Curt J. Ducasse

C. J. Ducasse

(1881-1969), French-born, highly respected Professor of Philosophy at Brown University. Awardee of the Carus Lectures prize (American Philosophical Association). Contributed to the "Journal Information for Philosophy and Phenomenological Research", "Causation", "Immortality" (Edited by Paul Edwards), "Philosophical Dimensions of Parapsychology" (edited by James M. O. Wheatley). Ex-student of Josiah Royce. Pursued a career in philosophy but retained a strong interest in logic - so much so that he took the initiative to create the Association for Symbolic Logic with its Journal of symbolic logic. Among his many important papers on survival are "How the Case of The Search for Bridey Murphy Stands Today" Journal of the ASPR 54: 3-22, and "What Would Constitute Conclusive Evidence of Survival After Death?" Journal of the SPR 41: 401-406. His books included "A Critical Examination of the Belief in Life After Death", "Paranormal Phenomena, Science and Life After Death" (Monograph), "A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion", "Nature, Mind, And Death", "Truth, Knowledge and Causation", "Philosophy As a Science: Its Matter and Its Method" and "Philosophy of Art".

A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life After Death - Part 1

Chapter 2: Religion and the Belief in a Life After Death

1. The belief in survival after death not inherently religious | 2. Religion and religious beliefs | 3. Grounds on which belief in survival is based in Christian theology | 4. The moral arguments for the reality of a future life

 - Curt J. Ducasse -

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          MOST RELIGIONS have taught in one form or another that the "soul" or "spirit" of the individual does not perish when his body dies, but goes on living in another world where it meets conditions appropriate to its particular nature and deserts. Hence, before we turn to an exposition of the grounds on which contemporary natural science bases the case against the possibility of survival of man's consciousness after death, it will be well for us to consider the relation between religion and the belief in survival, and the grounds on which theologians - or more particularly Judaeo-Christian theologians - have affirmed that the belief is true.

1. The belief in survival after death not inherently religious

Although, as just noted, belief that the human personality survives bodily death has been inculcated by most religions, it is not in itself religious. If the survival hypothesis is purged of vagueness, is defined in a manner not involving contradictions or other demonstrable impossibilities, and is dissociated from the additional supposition commonly coupled with it that survival will be such as to bring reward or punishment to the surviving personalities according as they lived on earth virtuously or wickedly, then it is no more religious than would be the hypothesis that conscious beings live on Mars. In both cases alike the question is simply one of fact - however difficult it may be to get evidence adequate to settle it one way or the other.

If human personalities survive the body's death and do so discarnate, then-although their continued existence is normally as imperceptible to us as were bacteria before we had microscopes and as still are the subatomic entities of theoretical physics - those discarnate personalities are just another part of the population of the world; and their abode - if the word still has significance in relation to them - is just another region or dimension of the universe, not as yet commonly accessible to us.

The supposition that there is an immaterial, or anyway a normally imperceptible realm of existence peopled by discarnate human consciousnesses is, moreover, quite independent logically of the supposition that a God or gods exist - as independent of it logically as is the fact that incarnate human consciousnesses now inhabit the earth: No contradiction at all would be involved either in supposing that one or more gods exist but that there is no post mortem human life, or in supposing that there is a life after death but no God or gods.

But although the belief in a life after death is thus not inherently religious, nevertheless a close connection between it and religion has obtained throughout the history of man. What I shall now attempt is to make clear the nature of this connection; that is, what it presupposes with regard to man's personality, and with regard to the relation between his life on earth and the post mortem life which the religions have taught he will have. For this purpose, what religion itself essentially is must first be considered briefly.

2. Religion and religious beliefs

Even a sketchy acquaintance with the history of religion suffices to show that the beliefs and practices which have been taught by the religions of mankind have been very diverse and in many cases irreconcilable. This entails that no possibility exists of conceiving the essence of religion in terms of some core of beliefs or/and practices common to all the religions - to the non-theistic as well as to the monotheistic, the polytheistic, and the pantheistic, and to the religions of primitive as well as of highly civilized peoples - for there is no such common core. Nor, of course, can the essence of religion be conceived responsibly as consisting of the teachings of some one particular religion, held to be the only "true" religion on the ground that its teachings are divine revelations; for the question would then remain as to whether the belief that its teachings are, and alone are, divine revelations is demonstrably true, or on the contrary is itself but one among other pious but groundless beliefs.

