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.