingles | 17 May 2007  

It doesn't sound like you're quite turning the other cheek. Would it be a safe guess you won't be selling what you have and giving it to the poor either?

Matt | 17 May 2007  

As usual, I am intrigued by your argument, Scott and deeply frustrated by the kind of unreflective one-liners that you often receive in the way of comments from readers.Sometimes I despair that we have forgotten how to read or listen to each other with attention and charity: instead we just pull out a few key phrases and instill them with our deepest fears! Suggest the value of disagreement and people who've never met you immediately accuse you of disobeying all of Jesus' commandments!
That rant over, let me ask a practical question. When you call for 'division', how and where do you believe that should occur? After all, the Cronulla riots and the behaviour of Alan Jones suggest that 'intellectual tolerance and respect' are a very shallow veneer over strong feelings of fear and hatred towards others. That is, I'm suggesting that we already have very real division of some kinds. And there are plenty of people enjoying making a profit out of the exacerbation of those divisions. You, as I understand it, are suggesting that the lines should be drawn along different lines and in different ways. Could you say more about that?

Joanna | 17 May 2007  

...and the great of these is love.

Tim Graham | 17 May 2007  

As always, Jo, you've cut straight to the heart of the matter. I'll try to be brief.

One of the crucial, albeit largely unrecognized (or at least uncriticized), aspects of Howard's opportunistic xenophobia is his adherence to the overall logic of multiculturalism: that cultural expressions are essentially benign, superficial, quaint (or, to put it in more Aristotelian terms, 'accidental'), and thus are capable of being draped over the values of Western liberal democracy (which usually means indulgence in trivial freedoms and participation in the economy). You might call this 'food-court' or even 'culinary' multiculturalism. The governing rule of this brand of multiculturalism is that of mutual recognition or deference: like a food-court, all of these cultural forms can sit side-by-side, so long as they never impinge on one another.

But Hirsi Ali's criticism at this point is vital: so long as Western culture continues to elevate tolerance between ethnic clusters as the defining trait of liberal democracy – thus abandoning the rigorous legacy of the Enlightenment – it effectively condones and perpetuates violent practices within those ethnic clusters. The unwillingness to identify cultural practices as 'right' or 'wrong' thus reflects the degradation of Western culture itself, its inability to define itself in any other way (i.e., in terms of its moral substance, what it stands for and against) than in terms of participation in the capitalist economy. (One still hears this perspective expressed by those that argue for an economic solution to the Iraq debacle: if we can just get these Iraqi kids jobs flipping falafels and saving their money for the latest accessories and hottest fashions, they won't be so intent killing other people.)

The upshot of all this is a rather strange, counter-intuitive judgment: that multiculturalism is the flip-side of unenlightened racism. Both reflect the inability to articulate some positive moral substance, what we stand for and what we stand against. What remains is thus the amoral vacuity of 'food-court multiculturalism' and the empty lashings-out of fear-driven bigotry. (This is what I was trying to get at in my 'Comfortable nation afraid to get off the couch' piece.)

My point is this: just as the vacuity of Western culture has manifested itself as amoral multiculturalism, so too the loss of Christian substance has manifested as fatuous ecumenism and the amoral 'fraternity of the faiths'. Why do we insist on defending the cause of religion whenever it is attacked, rather than joining in the properly Christian activity of the destruction of every idolatry? There were few things more disgraceful than the widespread denunciation of Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses' on the part of the Church (including both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury) following the Ayatollah's declaration of the fatwah - when what was required was a condemnation of the Ayatollah himself and an expression of solidarity with Rushdie. Or, the church's well-nigh universal condemnation of Benedict's (magnificent!) Regensberg address last year, but nothing about the hypocritical violence enacted by so many Muslims.

This current wave of atheism, that is capable of reminding us what the moral engagement with religious idolatry in fact looks like, is a God-send indeed! What a shame, though, that it took some atheists to show us how a Christian engagement with the constitutive idolatries of our time might function. Yet again, Marx said it best: "Shame on you, Christians, shame on you that an anti-Christian had to show you the essence of Christianity in its true and unveiled form!"

Scott Stephens | 17 May 2007  

If Christopher Hitchens considers his "enlightened" comments of assistance in guiding the "God believers", may one question why the covert intolerant and aggressive flavour in his written and verbal delivery.