It follows that only a functional conception of religion can be comprehensive enough to apply to all the religions; a conception, that is to say, according to which religion is essentially a psychological instrument for the performance of certain functions ubiquitously important to human welfare, which are not otherwise performed adequately in any but a few exceptional cases and which even religion has often performed none too well.

More specifically, this conception is that a religion is any set of beliefs that are matters of faith - together the observances, attitudes, injunctions, and feelings tied up with the beliefs which, in so far as dominant in a person, tend to perform two functions, one social and the other personal.

The social function is to provide, for conduct held to be socially beneficial, a sanction that will operate on occasions where conflict exists between the private interest of the individual and the (real or fancied) social interest, and where neither the legal sanctions, nor those of public opinion, nor the individual's own moral impulses, would by themselves be enough to cause him to behave morally. In such cases, an additional and sometimes sufficient motivation for moral conduct is provided by religious beliefs, and in particular by a belief in a life after death if this belief is conjoined, as usually it has been, with a belief that, in that life, immoral conduct that escaped punishment on earth and moral conduct that went unrewarded each gets its just deserts through the inescapable operation of some personal or impersonal agency of cosmic justice.

To provide the motivation called for, the second of these two beliefs is of course necessary in addition to the first; for belief in a future life whose particular content were in no way dependent on the manner - virtuous or vicious - in which the individual lived on earth would exert no psychological leverage on him for virtuous conduct now. To exert this leverage is the function of the pictures of hells, heavens, paradises, purgatories, and other forms of reward or punishment, painted by the religions.

It is to be noted that, insofar as those two beliefs, acting jointly, cause the individual to behave morally, i.e., justly or altruistically, in cases where he otherwise would behave selfishly or maliciously, those beliefs foster in him the development of moral feelings and impulses; for as a person acts, so does he tend to feel and, on later occasions, tend to feel impelled from within to act again. The long-run effect of the harboring of beliefs religious in the sense stated could therefore be described as "education of the heart," - arousal and cultivation in the individual of the feelings and impulses out of which, even at cost to himself, issues conduct beneficial or assumed beneficial to his fellows.

The individual, however, is likely to be much more directly aware of the value his religious beliefs have for him personally than of the value they have for society through the personal sacrifices they require of him for the social benefit. And what the individual's religious beliefs do for him personally in proportion to their depth and firmness and to the faithfulness with which he lives up to them is to give him a certain equanimity in the ups and downs of life - a certain freedom from anxiety in times of trouble, and from self-complacency in times of worldly good fortune. To the religious man, his religious beliefs can bring courage in adversity, hope in times of despair, and dignity in times of obloquy or frustration. Also, humility on occasions of pride, prudence in times of success, moderation and a sense of responsibility in the exercise of power; in brief, a degree of abiding serenity based on a conception of man's destiny and on the corresponding scale of values.

The belief in a life after death, in future compensation there for the injustices of earth, in future reunion with loved ones who have died, and in future opportunities for growth and happiness, undoubtedly operates to give persons who have it a measure of the equanimity they need wherewith to face the trials of this world, the death of those dear to them, and the prospect, near or distant, of their own death. But in order to operate psychologically in this way for the individual, and through him for the welfare of society in the way described before, the belief in survival and the other beliefs the religions have taught do not at all need to be in fact true, but only to be firmly believed. Nor do their contents need to be conceived clearly, but only believably. Indeed, the vagueness which commonly characterizes them is often a condition of their believability, for it insulates from detection the absurdities in some of them which would be evident if the beliefs were clear instead of vague. In order that the beliefs should function, what needs to be clear is only the sort of conduct and attitude they dictate.

The fact, then, that belief in a life after death has prominently figured in most religions and has with varying degrees of efficacy participated in performance there of the social and personal functions described above, constitutes no evidence at all that there is really for the individual some kind of life after death.

