I decided at a very early age that “God” either did not exist or if it did then it was so horrible that it should be ignored. I mean, a child of six is capable of understanding that if it were “all-powerful and loving” then it would not make innocent people suffer, particularly children. I say “children” because for some reason it is supposed that people are less innocent as they mature - which of course is idiotic in itself.
Some Christians attempt to rationalise nasty things happening to innocent people with the concept of "original sin", but once again, a child of six can understand that HE or SHE is not responsible for his parents' actions, let alone those of someone eating a forbidden apple many thousands of years ago.
So, by the age of six I was an atheist - though I didn't know the word at that time and it was not something that six-year-olds usually went around proclaiming. But one was brought up in a Christian country and environment, and so one accepted the rituals. My parents were not churchgoers, except like most other people at Christmas and for weddings and funerals, but I never had anything against participating in the rituals. The latter are comforting; they impose order on a chaotic world of capricious chance; they are a noble attempt to fight against entropy. And in the case of the modern Christian religion there is a special reason why one might play along with the pretence that there is a God - and that reason is Jesus. His father may not have been “God”, but his example is sublime; the modern biblical message is sublime. If everyone followed it, there would be no wars, no crime and indeed no nastiness of any kind to others. And despite my atheism, I have always had a total and complete love and admiration of Jesus, someone who I assume existed even if his biographers enhanced his deeds somewhat - we shall never know for sure.
And of course, a belief in a religion can bring peace and a sense of order to people who cannot accept their existentialist nature. It is hard to believe that humans are here completely by chance, that there there is no guiding hand to their fate, no “reason” for why things happen save the combination of logic and chance (though some do not believe in chance at all). Of course, as with EVERYTHING in our lives, anything taken to extremes is BAD, and religion is no exception: Christianity (or a hideous perversion of it) has done some terrible things, but has evolved into something much closer to Jesus’ actual example and teaching than it once was, and so basically is something to be admired, even though this is in my case a denial of logic and evidence.
Which all leads me to the WHS subject of ASSEMBLIES! They were an absolutely integral part of our daily routine, and one which I personally quite liked, despite the religious stuff. It is always satisfying for a community to meet together; we got news, advice, praise and occasional reprimands and commandments from on high; we heard readings and we sang hymns. The former were always sensible, sometimes inspiring, and the songs were jolly good in the main. I believe that in my era (58 to 64) boys were able to opt out on religious grounds if supported by a letter from their parents, but I can’t remember any who did - possibly some Jewish boys.
As for news, it was often the only time in the day (or week) when we saw the Head, and Smitherman and Bailey (the ones I knew) were both jolly nice and so it was nice to see them. We cricketers heard about the sailing results, otherwise we would not have had a clue about what was going on down by the river. Boys’ individual and collective accomplishments were publicised, which was always nice (an adjective Derek Thornbery hated as too vague by the way!). No, all in all, assembly was OK .....
But the religious thing did underlie it all, and sometime in 1963, I had a reminder of some of the negative side of it. I must have been in the 4th or 5th form, and I happened to be up on Church Field as a spectator watching some match or other - no idea who was playing, or why I would not have been playing on the same day. I do seem to recall that it was not just a housematch. Anyway, Jim Hyde was also watching - standing quite near me. Now Jim was someone I had immense respect for. I always enjoyed his lessons. He was very clear and authoritative, very confident in what he was doing. His lessons were always interesting, with lots of practical things to do such as drawing and labelling volcanoes, glaciers, weather systems with their “cold fronts”, bits of maps and of course working with Ordnance Survey maps to produce 3D drawings of terrain. He was formidable, but never frightening. I never personally knew him to be nasty in any way whatsoever, but he was on the other hand a teacher you simply would not cross. Maybe it was that strong, authoritative voice, which was capable of withering sarcasm on occasion!
Well, on that particular day on Church Field, for some reason we started up a conversation. I was not in Johnstons House, but had had him for geography for several years, as well as contact through the Young Farmers Club, so we were not exactly mates but had frequent interaction in the way that one did not have with all masters. For some reason that day, he spoke about his career - the first time to my knowledge that he had ever done so, certainly to me or anyone I knew. And his main point was that it was unfair that he could never get a Headship because he was not a practising Christian and - as he pointed out - he was not prepared to pretend to BE one. He would, for example, be unable to lead a religious service (and thus lead assemblies), since that was a requirement of the job at the time. I have no idea whether that requirement was formalised or just an unwritten law.
I was that day touched and surprised that he had talked to me about this in that very personal way. Later I surmised that he had perhaps just been turned down for a Headship, for which - as I remember him saying - he was amply qualified. I left Church Field thinking that it was indeed unfair to have such a religious block on his career advancement: you don’t have to be religious to be a fine human or indeed a fine Head. I also had respect for his integrity in refusing to play a game of pretence in order to get a Headship. I never mentioned this conversation to anyone at school, but it made a big impression on me at the time.