Tag Archives: god

From the Ground Up

I was recently reading a Buddhist book about mindfulness when I began pondering why people flock to religion. Of course, there are several reasons. It comforts people to believe that someone (God) is looking out for them. It gives people structure; those who flourish when guided by rules and regulations enjoy following laws regarding morality. Simply, it makes people feel good; the spiritual aspect of religion is what, in my opinion, keeps it thriving in the modern world. 

The book, titled Mindfulness, by Joseph Goldstein, is filled with tidbits on how to live a life full of peace and happiness for not only oneself but also for other people. Just reading it put me at ease. Although Goldstein does reference the Buddha and other Buddhist adepts and their teachings, dogma is almost completely absent. The threats of eternal damnation are not there. The commands to worship are not there. The demand to believe in something beyond one’s five senses is not there. It is merely a guide to how to live a fulfilling life, and an insightful one at that. 

Everyone can use such advice. We all seek better ways to live. But usually, the advice we follow has strings attached; namely, faith. In Christianity, you must believe that Jesus is literally the Son of God in order to make it to Heaven. You could live a life filled with good deeds and still spend eternity in Hell simply because you did not believe the alleged words of a man who supposedly lived 2 millennia ago. 

But what purpose does faith serve? Why can’t one live a spiritually enriching life while helping others to do the same without a belief in the divinity of an ancient rabbi? 

It seems that adding a godly figure to the equation tends to qualify one’s moral code or spiritual life as legitimate. People think they need one in order to have the other. Some go to extreme lengths to justify or prove the existence of God. I have spent most of my time on this blog trying to argue that there is no good reason to believe in God. But in the past few months, I have become rather disenchanted with trying to do so. And it has finally occurred to me why: because there’s no reason to.

We have many reasons to try and live a rich and fulfilling life and we have many ways in which we can do so. We have one reason to have faith in an unprovable god: fear. More specifically, fear of death. We have created God in order to explain that which cannot be known because we naturally fear what we can’t understand. But I am arguing that we do not need to search for a god who is impossible to prove. We can – and in my opinion, should – share ideas about how to live a good life openly and without the restrictive boundaries of a dogma or religion. Religion presents a picture of justice and morality that is immutable. Wouldn’t we be better off having open, healthy discussions about morality and spirituality rather than fighting over the legitimacy of a holy book that claims absolute superiority? Ask yourself: what is the point of this?

 Consider a math problem. Are you going to settle your uncertainty about the problem by establishing an answer before you’ve worked through the process of solving it? Or are you going to approach the problem openly using the tools that you have at your disposal? If you establish an answer that you cannot possibly know, without trying to solve the problem rationally to the best of your ability, you will not experience any of the rewards of the natural learning process. Similarly, if we assume the existence of a god who we simply cannot prove, we are going to miss out on the important lessons that come with honest moral and spiritual growth, and in the end, we’re simply being dishonest with ourselves.

This is precisely where I disagree with people who say that religion and science do not overlap. According to Christianity, God is the ultimate answer to the ultimate question. There is no reason to wonder why or how any of this happened because we already know that the answer is God. Science can highlight God’s brilliance, but there is no questioning who is responsible. To science, nothing is set in stone. Nothing is certain. The whys and hows are constantly being sought after and we are constantly being rewarded with new truths and discoveries. The ultimate answer remains open-ended. We continue to discover, to learn, and to experience, but with the mystifying realization that the answer to existence will probably never be solved. And trust me, there is something deeply awe-inspiring about accepting one’s ignorance and understanding that our knowledge and wisdom can grow beyond the ceiling that religion has built. 

One might argue that healthy discussion is good, but there is no reason religion should not be part of the discussion. I agree that any wisdom or truth that can be gleaned from religion is wonderful. But consider the real motive of religion. Consider why we think we need God in order to lead a good life. Consider what purpose it actually serves. And then ask yourself if you could make the lives of yourself and others better if you abandoned dogma, religion and God and used good sense and open conversation in order to live happily and peacefully. I’ll finish with a humble word of advice: live not from the top down; that is, by placing your faith in something beyond the current life and living by pre-determined rules and regulations established from on high. Rather, live from the ground up; by looking for the truth and meaning around you and allowing yourself to grow naturally and learn freely based on your own personal experiences. I contend that you will find much more truth and fulfillment that way. 