On the other hand, the psychological fact that what has operated towards performance of those functions is not truth of, but simply belief of, the idea of survival, constitutes no evidence at all that that idea is untrue. For here as elsewhere it is imperative to distinguish sharply between the question as to whether a given belief is true - which is a question ad rem; and questions as to how the given belief affects the persons who hold it, or as to how they came to hold it - which are questions ad hominem, i.e., biographical questions. That a given person came to believe or to disbelieve a given proposition does not entail anything concerning the truth or falsity of the proposition unless what caused him to believe or to disbelieve it consisted of evidence adequate to prove, or at least to make objectively probable, that the proposition is true, or as the case may be, that it is false. But if what induced the belief or disbelief did not consist of such evidence, then it leaves wholly open the question of truth or falsity of the proposition concerned.

3. Grounds on which belief in survival is based in Christian theology

The grounds on which Christian theologians have contended that the human personality survives after death are chiefly of two kinds- empirical, and moral.

The empirical argument consists in pointing at the resurrection of Jesus: That Jesus, having died, rose bodily from the dead proves, it is argued, that the human personality is not destroyed by death and that the human body admits of being resurrected after it has died. This proof of "immortality" has been accepted by millions of Christians and has been regarded as one of the most precious assurances brought to mankind by Jesus.

Yet the logic of the inference by which human immortality is deduced from the resurrection of Jesus is so fallacious that the argument has been characterized by Professor C. D. Broad as one of the world's worst. "In the first place," he writes, "if Christianity be true, though Jesus was human, He was also divine. No other human being resembles Him in this respect." Hence the resurrection of one so radically different from mere men is no evidence that they too survive the death of their bodies.

The fallacy of the reasoning which would infer the second from the first becomes glaring if one considers a reasoning of exactly the same form, but the particular terms of which are free from the biasing religious commitments that obtain for orthodox Christians in the case of the Resurrection: Obviously, from the fact that Tom Jones, who falls out of an airplane and has a parachute, survives the fall, it does not follow that John Smith, who falls out of the same plane but has no parachute, will also survive.

Moreover, Broad points out that the case of man is unlike that of Jesus in another respect also: "the body of Jesus did not decay in the tomb, but was transformed; whilst the body of every ordinary man rots and disintegrates soon after his death. Therefore, if men do survive the death of their bodies, the process must be utterly unlike that which took place when Jesus survived His death on the cross. Thus the analogy breaks down in every relevant respect, and so an argument from the resurrection of Jesus to the survival of bodily death by ordinary men is utterly worthless."(1)

(1) Religion, Philosophy, and Psychical Research, Harcourt N. Y. 1953, pp. 236-7.

But anyway, the facts concerning the resurrection of Jesus taken as premise in that argument - are not known to us exactly, or in detail, or with certainty. The men to whom the passages of the New Testament bearing on the subject are (rightly or wrongly) ascribed, and the men who passed on from one generation to another their own account of what they had heard about the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus, were not dispassionate historians careful to check the objectivity of the reports which came to them and to record them accurately. Rather, they were essentially zealous propagandists of an inspiring message, bent on spreading it and getting it accepted. As H. L. Willett points out, "the friends of Jesus were not interested in the writing of books. They were not writers, they were preachers. The Master himself was not a writer. He left no document from his own hand. The first disciples were too busy with the new problems and activities of the Christian society to give thought to the making of records."(2) The text of the Gospels was in process of getting formulated for several generations. Most of it did not reach the form in which we have it until some time near the middle of the second century A.D. Indeed, "the very oldest manuscript of the New Testament is as late as the fourth century A.D. All the originals, the autographs, perished at a very early date-even the first copies of the originals are utterly gone."(3)

(2) The Bible through the Centuries. Willett, Clark & Colby, Chicago 1929, p. 220.
(3) Ernest R. Trattner: Unravelling the Book of Books, Ch. Scribner's Sons, N.Y. 1929, p. 244. Cf. Alfred Loisy: The Birth of the Christian Religion, preface by Gilbert Murray, Allen & Unwin, London 1948, pp. 41.53.

