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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

As promised ... some more on Sunday Night Safran

As promised, here is a bit more reflection on my appearance last Sunday on Sunday Night Safran. Once again, the podcast is available for the next 9 or 10 weeks on the program's website so you can listen in for yourself if you haven't already. My interview starts at about 36 minutes, following an interview with the author of a book about exorcism (after which John Safran and his sidekick Father Bob Maguire discuss that interview - they discuss their interview with me at about 50 minutes).

So, my impressions. First, I don't think it particularly comes across unless you've been told, but I was feeling a bit more nervous for this interview than in some of the other gigs I've done recently, such as an interview on Radio Australia and the program on Radio National's Life Matters just before Christmas. It mainly reflected itself in a couple of silly mistakes when I started to call Susan Blackmore "Susan Blackburn" (I was doubtless thinking of Elizabeth Blackburn for some reason) and then had to keep talking over John to correct myself. I also had a blank about the CFI which I ended up calling "Committee for Inquiry" rather than "Center for Inquiry". Then again, people make these sorts of small mistakes quite often - it's just that I don't usually do it and I kick myself quite hard when I do. John himself made one even before me when he called Michael Shermer "Michael Sherman".

The other thing is that this interview was conducted by phone, not in the ABC studios. Not that long ago, I was intimidated by radio studios, with a microphone in my face and headphones on, but I've "done" them often enough now that that's no longer the case, and I think it's preferable. The sound quality is better for my own voice, and the sound from the interviewer is also clearer. I missed some of John's softer comments where he was reacting to things I said - when I heard it on the podcast, he was making quite encouraging noises which were generally not that audible over the phone, so the interview actually sounded better than I thought it was sounding at the time. I also missed his crack about an Opus Dei plot (when I said that the book should in theory be in all good bookshops, but in practice you may have to ask for it), so I didn't react to it. Still, it's not always possible to get into a radio studio, and this was a fairly minor issue. It's just that I advise others to use the studio if you can. I'll be doing another interview (this time with ABC Adelaide) on Tuesday, and again it will be by phone - not a big deal.

John was certainly not an aggressive interviewer, but he did keep things going along quite quickly and asked some of the hard questions. The line of questioning about how we pick and choose what religious views on political matters to criticise or accept was a good one, and well worth pursuing. One of the things I was pleased about was that I managed to explain, fairly cogently, I thought, my support for the Millian harm principle: the criminal law, in particular, should not be enforcing a religious morality, or some other specific morality, but should have the relatively modest aim of deterring significant harm to others (the principle is bit more complicated than this, but it would have been a mistake to try to explain the nuances in a radio interview). Thus, we should not give credence to religious leaders when they want, say, their specific morality on homosexuality or contraception enforced, but there will be times when they say things that we can quite properly agree with from a secular viewpoint.

More generally, I thought that I came across as calm, friendly, and well-meaning. There are times when it's appropriate to sound self-righteous or angry or dismissive, but not in an exploratory interview like this.

As mentioned above, the trick about the show's format is that John and Father Bob get to discuss each interview after the interviewee has left. Father Bob took no part in the interview with me except to ask me whether Damien Broderick came from the Broderick family that he knows in Melbourne (answer: "Maybe"). He also took no part in the first interview with the guy who'd written the book on exorcism. However, he panned both of us - quite rightly, I think with the exorcism guy. He dismisses me - or, when John presses him on it, advocacy of atheism - as "boring". His reason is basically that the problem of evil imagines a "little God" who "pulls levers" and so on, when the God he knows is somehow beyond that.

A couple of observations here. First, the book deals with a heckuva lot more than the problem of evil. Second, it would have been nice if he'd put this objection to me in the interview. I actually find the objection rather bizarre: "My God is too big to prevent evil!" I would have thought that "My God is too small (i.e., not omnipotent) to prevent evil" would be a more plausible answer. It seems that Father Bob believes in a God who only looks after the big picture and does not intervene in the details of how the universe works - hence, evil. That doesn't really answer anything, because it gives us no idea why a benevolent and all-powerful God would create a universe where there is inevitably so much suffering (surely the universe could have been set up better) or, if it comes to that, so much, apparently inevitable, disobedience to His own will. If this is the best theodicy that Bob can manage, I'm not impressed. I imagine that a lot of listeners would be similarly unimpressed, though I'm sure a lot of others would have nodded along happily.

