Stuck in infancy

I’ve watched Richard Dawkins’ two-part Channel 4 programme, “The Root of All Evil? – The God Delusion”. It’s a few years old now, but someone had posted it so I watched it. You can see part 1 here and part 2 here. I wouldn’t say it completely represents my views, but I found it quite refreshing after the way I have been feeling lately!

There was one bit, 15 minutes into part 2, that jumped out at me. He says:

A child is genetically pre-programmed to accumulate knowledge from figures of authority. The child brain, for very good Darwinian reasons, has to be set up in such a way that it believes what it’s told by its elders. There just isn’t time for the child to experiment with warnings like “don’t go too near the cliff edge,” or “don’t swim in the river, there are crocodiles.” Any child who applied a scientific, sceptical, questioning attitude to that would be dead. … The child brain will automatically believe what it’s told, even if what it’s told is nonsense. … For many people, part of growing up is killing off the virus of faith with a good strong dose of rational thinking. But if an individual doesn’t succeed in shaking it off, his mind is stuck in a permanent state of infancy.

It instantly struck me as true and it changed the way I saw the footage of religious dogmatism in action in the rest of the film. What distinguishes religious dogmatism from other ways of being is exactly that childlike trust in an authority.

While I don’t see society making moral progress to the same degree as Dawkins does, I think he’s right that religion chokes it. At the very least, the holy books preserve all the biases and moral shortcomings of the cultures they were written in, when they are taken as an authority in this way. Uncritical trust is deeply worrying!

But more than that, it is odd. I find it very odd when I stop and think about it, that we are prepared to believe God doesn’t want us to grow up and use our developing rational faculties, but rather, wants us to continue to take instruction on trust like a little child. And that we aren’t at all embarrassed by this self-humiliation.

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42 Responses to Stuck in infancy

  1. caraboska says:

    Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. It vexes me no end to see people thinking that all religious belief involves blind trust in human authorities, and the only alternative is pure, atheistic rationalism. At least that’s what I see going on in this post.

    And it also vexes me no end to hear people saying that all children believe everything authority figures tell them. I was not like that even at the age of 11 months, much less when I was older. It did not make life with my parents easy, to put it delicately. Because even parents who are purportedly trying to raise their children to be independent can end up getting more than they bargained for – and not liking it.

    I also noticed a very long time ago that most religious organizations do in fact key their message to a certain (quite childlike) developmental level, and it is difficult or impossible to fit in if you dare to go beyond that level. And it is difficult to maintain one’s faith when one does not have likeminded people to fellowship with.

    But it is not impossible. You can have religious faith, and you can have reason. You can question. You can talk to people who have different beliefs and come away with a better understanding of your own beliefs. In other words, you can have your cake and eat it too.

    • Sarah says:

      But is homosexual marriage wrong because God forbade it, or because there is some rational reason for it to be wrong?

      Reason can go a certain distance but everything has to submit to the authority of the word of God in the end, right? Or that’s what I keep hearing.

      • caraboska says:

        Praise the Lord. The Bible does give a definition of marriage in Genesis 2:24. The word marriage does not appear there, but in Matthew 19, Jesus quite plainly uses it as the definition of marriage. At any rate, it appears to be founded in the manner of creation of man and woman – namely that they were created from the same substance, Eve having been taken from Adam’s side and molded into a human being.

        And Adam recognized her as such – bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. And then the text says, ‘For this reason, a man shall leave father and mother, cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ In other words, the point behind marriage is to put back together what was separated during the creation process, and the reason people find marriage interesting is because they recognize that original oneness of substance and want to be reunited.

        So the question is not ultimately about homosexual marriage, but about the manner of creation of human beings. So: Is there a God? If there is a God, did God actually create the universe? If so, is this how it happened? And if there is a God, does that God have the right to define what marriage is?

        Even if we assume there is a God, that God created the universe and has the right to define marriage, there is still another question based in the realities of our temporal life: What happens if a particular individual’s circumstances in some way deviate from that definition? For example, at the moment they hear this definition, they are divorced, they already have more than one spouse, or the only person they find sufficiently attractive to contemplate marriage and sexual relations with is a member of the same sex?

