prayer114It is no big secret that I am an atheist (well, it’s not now). In England it is a legal requirement that schools have a daily “act of collective worship”, with the majority of these being “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.

It is always a bit of an issue about how atheists respond to these assemblies. Under the law, any child can leave, but that can make them feel a bit like a social outcast. One idea I had a few years ago was to come up with alternative science-based activities for atheists (‘You can stay and pray or watch Mrs Henderson walk barefoot across burning coals’, or ‘We will now all sing a hymn…or you can go and see Mr Jones eat a lightbulb’).

A few days ago a friend of mine mentioned that he was trying to persuade his local school to have a one-off atheist assembly, and wanted to come up with appropriate content. It would, he thought, be nice to have something inspirational and uplifting, yet with a serious message. Perhaps something that lays out a moral message outside a religious context.

My thought was that for the right age group, you could do a lot worse than read Kipling’s poem, IF. If you need your memory refreshing, this clip starts with a great rendition of it…

What do you think? Any other suggestions for other material for my friend?


  1. In primary school I just used to not ‘put my hands together and close my eyes’. I got some glares off teachers but they can’t tell you off, really.
    I reckon the idea is to make you think/appreciate the world, so how about some philosophy? Plenty of it is accessible enough for children, if it’s explaned right. Or alternatively, an appreciation of some biological phenomenon eg Northern Lights, albatross breeding, yada yada yada. All well worth an act of collective worship.

  2. How about a section from Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s search for meaning’? Even though it may seem a little heavy because it’s about concentration camps, the main message is that we all have to make our own meaning for life, and that being in great difficulty can help us act well.

    I’m proud of being expelled from attending assembly in my primary school – the teachers didn’t seem to like me asking things like, ‘so, who created god?’. The only shame was that I loved singing the hymns, so maybe your friend could find some nice atheist songs too.

  3. “I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and in many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about a little, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.”

    The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman. He’s a gold mine when it comes to seeing the world in a scientific and godless way.

  4. On Kipling’s “If”, a copy of the poem is, at many schools, given to students when they matriculate. I remember receiving my copy, and then finding out that when my mother went to the same school a generation before, she received a copy too. This made me feel deeply disappointed that a school would be so conservative as to leave details of the matriculation ritual unchanged in a generation. Now I can’t hear the poem without thinking of the disappointment I felt. It was a terrible thing to do to an innocent poem that never did any harm.

  5. At my school the boys entertained themselves in assembly by singing, for instance “oh COME all ye faithful” and farting during the quiet prayers, whilst the girls seemed to occupy themselves with feinting contests.

    I imagine the teachers hated assembly as much as the rest of us and would rather be relaxing with a cup of coffee and the Socialist Worker instead of dragging oiks out of a heavy cloud of eggy-pump oxide for detention, or checking them for head traumas caused by a highly polished parquet.

    Kids hate being preached to whether its about an invisible friend in the sky or why they shouldn’t be such lazy shits and try and achieve more. So do I and I’m forty.

  6. Is an “act of collective worship” incompatible with atheism?

    I was in the Natural History Museum the other week and I realised that atheists *do* have cathedrals (check out the amazing architecture, the stained glass, the carved columns and panels everywhere, all dedicated to the glory of the natural world), we just call them museums.

    So could ‘worship’ not include celebrating science and nature, and perhaps even concepts like community and charity?

    Participation was always a big deal in assembly when I was in school. How about getting the kids to create something (poems, pictures, whatever) celebrating everyday things from the world around us?

    Apart from being valuable from an atheist/humanist point of view, the world is a pretty grim place if you watch the news or read the papers (or, for a lot of children I expect, listen to your parents) without taking time notice the things that are wonderful and beautiful.

  7. Oh, I forgot to mention singing. There’s some intangible buzz from singing in a group (assuming of course that you want to be there and you’re not singing some awful dirge), which religions have been exploiting for centuries, and the rest of us often miss out on.

    Atheists have cathedrals (see above) but we really need some hymns.

