Friday 31 August 2012

Burnee links for Friday

Credit where credit is due « Choice in Dying
Eric MacDonald's take on Peter Stanford's Telegraph article (linked in the previous Burnee links).

Anyone for tennis — Creation Ministries International
A strategy proposed for dealing with evilutionists — but it works both ways, and ought to bring up short a "Gish galloper". (The comments, unfortunately, are a haven of delusion.)

Giles Fraser versus human rights | Butterflies and Wheels
GF went up in my estimation as a result of his stances on the Occupy movement and equal marriage (and incidentally on disestablishmentarianism), but he's wrong on circumcision, as Ophelia Benson points out. – Atheists in the Pulpit — The Sad Charade of the Clergy Project
How to miss the point, and be dismissive and unpleasant with it.

Atheist Ethicist
Alonzo Fyfe's blog. To follow if you're interested in Desire Utilitarianism. Which I am (thanks Fergus).

Andrew Copson: Tony Nicklinson and the Ethics of Assisted Dying — Huffington Post
"The only really difficult ethical question surrounding assisted suicide is how we can ensure that an individual's desire to end their life is the genuine, settled, free choice of a mentally competent individual."
And of course this must be addressed. Using this concern as an excuse not to change the law ("Slippery slope!" "Thin end of the wedge!") is a cowardly cop-out.

Thursday 30 August 2012

The Bletchley Circle

Next week's Radio Times has an article by E. Jane Dickson previewing a new ITV drama, The Bletchley Circle (Thursday 9 pm), celebrating the work of Britain's wartime code-breakers. The article interviews four former Bletchley girls — Mavis Batey, Jean Valentine, Beryl Middleton and Nina Horwood, current ages spanning 87 to 91.

Apparently the drama is not about their work at Bletchley Park, but a fictional crime story set after the war.

The real Bletchley Park story is fascinating, with much cultural, historical and technological significance, but I can't help feeling that this series is simply an attempt to capitalise on topical interest (we've just had the Alan Turing centenary, for example).

The drama is written by Guy Burt, about whom I know little (typically the ITV press release makes much of the actors, the producer, the director and the commissioning team, but makes no mention of the writer). I might watch the first episode, but if the writer had been Anthony Horowitz I'd commit to the whole thing.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Time to refocus?

I've made a number of statements in the past concerning my opinion of theology, describing it variously as "wild speculation", "a cloudy, indistinct field of contemplation that isn't susceptible to rational discussion", "piffle" and "lies, damned lies, and theology". I've expressed my exasperation with certain kinds of believers. I've engaged with believers online, in the knowledge that I'm unlikely to sway their beliefs. I've even critiqued an entire book of apologetics, at length. What has all this achieved?

My initial reasons for engaging were set out some time ago, and were based on two questions:
  1. How come so many people claim to believe patently crazy stuff?
  2. What can we do to mitigate the influence of crazy beliefs on everyday life?
The first is of academic interest, and something that I'd like to resolve at some stage (I have a few ideas), but it doesn't directly impact me or mine (except those of mine who actively subscribe to such views). So there's no pressing need for me to pursue it, other than curiosity.

The second is of paramount importance. Where crazy beliefs inform actions they can have seriously detrimental effect on many aspects of life. Practices and policies derived from unsubstantiated dogma need to be challenged where they conflict with rationally desired outcomes. And though their derivation from dogma may be obvious, substantiation based on evidence is the only acceptable justification.

Pursuing No. 1 above can become tiresome. For example, I've reached my nonsense-tolerance limit as far as presuppositional apologetics is concerned, and I'll no longer engage with it in any but the most cursory way. PA is a minority belief within the broader theistic morass (indeed it appears to be an undesirable bedfellow to much of that morass) so ignoring it will be of little consequence. There are other aspects of the theistic morass that I will still address, but from now on only in the context of real world consequences.

I am resolved to shift my emphasis not just for the sake of my sanity but as a result of concerns surfacing during the past year and coming to a head right now. Any nominally vocal atheist today will be aware of the threatened schism within the "atheist movement" — with one group attempting to rebrand itself as Atheism Plus. How successful this will be remains unclear, but I support the impetus to take atheism beyond the dictionary definition in order to achieve progress in particular areas of concern.

