The other Richard: Why Feynman not Dawkins provides a template for inter-faith dialogue

In an opinion piece in The Irish Times yesterday, I wrote about what I perceive to be a counterproductive and unnecessarily hostile tone to the debate between atheists and Christians, citing the recent discussions on the role of religion in education.

I’ve previously written about the question of school patronage in Ireland, and why the Catholic Church should abandon its “Catholic first” admissions policy not just on humanist grounds but on Christian grounds.

To clarify a few points, the article yesterday was not prescriptive – and nor was it designed to be – regarding the best approach to school divestment or patronage reform. It was a commentary on the nature of this, and similar discussions, where atheists and Catholics have clashed over issues of public concern.  Continue reading

Are science and religion really in conflict? The Unthinkable debate

Unthinkable took to the road this month for a debate, “Are science and religion really in conflict?”


(Left to right: William Reville, Siobhán Garrigan, Joe Humphreys, Cathy Barry, Kevin Mitchell. Pics: Alan Betson/IrishTimes)

Who won? Was there a knock-down argument to resolve this vexed question?

Judge for yourself. It’s remixed here as a three-minute Socratic dialogue (with apologies to Plato):

The Republic of Unthinkable

I went down to the Science Gallery in Dublin with William Reville (WR), emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC; Dr Siobhán Garrigan (SG), chair of Catholic theology, TCD; Dr Kevin Mitchell (KM), neuroscientist and blogger at; and Cathy Barry (CB), philosophy graduate and blogger at, to talk about gods.


WR: “I am a scientist and I accept everything that science has discovered and will discover, but I am also a Christian. It is my belief that science and religion occupy separate domains and there is no necessary conflict between science and religion once each remains in its own domain.”  Continue reading

Unthinkable… the book!

Unthinkable cover backup

‘Unthinkable: Great Ideas for Now’ from Irish Times Books

New thinking is needed to tackle the problems of a rapidly-changing world.

Irish Times journalist and author Joe Humphreys tracks down leading thinkers to answer some of the most pressing questions facing humanity. Drawn from his absorbing columns in The Irish Times, Unthinkable seeks to road-test your reasoning, and raise the quality of public debate.

He speaks to 70 philosophers and scientists who put forward ideas capable of changing not just your mind but the world for the better.

– How do you eat ethically?

– Why should men care about gender equality?

– Can atheists tolerate God?

– Who’s in charge, you or your brain?

– How should we deal with disagreement?

In Unthinkable no question in out of bounds and no idea too radical to dismiss outright.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.” – Albert Einstein

Unthink front and back cover

You may not Like this article – if you’re fond of clickbait and ‘popular culture’

The Irish Times, OpEd, Aug 21st 2015, Joe Humphreys writes:

There was once a time when popularity was viewed as suspect. “Popular culture”, for example, was what you called stuff that people liked but was generally rubbish. It was distinguished from actual culture, which people had to learn to appreciate and which could be measured by objective standards.

Similarly, popular – or populist – governments were what you called jingoistic if not dangerously nationalistic entities which pandered to citizens’ basest instincts. The Brazilian educator Paulo Freire captured some of the wariness of a previous generation of populism when he said: “The multitude is always in the wrong.”

For more read:

Philosophy: the subject that improves children’s literacy, numeracy and conduct

The Irish Times, feature, Sat Aug 15th:

We’re only about 2,500 years behind the Greeks but Philosophy is finally making it on to the school curriculum. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is drafting plans for a short course in the subject to be introduced as part of the new Junior Cycle curriculum.

It comes as a fresh wave of research highlights the benefits of philosophy for children (or “P4C”). A study at Durham University of 3,000 pupils in 48 state primary schools published last month associated P4C with significant gains in children’s literacy and maths scores, and even improved conduct.

For more read:

Time for Government to stand up for equality in education

The Irish Times, OpEd, Fri Aug 14th, Joe Humphreys writes:

A hazard of this time of year is bumping into parents bragging about how many points their children got in the Leaving Cert. It’s not just distasteful, it’s ignorant because it assumes their little darlings deserved what they got.

Anyone who is on nodding terms with reality will know that you don’t get what you deserve in life. Some people are born with severe disabilities. Others suffer physical or psychological damage as they grow up. Others inherit a handy set of genes, and are raised in stable homes where there’s ample money for summer tuition and maths grinds.