  8. Any state school, under the education act, not only has to provide an act of collective worship but also has to include (and inform parents of) a suitable alternative for those who do not wish to attend – no reason need be given. Many schools fail in this duty I fear. At 16 the student can make the choice themselves (recent change, used to be 18). Same applies to RE lessons.

    At an Independent school (I’m a teacher btw) we’re not governed by the education act, however I do feel strongly that the same principles should apply as they are essentially derived from the convention on human rights – freedom of and from religion. Although not a public body and so not governed by the human rights act either, there is a moral prerogative here I feel.

    I regularly deliver an assembly to year 11s about what it means to be secularist as opposed to atheist and about how society (and family and schools etc) assume we all have or want religion – such as holding services for war dead, even if they were not church goers. A text on those lines finds strong resonances with kids beginning to break free of their religious programming from home and school.

    An assembly on human rights, looking at the wording and in particular of the freedom of thought and religion clause would also be instructive. Atheism and humanism are explicitly included as systems of thought which are protected under human rights – most students won’t appreciate that.

  9. I really dislike this. “You’ll be a man my son.” What toffee nosed crap. Public school notions about what it means to be a man are irrelevant, outdated, and exclusionary of all those who couldn’t fit into that picture (I’m thinking of girls in particular) or don’t consider being ‘a man’ in the eyes of others a worthwhile pursuit. Atheism/Humanism should celebrate diversity.

  10. Jools, the Natural History Museum looks like a cathedral coz the person who designed it was a religious creationist.

  11. Ah, thanks for the pointer Liam, I should have researched that a little!

    I still think it’s pretty cool though to have a building dedicated to the wonders of nature, however we (or the architect) think they happened.

  12. I don’t think that you should celebrate atheism in the same way that you might celebrate religion. Thinking objectively about the world should be embracing, active and enjoyable.

    While the other kids are wasting their time looking at the sky and thinking this time could be spent giving children a better understanding of how to think objectively and critically. The Skeptics Guide to the Universe have a list of the top 20 logical fallacies on their website and run a companion podcast called 5×5 which occasionally looks at one of these logical fallacies and discusses it. This is a great idea.

    This could be a great opportunity to help give children the tools on how to think critically for themselves so they can make their own mind up about the world around them with the education necessary to spot the kooks, quacks and shaman.

    You could take a recent news story or issue and discuss it for example or conduct an interesting experiment, go outside and talk about the season find something that sparks an interest in the children and maybe they will tell their friends how much more interesting the real world is to the spiritual!

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  14. I’m actually shocked that schools in England still have this law. I remember we did this once a week maybe at primary school but that’s twenty odd years back and I’d thought things had changed.

  15. I didn’t realise it was a legal requirement. My school had split assemblies every Friday. It was a multi-faith school so had about 5 different assemblies going on in different rooms at once. So we had secular assembly then too. It usually had a debate format. Worked out pretty well for everyone I thought.