Skepticule co-host Paul Baird, in a post entitled "The Looking Glass War between Theists and Atheists", points out that among all the arguments, debates etc., there isn't actually much difference between those on opposite sides of the divide:
It does seem to me that there is a thin line between atheism and theism and that it's wrong to make any sweeping judgements based on whether one believes in a god compared to whether one does not. There are smart atheists, there are smart theists, there are theists with mental health problems and there are atheists with mental health problems too. It's as though it's the subject that attracts them all. It's like trainspotting with gods. We're all standing at the end of the same platform with our notebooks.
Which makes me wonder what on earth we are doing there. His final paragraph sums up the practical implications of it all, providing some perspective:
I just don't have the level of of enthusiasm to do the debates, exchanges of views or the research to participate in areas outside of the immediate impact of English Social Christianity on English Public Policy as it immediately affects my life and the lives of those close to me.
In a comment to the Facebook syndication of the post, Professor Paul Braterman makes an implicit, practical suggestion:
Some of my best friends are Christians. I long since decided that debating the existence of God is not a fruitful exercise, and that whatever harm may come from such belief should be the subject of criticism in its own right.
An excellent strategy, and one I will endeavour to follow from now on.

Extra Skepticule goodness for your downloading pleasure

Imagine doing a podcast every day for a month (August, say). That's a lot of podcasting. Then imagine spreading those podcasts over 18 months or so. It's still a lot (but not nearly as impressive).

Episode 31 of Skepticule Extra is now available to stick in your ear, featuring paranormal investigator Hayley Stevens and her HOTS exploits, Bigfoot projectiles, Nessie pictures, and a Project Barnum* update (with tantalising hints of something new on the skeptical horizon). We also go down to Down House — which is in Downe — the home Charles Darwin, and where he originated his species (he had ten kids), and we talk about designing some creative intelligence (or something).

*Don't forget to vote for Project Barnum as Website of the Month on Heart Internet!

Monday 27 August 2012

My QED 2012 experience — part 2

(Click here for part 1.)

I bought lunch in the hotel bar (I wasn't going to repeat last year's mistake, when a bunch of us decided to eat out — unfortunately on that occasion service was so slow we had to bring our food back with us, twenty minutes late for Jim Al-Khalili's talk on time travel). So this time it was coffee and a sandwich — basic, cheap and quick — and I'd had a good breakfast, plus I was booked in for the Gala Dinner in the evening.

I was looking forward to Ophelia Benson's talk, titled "Silencing for God", as I read her blog Butterflies and Wheels (at least I try to; she's so prolific it's hard to keep up — a point I made to her in a brief conversation the previous evening during the Mixer). Her first example of free speech suppression was from University College London, where there had been some fuss over the use of a Jesus and Mo cartoon appearing on the Facebook page for the university's Atheist Secularist & Humanist Society. The Students' Union claimed this was offensive and demanded it be taken down. The controversy spread to the London School of Economics with similar results, and even further: award-winning young skeptic Rhys Morgan used the cartoon (actually it was the cover of a Jesus and Mo book) as his profile picture as a mark of solidarity with the ASHS, and his school demanded he take it down — on pain of expulsion. These are classic claims of the right not to be offended — which as it happens is not actually a right. Interesting to note that Rhys Morgan and "Author" (pen-name of the author of Jesus and Mo) were both at QED.
Ophelia had plenty of other examples from all around the world, many using intimidation to stifle free speech. The problem is that religions (of many different stripes) believe they have the right to censor the words of people who don't subscribe to the particular religion that's objecting. It's only by standing firm, en masse, that this kind of thing will be defeated — which is difficult when you're faced with what appear to be genuine threats.

Sarah Angliss delivered a talk-cum-demonstration entitled "Voices of the Dead", which included some highly surreal music and a live demonstration (recording as well as playback) of an Edison Phonograph. Weird instruments were in evidence, including what must be the ultimate weird instrument, a theremin, played by waving one's hands at and around it. The instrument on stage appeared to be commercially produced (it had the "Moog" logo on it). Sarah was another speaker I was keen to hear on account of her reference to a temporary exhibition (which I saw at the Science Museum) of the work of Daphne Oram, including the original "Oramics Machine" used for creating electronic music.

Previously I'd only come across Massimo Polidoro in Skeptical Inquirer, for which magazine he writes a regular column. He's been involved in the JREF Million Dollar Challenge, overseeing many attempts to prove paranormal phenomena, both as part of the MDC and elsewhere, none of which has so far succeeded. His talk, "The Search for Superman", documented some of the more unusual and hilarious of these attempts.

