The Instigator
Ozymandias
Con (against)
Winning
31 Points
The Contender
nohself
Pro (for)
Losing
6 Points

Pascal's Wager is a Good Argument for Belief in God

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 12/21/2007 Category: Religion
Updated: 9 years ago Status: Voting Period
Viewed: 4,866 times Debate No: 761
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (12)
Votes (11)

 

Ozymandias

Con

Pascal's Wager, for those who are unaware, is a common argument in favor of religious belief. It says "you should believe in God, because if you are right, you go to heaven, and if you are wrong, you lose nothing. But if you don't believe, and you are right, you gain nothing, but if you are wrong, you go to hell. Therefore, no matter how unlikely God's existence may be, you should believe." It was proposed by Blaise Pascal, hence the name.

I see this wager proposed quite often in religious debates, and so I will attempt to demonstrate that it is a poor argument that should not be used. Note that this debate is not about the existence of God(though that is an interesting debate in its own right); it is about the validity of Pascal's Wager.

Firstly, the wager creates a false dichotomy: it assumes that there are two possible states: belief and unbelief. It fails to account for the myriad of mutually exclusive religious beliefs. What if you pick the wrong God? What if you pick Christianity and it turns out that Allah is the true God, or Baal or Odin or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? What if Baal doesn't particularly mind nonbelievers, but he hates it when people worship his ancient rival Yahweh?

Or what if some currently unknown God exists, one who values reason and science, and cannot stand it when people come to conclusions through faith instead of reason? In that case, if you feel the evidence does not support God's existence but believe anyway, then you go to this deity's hell for intellectual dishonesty!

Secondly, Pascal's Wager assumes that God, in his omniscience, would not be able to see right through your ruse, that he wouldn't be able to tell that you don't really believe, but that you fake belief "just in case."

Which brings me to my next point: I don't know about anybody else, but *I* cannot choose to believe something as a matter of policy. Either an argument convinces me or it does not convince me. I don't choose to accept (or not accept) an argument as a conscious decision. I can choose to not apply reason and to not continue thinking about a given subject, but I can't just decide, one day, to believe in God.

Sure, I could go through the motions, I could go to Church and say prayers and take communion, but again, an omniscient God would, presumably, see right through this and send me to Hell anyway.
nohself

Pro

First of all I would object to the language used in the summation of the argument for--not in the sense that its meaning is incorrect, but only that it's crude and Pascal doesn't use it. In fact he doesn't even use the words "heaven" and "hell" in the entire argument. Granted the argument is usually framed that way. Rather he writes in terms of infinite happiness (reward) and the loss of infinite happiness (t his can mean a number of things).Let's stick with the language that Pascal uses.

In response to your first argument that the Wager doesn't take into account the plurality of mutually exclusive religious beliefs and gods, I say this is an intellectual prank on your part. When I ask you, "Do you believe in God?," you know exactly what I'm talking about. What is at issue is the one omniscient, omnipotent Creator God of Abraham, the God of covenantal history who reveals himself. Abrahamic religions account for more than half of the world's total population (Wiki). They include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and others. In the words of William James, belief in Baal, Odin, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the Hindu gods for that matter, is a "dead option." They offer no emotive appeal and are utterly alien.

You also say that perhaps a God exists who values reason and science over faith and that believing in God despite the evidence would send you straight to hell. But you assume that faith is opposed to reason and science. Tell me how. You assume that the God of Abraham accepts blind faith and does not require of the believer some reasons for his or her faith. Show me evidence of this.

In response to your second argument that the Wager assumes that God wouldn't see right through the ruse, if the Wager is your entire basis for your religious life then yes, you're absolutely right. But you're assuming that Pascal is proposing that a person's entire faith be based on the Wager, when all he's arguing is that it may well provide the first motives for faith. But eventually the unbeliever who opts for belief will become "faithful, honest, humble, grateful, full of good works, a sincere, true friend" (#418). There's a maturation process which God is surely aware of. OR there may not be. Maybe the person remains immature and depending upon the Wager. God knows this, and Pascal never claimed that you could "sneak one by" God.