Heaven: What’s all the hype about?

Who would want to go to Heaven?

I’m serious. I understand that most Christians would probably tell you that the conditions of Paradise are ultimately unknowable until we get there, but if we can conceive of it at all, there must be some common denominator between now and the afterlife. 

For example, each person would still have his/her individual identity, right? As far as I know, Heaven is supposed to be a place of perpetual peace and joy, where we are reunited with our loved ones forever. We’re supposed to actually experience love and joy to their fullest potentials. This would imply that our concept of self and the relationship between the self and others would continue into the afterlife. Assuming this is true, wouldn’t our normal thought processes still be in tact? And wouldn’t that make us vulnerable to the same anxieties, fears, distresses, annoyances, irritabilities, etc. that bother us here on Earth?

But okay, I get it, everything is supposed to be happy and filled with love and all that. There’s no reason to hate each other or have any of the aforementioned negative feelings because it is a place that is irrevocably tied to God, who is perfect, and none of the same temptations that cause negative experiences on Earth are present. As Hell is supposedly eternal “separation” from God, Heaven is eternal unity with God, whereas Earth is, well, something in between. I’d invite any of my Christian friends to correct me on this. And if you have answers, I’d be thrilled to hear them. 

Recently I watched a 1989 animated film called “All Dogs go to Heaven”. (I was coerced by my girlfriend.) Although it was aimed at children, the movie really had some philosophical underpinnings that would make any adult reconsider the afterlife. In the film, the main character (a dog) goes to Heaven but gets bored because nothing is happening. Everything is happy and pretty and nice but there’s no zest, there’s no action to give life a little spice, and the dog ends up missing his time on Earth. And this is precisely my main issue with the idea of Heaven. Where is the joy if it is not contrasted by sorrow? How can we feel genuine bliss if there are no hardships to overcome? It seems to be common sense that in order to have a positive feeling you need a negative one to compare it to. This is what gives it that extra satisfaction. In a perfect place, where sin is nowhere to be found, how would these positive experiences be felt? In short, the concept of Heaven simply seems to contradict everything we know about love, joy, peace, and all of the positive feelings we experience as human beings. 

But say it was possible. Would you want to be there? I know I wouldn’t. In my view, it’s the tragedy and pain of life that makes for the best art and it’s the adversity that makes our achievements satisfying. If there were no problems to solve, no obstacles to pass through, no pain to endure, what would we have left? A whole bunch of nothing is you ask me. Think of your favorite book or movie. Would it have been any good without some sort of conflict? For an interesting plot, there has to be some sort of dilemma a character is forced to work through. Mark Twain said, “The secret source of humor is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven.” He must have been right; humor is primarily a weapon brandished to combat sorrow. And isn’t humor one of the things that keeps us going? That makes life enjoyable? That makes the saddest circumstances survivable? Who would want an existence without humor? 

So what is this thing they call Heaven? No art to make things beautiful, no tension to make things interesting, no humor to make things funny, no adversity to make triumphs satisfying, no tragedy to contrast joy. If there is a Heaven, I don’t know what it would be like. But I can tell you one thing: I’d rather rather live one life on Earth – filled with art and books and love and pain and tension and excitement and adversity and growth and tragedy and humor – than spend an eternity in this so called “Paradise”. 


Religion Does Not Equal Compassion

Religion Does Not Equal Compassion

I have long found it interesting that religion attests so strongly to being compassionate, but needs a supernatural overseer to motivate its followers to do so. The more sensical path to generosity seems to be raw compassion and concern for one’s fellow human creatures, independent of the impression one will make on a supernatural god. Not only does this seem more practical, but also more honorable and truthful. 

So I was excited to find a study in which researchers at UC Berkeley conducted a series of experiments over a period of several years, and found that unreligious people tend to derive their compassion more from actual emotion and concern for someone who is suffering than do religious people, whose generosity is rooted more in “doctrine, communal identity, or reputational concerns.” 

In other words, nonreligious people tend to adhere to the suffering of others based on the very simple emotion of compassion and the concept of altruism. In contrast, the religious tend to to help their brothers and sisters more to impress the overlooking father figure that hovers invisibly in Heaven. 