Maureen T.Couch

Maureen T.Couch | 17 May 2007  

Thanks, Scott - that's helpful. I have to say, though, that I'm somewhat sceptical about whether this 'current wave of atheism' does provide a model for speaking truth to power in the way you are suggesting. Partly because while I don't doubt the sincerity of Hitchens or Dawkins, they seem to be preaching entirely to a converted fan base rather than participating in genuine iconoclasm. To criticise religion in the academy or the left-wing press is about as dangerous as disparaging Cold Chisel at the opera. For this reason I take Hirsi Ali far more seriously: her life is on the line.
Other than their intensity and passion, though, what do we have to learn from these angry atheists about how to oppose idolatry?

Joanna | 17 May 2007  

Not so sure about the "speaking the truth to power" comment, because I don't think that's the point. The point is speaking the truth to other religions - taking one's place on the side of the Enlightenment rather than mawkishly defending 'religion' against its detractors.

Just to be perfectly clear, however, I've got some very deep reservations about the substance of Dawkins' argument (more on that in my piece for next week), and I am convinced that Christian theology can outdo even the atheists themselves when it comes to what Marx called "the criticism of heaven"!

Scott Stephens | 17 May 2007  

Sure - let me stick to your own phrase 'the moral engagement with idolatries' instead. I'll wait for next week's piece to hear your own suggestions on alternative models for that task to the anti-theists' - are you going to say something about violence? Because it interests me that this is where someone like Hitchens ends up (and Pamela Bone is a similarly interesting example of someone whose feminist concerns led her to sympathise with the invasion of Afghanistan, if I remember rightly?). And having sat through some lengthy and often tedious debates on the nature of 'the Enlightenment' (French? English? Scottish?) I hope you're going to include your own definition of that too!

Joanna | 17 May 2007  

Thank you Scott Stephens for kicking off this debate. I am always amused (and sometimes slightly irritated) when people blame religion for wars and suffering, when the greatest number of deaths and suffering in modern times were caused by atheists such as Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot to name but a few.

If anybody has seen the clever play "Equus", they will understand that it is human passion which often guides behaviour.Sometimes to justify themselves, people ascribe their motives to religion. Christianity is the faith which follows a peace-loving, forgiving, kind Man whose brilliance and divine perfection has been unassailable after two thousand years of analysis by the most critical of minds.

Those who follow Him truly, live happy, fulfilled, peaceful lives. I cannot speak for other religions but many founder when compared with His code, and it is a shame when they are all lumped in as "religion", when they are so different.

You could just as easily classify atheism as religion, with its adherents and passionate followers. Many atheists are "into" substitutes: such as tarot card reading, psychics,numerology, etc etc.

It is a growth industry. Magazines and markets are full of these now. Which reveals that we are spiritual beings, whichever way you slice it. So instead of advocating atheism, which is about individualism and ultimate accountability, should we not simply support the practice of religion such as Christianity which - when you look around the globe - supports peace,working for prosperity, forgiveness and kindness?

SYD | 18 May 2007  

Having immobilised himself with his support for Halliburton's annexation of Iraqi oil assets by proxy, poor old Mr Hitchens is indeed a sitting duck for anyone who wants to draw aim at him rather than at the subjects about which he writes.

As a post-Catholic (I'm over all that stuff now) I can in no way share Mr Hitchens' exhilaration; this is the only life any of us will ever have, so the horror of 3000 snuffed lives is only exceeded by the evil cynicism with which "them thar God-fearin theists, good ol Christian boys" set about sending the sons of those stupid enough to vote for them off to murder and be murdered.

David Arthur | 18 May 2007  

Having immobikised himself with his support for Halliburton's annexation of Iraqi oil assets by proxy, poor old Mr Hitchens is indeed a sitting duck for anyone who wants to draw aim at him rather than at the subjects about which he writes.

As a post-Catholic (I'm over all that stuff now) I can in no way share Mr Hitchens' exhilaration; this is the only life any of us will ever have, so the horror of 3000 snuffed lives is only exceeded by the evil cynicism with which "them thar God-fearin theists, good ol Christian boys" set about sending the sons of those stupid enough to vote for them off to murder and be murdered.