Given the format, nothing can be done about this. All you can really do is seem like a good, friendly person with some cogent and interesting points, so there isn't a lot of scope if one of the announcers does want to pan you afterwards; people in the audience can then make up their own minds. No matter what arguments you bring up (and of course the interview wasn't about the specific arguments against Christianity), it's still open to John and Bob to raise other issues when they talk about it. That said, I was actually pretty pissed off with Father Bob's approach to this when I listened to the podcast ... but what feedback I've had suggests to me that he probably sounded a bit foolish if anything.

It was also a bit annoying that they got into the "no atheists in foxholes" theory without putting it to me first, but I guess it came to John's mind afterwards, and of course you can't cover everything in a short interview. It would have been a good question to have been asked, though, since there's plenty of evidence that there actually are atheists in foxholes, and one of the essays in 50 Voices of Disbelief (by Vietnam war veteran Joe Haldeman) addresses this explicitly.

There are some final comments by the hosts - or John, at least - right at the end of the program. He sums up by saying that he liked 50 Voices of Disbelief:Why We Are Atheists but Father Bob didn't. That's fair enough, of course - they are entitled to their respective opinions. Overall, the program probably did what I really wanted it to achieve, namely making the book sound interesting enough that somebody seeing it in a bookshop might pick it up. To be blunt, interviews like this are all about sales. You're there to sound reasonably interesting and to distinguish your product (lots of people from all continents, looking at the issues from many angles, etc.), not to try to put a knock-down argument against religion.

Overall, I thought that I could have been a more scintillating - I was better on those other programs that I mentioned - but that it was okay. My greater concern is that the book is not getting picked up by Australian Borders stores except as a special order (from feedback I've had, and checking with my local Borders up here in Newcastle a few days ago). That means that customers are not going to see it there even if they are sensitised to it by interviews like this one. There's little I can do about this - I'm sure that the Wiley reps are completely competent and doing their best, and it's their job and area of expertise rather than mine - but there is probably some resistance to it as an "academic" book, and it does mean we're losing some potential sales.

On the other hand, 50 Voices seems to be doing well wherever it is actually sold, and the Amazon rankings have been consistently better than we expected. The latter is only a very rough indicator of demand (and Amazon is still only a small part of the book market), but it's cause for some optimism. The way book contracts work, we won't know for a long time how sales are really going, but I'm hopeful that they'll be high enough to make the project worthwhile. I'd encourage Australian readers to prod their local Borders stores - and I'd be grateful if you did - but you might find the price is inflated for special orders and be better off ordering directly from the Wiley site (or buying from a shop that you know has it in stock, such as Embiggen Books on the Sunshine Coast or Readings in Melbourne).

On to the next interview on Tuesday morning at 10.30 am my time. The guys at ABC Adelaide look interesting, and this will probably be a quite different experience again.

10 comments:

Scott Hedges said...

Russell, what do you think John Safran thinks about religion?

I've watched his show, "Safran vs. God" and it isn't clear to me what he thinks. It almost seems like his relationship to "Father Bob" is based on the idea that both Bob and He agree that God is much bigger than "religion".

I commented on this subject on your previous post about Safran, and I hate to say it, but it is frustrating to see you get sandbagged and you seem to put a great premium on being "nice" ... I think there is more middle ground between being nice and getting rolled.

Father Bob rolled you, Zwartz rolled you ... stop being so "nice". There I said it.

Russell Blackford said...

Scott I am starting to look on you as a concern troll. Your continual "You're not doing it right" posts are not helping. If you think you can do such a better job, write your own book.

I think it's fairly obvious that Jerry has a similar opinion, but he can speak for himself.

Scott Hedges said...

Russell:

I'm not trying to say I could do better - I'm saying, as a close observer of these exchanges, I think you are getting rolled.

You may not think so, and I may be wrong, but I'm being honest.

My understanding is that a concern troll is someone who "offering a poisoned apple in the form of advice to political opponents that, if taken, would harm the recipient."

If you think taking my advice is going to make you come off any worse than Father Bob intended for you ... or for that matter than Barney Zwartz, "no one believes in the God you are talking about" baloney, I got news for you. It can't get much worse.

The way I see it is this: If you are making progress they will call you strident and unreasonable, if, on the other hand they call you "boring" or "not getting it" you should not wait for me to to tell you to be pissed off.

You may disagree with me, and feel that Father Bob and Zwartz and Peter Adam felt challenged by your comments, but I assure you, they didn't. Shoot the messenger, but please accept that nothing I've said to you or Jerry - (and my critique of him is very narrow - drop the term "evolutionist") - is intended to insult or harm you. You are free to disagree and ignore my advice - but to impugn my motives is totally uncalled for.