These facts easily account for the discrepancies we find, for instance, between the several statements in the Gospels concerning the discovery of the empty tomb. Also, for the scantiness of the descriptions of the appearances of the "risen" Jesus during the weeks following his death. At the first of these appearances - to Mary Magdalene at the tomb - he is unaccountably mistaken by her, who had known him well, for the gardener (John 20 - 15); and later is similarly unrecognized at first by the disciples fishing in the sea of Tiberias (John 21 - 4). Nor is there any clear-cut statement that his appearances were touched as well as seen. For, at the tomb, he enjoins Mary not to touch him; and Thomas, when Jesus appeared to him and to the other disciples, apparently then felt no need to avail himself of the opportunity he had desired earlier to verify by touch the material reality of the visible appearance. And the statement in Matthew 28 - 9 that the two women, being met by Jesus on their way from the tomb, "took hold of his feet" may well mean only that, in reverence, they prostrated themselves at his feet.

That the body which the disciples and others repeatedly saw appearing and disappearing suddenly indoors irrespective of walls and closed doors, and likewise out of doors, was not the material body of Jesus is further suggested by the accounts of his final disappearance; for the statement that he then "was taken up; and a cloud received him" out of the disciples' sight (Acts 1 - 9), or that, while blessing them, he "was carried up into heaven" (Luke 25 - 51) could be taken literally only in times when astronomical knowledge was so lacking as to permit the supposition that the earth is the center of the universe, and that heaven is some distance above the blue vault of the sky.

In the light of these considerations, and of the complete lack of facts as to what became of the material body of Jesus, the statements in the New Testament concerning the several appearances of Jesus after his death make sense only if interpreted as reports of what are commonly called "apparitions" or "phantasms" of the dead-an interpretation which, incidentally, is consonant with Paul's statement (I Corinthians 15 - 40/44) that the resurrection of the dead, which "is sown in a natural body; ... is raised in a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body," which Paul, in verse 44, calls also a "celestial" body and distinguishes from the "terrestrial."(4)

(4) That the post mortem appearances of Jesus were not his physical body, but were "apparitions" in the sense of hallucinations telepathically induced by the then discarnate Jesus, is ably contended by the Rev. Michael C. Perry in a scholarly work, The Easter Enigma, Faber & Faber, London 1959, published since the present chapter was written.

It is appropriate in this connection to note that apparitions of the dead (and occasionally of the living) are a type of phenomenon of which numerous well-attested and far more recent instances are on record;(5) and it is interesting to compare the earliest testimony we have for the post mortem appearances of Jesus which was first reduced to writing some twenty-five years after the events; which reaches us through copies of copies of the original written record; and which concerns events dating back nearly two thousand years - with, for example, the testimony we have for the numerous appearances in Maine in the year 1800 of a woman, the first wife of a Captain Butler, after her death.

(5) See for example G. N. M. Tyrrell: Apparitions, with a preface by Prof. H. H. Price, London, Duckworth & Co. Ltd., Rev. ed., 1953.

It is contained in a pamphlet now very rare, but of which there is an original in the New York Public Library and a photostat copy now before me. It was published in 1826 by the Rev. Abraham Cummings (1755-1827) A.B., A.M., Brown University, 1776. He was an itinerant Baptist minister who visited and preached in the small villages on the coast of Maine. The pamphlet, of 77 pages, is entitled Immortality Proved by the Testimony of Sense. It relates the apparitions of the deceased Mrs. George Butler at a village near Machiasport. "The Specter," as the Rev. Cummings terms her apparition, manifested itself not, as in most reports of apparitions, just once and to but one person, but many times over a period of some months and to groups numbering as many as forty persons together, both in and out of doors; and to Cummings himself in a field, on the occasion when, having been notified of its appearance, he was on his way to expose what he had thought must be a delusion or a fraud.

The "Specter" was both seen and heard; it delivered lengthy discourses to the persons present, and moved among them; it predicted births and deaths which came to pass; and on several occasions sharply intervened in the affairs of the village. Moreover, the Rev. Cummings had the rare good sense to obtain at the time over thirty affidavits - reproduced in the pamphlet - from some of the hundred or more persons who had heard and/or seen the "Specter."(6)

(6) A readily accessible, detailed account of this extraordinary affair can be found in William Oliver Stevens' Unbidden Guests, N.Y. 1945, Dodd, Mead & Co. pp. 261-9 where the essential facts recorded in the pamphlet are presented in more orderly manner than by Cummings, whose literary ability was low, and whose recital of the facts is encumbered by tedious theological reflections.

