Thursday, March 5, 2015

The New Atheists (1-27-08)

The New Atheists
Rev. Jane Page
January 27, 2008
            Our Reading Today is from Ursala Goodenough’s “The Sacred Depths of Nature.”
She writes:
As a cell biologist…I experience the same kind of awe and reverence when I contemplate the structure of an enzyme or the flowing of a signal-transduction cascade as when I watch the moon rise or stand in front of a Mayan temple.  Same rush, same rapture.
But all of us, and scientists are no exception, are vulnerable to the existential shudder that leaves us wishing that the foundations of life were something other than just so much biochemistry and biophysics.  The shudder, for me at least, is different from the encounters with nihilism that have beset my contemplation of the universe.  There I can steep myself in cosmic Mystery.  But the workings of life are not mysterious at all.  They are obvious, explainable, and thermodynamically inevitable.  And relentlessly mechanical.  And bluntly deterministic.  My body is some 10 trillion cells.  Period.  My thoughts are a lot of electricity flowing along a lot of membrane.  My emotions are the result of neurotransmitters squirting on my brain cells.  I look in the mirror and see the mortality and I find myself fearful, yearning for less knowledge, yearning to believe that I have a soul that will go to heaven and soar with the angels.
William James said – “At bottom, the whole concern of religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe.”
The manner of our acceptance.  It can be disappointed and resentful; it can be passive and acquiescent; or it can be the active response we call assent.  When my awe at how life works gives way to self-pity because it doesn’t work the way I would like, I call on assent – the age-old religious response to self-pity, as in “Why Lord?  Why This?  Why ME?” and then, “Thy Will Be Done.”
As a religious naturalist I say “What Is, Is” with the same bowing of the head, the same bending of the knew.  Which then allows me to say “Blessed Be to What Is” with thanksgiving.  To give assent is to understand, incorporate, and then let go.  With the letting go comes that deep sigh we call relief, and relief allows the joy-of-being-alive-at-all to come tumbling forth again. 
Assent is a dignified word.  Once it is freely given, one can move fluidly within it.
May it be so!
(Note:  In our services we have a time for meditation immediately before the sermon.  Often this is a time for silence.  Sometimes we have guided meditation.  On this day, I used a recording with the following introduction.)
For Our meditation time, I’ve brought a special song for you.  Before we take time to listen to this song and meditate upon these words, though – I need to give you some introduction.  My grandsons, JD and Thomas, are country music fans like their mom Michelle.  So when we travel together to Valdosta and back, Nana Jane keeps them satisfied with the long car trip by keeping the radio tuned to Country Music stations.  And some of that music is growing on me.  I even sing along with some of the songs.  This past weekend, I heard a song three or four times on our trip that really touched me.  It’s a song by Brooks and Dunn.  The lyrics seem to be those of a true believer in a God who is omnipotent and omnipresent – one who can intervene and perform miracles.  And this believer is trying to come to terms with why God is not answering the prayers being sent up to him.  The words of this song are the words of a believer.  But this believer is beginning to question a little.. just a little.  So I thought that this song might be appropriate as an introduction to my sermon on Atheism.
Lyrics to “God Must Be Busy”
That anchor man says the fight began somewhere in the Middle East. The world prays for peace.
There's a single mom just got laid off when she lost a job to some foreign hands in some faraway land.
Last night in Oklahoma some twister took thirteen and they're praying that they find the missing three.
God must be busy.

That highway sign went from slow ahead to traffic's dead.
Thought it couldn't get worse than that Amber Alert. They say she's 4,
Colorado plates, headed out-of-state in a Chevy van. It's hard to understand.
You can see it in the faces of all those highway strangers, they're praying that God keeps that girl from danger.
God must be busy.

And I know in the big picture I'm just a speck of sand and God's got better things to do than look out for one man.
I know he's heard my prayers cause he hears everything, he just ain't answered back or he'd bring you back to me.
God must be busy.

That evening news, ain't much changed pretty much the same since I left home. Yeah that war's still on.
They found that little girl. She was soaking wet, half scared to death on the side of some road. Them prayers work, you know.
And the Bloods and Cripps are at it, and theres a killer drought down south,
And old folks can't afford the drugs they can't live with out.
God must be busy.

And I know in the big picture I'm just a speck of sand and God's got better things to do than look out for one man.
I know he's heard my prayers cause he hears everything, he just ain't answered back or he'd bring you back to me.
God must be busy.
That anchorman,says the fightings worse,cities burn in the Middle East.
