International Academy of Humanism Laureate Conor Cruise O'Brien is the author of more than 20 books, including Ancestral Voices: Religion and Nationalism in Ireland. He has served in the Dail and Senate of the Republic of Ireland and as a member of the Irish Delegation to the United Nations.
His latest book, The Long Affair, examines the original writings of the chief architect of the government of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. What he has uncovered about Jefferson's attitudes toward race has unsettled many who strongly identify the man with the ideals upon which the American republic is based. Below, FI Editor Timoth J. Madigan talks with O'Brien about his findings.
Free Inquiry: Thomas Jefferson is considered to be one of the great freethinkers of the past. Why do you feel that there is a need to take a rather iconoclastic attitude toward him in your new book?
Conor Cruise O'Brien: Jefferson was a humanist as, of course, in some sense all the Founding Father were, because they lived in a period when that kind of thinking was very dominant among educated people as I suppose it is today. I am not as interested in revealing Jefferson's failures as a humanist as I am in bringing to light his racist attitudes. I don't think racism is compatible with humanism as I understand it. But it is certainly compatible with distancing yourself from religion as is apparent in the case of Adolph Hitler and many other twentieth-century people. So this is a rather complex area.
FI: Do you think it's fair to judge a figure from the past like …