It is safe to say that most readers of the above summary account of the apparitions of the deceased Mrs. Butler will receive it with considerable skepticism. How much more skepticism, then, would on purely objective grounds be justified about a series of apparitions dating back nearly twenty centuries instead of only a hundred and fifty years, and concerning which we have none but remotely indirect evidence; whereas in the more recent series we have as evidence over thirty verbatim statements from as many of the very persons who observed the apparitions. judging both cases objectively - in terms of the criteria applied in court to the weight of testimony - there is no doubt that the case for the historicity of the appearances of Jesus is far weaker than that for the historicity of the appearances of Mrs. Butler. And yet, although we find the latter dubious and perhaps dismiss the account of it as "a mere ghost story," we - or anyway millions of Christians accept on the contrary as literally true the traditional account of the appearances of Jesus.

The explanation of this irresponsibility is, of course, to be found in the great differences between the personalities concerned and between the historical setting and emotional import of the lives and deaths of the two. For the personality, the life, and the death of Mrs. Butler were commonplace and attracted no wide attention. The only thing that did so in her case was the series of her apparitions after death. On the contrary, the personality and the life and the death of Jesus were heroic and spectacular; and this, together with the inspiring nature of his message, gives great emotional interest to everything connected with him. This interest, the hunger to believe it begets, the implanting of the traditional stories in childhood, and the fact that it is easy to accept but hard to doubt what is believed and valued by everybody in one's environment-these are the psychological causes which account for the fact that most Christians to-day find it easy and natural to believe in the "resurrection," i.e., in the reappearance of Jesus after death, even when the weakness of the evidence for it is pointed out to them; but on the contrary find the reappearance of Mrs. Butler after her death difficult to believe even when the much greater strength of the evidence for it is brought to their attention.

4. The moral arguments for the reality of a future life

From the contention that the resurrection of Jesus assures man of life beyond death, we now turn to the so-called moral arguments also appealed to in support of the belief in personal survival.

The premise of these arguments is the goodness, justice, and might ascribed to God. Summarily put, the reasoning is that "if God is good and God is sufficiently powerful, how can such a God allow the values (potential or actual) bound up with individuals to become forever lost? ... The world would be irrational if, after having brought into being human beings who aspire against so many almost overwhelming odds to achieve higher values, it should dash them into nothingness."(7)

(7) Vergilius Ferm: First Chapters in Religious Philosophy, Round Table Press, N.Y. 1937, p. 279.

Again, divine justice assures a future life to man, for, without one, the innumerable injustices of the present life would never be redressed. The wicked whose wickedness went unpunished on earth or perhaps even prospered them would at death be escaping punishment altogether; and the virtuous who made sacrifices in obedience to duty or out of regard for the welfare of others would at death be going finally unrewarded. If moral persons were not eventually to gain happiness, then morality, in the many cases where it brings no recompense on earth, would be just stupidity.

Such, in substance, are the moral arguments. Do they prove, or at least make probable, that there is for man a life after death?

Let us examine first the contention that it would be irrational to behave morally at present cost to oneself if such behavior is not eventually rewarded by happiness.

So to contend is tacitly to equate rationality in moral decisions with fostering of one's own distant welfare. The truth is, however, that to behave rationally is simply to behave in ways which one believes best promote attainment of one's ends, such as these may be. And the fact is that men do have not only egoistic but also altruistic ends: most men do genuinely care, in varying degrees, about the welfare of other human beings, or of certain ones among these, as well as about their own personal welfare. Hence, behavior designed to promote the welfare of another person whose welfare one happens to desire - and perhaps to desire more than one's own - is quite as rational as behavior intended and shaped to promote one's personal welfare. Thus, if a man's behavior towards others is motivated on the one hand by belief that the particular forms of behavior termed moral make for the welfare of such of his fellow beings as are affected by them, and on the other by the fact that he does desire their welfare enough to subordinate his own to theirs, then his behaving in the ways termed moral is perfectly rational. Indeed, so behaving is the essence of genuine love; that is, of love that prompts to action for the beloved's welfare; as distinguished from love merely sentimental which sees the loved one essentially as object that arouses beautiful love-feeling and which therefore uses the beloved as emotional candy, crippling him in the process if need be.