David Arthur | 18 May 2007  

Apologies, I meant to say : instead of advocating atheism, which is about individualism and NOT ultimate accountability, should we not simply support the practice of religion such as Christianity which - when you look around the globe - supports peace,working for prosperity, forgiveness and kindness? And separately, in response to those who are pessimistic about Iraq: people all over the world CRAVE freedom. The transition from oppression is often horrid and bloody. Look at what South Africa and East Timor went through. The Iraqi people now vote. The insurgents are furious and are sabotaging the efforts of the coalition to instil a peaceful, elected government. When you condemn the Allied Coalition in Iraq, please remember that many people, throughout history, have died for their right to have a voice.The least we can do is support the Iraqis in their quest.Don't make their deaths a waste, through ideological soap-boxing or nit-picking about motives. Look at what is to be gained, from here on. Read "The Promise" by Guzin Najim, if you still don't understand about Iraq and the freedom people are still hoping and dying for.

SYD | 18 May 2007  

"Indeed, it is the very impotence of so much Western Christianity ... that has created the intellectual space for the current debate to occur."
This statement is dead wrong. Atheists have been spurred to action by the Christian right, moral majority, focus on the family, and Christian crusade in Iraq. The institution of Christianity within the Bush administration and the unmitigated religious violence around the world and throughout history have inspired atheists to speak out and try to save humanity from its oldest and most destructive addiction - religion.

Jason / MAAF | 18 May 2007  

Thanks Jason, but the quote you plucked out already bears the seeds of its own response. Hitchens himself notes - as did Bertrand Russell long before him - the degradation of so much Western Christianity, its loss of any moral or intellectual substance. This is the "intellectual space" that I'm referring to. More than that, isn't it obvious that the mad lashings-out of the 'Christian Right' that you describe are actually symptomatic of their failure to grasp what Christianity in fact stands for, and stands against?

Scott Stephens | 18 May 2007  

Militant athiesm and the unquestioned veracity of its criticism of monotheism may be a timely reminder of the contradictions of religious belief and tradition but will have no significant impact on religious institution. They are more akin to intellectual suicide bombers. Bang but achieve nothing.

For those who want to bring down the three 'great' illusions, you will need a different agument and different tools for the job.

They are all available at these links:

Robert Landbeck | 19 May 2007  

It's the very height of foolishness and naivete to be grateful to Hitchens et al. for starting a fight on the view that it will compel Christians to fight back. For the line which he has drawn in the sand places himself and other anti-theists on side, and all Christians, Muslims, and believing Jews on the other. To fight this fight AS HITCHENS HAS DEFINED IT is to implicitly make common cause with all Christians, Muslims, and believing Jews - and to accept the 9-11 highjackers, Hitchens noir bete, as champions for one's side.

I don't think you mean to do anything of the sort, of course. But to pick up Hitchens' challenge is precisely to fight this kind of battle.

Throughout the ages, Christians' talent for polemic has paled in comparison to that of their adversaries. Christians have had only one just, holy, and effective 'weapon' in their armature, and that weapon is love. End of story.

lampwick | 20 May 2007  

I am, by your standards, a militant atheist, in that I believe there is no God and I believe that most educated people, when pressed, would admit it.

Things get muddy very quickly when talking about religion, and the argument tends to blend belief in a Creator with one's sense of morality. i believe in The Golden Rule, I believe in compassion first when dealing with anyone, I believe my morality and ethics are on a par with any christian's, but mine do not come from a book written specifically for a desert tribe 1800 years ago, they come from the recognition that the differences between me and everyone who ever lived iare tiny, and the ways we are the same are enormous.

If you take morals out of the argument about religion (which I think you must), then all you ar eleft with is a belief in magic. i don't share that belief.

Harry Hannigan | 20 May 2007  

Mr. Stephens--

You do understand that Active Atheism isnt just about stopping 'the barbaric treatment of women within Islamic communities.' It means we arent going to let Christians get away with 'the barbaric treatment of women' either. It means we arent going to let Christians get away with 'the barbaric treatment of homosexuals'. It means we arent going to let Christians get away with 'the barbaric treatment of science.' And so on.

If you acknowledges and accept this conclusion, then I would happily accept you as an ally.