The afternoon concluded with Richard Saunders, well-known to listeners of the podcast The Skeptic Zone, otherwise well-known to viewers of Australian TV. His talk, "The Delights & Dangers of being a TV Skeptic", gave us the inside story on some of the programmes and series on which he's appeared. He also demonstrated the infamous "Power Balance" bracelet, using a not entirely unknown volunteer:
The Power Balance story is one of success for the balanced powers of organised skepticism. After several publicised tests and prolonged media exposure the product — shown to be fake — was withdrawn, and the company sold. Unfortunately other bogus woo has promptly jumped in to fill the gap in a credulous market. Eternal vigilance required!

The Gala Dinner on Saturday evening was a success. I didn't hesitate to book for this optional extra, as last year's was definitely worth it, but how successful it is for any individual depends on whose table you're assigned to, and what mix of dining companions you find yourself amongst. After the dinner, Robin Ince introduced the Skeptic Awards, which were followed by a musical performance from Sarah Angliss, including yet another weird instrument — a sonorous saw coaxed into audibility using a violin bow. Then we had laid-back stand-up from Alun Cochrane (superb), and stand-up plus conjuring from Paul Zenon, whose performance with a full beer glass swinging from a string, while walking among the audience, was as surprising as it was scary (I still wonder if he's ever had a serious accident — and concomitant injury claims — as a result of this reckless stunt). It was, needless to say, the cause of much nervous hilarity.

The night apparently continued with dancing late into the early morning, but I needed some sleep.

Burnee links for Monday

How not to build inclusive communities | The Atheist Experience
The voice of Experience.

How an extraordinary day spent with Tony Nicklinson changed my views on right-to-die - Telegraph
So often those against assisted dying pay lip-service to concern and compassion without exhibiting either. Maybe it takes agonising encounters like this one to bring home the reality.

John Finnemore - 50 Things You Must Do Before You're 30 - YouTube
Some excellent advice, on the back of what must be described as a "pet peeve".

No Precedent? Then Set One! — Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science
The assisted-dying debate is no place for the argument from tradition.

Why I Secretly Root For the Atheists in Debates… | Catholic Exchange
Because nobody can beat such a brilliant debater as William Lane Craig. Yeah, yeah, we've heard this before. Craig may be good at point-scoring in formal debates (the precise formality of which he often determines in advance), but none of that leads to advancement in understanding. He admits that logical argument isn't what convinced him, nor is it likely to convince others, so his motives are questionable. His arguments (all five of them) have been demolished time and again by those who've had time to examine them properly. And his version of Divine Command Theory will leave a very nasty taste in the mouth of all right-thinking individuals.

Sunday 26 August 2012

The search for authentic sound

It's no longer available on BBC iPlayer, but let's hope the powers that be repeat BBC Radio 2's one-off documentary, "Mark Goes to Memphis", in which acerbic film critic (and part-time bass player) Mark Kermode and his band associates from The Dodge Brothers go and record in legendary Sun Studio. Here's the blurb from the BBC website:
The UK's most outspoken film critic, Mark Kermode, is also an accomplished skiffle bass player and devotee of American roots, jug-band, bluegrass and rockabilly music.

For the last ten years, Mark has played bass in his band The Dodge Brothers. Their album Louisa and the Devil was praised and played by Radio 2's Bob Harris, and they've performed with Noah and the Whale, The Subways, CW Stoneking and more.

In March, Mark realised a long-held dream when The Dodge Brothers made a musical pilgrimage to the the home of the blues - Memphis Tennessee. The purpose of their journey was to record their second album at the legendary Sun Studio - the place where Elvis Presley began his recording career along with a host of other musical heroes like Howlin' Wolf, BB King, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.

In this one hour special, we accompany Mark and the band on their journey. We follow them as they rehearse and play in locations in, and around, Memphis and trace the fascinating musical history of this iconic city.
There's also a short video:

In an ersatz age of simulacra, this is a fascinating quest for the genuine, affording insights that could be gained no other way. Recommended.

Saturday 25 August 2012

Last year's Law/Craig Evil God Debate — full video

Last year I went to the debate between Stephen Law and William Lane Craig. Though the audio of the whole thing was made available for streaming and download (and still is) the day after, it's taken a while for the video version to surface. But here it is, along with a promo or "taster":

There's plenty of debate about the Debate too, by both participants and others — just Google "Craig/Law debate" for a profusion of links.