Lastly, you say that you cannot just make yourself believe in something. You're right. No one can just immediately will themselves to believe something that isn't apparent to them. But Pascal doesn't claim this either. That's why he says that behaving as if you did believe "will make you believe quite naturally." I mean, the point here with the Wager is that the person finds himself in a position in which he cannot believe. Pascal says, "At least get it into your head that, if you are unable to believe, it is because of your passions, since reason impels you to believe and yet you cannot do so. Concentrate then not on convincing yourself by multiplying proofs of God's existence but by diminishing your passions."

I say that the Wager shows that there is good and compelling reason to *opt* for belief in God, that is, to incline in that direction. But I don't believe that it can stop there. One must become mature in their faith and have definitive reasons for it that are based on the truth and not just pragmatism.
Debate Round No. 1
Ozymandias

Con

Firstly, I think objecting to my language is odd. The language doesn't matter, as long as it conveys the same meaning. When he says "infinite gain" or "infinite loss," he means heaven and hell. Furthermore, it doesn't have any affect on the validity of any arguments, so it is irrelevant.

=======

Now, onto your arguments:
For the sake of argument, I will temporarily accept your premise that the Abrahamic God is the only valid one. Okay, then which of the three main Abrahamic faiths does he want us to follow? A significant number of interpretations of each of the three exclude believers of the other two from God's eternal reward. What if Muslims are correct, and the particular interpretation that the only people allowed into heaven are Muslims? Hell, some denominations of Christianity (Catholicism comes to mind) believe that their denomination is the only way into heaven. What if one of them is correct? What if you choose the wrong denomination?

Now, that aside, I will say that I do *not* accept your claim that God only refers to the Abrahamic God, and that we therefore need not consider the others. Hinduism is only alien to you because it's not a part of the culture you were brought up in-- and to claim that it's a dead option is silly when it's the world's third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam[1]. I would also contest your claim that Hinduism offers no emotive response. I do not know if you've ever read the Bhagavad Gita, but it's beautiful, and I've responded just as strongly to it as I have to, say, the Sermon on the Mount.

And sure, more than half the world's population follows an Abrahamic religion, but this is a classic example of the argumentum ad populum fallacy.
Indeed, there is no rational reason, no actual evidence to suppose that the Abrahamic God is any more likely to exist than Lord Krisna, Baal, or Ares. Even IF the Abrahamic God is more probable than any other, by the terms of the Wager, you must not discard the other beliefs as long as they are *possible.* Indeed, there was once a time that Christianity (or even monotheism!) was, proportional to the population, smaller than, say, Wicca or any other form of paganism is now. Just because none of the other beliefs have the power Christianity does, does not mean it will always be that way.

As to your next objection, I never claimed that faith *must* oppose evidence, merely that it is, by definition, a firm belief in the absence of-- or in spite of-- the evidence. If such a God exists as the one I proposed, then believing in a being that you have no evidence for would net you punishment. Now, if evidence and reason lead you to conclude that there is indeed a God, which I am not claiming to be impossible, then no, you would not be punished. But the Wager is not based on evidence at all, and is thus not a valid reason to believe.

Which brings me to your next claim that the idea of the Wager is, essentially, "fake belief, go through the motions, and eventually you will find that you really do believe." I find this ridiculous, as plenty of people have gone through the motions of belief for years before admitting to being closet atheists-- myself among them. We went through the motions for quite some time, and never did it cause any of us to start to believe it was true.

Even if you do manage, by going through the motions enough time, force yourself to belief by sheer force of will, then you still are not believing in God through evidence or reason, so my hypothetical God would still condemn you. If you do find evidence for the existence of God, and that leads you to believe, then it turns out that the Wager is unnecessary all along. If you never do find evidence to believe, but you do so anyway, then my hypothetical God (which is, rationally, just as likely to exist as the Abrahamic God) would condemn you.

==========

Ultimately, however, the Wager is based on a single premise: that you cannot lose if you have faith in God. If that premise is false, the entire Wager falls apart.

Therefore, if I can propose a single plausible scenario where it is preferable to be an Atheist, Pascal's Wager is completely refutable.

First, I will say that it would be slightly preferable to be an Atheist if it turns out that no God exists whatsoever-- because quite apart from the value of knowledge itself, it means that you do not need to live with certain restrictions that have no rational purpose. You don't need to keep in the closet if you're gay, but can be free to love those who you will. You don't need to worry that you're going to go to Hell.