[The] world prays for peace
The New Atheists
You know the old Hans Christian Anderson tale.  The Emperor – who happens to be extremely vain and a lover of beautiful clothes – is visited by two swindlers who share with him that they have the ability to weave a most wondrous cloth that is fine and glorious.  It is so fine, they say, that those who are stupid or who are not worthy of their positions cannot even see it.  The Emperor thinks that this would be wonderful indeed and agrees to pay a great deal of money for the would-be weavers to make him a new suit.  As they are working the emperor sends two of his ministers to check on the work.  The swindlers invite them in, encouraging the ministers to feel the wonderful material and admire the colors.  The first minister cannot see anything – but pretends he does so that he will not appear stupid or not suited for his position and he provides great praise for the material.  The other minister – perhaps squints his eyes and uses his imagination – and – “yes – I do believe that material is very fine indeed,” he says.  And all who see the material react in similar ways – including the emperor.  Until that day he wears it in the parade.  All the people are marveling at the wonderful new clothes – some not seeing anything but afraid to speak up since everyone else can see the beautiful handiwork.  And others are convinced that they do indeed see these new clothes.  Till one young boy goes up to the carriage and says – “but the Emperor is naked.  He has no clothes.  There is nothing there.”  His father scolds him for being foolish but his words are repeated and others begin to speak up and say – “Yes, indeed – the emperor has NO CLOTHES.”
Many think that Hans Christian Anderson was playing the part of that young boy by writing this story – and using a fairy tale to reveal the truth that the teachings of the church were false, that there was no evidence for the words recited in the creeds.      
Throughout western history there have been those who have attempted to point out what to them seemed obvious – that the emperor was naked – that God did not exist.  In less tolerant days, those folks were burned at the stake.  But today, some people are paying attention.  In fact – we seem to be having a bit of an Atheistic Revival – with several books rising high on the New York Times Best Seller books.  These New Atheists aren’t just declaring their non-belief and reasons for it, though.  They are not just pointing figures at the naked Emperor.  They are pointing to those who praised the non-existent clothes and those who stood by and did nothing. 
Who are these troublemakers?
 Four of these modern Atheistic evangelists have “arisen” to the top of the New York Times Best Seller Lists.  Some call them “The Four Horsemen.”  And others deem them “The New Atheists.”   Their names are Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchins, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett.  You can actually go and see a conversation among these four folks on the internet discussing and analyzing some of the attention and criticism that they have gotten with their recent books.  I’ll include the link in my posting of this sermon on the web. 
Well, I had, of course, heard of these books – but did not READ them till one of our parishioners asked me to help find one of the books in a library that she could borrow.  She wanted to read Hitchins book, “God is Not Great.”  The regional library here did not have it – but I made a request – and they do NOW.  Meanwhile, Cynthia Frost was helpful in finding a copy for her through GIL express.  But her request made me think.  This is something our folks are reading about.  I better read myself. 
So over the last couple of months I have been filling my mind with all of these atheistic writings.  And Greg even agreed for us to listen to Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” on CD as we traveled back from Ohio to Georgia on New Years Day. 
I’m going to share a brief synopsis of each of these books and perhaps read an excerpt, then move on to the “So What” part of this message.
I’ll start with Dawkins.  He appears to me to be the one that has emerged as the leader of the group – at least in his attempts to get them together to increase their exposure.
Here’s the short bio given on the not-so-sacred text of Wikipedia (but validated by me on numerous other official websites.)
Clinton Richard Dawkins (born March 26, 1941) is a British ethologist, evolutionary biologist and popular science writer who holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford.
He first came to prominence with his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which popularised the gene-centered view of evolution and introduced the term meme, helping found the field of memetics. In 1982, he made a widely-cited contribution to the science of evolution with the theory, presented in his book The Extended Phenotype, that phenotypic effects are not limited to an organism's body but can stretch far into the environment, including into the bodies of other organisms. He has since written several best-selling popular books, and appeared in a number of television and radio programmes, concerning evolutionary biology, creationism, and religion.
His latest Book, THE GOD DELUSION, is now out in paperback – you may have seen the ads on television.  The voiceover echoes the words written on the screen in a monotone manner.    “Imagine – No Religion, No Crusades, No Suicide Bombers, The God Delusion – A New York Times Best Seller for over 6 months.  Read The God Delusion – Join the debate.”