Abbie | 20 May 2007  

Scott, your reference to 'food court' multiculturalism is beautifully accurate, as a description of Howard's desire to invite in everyone, so long as they don't question or disrupt the desire of the masses to continue consumption.

However your discussion with Jo misses the point of the criticism of both Hitchens and Dawkins. 'The God Delusion' is indeed a polemic, designed to antagonise, but there is an acceptance of morality and ethics at the heart of his argument which neither your article nor the responses have managed to address. The book presents clear, lucid arguments against every major position supporting the existence of 'god', whilst accepting that ethics and morality have a place within human consciousness. His thorough approach has yet to be seriously countered from commentary I have read.

Your observation that there "is little measured or polite about the way [atheism] expresses itself" is perhaps a simple cumulative effect - i.e. the trend towards unquestioning acceptance of 'god' in public affairs (and particularly in the US where Hitchens and Dawkins draw their primary reference points) has been growing in recent years. Atheism has lacked public supporters, and therefore these two authors represent a pent-up response.

Sam C | 22 May 2007  


Thankyou for this interesting and timely piece. Like many Australians, I am watching (with interest and fascination) the TV series of "The God Delusion" currently screening on ABC; and I also watched Andrew Denton's "God on My Side" last night, also on ABC.

I actually agree with you that the current surge of anti-theism is a substantial good - although I'm not sure I'd agree with you as to why. My essential feeling is that it is time that "moderate" persons of faith made it clear that the phrase "thinking Christian" (or Jew, or Muslim, or Hindu, etc) is not an oxymoron - which is essentially Dawkins' argument, inasmuch as he asserts that religion, a priori, prevents free thinking and destroyes intellectual freedom.

For me, this was brought home when, at the conclusion of Denton's excellent documentary, my wife sighed rather wistfully: "I wish they'd do a film about moderate Christians to show the world we're not all like the fundamentalists".

And that, of course, is the rub; films about fundamentalists get made because they're "interesting" - that is, they are so far outside the lived experience of the vast bulk of the population as to be assurred of generating a response (and, hence, commercial success). But the danger, of course, is that the fundamentalists become the sole projection of faith; just as right-wing Republicanism has, sadly, become the sole projection of US society.

And that, in turn, is why the likes of Dawkins regard religious belief as a synonym for unthinking, authoritarian imbecility.

But here's the other rub: the dilemma facing all "moderates" or "progressives" is that, in order to be true to their philosophical raison d'etre, they have to allow others the freedom they claim for themselves. In other words, if someone wants to be a fundamentalist, I have to give them the freedom to be a fundamentalist, otherwise the freedom I claim for myself is simply an illusion at best, a lie at worst.

Extremists of any persuasion don't have this problem: in their minds, they are right, and everyone else has to tow heir line. But this "dilemma of conscience" can effectively cripple "moderates" and prevent them asserting themslves, lest they trip over the thin line between self-assertion and oppression.

So the question is: how do "moderates" ensure that fundamentalism doesn't become the sole projection of faith, thereby adding more fuel to the anti-theist fire. I don't have any easy answers to that; partly because I don't think there are any such easy answers; but also because I think part of the solution is to be found in the good that the current wave of anti-theism will do for people of faith. Which is to say, how "thinking Christians" (or Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Bhuddists, etc) respond to the charges laid by Dawkins and co in such a way as to demonstrate the fallacy of their position (whilst at the same time recognising any legitimate criticisms they may have to make), may give those same groups an insight into how to ensure fundamentalism doesn't become the sole projection of faith.

Which brings me around to the basic reason why I disagree with you about why the present prominence of Dawkins and Hitchins is good for faith. To be honest, I am rather tired of this notion that Western culture is a bland wash of relativism or that our efforts to afford dignity and respect to competing worldviews is some fatuous "ornament to liberal pluralism". On the contrary, I think that Western society is amazingly robust and dynamic, and that its attempts to facilitate multiple approaches to being is both its strength and its gratest validation. No, we don't always do it right, and yes, we must ensure that critical debate and analysis continues and that we do not meekly accept "whatever is going" in some facile gesture to "pluralism" or "multiculturalism" or even "tolerance"; neither must we turn a blind eye to the cruelties and inhumanities practiced in the name of culture, or religion (our own included) out of some misguided notion of respect. But that is a completely different thing from asserting that Western pluralist culture is suffering from some fatal malaise that Dawkins and co will help knock us out of.

