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Apr 10 2009

Religion fails to provide believers with sound epistemological tools

Wow. That original correspondent from the email I dissected in Wednesday’s post, whose name I now know but will not reveal out of courtesy, has replied. She’s written a very lengthy, sincere, eloquent, and almost entirely misguided letter in which she basically confirms an opinion I’ve held for a long time (and one which I share with blogger Dawson Bethrick): The reason religious people so readily accept the silliest beliefs, and defend them so earnestly even when they are shown to have no sound basis in fact for holding their beliefs, is that religion in general and Christianity in particular fail to provide believers with the right epistemological tools for distinguishing fact from fantasy. This is all over this correspondent’s latest letter, to which I’m replying in parts due to its length. Here’s the first bit. Hopefully you’ll find some of this an interesting insight into the believer’s mind, and my replies to be worthwhile explanations as to how and why they get so much so wrong.


She begins:

Thank you for writing. Do you mind if we continue? I’m going to assume you are okay with that. I really do enjoy a good debate. It does not threaten my faith at all. I have walked this road already. I have demanded God tell me, show me and some things He has and sometimes He has said, No, just like any good father who really knows what his child needs.

I would not continue this debate if you were not a man of reason, but you are, and so…

1. “Whether this god that believers wants us to believe in is wise, creative, loving, vengeful, long suffering, or however (and one thing we always see is that believers define God in a way that makes God most appealing to them personally, which is why your God is kind and long suffering and the God of, say, Donald Wildmon is a total homophobe and the God of white supremacists is a racist), none of God’s supposed character traits matters. Describing a being for which we have no credible evidence in appealing ways is not in and of itself evidence. It doesn’t make the being more worthy of belief just because it’s a really really nice being.

There is only one true God and so just like your belief that there is no God discredits the one true God so does anyone else’s false beliefs, such as the man-made God of the white supremacists or Donald Wildmon’s (don’t know who he is) homophobe god. These false gods do not cause the one true God not to exist they simple muddy the waters. Let’s say an car accident happens. There are five witnesses. Each gives a different testimony because of their vantage point at the time of the accident, maybe because of their selfish desire to gain from the accident, etc. Did the accident still happen or do we say the accident didn’t happen because all five testimonies are different?

This is what is known in military terms as a “target rich environment.”

My replies:

It’s going to take a while to respond to your latest email, since it’s lengthy and will require a lot of detail. It’s nice of you to write, and I enjoy these debates too. What I will say, and in the friendliest possible way, is that, like most other believers who contact us or call our show, you seem to confuse and conflate a lot of issues. You seem to think emotion is a cognitive tool, when it isn’t. You don’t really seem to know how knowledge works; you confuse knowing something with pretending to know something. You also take for granted the existence of your God, which I’d expect you to do, but then you use this as the basis for a number of your arguments (relying on “God of the Gaps” in many instances), which is the wrong way to go about things completely, because you need to realize that before you can base an argument on “God says…” or “God wants…”, you have to prove your God’s existence first. Arguing with a nonbeliever from the assumption that God exists means you’re going to be talking past one another the whole time.

I’ll start with the first couple of questions, do the rest in a second email. I’d appreciate it if you’d hold your responses till I answer all your questions, because otherwise I’m put in the very time-consuming position of replying to your next set of replies as well as the rest of the first set.

There is only one true God

See, here you go with your first mistake right out of the gate. You have NOT established this claim as factual. I understand about your faith, and how believing this has given you emotional fulfillment, and all that, and you have taken those personal and subjective feelings as some sort of validation of the truth of your beliefs. Yes, that’s how religion works. It bypasses the rational mind, goes straight to the limbic system, and confuses the irrational and the rational in believers’ minds. But we need to cut through all that here, and just stick to basic fact finding. As I said in my last email, a fact is a fact regardless of how you feel about it.

So, in order to establish the above as factual, you need to:

A) Define what you mean by God. What kind of being is this? Is it bigger than a breadbox? Does it have metabolic processes? Does it eat and sleep? However you answer those questions, you have to then explain HOW you know, and present me with means by which I can independent verify your answers. (Hint: “Prayer” doesn’t count.) This is called testing a claim’s falsifiability, and it’s a key factor in determining scientific truths. And whether you like it or not, the claim “there is one true God” is one entirely appropriate to examination by the scientific method.