        And there are varying opinions on what to do with each of those potential circumstances, including homosexuality. Some come down on the side of allowances being made for those circumstances: for example, if you are divorced and remarried, just stay that way and for God’s sake learn something from it and stay married to that person; if you have more than one spouse, stay married to those people, but for God’s sake don’t add more partners to your household; if you are attracted only to members of the same sex, marry one of them, but for God’s sake stay married and in general fulfill all the other points of the definition of marriage.

        Others will come down on the side of being conservative: if you are divorced and remarried, your second marriage is invalid and you need to separate from that person and get back with your ex [NB this is a problematic interpretation, because of OT rules stating that one has defiled oneself with respect to one’s ex by doing this, so that it is forbidden, but there are people who think this way]; if you have more than one spouse, all subsequent marriages after the first are invalid and you need to separate from all except the first one you married; if you are attracted to members of the same sex, you need to understand that you cannot contract a valid marriage with such a person, so that you need to remain celibate and assume that if you are meant to be married, then God will give you the ability to be attracted to that one person you are meant to marry.

        The person who comes down on the conservative side will invariably believe that sex is to be saved only for marriage, and will therefore in principle view any person who has not found the right person of the opposite sex to marry, regardless of whom s/he customarily finds attractive, as obligated to observe celibacy until such a time as God brings him/her a spouse of the opposite sex and enables him/her to be sufficiently attracted to this person to desire marriage with her/him.

        So while no doubt many people think of the matter in terms of ‘God has forbidden it’, it does not have to be that way. The view of observing celibacy unless and until God brings a spouse of the opposite sex and brings you into agreement with that person concerning a desire to get married can be a positive testimony concerning your views on the creation of humanity, as well as on God’s ability to give you whatever you need to be able to marry a member of the opposite sex, should He have such a person in mind for you.

        So, to recap: the faith spoken of here ultimately concerns God and Creation, not just one little ‘rule’. And there are people out there who view the assumptions of God and Creation as the most reasonable given the data at hand. There are people who have studied various religions and have asked the question ‘Which religion gives the most honor to God?’ and come to a conclusion that does not necessarily coincide with the religion (or lack thereof) in which they were brought up. There are many who have chosen a religion for themselves, even having been brought up without religion.

        It is very unfortunate concerning Christianity in particular that very few people who speak publicly about their faith are posing explicitly the question of which religion gives the most honor to God. I hope I am not the only one. But I have found that the answer to that question is the religion described in the Old and New Testaments, i.e. Christianity. But even among those who identify as Christians but may not have explicitly posed the question under discussion, there are those who believe that this religion also gives the best and most real and truthful description and account of God, the universe and humanity, as well as of the nature and functioning of God, the universe and humanity.

        Bottom line: regardless of the view one adopts concerning such a ‘detail’ as homosexual marriage, one’s view of God and the universe and humanity is going to be foundational to one’s view on ‘the details’.

        • Sarah says:

          Much of what you have written here is about God’s rules and their interpretation. Which sort of endorses Dawkins’ point that religion involves taking instruction from a supernatural parent.

          Going back to what you said first: “It vexes me no end to see people thinking that all religious belief involves blind trust in human authorities, and the only alternative is pure, atheistic rationalism.”

          These are two extreme end-members of the spectrum, and Dawkins likes to be dramatic and concentrate on the extremes. I, on the other hand, recognise that most people are somewhere in the middle.

          The curiosity for me here is not belief in God, but belief in a God that wants obedience more than he wants independent self-responsibility. In short, a parent God.

          As for the distinction between human authority and divine authority, I find it difficult to make that distinction when the scriptures came through humans. Surely it requires a certain level of trust that those humans were speaking for God? I imagine if a scripture impresses you in some aspects you may find it reasonable to extend trust towards it and consider it to be divine in its totality, but I think that is still going out on a limb somewhat, otherwise it wouldn’t be faith.

          • caraboska says:

            Praise the Lord. Of course. At some point you need to take up the question of whether the Scriptures you are reading are or are not credible as divine words. That moment came for me when I was in college. And a lot of the reason I concluded the Bible was true was the fact that ultimately, it stands or falls on the question of whether Jesus did or did not rise from the dead. And the fact that all the major events of Jesus’ life were demonstrably predicted hundreds of years in advance clinched it for me.