The three Pauls discussed the debate on Skepticule Extra 16, available here:

Friday 24 August 2012

Burnee links for Friday

Did I accidentally approach a cult? | The Heresy Club
Hayley Stevens is alarmed to find once again a group claiming God can heal you of serious (indeed terminal) diseases. What's worse, this group exhibits disturbing cultish characteristics. And it's not as if she goes out in search of them either.

New Statesman - Atheism+: the new New Atheists
Nelson Jones sums up the Plus.

Science off the Sphere: Yo-Yos in Space - YouTube
OK, the presentation might not be the slickest, but hell, he's on the ISS!

Sunday shopping hours | HumanistLife
Three links to alarmism that the Government is considering making the relaxation of Sunday trading restrictions permanent. Contrary to what these pieces say, such consideration is not a breach of trust, any more than it would be if done at any other time. (George Pitcher's hyperbolic prediction of the collapse of civilisation is daft, but typical.)

Why I won't take part in debate with fundamentalists (Also in Polish) — Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science
Seems like they're still scared of him.

Assisted dying round up | HumanistLife
Compiled before Tony Nicklinson's death was announced. After the announcement Andrew Copson appeared on BBC News:

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Ehrperson on Unbelievable?

Another Facebook thread repost, this one about Bart Ehrman's recent discussion with Justin Brierley on Unbelievable? regarding "Jesus mythicism".

  • So...Ehrperson on Unbelievable. Thoughts?
    · · · Monday at 00:06

    • Paul Jenkins Very easy for Ehrman to say Price is wrong when he's not there to back up his statements. I know it was only a small part of the show but Justin lets this happen too often IMHO.

      I thought Ehrman skated round Carrier's criticisms without answering them, preferring to moan about the latter's caustic reviewing style. Anyone who's heard Carrier deliver a talk will know that his style is generally mocking and snarky. Complaining that he's "unscholarly" is really evading the issues.

    • Paul Baird Didn't listen to it. My focus is more on the social impact of Christianity. Aside from the nativity I'm not terribly interested in whether or not Jesus the man existed. The nativity itself is just so wacko and borrows from so many other myths and fables that I do like asking Christians to answer questions about it - to make them think.

    • Paul Jenkins ‎"The nativity itself is just so wacko and borrows from so many other myths and fables..."

      Which was one of the points Ehrman attempts to refute.

    • Paul Baird I think once someone comes up with a source for the conversations between the Three Wise Men and Herod or The Shepherds and the Angels then I might take notice.

    • Paul Jenkins But it's in the Bible! (Oops, sorry, already done that bit....)

    • Paul Baird and what was He doing between birth, age 12 and age 30 ?

      The Long Running Ancient Levant version of Big Brother ?

    • Paul Baird ‎"It's day 5687, Mary has two nominations, Joseph six and Jesus four. Who will be voted out ? You decide !"

    • Paul Jenkins In the latest (I think) "The Human Bible" Robert Price comments on whether theologians believe the baby Jesus was divinely perfect. I remember reading some commentary about whether the teenage Jesus had "impure thoughts".

      Not exactly world-shattering.

    • Fergus Gallagher Just listening to

      "David Fitzgerald, author of “Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All,” joined us today to talk about Jesus mythicism. If Jesus was so important and performed so many miracles during his lifetime, why was nothing written about him by those who knew him? Could it be that Jesus was just a myth? "

      (It's in the 2nd part, sep. mp3)
      Episode #204 – David Fitzgerald Welcome back to Strange Frequencies Radio!  Can ...See more
      Monday at 19:01 · ·

    • Paul Baird I can believe that after reading some of Glenn Peoples guff.

      So many Phds in search of so much irrelevance.

    • Helen Marple-Horvat are you guys all mythicists? Thats crazy if true...I will have to clear off. lol

    • Paul Baird Helen Marple-Horvat - in terms of the Nativity - yes. Unless you have a source for the two conversations that I mentioned, and maybe some idea of what Jesus was up to for 30 years before he began his ministry.

      Basing his divinity on 1/11th of his life does not not appear to be sustainable.

    • Paul Jenkins Personally I think it's more likely than not a person or persons by the name of Jesus lived around that time and did things that caught people's attention. So I'm not a mythicist. However, I'm highly suspicious of the Gospel accounts, and of the fact that a large portion of the NT was written by one man with a specific agenda.

    • Fergus Gallagher I put it like this: the central relevant detail about Jesus is whether he rose from the dead ("Jesus-Christ") or not ("Jesus-not-Christ").