It’s up to you to decide which is the more dignified, honorable source of generosity, but to me, the answer is clear. Why must our kindness and unselfishness be polluted with doctrine that demands obedience to an omnipotent dictator? It doesn’t. And while it is true that religion has inspired many good deeds, imagine if we stripped those deeds of the name of God and left them to stand on their own. Perhaps – no, not perhaps – undoubtedly, a staggering amount of violence would have been prevented. 

Christopher Hitchens said, “Either our convictions are enough in themselves, or they are not.” No supernatural attachment to these convictions is needed. And as this study from UC Berkeley reveals, true compassion is in fact more prevalent when we are free to connect with our fellow human beings, independent of the burden of pleasing an onlooking Big Brother. 


Perpetual Paranoia

If one chooses to follow a god that harnesses the power to either reward him with a seat in Paradise or punish him for eternity in Hell, wouldn’t he be inclined to suffer from incessant spells of nervous paranoia? In the book of Matthew, Jesus claims that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Now there’s a threat if I’ve ever heard one. 

If one accepts this notion, it seems to me that he would be forced to subject himself to a level of anxiety that no one is truly fit to handle. Jesus is essentially saying here that if you intend to be materially successful, don’t plan on enjoying your time after death. Now, he also makes it clear that following the untouchable Ten Commandments is a requirement for the realm of eternal bliss. This is an even more frightening mandate; being poor on purpose wouldn’t be all that hard, despite the discomfort one would be bound to feel. But obeying the commandments under the scrutiny of a dictator who is always – always – judging you, is something that, if taken seriously, should make every Christian rattle with fear and anxiety

People, in their inclination to think wishfully, tend to ignore the fact that they are submitting themselves to an unseeable, dictatorial figure who proclaims his way to be unchangeable, unalterable, and perfect, and who threatens eternal damnation upon anyone who merely chooses not to believe in his power. It is a very scary and manifestly dangerous prospect to claim that one entity’s perspective is untouchable, that his word is an irrefutable law that not even the most intelligent among us are worth challenging. It is particularly scary and dangerous to conceive that this notion was in fact determined by humans themselves, ancient and uneducated and fanciful ones at that. My wording here may seem hyperbolical, but I would be surprised if someone could deem my statements inaccurate.

It is the willful action to soften these alarming facts with rhetoric of love and hope and joy that keeps otherwise rational people involved in religion; behavior that modern religious moderates have perfected. Yet from what post can they criticize the fundamentalists, the extremists, the terrorists? All of whom are mere examples of people who actually take their gods seriously. Through common sense and secularism, moderates have watered down their scriptures to embolden the good parts and dismiss the bad, twisting their way around atrocities and injustices and evil with the often cheap argument that the message was simply contorted in its interpretation. One can truly be dumbfounded by the way devoted moderate Christians attempt to interpret certain passages in scripture in a radically distorted way in order to make it acceptable by today’s secular standards. And all this effort just to justify the moral uprightness of a book written two millenniums ago. 

It should be vividly clear, and fortunately so, that these so called “holy” books are not inspired by an omnipotent entity who holds the power to banish us to Hell for all of eternity, but instead are manmade myths that have survived the admirable leaps of science and knowledge by riding the coattails of human desperation and frailty. Millions of religious moderates cling to their god for hope and comfort, yet ignore his true essence if he is who he claims to be, and similarly ignore the terrifying consequences of this rather unlikely possibility, either because they choose not to think that deeply into the issue, or because they have convinced themselves through arduous internal debate that it makes sense. Personally, I am extremely relieved to be rather confident in his nonexistence. To have someone watching me, judging me, critiquing me, shaming me, absolutely nonstop, and to truly believe that he has the power to cast me into a realm of eternal suffering if he so chooses, is one of the most horrifying concepts I can imagine, and is an obvious mechanism for people to assert their own will upon others. Inherently, I don’t think one can make a legitimate claim that this sort of figure is one of pure, unadulterated love; the power he so casually uses to threaten his subjects does not demonstrate love, but rather an insatiable appetite for power and control. He can throw you into the fiery depths if he so chooses, he has his hand in the most minute and trivial aspects of your life, he has the capability and will to watch you like a sleepless stalker, he demands not only that you believe in him, but that you love him and make him the unrivaled center of your universe and the first priority in each and every endeavor you take on, he created you in his image but you are inherently flawed, so all the burden is on you to fix yourself. But he loves you. This I know, for the Bible tells me so. 