When a fan encourages you go for the soft parts, punch harder - or try something different, it seems like you might take it as encouragement. For every criticism from a supporter like me you get, count 10 - because, as you've proven above, people are reluctant to say what they think if they they think the person will take it the wrong way.

Either way, nothing I've said to you, or Jerry - on your blogs has been anything but a frank attempt to add to the discussion.

Scott Hedges said...

for the record here was my comment regarding Zwartz's treatment of you and his obscene use of Auschwitz to make his case for god:

"Hedges on Russell vs. Zwartz"

Does that sound like someone trolling you? "Read Jerry on Primo Levy if you think so ...

Again the point isn't that I know better, it is to be critical so we can DO better.

Russell Blackford said...

Scott, just stop digging a pit for yourself. You have no idea about these things. Your PR skills are non-existent. If I took your advice, I would be in deep trouble because it would result in my acting like a very poor ambassador for my own views (when I happen to think I'm currently doing a reasonable job). I'd only alienate people, which is basically what you do.

I'm not going to turn into whatever it is that you want me to turn into; I fully intend to carry on doing things in the way that matches my own skills, personality, and best judgment; and I don't have the time or energy to debate this with you. If that doesn't suit you, too bad.

I suggest that you find someone else to try your advice on. Maybe you'll find someone who'll be foolish enough to take it. I've tried to give you hints in the past as to why I think your approach is wrong and why I have no intention of adopting it. Nor am I interested in wasting time and energy on you ... time and energy that could be spent on more productive things than trying to educate one person. So, I'm being blunt and clear.

Now go away and annoy someone else. Future comments from you on this blog will be deleted on sight. You've had plenty of chances to "get" it, but you blew them all. This, alas, was the last one.

Rory_ said...

I was quite disappointed with that show after listening. I've never listened to them before so perhaps my expectations were too high.

I thought Safran did a good job (and you likewise Russell, far more interesting than listening to the two of them talk) but why was Father Bob even there? He complained about you being boring, but he didn't say a word during the conversation – surely him pressing you on a few issues and having a bit of a debate would've livened things up? He didn't even talk in depth about his criticisms afterwards, just made a few vague remarks. The format of having your discussion post-interview is a bit pointless really.

Religion is such an interesting subject to talk about, with a million different topics to debate and discuss, yet most of their show bored the pants off me.

I suppose it doesn't matter in the end since it was about exposure for your book, but I'd have liked them to spice things up a bit.

Sean the Blogonaut F.C.D. said...

Not a big fan of Safran or Father Bob. The latter doesn't strike me as a particularly incisive thinker either. I suspect when it comes to talking to a trained philosopher he'd rather take shots at you where you can't defend yourself.

Dan Ox said...

Being a long time listener of Sunday Night Safran, I believe the format is the way it is because Father Bob doesn't like conflict. Safran has tried many times to get Bob to speak up during an interview if he disagrees, but he wont. He often pans a interviewee after the interview because that's the only time that Safran can draw it out of him.

I wouldn't take it personally. Bob is a catholic parish priest, not a theologian and I think his primary role on the show is being the crazy old man who says wacky things. Despite presenting itself as a religious show, I think it is primarily a comedy show based around the conflict of two extreme personalities trying to run a talk show together. The interviews are a secondary consideration.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, Dan ... that's pretty much how I see it. Although it's an annoying format in that sense, I don't feel that it's some terrible defeat, or whatever, that Father Bob was able to pan later on after the interview was over. Surely most people are more likely to think "That's Father Bob being wacky again."

I just did the interview with ABC Adelaide, which was excellent for the book - even the theologian who the hosts had on the show praised it. May this lead to sales!

The interview finished with some sharp exchanges, and I got in a strong parting shot. The point being that if you take your religion into the political sphere, claiming some kind of moral authority, it's natural that people like me respond with: "What is the basis of the authority you claim?"

Of course, I'll be mildly pissed off if I find out that the theologian guy, who was there for the show not just my interview, later did a Father Bob on me: avoiding direct debate but attacking my views after I've gone. But things like that can't be controlled by interviewees, so I'm not hung up about it.

The interview itself was great as far as I was concerned. That the guys got some feisty but (I think) cogent words out of me at the end - after it was very laid-back in the opening stages - is all to the good.

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