B) Define what you mean by “one true God.” Once we establish what a God is in the first place, how do you arrive at the distinction between a true one and a false one? What you don’t understand is that you only happen to think the Christian God is “true” because you grew up in a Christian culture. If you had grown up in a Shintoist culture you’d have a very different idea of what “true God” meant, and you’d be just as devout and insistent about that as you are here. I’ll go into more detail below.

and so just like your belief that there is no God discredits the one true God so does anyone else’s false beliefs, such as the man-made God of the white supremacists or Donald Wildmon’s (don’t know who he is) homophobe god. These false gods do not cause the one true God not to exist they simple muddy the waters.

Again, what epistemological tools are you employing here to determine that their gods are false and yours is “true”? Shall I give you a hint? You’re not employing any. This is a perfect example of what I was trying to explain to you, when I said that emotions do not help you determine facts in any way, nor are they something you “have to” bring to bear when faced with gaps in your knowledge.

Now, you might offer such “evidence” as “God has spoken to me” or “God has answered my prayers.” But here’s the kicker. All those people you think worship false gods come back at you and say the same thing! Uh oh! Now where are you? Will you continue to insist that their gods are false, and therefore any message these people may have thought they heard from their gods are merely demonic deceptions, or simply those people talking to themselves? Whoops! Here they go again, saying the same thing about you! Dangit!

This is a serious problem you’ve got here, and I think you need to take time to think it over. From what I’m reading here, and from (many!) similar conversations I’ve heard from other believers, my conclusion here is that your religion (religion in general, actually) does not provide its followers with the right tools to tell facts from comforting fantasies. You certainly don’t seem to have those tools.

I’m not trying to be mean, just honest. In order to get past this problem (and this will be difficult for you), you real
ly need to ask yourself how you would explain to someone like me, for instance, how it is possible to distinguish that your god of choice is the “true” one and their god of choice is the “false” one. And (here’s the difficult part) you need to divorce your emotional commitment to your beliefs from the process, because the methods you provide need to be independently verifiable by pretty much anyone, especially people who have a far different emotional history and character than you. So strip away the subjective and concentrate on the purely objective.

Let’s say an car accident happens. There are five witnesses. Each gives a different testimony because of their vantage point at the time of the accident, maybe because of their selfish desire to gain from the accident, etc. Did the accident still happen or do we say the accident didn’t happen because all five testimonies are different?

You do love your analogies, don’t you? :-) Just make sure the one you’re employing is an appropriate fit for the argument you’re making. This analogy fails on a basic point.

In a traffic accident, there will be physical evidence of the event. Eyewitnesses my be interviewed, but ultimately, their testimonies won’t have to be the only things relied upon to determine the facts of the accident.

And this is your big stumbling block: Your religious beliefs have only testimonies and unsupported claims backing them up. Determining whether they are true or false is just about as opposite a process from investigating a traffic accident as you can conceive. Like, 180 degrees the other way.

Her next point:

2. “See, you might as well ask, “Why wouldn’t you want to believe in a loving and sweet magical pink flying unicorn who will give you rides to the Candy Mountain?” The same answer applies: What is the sense in embracing such a belief?”

We both know that comparing God to unicorns or fairies is like comparing Christopher Columbus to bugs bunny. There is real credible testimony or proof for magical pink flying unicorns. There is credible testimony and proof for God. Creation is proof and Jesus is testimony, to name just two examples. Yes you have to believe his testimony and the testimony of his followers just like you have to believe the testimony of the witnesses at a trial and Jesus already told us that there will be some who refuse his testimony and the testimony of his followers and Jesus knows there is nothing that will change their opinion in heaven or under the earth. Free will has a way of doing that. Have you ever been a witness to something? Have you ever had your testimony refuted. Did it make your testimony false just because that person wouldn’t believe you. Or on the other hand, did your testimony become true just because someone believed it?

Creation offers proof everywhere. From the magic of new life to the decay of the old and how it all works, from the earth’s exact position from the sun and it’s revolution. Where does all the energy from the sun come from? We know that energy naturally slowly depletes. And if we really need to go back to the beginning to find out how God came into creation then you need to use that same argument for your belief. Where did the first primortal sludge or neutron or gas or whatever you believe was the first thing to start evolving, come from?