If you can handle the pressure of carrying the full weight of this burden with you, every second of every day, without succumbing to a state of utter anxiety and fearfulness paranoia, then by all means, be my guest. But there are some of us who have chosen to liberate ourselves from the enslavement of this manmade divine dictator. And even with Pascal’s petty wager in mind, I assure you, it is worth the risk. 

 


Naturally Magnificent

Imprisoned within our own meager brains, it is difficult at times not to feel trapped within our thoughts, disconnected from our wider, incomprehensibly large surroundings.

At some point during the rather brief time period that the human race has existed (200,000 years, tentatively), it developed religion, likely as an evolutionary mechanism to temper the fear of death. But easing the unimaginable realization that, one day, one was to no longer exist, has not been the only role of this centuries-long social construction. For many, religion assumes a role possibly even larger than fueling the illusion of immortality. An inescapable problem we all face is the perpetual sense of isolation within our own minds. To truly believe one is part of a grander scheme orchestrated by a divine dictator can be the comforting remedy for this unfortunate human condition.

But I have argued in this blog that religion is outdated and unnecessary for modern people. But is it the best source of this feeling of losing oneself in a cause far greater than any individual?

I think certainly not. Aside from the dangerous dogma that religion espouses, it has quite the effect of limiting one’s sense of magnificence and awe that is more than evident when one explores the humbling wonders that are teeming throughout every corner of the ever-growing field of science. How can one be appropriately shocked at the marvels of Nature if he believes that humankind was the highest and most precious creation of an omniscient god, and that the nature of this god should be glorious enough as to not need the stunning nature of the universe? How can one open his mind to the boundless, unknowable mystique of Nature and human experience, while embracing the beautifully mysterious sense of his own smallness and insignificance, when he believes that he is the centerpiece of God’s creation, a god that deserves all of “the power and the glory forever,” leaving little adoration for the achievements of Nature itself? It is far more wonderful and inspiring to embrace the pursuit of natural truths that present themselves ever so subtly and magnificently and stunningly thorough the endeavors of science. In other words, the truth, beauty, and wisdom we all seek is found in the comprehension of one’s minuteness among an unknowable universe and in the gradual but consistent revelation of the details of that universe.

I would not do justice to the wonders of science if I attempted to explain any of them in any detail – I have not the credentials nor knowledge to do so with any elegance or authenticity. But I am confident that if one embarks on his own personal attempt at understanding the world around him, he will find himself basking in a uniquely comforting mysteriousness that gently exudes itself in each step of the journey.

The mentally claustrophobic sensation that one is prone to get as a human being is something that we have been trying to cope with for centuries and will continue to be a challenge for centuries to come. But I believe that a simple acceptance of one’s natural ignorance and insignificance, as contradictory as that may initially seem, can help one attain an enduring and ever-growing sense of freedom from the mind’s detainment. Is there a need for an almighty, attention-seeking creator, who is continuously forced to modify his image in the face of the consistent progression of science, in the scheme of our lives? At witnessing countless people, finding, and experiencing myself, extraordinary beauties and wisdoms and truths without him, I think the obvious answer is no.


Jesus: An Unimpressive Savior

According to Christians, Jesus is the son of God. Usually, Atheists spend time challenging the evidence for Jesus’ existence, the validity of his supernatural claims, and the originality of his teachings. All of these arguments are important in order to hold Christians accountable for their assertions. But let’s remember that Jesus did not claim merely to be a teacher of great morality – he, according to the Gospels, declared himself to be the actual human manifestation of God. This is a big time statement. But rarely do we hold him accountable for such incredible claims of divinity. Yes, he is said to have performed stunning miracles that transcended the material world, but how is any rational, thinking person supposed to accept this as true? Especially when one considers that several of the supernatural aspects of the Jesus story were borrowed from previous myths, and several other mythical characters, dating to before the period in which Jesus supposedly lived, shared his fantastical traits. No reasonable person, in my view, could count these petty acts of divine intervention as evidence for Jesus’s divinity.