Now Dawkins is a scientist and that is very evident when you read his book.  But it’s written for the layperson, so you don’t have to have a science background to appreciate the points he’s making.  As I indicated, Greg and I listened to this book rather than read it --- and even so we were able to gain quite a bit of knowledge and understanding.  Actually, he reads it with his wife, Lala Ward, who is an actress and writer as well.  And they both read very well – using the different voices when there is a quote.   His arguments are so well founded that we both found it hard to disagree with him.  However, his tone sometimes bothered me.  I suppose I wanted a softer, gentler push for the truth.  His attempt at humor, I think, could be very offending to some.  But then, he would say – so be it – the truth sometimes offends those who don’t want to accept it.  And he sees no reason that religion should be exempt from the same kind of examination that we give to other fields and topics.  Here is a quote from his book in which he provides a disclaimer related to offending others.
It is possible that religious readers will be offended by what I have to say, and will find in these pages insufficient respect for their own particular beliefs (if not the beliefs that others treasure). It would be a shame if such offence prevented them from reading on, so I want to sort it out here, at the outset.  A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts – the non-religious included – is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other. Douglas Adams put it so well, in an impromptu speech made in Cambridge shortly before his death, that I never tire of sharing his words:
Religion . . . has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘I respect that’.Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows – but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe . . . no, that’s holy? . . . We are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how much of a furore Richard Dawkins creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you’re not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.
(Dawkins goes on to provide lots of examples and court cases where the freedom of religion has been used by people to participate in activities and use words that would normally not be permitted.)
He concludes his disclaimer related to offense by saying:
I am not in favour of offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of it. But I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies. All politicians must get used to disrespectful cartoons of their faces, and nobody riots in their defence. What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect? As H. L. Mencken said: ‘We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.’
(Dawkins adds) It is in the light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion that I make my own disclaimer for this book. I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.
Although Dawkins is a scientist, he reminds me of a polished lawyer in this book as he brings forth his evidence piece by piece, case by case to convince the readers – his jury, that supernatural religion is guilty as charged. 
God is Great
God is Good
Let Us Thank Him
For our Food
I recited that prayer Monday through Friday – September through May – at Mattie Lively Elementary School for seven years.  And now here comes this man named Christopher Hitchens telling me that God is NOT Great!  Well, I tell you – I had very mixed feelings about that title.  Now I know that Titles are often picked by publishers to sell books.  I’ve had a few editors change the titles of articles that I submitted for publication for one reason or another.  And I said, “Hey – you can call it anything you want to call it as long as you publish it.”  So maybe the title was a marketing ploy.  But to me – the whole meaning of the word God is wrapped up in the idea of greatness.  Maybe because I recited those words all the way through elementary school.  I preached a sermon related to religious language back in 2003 entitled, “Can you say GOD?”  And in that sermon, I shared with you that I DID use the word God in my language (although not in the way many fundamentalists may use it).  In that sermon I said, “The word flows from my lips without conscious thought - especially when I'm experiencing anguish (Oh God) or ecstasy. I think I use it then because it's the biggest word I know. It's the most ultimate, unsurpassable, supreme word I know.”
Now Hitchins is not a scientist like Dawkins.  He’s a journalist and an author of numerous books on figures like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and George Orwell.  But he does quote scientists (including Dawkins) as well as philosophers, historians, and others in his book opposing religion.  Although the God that Hitchins’ criticizes is the more traditional God of fundamentalists, he is also critical of liberal religion.
Of the four being considered, Hitchins seems to me to be the one that is the most arrogant.  In fact, after watching various videos of him in debates or sharing with talk show hosts, I can tell you that I don’t like this man!  He gives Atheists a bad name.  But he does his homework. He makes his case against religion through closely examining the major religious texts and studying the outcomes of those who follow the dictates of these readings.  His criticism broadens beyond the belief in God to a criticism of religion itself.  The secondary title to his book is “How Religion Poisons Everything,” and that becomes a coda to each chapter in his book.  In fact, in chapter 15, he uses religious terminology to name “religion” as an “Original Sin.”  He states:
All the creation myths of all peoples have long been known to be false, and have fairly recently been replaced by infinitely superior and more magnificent explanations.  To its list of apologies, religion should simply add an apology for foisting man-made parchments and folk myths upon the unsuspecting, and for taking so long to concede that this had been done. One senses a reluctance to make this admission, since it might tend to explode the whole religious worldview, but the longer it is delayed the more heinous the denial will become.
This was the first of the books that I read, and I really was taken aback when I got to Chapter sixteen which was titled, “Is Religion Child Abuse?”  The case made by Hitchins related to what we do to children in the name of religion was repeated by others that I read – but that’s a whole sermon itself.