In this respect, I would make two observation. 1) If we are being assailed by ennui at present, it is one that exists within faith generally and Christianity particularly. That is why the fundamentalists on the one hand, and the anti-theists on the other, are so attractive to so many: because they appear muscular, robust, alive, and this is interpreted as synonymous with intellectual or moral integrity. 2) The solution to the problem of fundamentalist monopolisation of faith, and the anti-theist critique, lies with ourselves, not in any suggestion of Western cultural malaise. We need to get our own house in order, because the fight is not between faith and a relativistic society, or between faith and anti-theist criticism: the fight is between faith as freedom, diversity, and vigour and faith as uniform, monochrome, authoritarianism.

Thanks again for this article.

Brendan Byrne | 22 May 2007  

Wow! Lots of food for thought here. It raises the question of how far we can go in opposing socially accepted norms with which we disagree. Suppose they are socially acepted in other cultures? Can we accept there and oppose here?

lenore Crocker | 22 May 2007  

Thanks for your always perceptive, immensely stimulating remarks, Brendan. On your final two conclusions, I couldn't agree more. In fact, what you are suggesting is precisely the point of Marx's famous precept, that "The criticism of heavean becomes the criticism of earth." The struggle between faith(s) becomes the struggle for culture itself.

Thank you again for pressing the conversation further.

Scott Stephens | 23 May 2007  

i'm also an anti-theist. As an openly gay man, I totally fear and hate both Islam and Christianity. for centuries they both have hurt us. The good thing in the west is that christianity can do us any harm any more, thanks to secularism. This has been growing in the west for 200 years.

Mike Clarke | 26 May 2007  

9 11 inside job, i would have laughed in your face if you had told me that, then i watched certain documetaries about it. Now that is what i believe

tom | 03 August 2009  

To Jason / MAAF17-May-2007 You say “The institution of Christianity within the Bush administration and the unmitigated religious violence around the world and throughout history have inspired atheists to speak out and try to save humanity from its oldest and most destructive addiction - religion”

I am afraid you are badly mistaken.
1. The Bush administration reflected the worst features of Feudal Capitalism and certainly nothing of Christianity. In fact the invasion of Iraq was denounced in no uncertain terms of the Pope several times. That kind of extreme Capitalism is, by the way, anti-Christian in almost every aspect because it is based on greed; it elevates the “wants” of the individual above the legitimate needs of the “common good” of a community/society and in the process, is a breaking of many of the Tem Commandments.

2. The term “religious violence” is a contradiction in terms. One cannot be a Christian and also be violent; e.g. one cannot call one-self a Christian and harm another human (nor even an animal) by physical or emotional violence and ; e.g. one is forbidden to invade another country/nation and make war upon it - especially to exploit it for its resources; cheap labour, etc. etc. ONLY self-defence is allowed (and then only after an exhaustive process of negotiations have failed and there is no longer any prospect of peace).

3. All wars throughout history have NEVER been caused by religion (although Hitchens and Dawkins appear to have a vested interest in having you believe such a lie) - wars are/have been brought by evil people who have used religion as a “cover” for their evil deeds (personal power, stealing of land and assets of other countries, exploitation, revenge, hatred etc. etc.).

4. Most religions teach peace and harmony and a co-operative spirit and never hatred. One is only a Christian if he/she is a living example of respectful love - that is follows the teaching of Jesus: “love one another as I love you”; “yes, even love your enemies and do good to them”; “turn the other cheek” (ignore slights, insults and get on with life).
4. Religion is not an addiction - Faith only comes with life experience, maturity and wisdom and a realisation that there actually is a higher power than ourselves (see Dr. F. Collins, Head of the Genome Project and one of the world's leading scientists as he refutes the tired stereotypes of hostility between science and religion. Dr. Collins challenges his readers to find a unity of knowledge that encompasses both faith and reason).

All war, tragedy, devastation, all evil comes from Satan and only prayer can deflect Satan's growing power over humankind (because humans keep choosing (free-will) Satan's way instead of God's loving way.

Andrew | 18 January 2010  

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