Moral behavior, on the other hand, is irrational or rather non-rational, when it consists only of uncomprehending, machinelike obedience to whatever code of behavior happens to have been psychologically planted in the mind during childhood years.

The bearing of these remarks on the contention that morality unrewarded on earth is irrational if not rewarded after death is that true morality is rooted in intelligent love and, for the person whose morality it is, constitutes self-expression and is self-rewarding. Being not investment but generous gift, it takes no thought of dividends whether on earth or in a future life.

As regards now the contention that if God is good and is sufficiently powerful, he cannot allow the actual and potential values bound up with individuals to become forever lost, its obvious weakness is that its premise is altogether "iffy": if there is a God, if he is good, if he is powerful enough to preserve the soul when the body dies, if the world is rational, if justice ultimately obtains, then there is for man a life after death! It may be that these "ifs" are true, but so long as they have not been proved true, neither has the reality of the future life, which their being true would entail, been proved.

And the fact is that their truth has never yet been proved nor even shown to be more probable than not. All the would-be proofs of the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good creator of the world, which theologians and theologizing philosophers have elaborated in the course of the centuries have, on critical examination, turned out to be only ingenious pieces of wishful reasoning. Indeed, if a God of that description existed and had created the world, there could be no evil in it; for the endless sophistries which have been packed into the notion of "free will" for the purpose of eluding this ineludible conclusion have patently failed to do so. Hence, if the world was ever created, and if it was created by a God, then that God was finite whether in power or in goodness or in knowledge, or in two or in all of these respects. Even such a God, however, could be a powerful, wise and good friend, and as such well worth having.

In any case, that annihilation of the personality at death would be an evil - and hence that God would prevent it if he could - is far from evident. For there is ultimately no such thing as evil that nobody experiences; hence, if the individual is totally annihilated at death, the non-fulfilment of his desire for a post mortem life is not an evil experienced by him since, ex hypothesi, he then no longer exists and therefore does not experience disappointment or anything else. But, if God does not desire that man's desire for a life after death be fulfilled, and knows that it will not be, the non-fulfilment of man's desire for it is not a disappointment to God either, and is therefore not an evil at all. On the other hand, what is an evil - and this irrespective of whether there is or is not a life after death - is the distress experienced by the living due to doubt by them that they will, or that their deceased loved ones do, survive after death.

The remarks in this chapter concerning the nature and functions of religion, the alleged proofs of the existence of a God of the traditional kind, the nature of evil, and the implications of the fact that there is a vast amount of evil on earth, have perforce been much too brief to deal adequately with questions so heavily loaded with biassing emotion.(8) If those remarks are sound, however, they entail that neither religion nor theology really provides any evidence that there is for man a life after death.

(8) Readers who might wish to see what more elaborate defense of them the writer would give are referred to what he has written on the subject elsewhere. In particular, to Chapts. 8, 15, 16, and 17, respectively on What Religion is, Gods, The Problem of Evil, and Life after Death, of the author's A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion, Ronald Press, New York, 1953.

But even if there is not, believing that there is does affect the believer's feelings, attitudes, and conduct; and to affect these in the valuable ways described earlier is the function of religion, which it has performed with varying degrees of success. The function, on the other hand, of the arguments on which theology bases its affirmative answer to the question as to a life after death, is to make the idea that there is such a life psychologically believable by the vast numbers of human beings who, for obvious reasons, turn to religion rather than to science or to philosophy for an answer to that momentous question.

That these arguments achieve this but nothing more, i.e., convince many of the persons to whom they are addressed notwithstanding that they really prove nothing, does not mean that those who propound them are not sincere. It means only that, except in the case of outstandingly rational persons, becoming convinced and convincing others is, as pointed out earlier, mostly a matter of rhetoric, of suggestion, of appeal to prejudices or to fears or hopes; whereas proving or establishing probabilities is a matter of logic or of empirical evidence.

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Contents | Preface | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25 | Chapter 26

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