Don’t you love us here at AE for dealing with this stuff? Here are my replies to #2.

We both know that comparing God to unicorns or fairies is like comparing Christopher Columbus to bugs bunny.

No, it’s like comparing Bugs Bunny to Daffy Duck. Christopher Columbus was a real historical figure, for whose life the evidence is sound. There is no good reason to think of God as any less a fictional character than unicorns or Bugs. (Certainly none that you’ve provided.)

There is real credible testimony or proof for magical pink flying unicorns.

Uh, I’m going to assume you meant “There is NO real credible testimony or proof for magical pink flying unicorns.” Otherwise, I’d really start to worry about you.

There is credible testimony and proof for God. Creation is proof and Jesus is testimony, to name just two examples.

Nope, and here’s why. We have no verifiable, extra-Biblical evidence for the existence of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels. (The passages in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews are widely held to be later insertions.) Personally, I happen to think the character was likely inspired by a real person. But beyond that, we have no way to verify any of the claims concerning Jesus, particularly the supernatural claims, as conveyed in the NT.

Since I know how you’ll probably respond to this, let me save you trouble. How can we decide not to trust historical claims about Jesus, and yet accept them about other historical figures, like George Washington or Julius Caesar? The basic answer is we cannot take all those at face value either, and historians know this, which is usually why a number of sources are pooled in order to get to any kind of approximation of truth about historical people and events.

In the case of Washington, we can pool a great number of direct records about his presidency, but then we get to dismiss the popular myths, like chopping down the cherry tree, when we realize they’re not supported and are extremely fanciful anyway.

In the case of Jesus, even if we had ironclad evidence of a real person’s existence right now, how do we confirm the supernatural claims? (Hint: “The Bible says…” doesn’t count.) Walking on water? The virgin birth (borrowed from at least two previously existing religious traditions at the time of Jesus)? The 500 witnesses? We only have Paul’s word about them. Why didn’t he give us their names, allow them to write their own accounts? The resurrection, which all four Gospels give a radically different account of?

Without any possible way to verify these things independently, we have to bring in our understanding of myths and legends of the time. People routinely created these kinds of stories about prominent figures in those days. Supernatural stories about the gods anointing Roman generals before battle were told, and fervently believed, by Roman legionnaires. All throughout history, certainly long before the development of the scientific method, people have sought to explain what they otherwise cannot through the creation of myths and legends.

Your beliefs are no different.

Yes you have to believe his testimony and the testimony of his followers just like you have to believe the testimony of the witnesses at a trial and Jesus already told us that there will be some who refuse his testimony and the testimony of his followers and Jesus knows there is nothing that will change their opinion in heaven or under the earth.

All of this is hopelessly wrong.

I don’t have to believe a thing that isn’t supported by credible evidence. There is no requirement for a jury to believe the testimony of witnesses at a trial, because witnesses can lie, just as in the traffic accident analogy you gave above. Eyewitness testimony is, in fact, not held to be reliable on its own in court, and is called “hearsay” for that very reason. (Actually, I made a slight error here — see addendum for details.) It’s the physical evidence the prosecutor is going to have to show, if he wants to win his case. You’re insisting I have to accept your religious beliefs on hearsay. Sorry, no sale. No more than I would simply rely on hearsay to send a guy to jail for life.

So what if Jesus is supposed to have warn
ed that people would not believe him? This fact alone does not establish the truth of anything. I could say right now, “Yesterday I flapped my arms and flew to Mars, but most people will say I’m crazy and nothing on earth will change their minds.” That still wouldn’t prove I actually flew to Mars.

I’m trying to explain to you how we know things, and how we differentiate that what what we only think we know, or from what we simply believe or want to be true. I don’t if it’s sinking in, but I hope I’m being clear all the same.

Free will has a way of doing that. Have you ever been a witness to something? Have you ever had your testimony refuted. Did it make your testimony false just because that person wouldn’t believe you. Or on the other hand, did your testimony become true just because someone believed it?

You’re kind of confusing your argument here, because it’s no longer clear whether you’re arguing that testimony alone should be good enough (which is what you started arguing), or if you’re suddenly agreeing with me that it isn’t, and that evidence also must play a role. I’m going to take a wild guess and continue here on the basis of the former.