            I have a problem with the whole notion of obedience, because it eventually ends up having a connotation of someone potentially using force to compel you to do what they want you to do. And I believe that if that is why you are doing what they tell you to do, then it is not good enough. It is an act of self-worship – a person who does that is worshiping their own desire to avoid punishment.

            So, no, I do not believe God wants to have a control-based relationship with us at all. He wants our relationship to be based on love. And the Bible teaches in black and white that there is no fear in love. That fear has to do with punishment, and so the one who fears is not perfected in love. So, sure, God wants us to do His will – but because we love Him and we believe that those words expressing His will are in fact true and good.

            And we all have to come to our own conclusion about that. So much’ evangelism’ actually, as it turns out, involves attempts to manipulate people into accepting certain views – for example, by scaring them with the threat of punishment, or enticing them with the promise of reward. I believe this is wrong and idolatrous, and conversions based on such considerations are of dubious validity. So yeah, in the end, there is a huge element of our responsibility involved.

            I would say a genuine conversion is 100% our responsibility and 100% God’s simultaneously. It would take a bit of explaining, because it is not something that can be grasped purely intellectually. One has to experience a certain way of relating – it will suffice even to look into a friend’s eyes and make the transition from ‘two looks’ (I look at you, you look at me) to ‘one look’ (we look at each other), and consider such things as the question of whether one can divide a child in half and say the left half was dad’s doing and the right half was mom’s. No, you can’t. The child is 100% dad’s and 100% mom’s. Surely there are signs in these things for people who reflect 🙂

            • Sarah says:

              A parent will physically restrain their young child from running into a busy road if necessary. That kind of force is not harmful – it is protective and necessary.

              As the child gets older, say into their early teens, there might not be force but more of the “do what I say or else there’ll be consequences” or things like “if you’re grateful for everything I’ve given you then you will do what I ask”. This sounds more like your God.

              At a certain point the child grows up and usually the parent recognises that they are now responsible for themselves and for making their own decisions. They may give advice or suggestions but they don’t expect to be obeyed any more. I haven’t heard of any religious concept of God who just gives advice and suggestions.

              • caraboska says:

                Praise the Lord. Not entirely. It is quite true that people who are still thinking in terms of reward and punishment are going to experience it in that manner. But the problem is that their whole motivation structure is wrong. God’s word is a lot more than ‘just a suggestion’ to the person who loves God and believes in God and has founded his/her entire life on God. It is a line you just do not cross. For reasons having nothing to do with punishment or reward. What I am also saying here is that there is a huge difference between preventing a child from running out in the street, and smacking the child for having done so. It is indeed very tricky if you are dealing with a child who for whatever reason does not understand anything except reward and punishment, and you don’t want to commit idolatry by using force and ‘playing God’ with the child. I don’t have a solution, and that sounds like a really good reason for me not to have children 😛

                • Sarah says:

                  Even without reward or punishment, I think that still comes into my second category above in terms of “if you’re grateful” or “if you love me” then “you then you will do what I ask”. This is still rather like a parent requesting obedience. Not all parents threaten punishment but there is certainly plenty of that in some religions too.

                  • caraboska says:

                    Praise the Lord. I think this leaves out the idea of whether we personally believe in the rightness of what is asked. And I am not necessarily talking about blind belief. It may be that we do not understand everything. But it is possible to understand ‘enough that it would be reasonable to do whatever it is’.

                    And there is also the point that if we are doing it kicking and screaming, that’s not ‘good enough’ anyway. There is no point in doing something unless we are sure enough about it to be able to do it without misgivings, if we are interested in doing God’s will.

                    And there is also the difference between what people say God said, and what God really said. So many of these control-freak types take their own fears and ambitions, clothe them in religious language, and then try to tell others that they are ‘unspiritual’ if they do not obey this ‘clear teaching of Scripture’.

      • caraboska says:

        I think we’d better move back to this level or the lines are soon going to be one character long…

  2. Stephanie says:

    I just can’t seem to swallow Dawkins and the “new Atheism”, namely because it seems that he (and others) intentionally present a very one sided view of religion; the most fundamentalist and conservative version of faith. Even as I’m critical of faith (especially Islam because that has been my experience), I also do strive to see the human beauty the exists within it. That is getting harder and harder, admittedly.

    I also am off put by the claim that religion is the root of all evil. I see religion as being inextricably intertwined with the human experience and I firmly believe war and cruelty, kindness and compassion would exist without religion, if that were possible.

