Dan Snow on atheism and cheeking Jeremy Paxman

From broadcasting royalty to real royalty, Dan Snow is the best connected historian in town. 

TV in the blood: Dan Snow’s father Peter is king of the swingometer while cousin Jon presents Channel 4 News (Picture: Rebecca Reid)
TV in the blood: Dan Snow’s father Peter is king of the swingometer while cousin Jon presents Channel 4 News (Picture: Rebecca Reid)

Dan Snow notes the irony. While the popular TV historian was preparing to to stick his neck out as an atheist, his brother-in-law, Hugh Grosvenor, was cooing over the chubby cheeks of the future head of the Church of the England. The little brother of Dan’s wife Lady Edwina Grosvenor, 22-year-old Hugh was one of select few at the font of the Royal Chapel at St James’s Palace as godparent to Prince George.

Until now, Snow has styled himself as something of a Boy’s Own hero: square-jawed, well-spoken, off in far-flung places with TV cameras in tow telling tales of derring-do. Behind him is a family dynasty — his father, the veteran broadcaster Peter Snow is king of the Swingometer, while cousin Jon presents Channel 4 News.

So far, so tame. But his coming out as an activist for atheism is causing a stir. In early November, the 34-year-old took to the pulpit at The Sunday Assembly, a secular “church” in Conway Hall, to lead a Remembrance service stripped of prayers and hymns, with the congregation, a mixture of the military and East End hipsters singing along to Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall instead.

The service was symbolic of Snow’s conviction that commemoration of the tragedies of war was “too important” to be left to the religious community, particularly as many of those who served, including his Canadian grandfather Robert Macmillan, and those who wished to remember them were not believers. The Church of England didn’t agree, calling its secular critics “misjudged and misguided” in using Remembrance services for their own ends.

I meet Snow for a coffee at the Royal Festival Hall last week. On the one hand he strains to put out his argument about a godless Remembrance, but when I ask him about the royal family connection, he recognises it was ironic, but also finds it uncomfortable to explain.

Snow had been even been one of the guests at Prince William’s church wedding. “Lots of people get married who aren’t religious, lots of people have christenings — that suits them,” he begins, choosing his words carefully. “As it happens Prince William is no doubt a devout believer and therefore wants to have godparents — that’s his choice. Prince William is very lucky that he does believe in God and so he’s able to go through that process. If you do believe in religion you’ve got a wonderful life of ceremonial lined up for you.”

It’s an elegant get-out by Snow, who went to St Paul’s Boys’ School and Oxford and now makes documentaries on everything from D-Day to the Celts for the BBC. It is not the first time he’s faced the conundrum of how to be an atheist and part of the establishment. His own wedding in 2010 to Lady Edwina Grosvenor, daughter of the Duke of Westminster — “a quickie” — was another example of it.

Edwina, one of the heirs to the duke’s £7 billion land portfolio, was working for the Bishop of Liverpool in the House of Lords, advising him on the policy for prisons. “He married us in his house in Liverpool,” Snow explains. “He is a lovely man and a wise man and he married us in a way that was a compromise. He allowed me to take God out of my vows.” Edwina, by contrast, wanted to keep the tradition.

“At the Cenotaph, there’s no secular representative,” he notes, leaning in when he wants to make a thought-out point, crinkling his eyebrows to check he’s engaged me. “All the faiths are represented, including Zoroastrians, even though there are fewer than 10 in the forces. But they aren’t allowed a British Humanist Society or secular figure as they traipse out wearing all their funny clothes.”

In off-the-cuff moments during his rapid-volley delivery — honed one imagines by hours in front of the camera — you can hear his disbelief that Britain still kneels so easily at the altar, particularly since in the last census a quarter of the country declared itself as non-religious.

The Church of England is “sclerotic” he says, and he talks of schoolchildren having to sit through the “background white noise of biblically inspired ideas” as though the age of reason never happened, and “if you go to a church it’s like a dirge most of the time during a wedding”. His two-year-old daughter Zia has not been christened.

As a young man he paid lip-service to Christianity, muttering along to the Lord’s Prayer. That changed after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. “Faced with the horror of the senseless slaughter, and the reaction, maybe the only thing I can do is stand up and say I’m not religious,” he says he decided. “This will not be done in my name or against my name.”

Coming out as an atheist when you are so close to the traditional centre may seem provocative, but at heart Dan’s no radical. He is deeply unimpressed by Russell Brand’s recent call to overthrow the system in the New Statesman. “A blizzard of brilliance and bollocks,” he says. “It’s not his fault because he hasn’t studied history, so why should he know that violent revolution is the most unbelievably destructive force in modern history?”

Snow goes on to explain that such revolutions leave the poorest worse off than when they started, mentioning the Congo, where he was filming last summer. “Brand is brilliant as a satirist but, as always with cynics, it falls apart when they to start to give out glib solutions.”

He is also mortified at his own recent comments on Have I Got News For You, which looked like he was taking a potshot at his BBC elder Jeremy Paxman and getting above his station.

The Newsnight presenter has made a BBC series about the First World War but when questioned recently admitted he didn’t know what had happened to Lord Kitchener. Snow was recorded saying “a BBC history presenter who loses out to a man who knows nothing in a big, landmark BBC history of World War One”, implying he should have got the gig. He cringed when I raised it again. “I was trying to be self-deprecating,” he says, apologetically. “It was selectively quoted as me saying Jeremy Paxman knew nothing about the First World War, which of course isn’t true. He did a brilliant series and wrote a brilliant book about it. I was trying to make a joke — ‘Look, if he knows nothing, what does that make me? He was selected over me — I must be a complete loser’. It made me sound like a complete knob.”

A truce has been called. “We’ve communicated and it’s fine. I was devastated because he is obviously a complete legend.”

Deference he can do. But does he also want to be a leader of men and women in the Sunday Assembly? Snow is charmingly relaxed about his congregation. “They can come if they want. If they don’t I won’t be telling them to go to hell for eternity. If they want to lie in bed having Sunday-morning sex I don’t think any less of them.”