If I were in a situation where it was my word against someone else’s, I would have to realize that 1) I may be right or I may be wrong, and 2) even if I’m confident I have my facts straight, I will NEED TO PROVIDE STRONG EVIDENCE IF I WISH MY TESTIMONY TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY.

I hope you’re noticing that every example you give comes back to this: eventually it all comes back to evidence. You are trying (very earnestly, I’ll give you credit for that!) to construct an argument in support of the position that in the absence of evidence, it’s right and proper to fall back on emotions and faith to determine the truth. What you are in fact doing is presenting me with examples that always have me leading you back to evidence, regardless of whatever your emotional investment in the outcome might be.

Since you are fond of analogies, let me give you one relating to your courtroom example: Let’s say you’re on a jury where a guy is on trial for murder. Let’s say the crime scene was compromised and there was no good physical forensic evidence pointing to the accused. But there are several witnesses on the stand, and boy, they’re all very sympathetic. They’re crying a lot, and they really seem to be decent, upstanding, sincere people. They may even go to church! And they go on and on about how they always knew the accused and the victim really didn’t like each other, and had had loud arguments in the past, and so on. And so based on this very sincere and heart wrenching testimony, you vote to convict the guy, even though all the prosecutor had was hearsay. Five years later he’s put to death.

A few years after that, it turns out that DNA evidence is recovered from a weapon belonging to another person entirely, and both that person’s DNA and the victim’s DNA are on the weapon. Furthermore, more physical evidence has arisen that puts the poor chump who just got executed 20 miles away at the time of the killing. It’s official. All that emotional testimony, sincere emotional testimony from decent people, was horrifically wrong. And now an innocent man has been executed for it, for which you’re partly responsible.

This may seem an extreme example. But situations like it have happened. And I hope, if nothing else, you can see just how wrong you are to insist anyone “has to” trust eyewitnesses in a trial, because without real confirmation, the results can be wrong, and have horrible consequences. Emotion is clearly not the bridge we must use to cross gaps in our knowledge. It can lead us astray in the worst possible ways!

Creation offers proof everywhere. From the magic of new life to the decay of the old and how it all works, from the earth’s exact position from the sun and it’s revolution. Where does all the energy from the sun come from? We know that energy naturally slowly depletes. And if we really need to go back to the beginning to find out how God came into creation then you need to use that same argument for your belief. Where did the first primortal sludge or neutron or gas or whatever you believe was the first thing to start evolving, come from?

Since I don’t have time to run you through a full battery of remedial science courses, I’ll simply mention that there are very highly developed fields of scientific endeavor, peopled by well educated professionals with a true sense of awe about the universe and everything in it, who have dedicated their lives to the study of these questions and what evidence might point to.

Do we know everything there is to know about the universe? Not even close. But that is the greatest strength of the scientific method. One must always be open to new ideas and see where the latest evidence takes you. Sadly this is an openness you have closed yourself off to, since you opened this letter with the statement “It does not threaten my faith at all,” which is pretty much an admission you aren’t willing to accept the possibility you might be wrong. (And the irony of your demanding that I be “open minded” to belief in God while in the same letter boasting of your own closed-mindedness has been noted.) I will say in all confidence that, yes, I and every working scientist alive are a lot more open minded to new evidence and answers than you are, by your own declaration. The thing is, it has to be evidence in the first place.

More replies later, maybe tomorrow. Remember, do me the favor of holding off replying until I get them all in, so that I’m not backtracking and having to keep track of two sets of replies at once.


Her email had a whopping 15 numbered points. I probably won’t have to time to do each and every one, but I’ll continue with the salient ones soon enough.


Addendum: Actually, uncorroborated eyewitness evidence presented in court is not quite what’s defined legally as “hearsay.” That term refers to statements made outside of the court that one side or the other is attempting to present, without the speaker having been under oath when the statement was made.

23 comments

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  1. 1
    Ing

    15? Cheeses Christ!I probably would have just gone at 1 and said “establish God then we can move on and address the others”

  2. 2
    Lurker

    I am getting somewhat tired of the failed car accident analogy. The only wreck I see is the reasoning in this letter so far.To her credit, the girl is obviously very passionate about this (Fifteen bullets?! Save one for my head!).I seriously hope that, despite her initial claim that “debate… does not threaten my faith at all”, that she can use that passion to examine her beliefs, and why she believes them.At least she’s got the initiative to debate, for the love of Raptor Jesus! Most people lumber through life without a second thought about their religion.