Furthermore, if God was to actually take on the form of a human being, wouldn’t he have more to offer than Jesus did? And wouldn’t he make sure to adequately separate himself from other mythical characters of the time, you know, just to increase his credibility as the one, true source of eternal life? Wouldn’t he attempt to take a stand against some of the social issues of his day, like slavery, sexism, and homophobia? One would think that, at the very least, he would attempt to remedy these glaring injustices and deficiencies. Yet he suspiciously excludes these things in his apparently pious and wise sermons, and in doing so, has allowed his followers to be among the most avid advocates for social inequality in the following centuries. Though some of his lessons do entail some insightful pieces of wisdom, none of them are particularly groundbreaking. A great deal of wise teachers came before Jesus, teaching similar – and oftentimes far more enlightening – moral practices; Confucius, Epicurus, and Plato, to name just a few. Possibly even more alarming is that Jesus was seemingly too busy to promote the sciences or increase literacy or encourage independent thought. Are these not reasonable expectations for the son of the creator of the universe? Disappointingly, our savior and messiah offered no such insight. Instead of emphasizing the development of one’s mind and one’s ability to think rationally, Jesus was busy praying next to fig trees, ordering others to believe in him, and flaunting his magical powers by walking on water and then transforming this vital chemical compound into an alcoholic beverage. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as though the man who is alleged to be God himself would use his time a little bit more wisely than that. Seriously, in a world already riddled with superstition, wouldn’t God try to avoid doing things that would encourage credulity? If God was to literally become human, I would hope that he would prioritize the teaching of science, literature, and math above gloating in his unimpressive abilities to break the laws of Nature and denouncing others for the courage to be skeptical. In many ways, it is what Jesus did not say, rather than what he did say, that casts doubt upon his alleged authority.

As mentioned, several other fine moral teachers came well before Jesus. Teachers that, I might add, did not fail to equal him in wisdom. One of my favorites was the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Demonstrating the courage to challenge the status quo with his own independent ideas of truth and morality, Epicurus denied the viability of the existence of any god, assuming what we would now call a Deist position. Ahead of his time, Epicurus believed that the most fulfilling way to live life was to value the natural pleasures that appealed to the human senses, rather than relying on false constructions of universes that bore no evidence to their name. In a letter to Menoeceus, he wrote, “We must take into account as the end all that really exists and all clear evidence of sense to which we refer our opinions; for otherwise everything will be full of uncertainty and confusion.” The uncertainty and confusion – in the forms of senseless violence and proud carelessness – that Christianity has produced, is abominable, especially given the fact that living a good, moral life without religion has repeatedly been proven to be possible. Epicurus, for example, – though not believing in any intervening god – vouched wholeheartedly for justice and goodness, merely because it was conducive to the flourishing of human life. 

The evidence is clear: morality existed far before Jesus, and in equally – or more – impressive ways, as well. These philosophers and moral teachers did not claim to be God, nor did they assert that the only way to Heaven was through them. So what would cause one to actually believe that Jesus was who he said he was? In order to believe this, I don’t think it is too much to ask to expect some revolutionary or groundbreaking information or wisdom from the person claiming to be the son of God. Yet none is given. In fact, Jesus’s omissions may speak even louder than his preachings, as one would expect God, at the very least, to provide some sort of intelligent insight into how the universe works, you know, because after all, he did create it. Right? I leave that to you.


Leave God Out

If you must seek comfort through religion in the wake of the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT, that’s fine by me. People express their grief and direct their compassion in different ways; shortly after an atrocity that is still a highly sensitive issue to those affected is certainly not the time to criticize someone’s beliefs.

But don’t you dare blame this tragedy on Atheists. Don’t you dare link this senseless act, performed by a young man with a deeply troubled mind, with the politics of secularizing America, as if driving God out from our public places led to such a calamity. Please don’t humiliate yourself by suggesting that the murder of 20 elementary school children and 6 adults, dedicating themselves to the education of those children, was merely the reflection of a society that has eliminated God. Don’t you dare.

Yet, someone did.

Former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was recently attacked by what he calls “the predictable left” for saying that the ban on prayer in schools caused the Newtown killings. Now, we all know that it is not atypical for the media to twist someone’s words for the benefit of their organization or for the detriment of someone else. But no worries – Mr. Huckabee himself went on the air to clarify just what he meant, exactly. And he certainly did clear things up.