Sam Harris is the youngster of these four but he was the first of them to release a best seller on atheism with the publication of The End of Faith in 2004.  Harris dropped out of Stanford as an English major and began eleven years of self education which included reading hundreds of books on religion and practicing some Eastern religions as well.  Then he returned to Stanford to complete his degree in philosophy and is now pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience using functional magnetic resonance imaging to conduct research into the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty.   Now Harris does not appear to be arrogant to me.  Instead he seems to be deeply concerned about what’s happening in our world today and the possibilities and realities of destruction based on religion, especially Islam – but he’s very critical of American religiosity as well.  He cites polls which show that 44% of people in the US believe it is either “certain” or “probable” that Jesus will return to Earth within the next fifty years.  The same percentage believe that creationism should be taught in all of our schools.  Furthermore, this group believes that God has literally promised the land of Israel to the modern day Jews.  Since believers following bible prophecy believe that a general Armageddon is a precursor to Jesus’ return, he is concerned that a significant portion of Americans may see a nuclear war in the Middle East as a welcoming sign for the End Times.  This is dangerous in our world today -- especially when you add those ideas to the ideas of believers in Islam.  Harris further notes that these same individuals have been exploited for political purposes and that they have elected presidents, senators, and representatives that also hold these views.  Harris is not just making fun of someone’s religion, folks, he’s sounding an alarm. 
Harris got lots of criticism after the publication of The End of Faith from Christians in this country and he responded in 2006 with the publication of this little book, Letter to a Christian Nation.  In it he makes it clear that the “Christian” he is addressing is a Christian in the narrow sense -- one who “believes, at a minimum, that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death.”  However, he cites dozens of scientific surveys that suggest that well over half of the American population subscribes to these narrow beliefs.  In his preface, he also addresses liberal Christians and perhaps the rest of us.  Harris states:
In Letter to a Christian Nation, I have set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.  Consequently, liberal and moderate Christians will not always recognize themselves in the “Christian” I address.  They should, however, recognize one hundred and fifty million of their neighbors.  I have little doubt that liberals and moderates find the eerie certainties of the Christian Right to be as troubling as I do.  It is my hope, however, that they will also begin to see that the respect they demand for their own religious beliefs gives shelter to extremists of all faiths.  Although liberals and moderates do not fly planes into buildings or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they rarely question the legitimacy of raising a child to believe that she is a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew.  Even the most progressive faiths lend tacit support to the religious divisions in our world. 
This is a good little book to have if your Aunt Mary or Uncle Bob really wants to have a serious look at why you don’t believe the same way they believe.  And I recommend it.
The fourth New Atheist is philosopher, researcher, and writer Daniel C. Dennett.  Now it’s interesting to call him “New” when he’s 65 years old and has been sharing his views for most of his life.  Nevertheless, now is the time when he has focused more on religion and for similar reasons given by others.  Our world is in a dangerous place today with religion being a central motivator for that danger.  So these four and more are speaking out.  Dennett’s book, also published in 2006, is entitled, Breaking the Spell.  What spell, you ask?  Dennett states:
The spell that I say must be broken is the taboo against a forthright, scientific, no-holds-barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many.  But certainly one of the most pressing and plausible reasons for resisting this claim is the fear that is that spell is broken – if religion is put under the bright lights and the microscope—there is a serious risk of breaking a different and much more important spell:  the life-enriching enchantment of religion itself.  If interference cased by scientific investigation somehow disabled people, rendering them incapable of states of mind that are the springboards for religious experience or religious conviction, this could be a terrible calamity.  You can only lose your virginity once, and some are afraid that imposing too much knowledge on some topics could rob people of their innocence, crippling their hearts in the guise of expanding their minds.  To see the problem, one has only to reflect on the recent global onslaught of secular Western technology and culture, sweeping hundreds of languages and cultures to extinction in a few generations.  Couldn’t the same thing happen to your religion?  Shouldn’t we leave well enough alone, just in case?  What arrogant nonsense, others will scoff.  The Word of God is invulnerable to the puny forays of meddling scientists.  The presumption that curious infidels need tiptoe around to avoid disturbing the faithful is laughable, they say.  But in that case there would be no harm in looking, would there?  And we might learn something important.
He not only recommends more study by scientists and others of religions, he also recommends that the way we should deal with children is to have them study religions MORE in schools – not less.  Let’s give them some expertise in all major world religions.  And let their parents teach them what they will at home.  In time, the children will know more about their own religion than their parents and more about other religions as well.  Then as adults, they’ll really be able to make more informed choices.  I rather like that idea.  But I can’t see the Georgia legislature passing it anytime soon.