But certainly, I don't think the benefit for the atheist being right really compares to the benefit for the religious believer if he is right, so I will propose a hypothetical scenario that is no less probable, according to the evidence, than the Abrahamic God:

Say a God exists. However, this isn't the Abrahamic God, but it is some other, currently unknown God. The one thing this God can't stand is people worshiping gods other than himself, because all the other gods do *exist,* but they are actually demons, and worship makes them more powerful. This God doesn't mind atheism, because atheists do not give these demons more power. Therefore, on this God's judgment day, he condemns all believers in these demon-gods, but he allows atheists into his heaven as long as they have lived a decent life and tried to be a boon to the world, rather than doing harm. The reason that we do not know about this God is because he is still preparing the world for his prophets, who are yet to come. The way he is doing so is unknowable, because His plan is beyond understanding for mere mortals such as us.

Now, you might claim that such a God is ridiculous, but there is no rational reason to assume that he cannot exist. And in this situation, it is preferable to be an atheist instead of believing in *any* of our modern religions. Now, this is just one scenario, off the top of my head. Other plausible ones exist, but I'm running low on characters and thus will not include them.
======

In summary:

1. Even if we remove non-Abrahamic Gods from the picture, the Wager fails because you can still choose the *wrong* Abrahamic faith, or the wrong denomination (if God is that picky-- as some interpretations claim He is.)
2. However, we must NOT remove the non-Abrahamic gods from consideration. They are just as probable as the Abrahamic God is.
3. While faith doesn't necessarily *oppose* reason/evidence, it is belief in the absence of reason/evidence. A hypothetical God could exist that would punish faith and reward pure reason.
4. Your claim that if you begin by believing through the Wager, and thus go through the motions long enough, you will eventually believe is not necessarily true. Plenty of people do this for years without ever believing.
5. Pascal's Wager is based on the premise that the religious believer cannot lose. If it turns out that this premise is false, then the argument falls apart.
6. This premise IS false, because there are situations in which it turns out to be preferable to be an atheist.
7. Because this premise is false, Pascal's wager falls apart. It is made completely invalid.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org...
nohself

Pro

I'll concede the language point as it isn't that important.

1.) I'm to some extent sympathetic to your point here. Pascal does hold that Catholic Christianity is the true religion. But he argues why this is the case! He knows that he has to offer proofs. He doesn't just assume it. That's the whole point of his work. For examples, he writes, "The Psalms sung throughout the world. Who bears witness to Mahomet? Himself" (#1) and "Difference between Jesus Christ and Mahomet. Mahomet not foretold. Jesus foretold. Mahomet slew, Jesus caused his followers to be slain. Mahomet forbade reading, the Apostles commanded it" (#203). He presents extensive arguments for why Jesus is the savior, why Islam is false, why Judaism is incomplete, and why unbelief is foolish. And naturally he wrote the work in a Catholic culture which took the orthodox view that the Church is founded on St. Peter. So Pascal answers your first objection himself.

2.) I agree that Hinduism is only alien because it is not apart of the culture we grew up in. And yes it is the world's 3rd largest religion. But remember that Hindus believe in a Supreme Being, and it's understood by many Hindus in a way very similar to the Abrahamic faiths--that it is a personal creator God to be worshipped. So I wasn't referring to this God but only the plethora of gods found in some schools in addition to the supreme God. When I said that Hinduism offers no emotive response I simply meant that for most of us in the West Hinduism does not present a persuasive option for religious adoption. The religion itself is quite beautiful and many facets of it agree with those of Abrahamic religion.

3.) Your definition of faith is Kierkegaardian for sure but it isn't what most of the faithful understand as faith. Rather than faith being a firm belief in the absence of or in spite of evidence, Catholics understand faith first of all as "a personal adherence of man to God...and a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed" (Catechism 150). The Catholic Church teaches that "the use of reason precedes faith and leads men to it by the help of revelation and of grace" (Denzinger 1651).

4.) Agreed. For many people belief is not going to come. But Pascal doesn't claim that belief will come to everyone, only to those who abandon their passions that oppose their inclination to belief.