    • caraboska says:

      Praise the Lord. I think that Dawkins et al. are indeed setting up a ‘straw man’. It is indeed possible to pose rational questions about God, the universe and humanity and end up believing in God and Creation, even where one did not before. I’ve been able to see certain beautiful things in Islam – or at least some versions of it. The problem with most religion is that it is infected with an insidious idolatry of human beings. This is manifest in its being rife with control-based relationships of various kinds. And I am sure there is no need to explain the evil effects that such relationships have on all that are in any way in contact with them. We could phrase it another way: that religion should be a human experience of something that is essentially transcendent of humanity and the universe itself. Unfortunately, it often ends up being the exact opposite: a deification of human experience. And that is indeed the root of all evil.

      • Sarah says:

        “The problem with most religion is that it is infected with an insidious idolatry of human beings. This is manifest in its being rife with control-based relationships of various kinds.”

        I think this is precisely Dawkins’ point here and I agree!

        • caraboska says:

          Praise the Lord. Dawkins’ problem is that he is not getting beyond ‘what most people are doing’ to see that ‘it ain’t necessarily so’.

          • Sarah says:

            That’s one way of looking at it – that everyone else is following man-made god-concepts and idolising men, while you belong to a small subset that really does have a hotline to God.

            For me it’s like Dawkins said: you are atheistic about most of the gods out there – I just go one god further. 🙂

            • caraboska says:

              Praise the Lord. Maybe not everyone is worshiping false gods and god-concepts, but I do admit to seeing an awful lot of idolatry – even in that which calls itself the Church, and should know better. It’s very disturbing – especially when one knows that it doesn’t have to be that way.

    • Sarah says:

      I totally agree, religion is an expression of human nature and not an evil external virus that has infected us. 😀 Whatever badness is in it, is a reflection of thorny issues within human nature. I strive to see the goodness in it, too, but lately it has just felt like too much work, so I enjoyed a little dose of Dawkins.

      Incidentally he did interview a liberal Anglican minister in the programme, too, and told him that he agreed with much of his perspective but that he thought he wasn’t being faithful to his religion.

      • Stephanie says:

        “… he agreed with much of his perspective but that he thought he wasn’t being faithful to his religion.” OK! I admit I secretly think that sometimes but always fall short of actually making that accusation. Religion is, after all, open to various and differing interpretations. However, I do think some people take this a bit too far and twist things to fit into their modern world view when that was never the intent of the scripture or concept in question. So, I guess I have to admire Dawkins honesty a bit but his position that he knows better than the adherent of said religion also seems rather arrogant.

  3. Achelois says:

    I see some sense in what Dawkins said although he really makes my blood boil 🙂

  4. Achelois says:

    “But more than that, it is odd. I find it very odd when I stop and think about it, that we are prepared to believe God doesn’t want us to grow up and use our developing rational faculties, but rather, wants us to continue to take instruction on trust like a little child. And that we aren’t at all embarrassed by this self-humiliation.”

    Many religions teach that God is a parent and all religions teach that no one can know better than God – “God knows best” never mind that all scripture is written by men (or believed to be at least transmitted through men) or that in some religions God appears as humans and teaches through humans. It is impossible to remove that middle man between a religionist and God. So when we are taught that God is a parent and we can’t understand something not because it doesn’t make sense but because our intelligence is limited and not greater than God’s then it is not odd that we believe that “God doesn’t want us to grow up and use our developing rational faculties.”

    That “self-humiliation” becomes humility in the presence of God.

    What do you think?

    • caraboska says:

      Praise the Lord. It is possible to remove the middleman. Witness the following: My mother has been trying for years to get me to stop believing that the Bible is God’s Word. To that end, among other things, she sent me a book entitled ‘Misquoting Jesus’. It talks about variant readings in the New Testament, theorizing about who was responsible and what the person’s aim was, and how we might go about figuring out which variant was the original. When I was younger, this would have bothered me a great deal. But I noted that the variant readings do not materially alter the message of the New Testament – and furthermore, by that time I had been a Christian by choice for some nearly thirty years. I had read the Bible, I knew from experience the power of its words and needed no one to tell me whether it was God’s Word. In other words, I had an experience of God that went beyond the words of the Bible, that enabled me to make such an appraisal. It is true that I became acquainted with God in great measure through the Bible – though not only. But the point is: I ended up going beyond the words to that metalevel.