Now each of these books probably deserves more time.  But alas, we are Unitarian Universalists.  And any UU minister worth her salt knows that a sermon is given to promote more thought, more reading, and more discussion – not to answer all questions about a topic.  So I must move on to the “so what’s this got to do with us” part of the sermon.  – But not before recommending a couple of other books to you.  The first was recommended to me by my friend at the Augusta church, Don Hofstedler, who coincidentally is also doing a sermon at this very hour on The New Atheists.  He shared with me that he was using some excerpts from this book in his sermon – and I immediately got on the internet and found a copy at the Screven County Library.  That was just minutes before my husband Greg was leaving to go to Screven County to serve as a guest speaker at their high school.  All of these coincidences are leading me to believe I’m on some special path!
The book is The Creation:  An Appeal to Save Life on Earth by renowned scientist (and atheist) E.O. Wilson.  The book is a collection of imaginary letters that he writes to a Southern Baptist Pastor enlisting his help in efforts to save our planet.  And it provides a good effort of how one person can see scientists working with conservative Christians on a common cause. 
Another book is by Rev. Michael Dowd and is entitled, Thank God for Evolution.  It is also an attempt at marrying science and religion for a good purpose. 
Both of these books try to take a Middle Path – not rejecting all religion, but determining how religion can evolve and work with scientists and others to make our world a better place. 
And that’s where I think we as Unitarian Universalists come in.  We are here NOW.  We are doing the very kinds of things that many of these writers are talking about.  Here we are providing a place where all religions can be explored and using our reasoning abilities as we do this.  We also welcome all Atheists along with theists, deists, pantheists, pandeists, and my new Prius. 
So how do their ideas reflect or contrast with the principles that we UUs say we affirm and support.  While one could discuss all seven of our principles in relationship to these ideas, two especially stand out.  Our third principle is “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;” and our fourth principle, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
One of these is internal to our own congregations.  We invite folks to come here and learn and grow.  We use the word “spiritual” growth, but spiritual is a word that many naturalists welcome as a description of the luminous experiences they encounter in life.  Our fourth principle is perhaps the one that some of these authors would question.  We say we affirm a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  And generally we interpret that to mean that we honor all world religions.  In fact, our sources identify the texts of world religions as having value for us.  These New Atheists, however, sound an alarm that liberal and progressive religious folks may have gone too far in their efforts to be tolerant.  Do we look the other way to ideas and actions that are contrary to our other principles if we know that it’s a part of someone’s religion.  Or do we stand up and draw a line and say – it doesn’t matter if it’s part of your religion.  It’s wrong.  I think we are willing to do this in some cases – like when we stand up for gay rights or for a woman’s right to choose.  Indeed, I believe it’s easier for us to take a stand against conservative Christian ideas than perhaps Islamic ideas.  Maybe that’s because many of us come from conservative Christian backgrounds and feel that we have earned the right to criticize.  It’s something we need to consider though.  Our tolerance, in some cases, may hurt more than it helps. 
Last Sunday, many of your were here in a service that honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  And this past Monday some of us marched in the MLK parade.  Then on Tuesday, some of us were privileged to hear Cornel West speak about Dr. King.  I was glad I had the opportunity to consider King’s life and his actions while preparing for this sermon.  Here was a religious man, a minister of a theologically conservative church, who was able to stand up for what was right and use his faith to encourage peace and non-violent means to  change the world. 
But I believe King would also stand with these Four Horsemen in their efforts to encourage us to stand for justice and against the tyranny that often accompanies irrational religion.  His words are captured in one of the readings in the back of our UU hymnal. In these words King said:  “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.”  (If King were living today he might say that there are things in our religious systems to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.)   We indeed are tolerant people – but there are times for intolerance.  
So what should this UU religion be to this combined gathering of atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, pagans, Buddhists, seekers, religious and secular humanists and just plain old Unitarian Universalists?
Vincent Silliman conveys a vision for this congregation and others like it with his reading on Religion -- #466 in the back of your hymnal.  I’d like to close this sermon with a responsive reading of #466.  You will read the italics.
Let Religion be to us life and joy.
Let it be a voice of renewing challenge to the best we have and may be; let it be a call to generous action.
Let religion be to us a dissatisfaction with things that are, which bids us serve more eagerly the true and right.
Let it be the sorrow that opens for us the way of sympathy, understanding, and service to suffering humanity.
Let religion be to us the wonder and lure of that which is only partly known and understood;
An eye that glories in nature’s majesty and beauty, and a heart that rejoined in deeds of kindness and of courage.
Let religion be to us security and serenity because of its truth and beauty, and because of the enduring worth and power of the loyalties which it engenders;
Let it be to us hope and purpose and a discovering of opportunities to express our best through daily tasks:
Religion, uniting us with all that is admirable in human beings everywhere;
Holding before our eyes a prospect of the better life for humankind, which each may help to make actual.
Oh, May It Be So!
Copyright, Jane A. Page, January 27, 2008 

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