5,6,7.) So what if in this case it's preferable to be atheist? Pascal, and I, posit a just God. And a God that does not communicate his will and what is required of human beings, as in your example, is a capricious God who is not worthy of being worshipped nor is he worthy of being wagered on. You realize this point already, as you add, "The reason that we do not know about this God is because he is still preparing the world for his prophets, who are yet to come. The way he is doing so is unknowable, because His plan is beyond understanding for mere mortals such as us."
Debate Round No. 2
Ozymandias

Con

1a. True, he has other "proofs," yet I find none of them convincing. You give an excellent example of why this is so: the dominance of Christianity throughout the world. I repeat once more, this is a classic argumentum ad populum fallacy. In the 1800s, the vast majority of the population believed that blood letting was an effective treatment for most diseases. That, however, does not make it true. Many of his other arguments, such as the argument that Jesus was foretold, rely on the assumption that the Bible is a reliable source. This is yet another fallacy: by assuming that the Bible is accurate, he is begging the question! Furthermore, none of these prove that the Catholic interpretation is the correct one. I would certainly call the validity of the Bible into question when it cannot even get the age of the earth correct, or when it claims that there was a world-wide flood 4,000 years ago. (Somebody should have told the ancient Egyptians about it... the Pyramids at Giza were constructed quite a while before the date of the flood that you can work out from the Bible.) However, this is a whole other debate, and it ultimately isn't that important because:

1b. We'll assume, for a brief moment, that his proofs ARE valid. Well then, Pascal's Wager is irrelevant, as it relies upon the uncertainty of God's existence. If one side is provable true, then the Wager is irrelevant because it relies on a degree of uncertainty.

1c. Yes, he wrote in a dominantly Christian Culture, but that's not relevant. Implicit in your admission and in your assertion that he proves the validity of the Catholic faith is that the Wager is only works if you assume that Christianity (and Catholicism in particular) is true. This also contradicts your earlier assertion that "the point here with the Wager is that the person finds himself in a position in which he cannot believe."

2. None of this presents any *rational* reason why we should remove Hinduism (or any other religion, for that matter) from consideration when considering the validity of the Wager. Because the wager relies on uncertainty, we must take into account every situation. None can be discarded unless they are demonstrably impossible. I repeat, the only way to remove any belief (and its consequences for believers and unbelievers) is to logically demonstrate that said belief cannot be true.

3. Well, we could go into a long discussion on the nature of faith versus that of evidence, but it isn't really all that important for my refutation. There still could be a deity that dislikes religious faith, for whatever unfathomable reason.

4. But this still rests on the assumption that it is passion, that it is emotion, that leads us away from belief. At least in my case, it isn't. It's the lack of evidence. I will not believe anything that does not have evidence for it.

5-7. That's just it. The wager says "if you choose belief, you cannot lose." You may posit a just God (I'll get back to this in a minute), but that doesn't mean that such a God is the only possible one. Remember, the Wager's central premise is the following:

The worst that can happen to the believer is that he will rot in his grave and have no afterlife, good or bad, and that the best that can happen is eternal reward; the atheist, on the other hand, can, at best, only rot in his grave with no afterlife, and at worst suffer eternal punishment.

The entire Wager rests upon this assumption. If this assumption is false, then the Wager falls apart. The existence of even one scenario in which it is preferable to be an atheist refutes the wager, because the underlying premise is no longer valid. I have proposed one such situation that you cannot disprove, and it is, if you go purely by the evidence, equally likely as Christianity. However, it doesn't NEED to be equally likely; it just needs to be plausible.

Now, back to the "just God" argument. If the hypothetical God I posited is unjust for not yet revealing himself, then so was your God for the several thousand years in which is was known only to one tribe on the eastern side of the Mediterranean. The only difference is a matter of time: your God revealed himself earlier than my hypothetical God would have, but he still did not reveal himself or his wishes to the majority of the world until (relatively) recently in history. The typical Christian explanation for this is that he had to prepare the world for Christ to come. I could simply say the same for my hypothetical deity. He has to prepare the world for his revelation. It's a part of His plan, trust Him. Furthermore, I would contend that a God who punishes people if they come to a conclusion-- based on available evidence-- that he probably does not exist would be VERY unjust, especially since he punishes them with unimaginable torment for all eternity. But I digress.