      I don't think Jesus-Christ existed and who really cares that much about Jesus-not-Christ?

    • Paul Jenkins Fergus, that's a fair point, but mythicists seem to be saying that Jesus-not-Christ didn't exist either. The existence of Jesus-not-Christ, however, seems to be relevant to whether Jesus-Christ existed (as far as believers are concerned).

      I'd probably go as far as saying Jesus was a legendary character, but not an out-and-out myth. I think the stories are probably based on some facts. I don't think the character of Jesus was totally made up. It's been suggested he was a composite, which seems likely to me.

    • Fergus Gallagher ‎"The existence of Jesus-not-Christ, however, seems to be relevant to whether Jesus-Christ existed (as far as believers are concerned)."

      No - they are distinct and incompatible in this formulation.

    • Fergus Gallagher The other way I like to put it is that I think a Jesus existed in a similar way to the way Robin Hood existed - whatever grains of truth there were have been completely lost to us.

    • Paul Jenkins So you're an "almost-mythicist"?

    • Helen Marple-Horvat Lord save me from the stupid! :P

    • Helen Marple-Horvat Its like the mention of even just the name of Jesus and everyone does a

      How high can we pee into the sky contest!! x :)

    • Helen Marple-Horvat with...seriously

    • Paul Baird Thanks for sharing Helen Marple-Horvat. I did ask a simple question.

    • Helen Marple-Horvat There was a question? I thought the thread went into BS land ?

    • Paul Baird and that is why the nice kids don't like playing with you.
      Monday at 22:14 · · 1

    • Paul Jenkins Myth assist:
      Religious satire from holy roomies Jesus & Mohammed in a twice weekly comic strip.
      about an hour ago · ·

An experiment designed to be useless

Now that PZ Myers has had his say, Premier Radio's Atheist Prayer Experiment has become wider known. I suspect most of what's been said about it so far (including by me) was without the benefit of actually reading Tim Mawson's paper on which the experiment is apparently to be based.

The paper, titled "Praying to stop being an atheist", was published in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion in January 2010, and is available as a PDF here:

Here's the abstract:
In this paper, I argue that atheists who think that the issue of God’s existence or non-existence is an important one; assign a greater than negligible probability to God’s existence; and are not in possession of a plausible argument for scepticism about the truth-directedness of uttering such prayers in their own cases, are under a prima facie epistemic obligation to pray to God that He stop them being atheists.
It sounds like Mawson is setting up a highly restricted set of circumstances in which his proposal might just have some validity. Or not.

He begins by running through some examples and provisos. He suggests that the atheist considering praying to a God he or she doesn't believe exists is similar to someone in a darkened room who calls out "Is anyone there?" even though they believe they are alone. We get a lot of hemming and hawing around the plausibility of such a belief and the reasons why someone might feel it worth their while to call out, but it all has a flavour of direction, of careful elimination of possible objections, in preparation for declaring some kind of equivalence.
Similarly then, I am suggesting that, as well as agnostics, those atheists who think of the issue of the existence or non-existence of God as an important one and neither assign God’s existence a vanishingly small probability, nor take themselves to have some reason to suppose that their engaging in the process of prayer would lead them to false positives, should engage, insofar as the costs (including opportunity costs; to repeat, this is only a prima facie obligation and there may be other obligations which trump it) are not prohibitive, in praying to God that He remove their unbelief.
That is a typical sentence (one sentence, note). The whole paper is written in this faux-Dickensian style, with an excess of double negatives and subordinate clauses to subordinate clauses, as if attempting to delay the dawning realisation that what Mawson is saying is totally unextraordinary as well as entirely superfluous.

Next we have some exposition on Divine Hiddenness, which is frankly of no help at all. Mawson suggests that the atheist — still justified in conducting the prayer experiment given that the most plausible version of Theism will have as an element that God’s reasons to preserve the general level of hiddenness that he does may be countervailed by prayers of this sort.
Or in other words God might answer the atheist's prayers, or he might not. What, exactly, is that supposed to prove?

