I always worry about small talk. Now I know what to do if I ever get stuck in a lift with Richard Dawkins, following an article in the Sunday Telegraph which reveals him to be descended from slave owners. Me too! How nice to have common ground.

It all started with my dad looking into the family background, and he managed to trace the family tree to the eighteenth century. All those Hawkinses going back all those years (it’s easier to track the Hawkinses because I’ve seen a family tree put together in the early part of the last century, and while the boys are named, the daughters are simply numbered). I come from a family of merchants. Slaves and salt, both measured by the ton. How embarrassing.

The thrust of the Telegraph’s argument is that Richard Dawkins should feel guilty, possibly to make some gesture, rather like Bristol building their slavery museum. His family own a four hundred acre farm. Is it too much to ask that he gives up a barn for a temporary exhibition?

This is silly. I don’t feel guilty about my ancestors. The fact that my father and I both have chronic high blood pressure is not some great karmic payback for the practices of namesake salt merchants of the 19th century. When you do the maths, we all have an exponential curve in the numbers of ancestors we have. The numbers quickly become so large, that you either believe everyone has more ancestors than there are atoms in the universe, or you take the more humane view (which I and Carl Sagan do) that we are all cousins. We all have ancestors that have done awful things, but then we all have ancestors to whom awful things have been done.

The difference between me and Dicky Dawkins is that this week Prof Dawk has stuck his head above the parapet, whereas I have told jokes in pubs. TV’s favourite stunt atheist has been defending what Baroness Warsi has called ‘secular fundamentalism’, and I have sung a stupid song about dinosaurs. But we are both concerned with this seeming confusion between ‘secularism’ and ‘atheism’. I sincerely do not understand what the problem with secularism is, and am surprised that you can get into the house of Lords and can not only misunderstand what secularism is, but apparently deliberately misrepresent it. Why is secularism being rebranded as a bad thing?

A secular society is one that doesn’t stone women to death for adultery, doesn’t judge people on their religion, or the colour of their skin, or demand people pray to or obey laws appeasing gods they don’t believe in. You can chose a kosher caterer for your Bar Mitzvah but you can’t let them park on the double yellows because traffic wardens shouldn’t be working on the Sabbath. (I got bored with Christian examples.)

Lord Carey gave a rather sad interview on Today last week (cleverly getting a plug for his book into the first sentence as if Today were an episode of Chatty Man with Alan Carr) in which the former Archbishop of Canterbury made the point that Christians were a persecuted minority. Apparently this is because a public sector worker was sacked for refusing to conduct same-sex civil partnerships, and a hotelier refused to extend their services to a civilly partnered couple. The sub text is: hey! We aren’t allowed to victimise homosexuals! That’s unfair on us! We’re being oppressed!

Christians are not oppressed. Lord Carey sits in the Lords with the other Lords Spiritual because he is a Christian. I cannot think of anyone else who gets in purely on the basis of their faith. It was interesting to hear him using the language of an oppressed minority, much of which came out of the civil rights movement that Lord Carey’s organisation has done so much to attack. If that’s oppression, I’d love a bit of it.

By attacking secularism, Warsi and Carey seem to be taking the position that if, say, one believes one should be able to keep an unpaid slave working for you because you sincerely believe that it is your god-given right to do so, then you have a strong case. This seems strange, but then I’m not religious so couldn’t possibly understand their stance.

The Telegraph is good enough to acknowledge that Richard Dawkins’s ancestors also were involved in the abolitionist movement. And there were six generations of Anglican clergy in there as well, but at this distance, it’s quite possible that one of them is a common ancestor to the Hawkinses and the Dawkinses and maybe even the writer of the Telegraph article. Perhaps we should accept that we are responsible for ourselves. Our ancestors may give us their hair colour, fast or slow twitch muscle fibres, and possibly something of our personalities. But their beliefs? Their guilt? I’m not so sure.

Telegraph article
Dawkins’s response