I also would ask you to consider one more thing. I assert that the best way to form a belief is by looking at the evidence and drawing rational conclusions. By reading (or, in my worthy opponent's case, participating in) debate, you indicate that you probably agree with this, on some level. Does Pascal's Wager present any evidence for God's existence? No! Therefore, it is not a good reason to believe, even if it is a temporary justification. That is not to say that there may not *be* good reasons to believe, as that would be a separate debate and off-topic here. It is merely to say that the Wager itself is not among those good reasons, as it presents no evidence for God's existence.

========

In conclusion, Pascal's Wager relies on multiple logical fallacies for its validity. In its purest form, it's a false dichotomy, and my opponent has attempted to defend it with an argumentum ad populum and by begging the question. He has not presented any logical reason for why we should not include Hinduism or Buddhism or any other religion, be it known or unknown, in our consideration of the Wager's validity. Furthermore, the mere fact that the Wager presents no evidence for God's existence indicates that it is not a good reason to believe, even if other good reasons do exist.

I would like to thank Nohself for the debate. I see from your profile that this is your first debate here. Welcome to the community, and good luck with all your future debates!
nohself

Pro

I will reply quite simply here. The truth of Catholicism as a basis for the Wager is not implicit in my argument--rather that, given Pascal's proofs, the Catholic Christian faith is, strictly speaking, the proper object of the Wager. Nevertheless the one supreme creator God quite generally is a sufficient object of the Wager. Insofar as Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism etc. worships a supreme personal deity, it is a sufficient object of the Wager. At heart the issue is whether or not we should opt for belief in a supreme personal God simpliciter.

As for your instance-in-which-being-an-atheist-is-preferable "counterexample," it's nonsense and you know it. Apart from the intellectual gymnastics involved, it only appears to work because in it you've posited the condition that this unknown God "doesn't mind atheism." But if "the one thing this God can't stand is people worshiping gods other than himself, because all the other gods do *exist,* but they are actually demons, and worship makes them more powerful" this God is concerned about his own power relative to them--in which case how could he possibly look kindly on your unbelief and lack of worship which would diminish his own power? If you reply that this God's power can't be diminished, then why should he be threatened by the demons?

This is all silly.

Finally, you say that Pascal's Wager doesn't offer any evidence for God's existence and so it doesn't offer a good reason to believe. How about pragmatism? If believing in God makes someone happy, then there's some good reason to believe in him. As I've stated before, belief via the Wager might be ok initially, but mature faith based on truth must be developed.

In the end, Pascal is asking you one thing: Should you incline yourself towards belief in a supreme God who offers an eternal reward that might be fictional, or should you incline yourself towards unbelief and risk losing an eternal reward? Come on, man. You get it. I'm a student of philosophy and here I am saying: Stop philosophzing your way out of common sense!

Nice debate dude :)
Debate Round No. 3
12 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 10 records.
Posted by nohself 9 years ago
nohself
lol, thanks dalzuga. i personally don't put much stock in "winning." i appreciate when those engaged in debate learn a little from each other. i still think that the Wager is a positive stepping stone for an unbeliever, but i ultimately agree with ozymandias that it isn't an entirely compelling nor sufficient argument for belief in God.
Posted by dalzuga 9 years ago
dalzuga
nohself, I think ozymandias fell for a trap and you did not take advantage of it.

I believe nohself could have won the debate by perpetually bombarding ozymandias with obstacles to prevent him from making his point.

In my opinion, ozymandias got lucky. lol
Posted by SperoAmicus 9 years ago
SperoAmicus
Pascal's Wager alone is not a sound argument, but it's worse because Pascal never finished the work it was meant to be published in. We don't have the full context into which he would have placed the wager.
Posted by nohself 9 years ago
nohself
I'm sorry, I have to abandon this dialogue and just focus on the debate.
Posted by dalzuga 9 years ago
dalzuga
You also say "...he really means that you lose nothing of substantive value."
So we are of the same opinion that we do lose something?
Because that is what my proof relies on.

In addition, my proof does not depend on the "noxious pleasures, glory and good living" that Pascal mentions. I see that you do bring up the fact that we are still making a decision on whether God exists or not. However, my proof says that, all other factors being equal, the non-believer loses something by believing that he wouldn't lose by not believing.