Mawson goes on to consider two potential objections. The first is a facile and futile consideration of the utility and worth, in terms of effort and return, of calling out to fairies at the bottom of the garden. Here's one reason why he doesn't think it's worth it:
I do not regard answering the question of whether or not there are fairies at the bottom of the garden as a task of great importance; it has a similar importance, it strikes me, to settling the question of whether aliens with a penchant for leaving crop circles and temporarily abducting the locals are in the habit of visiting the mid-west of the U.S.A.
Mawson should get his priorities right. He's effectively saying that if he had a trivial means of determining whether — despite the inconclusive evidence so far presented — aliens are in fact visiting the Earth on a regular basis, he wouldn't bother. Considering that one of the eternal questions we face is "Are we alone in the Universe?" I think he's being pretty dismissive. He's already based his prospective experiment on the proposition that the existence of God is important. One possibility he ought to consider is that God exists and is an extra-terrestrial.

I might also question his indifference to the possible existence of an entirely unknown species of winged homunculi that nevertheless appear frequently in historical literature. (I would have added that an answer to the fairy-question might also have a bearing on the existence of a supernatural realm, but Mawson has already stated that the fairies he's not going to call out to are entirely natural.) In explaining at length and in detail — two pages of dense explication — why he's not going to call out to fairies, Mawson gives an overwhelming impression of desperately looking for excuses.

The second objection Mawson addresses is the one PZ Myers raised:
If you tell yourself something every day over a fairly long period of time, will it affect how your mind works? I suspect the answer would be yes. Just the act of making a commitment to a religious belief and reinforcing it with daily rituals and reflection is going to fuck up your head. Most of us atheists have defenses against it — I couldn’t go through this without grumbling to myself that this behavior is bullshit, and it would probably end up making me even more disgusted with religion (if I bothered to do it, which I won’t) — but it could affect somebody who is gullible and impressionable. There’s nothing in this ‘experiment’ that could provide evidence of a god, but there is plenty of stuff to show that plastic minds exist…which we already know.
Mawson's response to this objection (obviously not a direct response to PZ, who posted the above on August 20) is to issue a kind of challenge:
Tim Mawson
Again, the analogy of the darkened room seems to me apposite. It may not be unreasonable to suppose of some people that they are so desperate to find a wise old man in the room that they mistake the echo of their own voice for a reply to their quickly-shouted question. Some suffer from schizophrenia in the best of conditions after all and the sensory deprivation attendant upon entering such a room is hardly likely to improve such conditions. But the vast majority of agnostics and atheists can know of themselves, if they can know anything of themselves, that they are not such people. Most people are able, quite rightly, to remove from consideration as a serious possibility that they will mistake the echo of their own voice for a reply to the question, ‘Is there anyone there?’ when shouted into a darkened room. Similarly, I am suggesting, most agnostics and atheists will be able, quite rightly, to remove from consideration as a serious possibility that they will ‘project’ some fantasy and thus generate false positives by conducting the sort of prayer experiment which I have suggested is otherwise prima facie obligatory on them. 
Or to put it another way, "Hey, atheists! You're made of sterner stuff than this, aren't you?"

Towards the end of the paper Mawson seems to be suggesting that the experiment cannot work:
One point we may see now then is that nothing the theist, agnostic or atheist can have experienced during the process of conducting this experiment will have given him or her any reason to believe that this process of praying to God that He reveal Himself is not truth-directed. Just the opposite; anything he or she will have experienced and even the absence of an experience will have simply increased his or her rational estimation of the reliability of this process in putting him or her in touch with ultimate metaphysical truth. Thus he or she will find himself or herself locked into what he or she will have to consider an epistemically virtuous spiral of prayer, one which ever increases his or her rational faith in God or one which ever increases his or her rational certainty that God does not exist.
This doesn't seem rational to me. Is Mawson saying that whatever the results, and whether you're theist, atheist or agnostic (agnosticism doesn't exclude the other two, by the way) you will conclude that the experiment has brought you closer to the truth? In what way is this at all useful?

Finally he comes back to a point he brought up at the beginning, that an atheist should only carry out the experiment if he or she thinks there is more than a vanishingly small probability that God exists. I read this as saying any atheist who places higher than 6.5 on Dawkins' scale should not participate. Many atheists of my acquaintance would be excluded on that basis, as would I. And we're at that point on the scale because we've already done this experiment. Many of us prayed earnestly in our youth, and beyond, with conclusively negative results. We found no evidence for the existence of God, despite repeatedly asking for it. That is why we're atheists.

Mawson rounds off his paper with a well-known quote from Bertrand Russell regarding lack of evidence for the existence of God, and suggests that Russell should perhaps have asked for some. Personally I'm not inclined to go chasing after evidence for something whose existence is not rationally implied in the first place. There's a simple matter to consider — that of burden of proof.