  3. 3
    KaylaKaze

    I’m looking forward to this series of responses. I hope you do a bunch (I wish you could do them all).(my verification word is “vorkolo”. I wanted to type an exclamation mark at the end of that for some reason)

  4. 4
    Doug Farmer

    Damn, Martin. Thanks for doing all this refutation and putting it on the blog. Much appreciated

  5. 5
    Kyle

    It’s a shame we still keep having to have this argument over and over again. Just tell her to go read Reasons in Proof of the Existence of God by Thomas Aquinas (1270) and then have her read one of the people who refuted the five reasons, such as Bertrand Russell.We should be paying you for your service, and patience.

  6. 6
    Chris the Heretic

    Wow!This seems like a culmination of many of the same arguments dealt with on AE on a weekly basis. This poster needs to read “50 reasons people give for believing in a god”. It gets a little repetitive, but at least it explains things in layman’s terms. Although Martin is doing a great job on his own.One small thing though Martin. You called eyewitness testimony “hearsay” when I believe that “hearsay” is sort of “witnessing the witness” say something. This makes it second hand knowledge and not a direct observation. While this does fit into your argument, i.e. none of the writers of the gospels were actual witnesses to anything, it’s not how it was portrayed in your argument and could be confusing to the lady you are responding to.

  7. 7
    AtheistUnderMask

    I agree with Chris. She’s already confused enough as it is, no reason to make it worse.

  8. 8
    Pinko

    “Eyewitness testimony is, in fact, not held to be reliable on its own in court, and is called ‘hearsay’ for that very reason.”I’m pretty sure that’s not true. Eyewitness testimony is admissible in court without physical evidence, and hearsay is the term for an out of court statement offered to provide the truth of the matter asserted therein. Thus, second hand eyewitness testimony would not be allowed, like “John told me that he saw the man holding a knife,” would fall under hearsay. The statement, “I saw the man holding the knife,” would be completely admissible, which runs against the essence of that chunk of text.The gospels would still be hearsay, but only because the person conveying the information is not an eyewitness himself.Any lawyers are free to school me if I’m wrong.

  9. 9
    Isherwood

    Well written, Martin, and with every bit of the respect you could possibly offer. I know how hard that is when people are so horribly wrong.

  10. 10
    Ing

    Someone really needs to make an Atheist Response Hotline. You call up and listen to the automaticed operator who eventually plays the response needed.”If you are calling to question what Atheists believe press one…NOW…if you are calling to assert physical scientific evidence of a god press two….NOW. If you are calling about biblical scripture press three…NOW. If you are calling to make a logical argument for God such as the ontological argument press four …NOW! To rehear this menu press five!”

  11. 11
    PersonalFailure

    If you would like to threaten someone with absurd afterlife punishments, press 6 . . . NOWIf you would like to call an atheist a liar, an adulterer or a murderer, press 7 . . . NOWIf you would like to blame atheists for all the world’s problems, please hang up NOW

  12. 12
    Martin

    Pinko: You’re absolutely right about my incorrect definition of “hearsay”. I’ve edited the post with an addendum making the correction.Ing (first comment): I probably would have just gone at 1 and said “establish God then we can move on and address the others”Depending on how many of her remaining 13 (moan) points take the form of arguments that assume God’s existence in their premises, I’ll do exactly that if only to save time. SHe still needs basic epistemic rules — how to tell the difference between knowing something and believing something — made clear to her. Considering she’s already making statements like “Creation is proof,” if I demanded she establish God’s existence right now, I’d just get some variant of “Look at the trees!”

  13. 13
    Kerri Love

    I find it very telling that she actually uses the word ‘magic’ (of new life). We, of course, know this isn’t magic. I found it funny she would use that word instead of a more Christian friendly word like miracle.