    • caraboska says:

      Oh, and a note about humility: it seems to me that humility involves not self-abasement, but a certain kind of self-forgetfulness that would enable us not to know about it even if we were the greatest saint on the planet – that keeps us from comparing ourselves with others at all, or even judging ourselves in our own eyes. And the reason for this is that we are too busy thinking about God and His attributes and goodness to even care how we ‘measure up’.

    • Sarah says:

      Hm. But if God created us, he created us with all this intelligence and capacity to understand stuff, why would he want to put a cap on what we can understand and tell us not to bother even trying? It is through the belief that our intelligence is limited and “God knows best” that scientific inquiry is so often suppressed… is that what God wants? It doesn’t really make sense to me.

      It makes more sense to me to think it’s really that middle man speaking for God that wants our obedience.

      • caraboska says:

        Praise the Lord. You bring up an interesting question about scientific inquiry – one that I would phrase in terms of the purpose of such inquiry. And there are those who pursue scientific inquiry for inquiry’s sake, and there are those who pursue it as a means of discovering how God’s Creation works, as well as ways of applying that knowledge for the doing of good.

        Then there is the question of the tools used. Science implies the use of certain tools and ways of knowing. But there are areas that are not amenable to the use of these particular tools. One must use other tools to gain knowledge about these other areas. Or even these aspects of areas that are in some ways amenable to scientific inquiry.

        I realize there are people out there who think that God puts a cap on our understanding, that God doesn’t want us to inquire. He does want us to inquire. There are certain problems with this, however. The fact of the matter is that we are not God and are not able to understand everything. Anything we do understand, it is God’s gift to us. And many people don’t understand this. And they may end up frustrated in their inquiries until they learn to glorify God and give thanks to God, rather than glorifying themselves.

        And then there is the matter of what use we plan to make of that knowledge. Or what use others may make of it after us. Not everyone has a good heart. That is what the Tower of Babel was all about. That’s why we have all sorts of different languages on the planet, and they are not necessarily mutually intelligible. This was done to put a curb on our ability to do evil in concert with others.

      • Achelois says:

        “It makes more sense to me to think it’s really that middle man speaking for God that wants our obedience.”

        Nodding!

  5. Amber says:

    You know, Dawkins is sort of infuriating, based on his attitude a lot of the time and the really one sided view he has of religion. He is definitely not my favorite atheist, though he used to be! On the other hand, he does have some good points. This bit you’ve shared out does make a lot of sense.

    • Sarah says:

      I think I agree with quite a lot of his points but wish he wasn’t so one-sided and vitriolic. Then again, that’s how he gets our attention 😀

  6. RJW says:

    So is it god that demands obedience to authority or just those religions that claim to speak for him? Seems to me that religions gain a lot by having obedient followers/adherents. As you say, it’s not so obvious that blind obedience could be what god is wanting – unless he is pretty insecure. I think you can read the bible as god’s continuing attempt to get people to take responsibility and work it out for themselves – continually frustrated, ironically, by priests and religions.

    • Sarah says:

      It’s possible and very interesting to read the Bible that way, but the obedience-oriented religious thinking seems to dominate in the world. Dawkins doesn’t really give a good explanation for this but as you say, religions gain a lot from it, and maybe followers gain too in having the security of rules, however nonsensical and even harmful they sometimes are. I don’t think merely pointing out that we are stuck in infancy and trying to get us to feel silly will shake us out of this, but it might help a bit.

      • caraboska says:

        Praise the Lord. I have for quite some years made an informal study of people who convert to various religions. I read their testimonies, because I am interested in figuring out what sort of religion appeals to what sort of person. And it is quite true: there is a type of person who wants a book of rules to tell them what to do with their lives, to meet God’s expectations. As if that’s all one has to do… follow the rules and you’ll be fine. Hmm. It’s at most a very dangerous half-truth, because these people are actually engaging in self-worship by doing this: thinking that they can save themselves by their own works.