Unthinkable… 50 not out

The Irish Times ‘Unthinkable’ column started out as an intellectual experiment for World Philosophy Day in 2013. Over a year later, it has reached a half-century of columns, covering discussions from the nature of consciousness to the ethics of selfies. Showcasing Ireland’s philosophical talent – yes, it does exist – ‘Unthinkable’ continues every Tuesday in The Irish Times and

Philosophical top trumps

(c) The Irish Times/Dearbhla Kelly


Humanity: Book Review

Why I love … Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, by Jonathan Glover

A great book must have a big theme. It must be ambitious, and push the boundaries of conventional style. It must leave an impression, or create an impulse for change. Glover’s Humanity ticks all those boxes.

Crisscrossing history, psychology, philosophy and economics, he tries to answer that most pressing of questions: what drives one person to dehumanise another?

First published 15 years ago as Europe was emerging from the bloody Yugoslav conflict, Humanity draws the reader into a century of horror: lest we forget – the Nazi Holocaust; Stalin’s pogroms; China; Cambodia; Rwanda. This is a necessary remembering, a demonstration for all those crying “revolution” and thrusting ideology to the fore that violence once unleashed is uncontrollable.

War, in this analysis, is a trap. Protagonists bind themselves up in tribalism, procedure or pride. Glover’s account of the European psychosis which led to the first World War – basically a mixture of arrogance and stupidity – is not only illuminating from an historical viewpoint but highly instructive for today. He quotes RG Collingwood’s description of the Great War as “un unprecedented disgrace to the human intellect”, and there’s nothing to suggest human beings have become any more intelligent since.

Humanity is, however, a hopeful book. To guard against our worst natures, Glover identifies common causes of inhumanity: among them, normalising cruelty, maximising conformity and the shift to killing at a distance – now more achievable through modern technology. And he pinpoints the circumstances which allow for “a sense of shared humanity to break through”.

A memorable example comes from George Orwell’s account of the Spanish civil war. Orwell later described how a Fascist soldier came within sight, half-dressed and running, holding up his trousers with both hands: “I refrained from shooting at him … I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘fascists’; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘fascist’, he is visibly a fellow creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting him.”

Nov 6th 2014, The Irish Times.  Twitter: @JoeHumphreys42

The Catholic Church and the developing world

Essay for the Dublin Review of Books on three recent releases relating to the Catholic church and its impact on the developing world.

Joe Humphreys

The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the first pope from outside Europe in more than a millennium has drawn fresh attention to the Catholic Church’s role in the developing world. Pope Francis might be seen as an end product of those early European missionaries who stepped ashore in Latin America in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries holding the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.

In Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development, Robert Calderisi tells of one such encounter in 1532 when a Spanish priest encouraged invading soldiers to imprison and then execute an emperor of the Inca civilisation because he had dropped a holy book in his presence. Some seven thousand Inca warriors were slaughtered in the subsequent conflict.

Calderisi aims to assess the Catholic Church’s contribution across at least three continents over five hundred years in about two hundred and fifty pages. It’s the sort of task only a World Bank economist would have the confidence to attempt. As a popular and somewhat breezy treatment of the subject, his book stands at the other end of the spectrum to a brace of studies by Edmund M Hogan, Ireland’s foremost missionary historian.

– See more at:

Cross and Scalpel: Jean-Marie Coquard among the Egba of Yorubaland, by Edmund M Hogan, Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria), 536 pp, £34.95, ISBN: 978-9780812874

Berengario Cermenati: Among the Ebira of Nigeria, by Edmund M Hogan, Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria), 288 pp, £26.95, ISBN: 978-9780811822

Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development, by Robert Calderisi, Yale University Press, 304 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0300175127 – See more at:

Would Savita be alive today if Galway doctor’s advice had been taken 30 years ago?

There is something especially powerful about a prophetic voice speaking from beyond the grave. Amid the large volume of correspondence released with the 1983 state papers was a letter from Dr Fergus Meehan, an obstetrician at University Hospital Galway, to then taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald warning him about the likely consequences of the “pro-life” amendment.

One can’t called them “unforeseen” consequences because Dr Meehan, who described himself as Catholic and anti-abortion, spelt them out in great detail – pinpointing the risk to human life of introducing a constitutional ban on abortion that would tie the hands of treating doctors.

Identifying a hypothetical case with echoes of Savita Halappanavar’s, Dr Meehan warned that if the amendment was passed a pregnant woman undergoing life-threatening complications might die in hospital because a doctor “would rather wait until the foetal heart has disappeared”. His letter is reproduced in full here.

Perhaps social historians will give him some credit: a wise counsel to whom we failed to listen.

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