In responding to the accusations that he blamed the school shooting on the ban on school prayer, he ensured us that, of course, it was not just school prayer that triggered this event. A great number of other things contributed to it as well.

Phew! He’s not that disillusioned. As he admits, many elements are at play here. For example, the young man had asperger syndrome, a somewhat lesser form of autism. He was home-schooled, further hampering his social experience. He was likely depressed and could find no outlet to channel his frustrations. All these things probably factored into his decision to shoot 20 elementary students, right? Well, in Mr. Huckabee’s opinion, these aspects are not even worthy of mention. Several others, however, are.

“It’s far more than taking prayer or Bible reading out of the schools,” Huckabee assured. “It’s the fact that people sue a city so we aren’t confronted with the manger scene or a Christmas carol. That lawsuits are filed to remove a cross that’s a memorial to fallen soldiers. Churches and Christian-owned businesses are told to surrender their values under the edict of government orders to provide tax-funded abortion pills.”

Oh, yeah. Those things.

But wait a minute. Isn’t this supposed to be about the 26 murdered victims of a psychologically troubled 20-year old? Surely Mr. Huckabee is not using the current vulnerability of the public to promote his political agenda. That would be arrogant. Insensitive. Even absurd.

But it appears as though many of our top-tier politicians continue to insist upon the meshing of church and state. Even if they need to disguise a psychologically abnormal and troubled 20-year old as the epitome of “evil” – as Huckabee labeled him – to convince us that God’s absence in schools and public venues is the true heart of society’s problems.

But unfortunately, this problem goes much deeper than the assertion that “evil” was present in Newtown. If the issue was as simple as destroying evil and glorifying God, I think we would have fixed it by now. But leave it to the religious fanatics among us to mask the true problems with useless, ungrounded mumbo jumbo. I’m sorry if I offend my religious peers, but this problem has nothing to do with God. Nothing. And if we continue to demonize these killers and shun them as mere evil outliers within a more godly general society, we are evading the issue indefinitely.

I understand that there is a lot of hatred being spewed at Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, and this response is only natural, particularly for the victims’ families. But let’s get one thing straight. This man was not a monster. He was not the devil. He was not simply separated from the presence of God. He was psychologically ill and socially inept. Real-life conditions lead this man to commit the crime he committed – all within the scope of human experience.

So let’s not put our religious blinders on. Associating God with this problem only renders us incapable of tackling the true issues at hand by disregarding pragmatic solutions in favor of the lazily asserted notion that the answers simply lie with God. Lanza was clearly lead astray by some sort of unfortunate psychological condition. This should cause us to ask questions regarding how to better identify and treat the psychologically ill. Additionally, he could not have committed this crime without access to his mother’s weapons of brow-raising potential, including a “sporting version of the U.S. military’s principle assault weapon,” as reported by the NY Post. This should lead us to consider the degree of gun accessibility in America – though I think the media has run this issue dry. Regardless, these are two practical issues involved in this tragedy that, if attended to, could make a real difference in preventing future catastrophes like this one. And there are surely many more underlying elements to the atrocity that are more difficult to identify.

But school prayer? Lawsuits protesting Christmas carols? Taxes devoted to abortion pills? What?

The selfish agenda of religious leaders like Huckabee to impose Christianity on the public is one of the many ways that religion deters our society from analyzing its biggest problems from a rational, practical standpoint. But Huckabee’s remarks represent more than just a foolish distraction to pragmatism. They are are disgustingly insensitive and insulting. He once again substitutes God as the protagonist in a story whose main characters should be the victims, their families, and the population of psychologically ill people that we must learn to identify and treat more effectively. But when people like Huckabee have the floor, everyone else – in this case, 20 slain schoolchildren and 6 dead educators – must be forgotten to ensure that all eyes are on God.

We must mourn. We must reflect. We must learn. But we must not deceive ourselves by fruitlessly throwing the issue into the hands of God – for as history has revealed, they happen to be particularly clumsy. And though solving societal problems, like the ones reinforced by Adam Lanza, is never easy or straightforward, we can start by making one simple decision: leave God out.


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