    • caraboska says:

      Praise the Lord. I tend to agree with this take on the Bible – that we need to properly draw the line of responsibility. Not trying to take responsibility for that which is not ours to take is only half of it. The other half is indeed taking responsibility for what is ours to take. So many people are doing things the other way around: trying to lord it over other people, or trying to give other people or things or circumstances a position in their lives that they should not have – setting them up as gods. And yes, human authorities probably almost always try to lord it over others and get them to set them up as gods in their lives. This is wickedness, to be sure, most religions are rife with it. And those worldviews that aren’t often take the view that we can do as we damn well please. Which is also wickedness. Not all of the potential choices out there are good.

      • Sarah says:

        “And those worldviews that aren’t often take the view that we can do as we damn well please.”

        Which world views are those?

        • caraboska says:

          Praise the Lord. I am speaking here mostly of a variety of non-religious worldviews (e.g. ‘New Age’ or libertarianism).

        • caraboska says:

          PS I should speak more precisely: the views I am speaking of often identify as, for example, New Age or libertarian. Not all views that identify as New Age or libertarian actually take the stance that we can do whatever we please without limitation or qualification.

  7. susanne430 says:

    I was always taught that God gave us boundaries because He cares for us. Kind of like your example of parents not letting their children go off the sides of cliffs or swim with crocodiles. Their concern, care and love for their children compel them to limit their children’s freedoms in some cases. We’d rather have Julie constrained and alive than free and eaten by a hungry creature! 🙂

    “At the very least, the holy books preserve all the biases and moral shortcomings of the cultures they were written in, when they are taken as an authority in this way. ”

    And for me this means I should learn from the mistakes. I’ve always been glad the Bible presents people with their good and bad sides. It’s realistic to read that men had problems with lust and anger and violence and subjecting others to their power and control. And it’s a lesson to me not to follow in those ways, but choose to be more compassionate, honor and serve others, to put others ahead of myself. I can learn from the good examples in the Bible as well as the bad.

    I understand your post may be more about childlike trust in God and you find it humiliating for adults to believe this way when being a rational grown up should be our goal. I think for some of us it’s just recognition that there is Something bigger than us out there and the realization that our brains are limited in comprehending It.

    As I’ve said before and maybe it’s silly, but I don’t even understand men…and even other women or *myself* half the time. So am I weird to believe that perhaps there is Someone bigger than me out there and I may just have to trust that I will never satisfy my logical need to make sense of everything before I believe?

    Unfortunately perhaps, faith takes faith.

    I enjoyed the post and discussion. Thanks for sharing!

    • Sarah says:

      I don’t think it is weird to believe in God, nor humiliating. I was really only talking about obediently following instructions without understanding why it is best to live that way. I think humanity is at its best when moral choices are driven by compassion for others and for oneself, not by conformity to a set of instructions. Therefore it would surprise me if God really wanted the latter. 🙂

      • caraboska says:

        Praise the Lord. The New Testament quotes Jesus as saying basically that this business of loving God and one’s neighbor is the point of any other instructions that are there in the Bible. Loving God and one’s neighbor are the two most important commandments and on them hang all the Law and the prophets. So it is a great idea, when reading any given instruction in the Bible, to ask, ‘What place does this instruction occupy in the love of God or one’s neighbor?’ Jesus is basically sanctioning this type of inquiry by speaking of the Law in that manner.

        And Jesus even points to a certain evolution between the Old and New Testaments – that some of the instructions in the Old Testament, in their literal form, serve more to limit human evil, while the rest of the Old Testament contains evidences that much more is meant by those commandments than the mere avoidance of this or that type of evil. He gives a few examples in the Sermon on the Mount (i.e. Matthew 5-7) of what that means in practical terms. And it is Jesus’ take on the Law that is one of the big things I find attractive about Jesus and the Christian faith in general.

  8. Stephanie says:

    What’s up chica? Missing your posts 🙂

  9. Mythic Sushi says:

    Saw the first comments on this – something I find funny about modern Christianity’s extreme emphasis on marriage and “family values” is the fact that Jesus and all of the Apostles were unmarried. If we’re supposed to be like Jesus…?

    • caraboska says:

      Praise the Lord. Paul writes implying that out of all the apostles, only he was unmarried. The rest apparently all had wives (I Corinthians 9:5). That having been said, as an unmarried person, I take comfort that Jesus was Himself unmarried, so that in this I am like Him (along with any other ways I may be like Him).

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