  14. 14
    Ing

    I actually wouldn’t be mind the use of the word magic as I think it’s using a poetic definition. The same way every life can be called a miracle in the statistical sense since the odds of any one person forming is astronomical.God, I’m a nerd *facepalm*But yeah on that note, I’m an animal science major about to enter a program for pharmacy doctorate. It is REALLY hard for me to see the ‘the beauty of nature is evidence of creation’ argument…mainly cause as much as I love it (why else would I bother with these classes) nature can be ugly and disgusting. Right now i’m taking a break from my term paper on the Human Botfly for medical entomology. I can’t spend hours looking at photos of maggots being extracted from people’s skin and (uck) eye balls, and accept the claim that they were made by a loving perfect god. I mean, in a way the botfly i’m focusing on is awe inspiring in how amazingly good it is at it’s ‘job’ of infecting others, its a triumph of adaptation… It’s very much what Dawkins would call a Byjovian. but to call it beautiful…I would really have to stretch the definition of beauty to get there.

  15. 15
    Sparrowhawk

    Hey, Martin, do you need something better to fill your gobs and gobs of free time you apparently have? I’ve got some homework you could work on for me.Seriously, though, much respect for having the patience to deal with people like this. Try to stay civil, who knows you may make a dent.

  16. 16
    cipher

    I don’t know, Martin. I don’t think it’s simply because they aren’t provided with the proper epistemological tools; I think it reflects an inherent inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. I don’t think she’d be able to use the tools if they were given to her.The Bible provides them with certain fail safe devices, and she’s implemented one here: Jesus says some won’t believe, and you don’t believe, therefore the Bible is inerrant. The other big one, of course, involves Paul telling them that if someone ceases to believe, s/he was never a real Christian in the first place.My prediction – you won’t get through to her. You’ll go back and forth a couple more times at most, you’ll get dangerously close and she’ll turn tail and head for the hills. Your motivation is to determine the truth; the motivation of the believer is to continue believing at all costs.

  17. 17
    Gherkin

    An analogy which may be more fitting…Five people say that an car accident took place. Each person gives a different testimony, and one claim that after three days the cars reassembled themselves and drove off, which explains the lack of physical evidence. Are you convinced that the accident took place?

  18. 18
    Jason

    Happy Easter Gherkin!

  19. 19
    Ing

    Just for fun thought I’d share an IM exchange I had between a catholic friend and myself. His Im woke me up this morningFriend signed on at 10:07:52 AM.Friend (10:12:42 AM): Christ has RisenIng (10:13:16 AM): thanks for sharing but I think that’s personal between him and Mrs. ChristFriend (10:13:59 AM): LolIng (10:14:06 AM): happy easter

  20. 20
    Martin

    Sparrowhawk: Actually, my free time isn’t all that free, in the event you noticed that I was away from the blog for nearly a week there. Still, I will direct everyone’s attention to Kyle’s earlier comment suggesting everyone just pay me for this wonderful hard work I do, an idea to which I give my wholehearted and enthusiastic endorsement!!!

  21. 21
    Andrew T.

    Pinko,As a lawyer, you have it exactly correct. There were two misstatements by Martin (in an otherwise excellent post): 1) there is no rule of evidence prohibiting uncorroborated eyewitness testimony in court; and 2) hearsay refers to any statement made by someone “other than the declarant” — i.e., when I testify that Johnny said X, Y, and Z. The italicized part is the key; when I testify as to what Johnny did, it’s not hearsay — only when I testify as to what he said.Although the hearsay rule seems to trip up a lot of people, it really is pretty easy to understand conceptually. The idea is that if you want to know what Johnny has to say, you need to bring Johnny into court so that he can be cross-examined and the judge and/or jury can evaluate Johnny’s demeanor, see if he’s lying, etc. When I testify as to what Johnny said, it interrupts that process.(This also explains various exceptions to the hearsay rule, many of which focus on situations when Johnny can’t be dragged into court.)The Gospels (and 1 Corinthians, and everything else in the Bible) are hearsay of hearsay, of course, because we have statements about supposed eyewitnesses but not the eyewitnesses themselves to cross-examine and evaluate. This is also convincing proof as to why John Warwick Montgomery is a lying scumbag, but that’s another story.

  22. 22
    cipher

    You know, as I was reading Andrew’s comment, I thought of how Lee Strobel insists that the evidence for Jesus’ existence, the miracles, his divine nature, etc. would all stand up in a court of law.

  23. 23
    Andrew

    Well done Martin! You have the patience of a saint :pI’m looking forward to reading the second set of responses..

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