Also, you write "...in saying that Pascal opposes this."
I'm afraid I do not fully understand what you mean by this statement. I am unsure as to what as to what you are referring to by "this." If you are still unconvinced of my proof, could you rephrase/clarify?
Posted by dalzuga 9 years ago
dalzuga
Okay, I'm a bit overwhelmed by your response. Firstly, however, let me just break up and rephrase that last part to make sure there is no misunderstanding.

"By default, the non-believer believes that the best way to make decisions is through logic, avoiding bias and any exterior beliefs." By this I mean that the point of their decision-making process is to come up with the best decision.

"However, by believing in God, the non-believer will have sacrificed his "best way of making decisions" by adding an exterior belief." What I am saying is that the non-believer is moving away from the system of decision-making that he thinks is best, therefore sacrificing it. This system will apply to any decisions he may make, regarding personal life, political beliefs, etc.

I realize now that I think you have probably understood what I meant, but were merely confused as to how I made the jump by assuming that "not believing is not an exterior force". I think that you do bring up a good point. Indeed, how do I know that not believing in God is not a bias in itself?

The answer, however, lies on logic itself. The purpose of logic is to believe something by proving it, rather than believe something by not disproving it. In other words, you cannot assume that something is true merely because nobody disproved it. The default take on something would be that it is not necessarily true, unless proven true. That is why not believing in God is not an external force in the mind of the logician, because God does not necessarily exist, and thus that assumption is part of the logic system itself. It is not an external belief or bias.

An illustration of this is made by J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

"How can I possibly prove it doesn't exist? Do you expect me to get hold of — of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean, you could claim that anything's real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody's proved it doesn't exist." - Hermione
Posted by nohself 9 years ago
nohself
Hey dalzuga. I do think there's a problem with your analysis. When Pascal says "You lose nothing" he really means that you lose nothing of substantive value. He admits, "It is true that you will not enjoy noxious pleasures, glory and good living, but will you not have others?" And Pascal doesn't assume that believing in God is independent from any other aspect of your life, for he says that not wagering anything (agnosticism) is actually impossible because "You are already committed" or according to some translations, "You are already embarked." In other words, whether or not you believe in God affects your entire life and all your choices, so you can't avoid making the decision. So you're right when you say that belief or nonbelief in God affects personal decisions, inclinations, etc. But you're incorrect in saying that Pascal opposes this.

As for the second part, if you want to use that argument, which I'm sorry I don't entirely understand, you have to admit that believing that there is not a God is an "exterior belief" as well. So you can say that he's biased in the other direction.
Posted by dalzuga 9 years ago
dalzuga
I agree with ozymandias in that Pascal brings up a false dichotomy. Although I haven't decided whether I agree with ozymandias's reason or not, I do believe that Pascal brought up a false dichotomy for another reason.

"You lose nothing."

This is the crux point at which Pascal's argument falls apart.

By making such an assertion, Pascal is assuming that you cannot lose anything if believing in God is independent of any other aspect of your life. This is true, sure. The problem lies on the fact that believing in God is NOT independent of other factors in life. Believing in God affects personal decisions, beliefs, inclinations, and your stances on topics such as abortion, the death penalty, and the like.

By default, the non-believer believes that the best way to make decisions is through logic, avoiding bias and any exterior beliefs. However, by believing in God, the non-believer will have sacrificed his "best way of making decisions" by adding an exterior belief. Thus, the non-believer loses something. This is a contradiction. This proves Pascal's statement is not true.

If you find any holes/ambiguity in this proof, please point it out and I'll try to clear it up.
Posted by my.matryoshka 9 years ago
my.matryoshka
You're using God's name in vain when believing in him for selfish reasons. That's against the 10 commandments.
Posted by cjet79 9 years ago
cjet79
Its too hard to defend bad logic. And people generally don't like defending the positions of others. Unless those positions already reflect their personal beliefs.
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Vote Placed by riclanda 9 years ago
riclanda
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Vote Placed by Ozymandias 9 years ago
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Vote Placed by SolaGratia 9 years ago
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Vote Placed by A-ThiestSocialist 9 years ago
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