    Earlier it was impossible for us to give any satisfactory answer to this question. But modern science, rather we should say that Einstein, has made it an easy task for us. And Stephen Hawking has provided us with the clue necessary for solving this riddle. Actually scientists in their infinite wisdom have already kept the ground well-prepared for us believers so that one day we can give a most plausible and logically consistent answer to this age-old question. Let me first quote from the book “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking:
    “The idea of inflation could also explain why there is so much matter in the universe. There is something like ten million million million million million million million million million million million million million million (1 with eighty zeroes after it) particles in the region of the universe that we can observe. Where did they all come from? The answer is that, in quantum theory, particles can be created out of energy in the form of particle/antiparticle pairs. But that just raises the question of where the energy came from. The answer is that the total energy of the universe is exactly zero.”
    Here the question stops. So the clue is this: if we can ultimately arrive at zero, then no further question will be raised, and there will be no infinite regression. What I intend to do here is something similar to that. I want to show that our God is a bunch of several zeroes, and that therefore no further question need be raised about His origin. And here comes Einstein with his special theory of relativity for giving us the necessary empirical support for our project.
    God is a Being. Therefore God will have existence as well as essence. So I will have to show that both from the point of view of existence as well as from the point of view of essence God is zero. It is almost a common parlance that God is spaceless, timeless, changeless, immortal, and all-pervading. Here we are getting three zeroes; space is zero, time is zero, change is zero. But how to prove that if there is a God, then that God will be spaceless, timeless, and changeless? From special theory of relativity we come to know that for light both distance and time become unreal. For light even an infinite distance is infinitely contracted to zero. The volume of an infinite universe full of light only will be simply zero due to this property of light. A universe with zero volume is a spaceless universe. Again at the speed of light time totally stops. So a universe full of light only is a spaceless, timeless universe. But these are the properties of light only! How do we come to know that God is also having the same properties of light so that God can also be spaceless, timeless? Scientists have shown that if there is a God, then that God can only be light, and nothing else, and that therefore He will have all the properties of light. Here is the proof.
    Scientists have shown that total energy of the universe is always zero. If total energy is zero, then total mass will also be zero due to energy-mass equivalence. Now if there is a God, then scientists have calculated the total energy and mass of the universe by taking into consideration the fact that there is also a God. In other words, if there is a God, then this total energy-mass calculation by the scientists is God-inclusive, not God-exclusive. This is due to two reasons. First of all, even if there is a God, they do not know that there is a God. Secondly, they do not admit that there is a God. So, if there is a God, then they have not been able to keep that God aside before making this calculation, because they do not know that there is a God. They cannot say that they have kept Him aside and then made this calculation, because by saying that they will admit that there is a God. At most they can say that there is no God. But we are not going to accept that statement as the final verdict on God-issue, because we are disputing that statement. So the matter of the fact is this: if God is really there, then both the total mass and energy of the universe including that God are zero. Therefore mass and energy of God will also be zero. God is without any mass, without any energy. And Einstein has already shown that anything having zero rest-mass will have the speed of light. In other words, it will be light. So, if God is there, then God is also light, and therefore He is spaceless, timeless. So from the point of view of existence God is zero, because he is spaceless, timeless, without any mass, without any energy.
    Now we will have to show that from the point of view of essence also God is zero. If there is only one being in the universe, and if there is no second being other than that being, then that being cannot have any such property as love, hate, cruelty, compassion, benevolence, etc. Let us say that God is cruel. Now to whom can He be cruel if there is no other being other than God Himself? So, if God is cruel, then is He cruel to Himself? Therefore if we say that God is all-loving, merciful, benevolent, etc., then we are also admitting that God is not alone, that there is another being co-eternal with God to whom He can show His love, benevolence, goodness, mercy, compassion, etc. If we say that God is all-loving, then we are also saying that this “all” is co-eternal with God. Thus we are admitting that God has not created the universe at all, and that therefore we need not have to revere Him, for the simple reason that He is not our creator!
    It is usually said that God is good. But Bertrand Russell has shown that God cannot be good for the simple reason that if God is good, then there is a standard of goodness which is independent of God’s will. Therefore, if God is the ultimate Being, then that God cannot be good. But neither can He be evil. God is beyond good and evil. Like Hindu’s Brahma, a real God can only be nirguna, nirupadhik; without any name, without any quality. From the point of view of essence also, a real God is a zero.
    So, why should there be any need for creation here, if God is existentially, as well as essentially, zero?
    But if there is someone who is intelligent and clever enough, then he will not stop arguing here. He will point out to another infinite regression. If God is light, then He will no doubt be spaceless, timeless, etc. Therefore one infinite regression is thus arrested. But what about the second regression? How, and from whom, does light get its own peculiar properties by means of which we have successfully arrested the first regression? So, here is another infinite regression. But we need not have to worry much about this regression, because this problem has already been solved. A whole thing, by virtue of its being the whole thing, will have all the properties of spacelessness, timelessness, changelessness, deathlessness. It need not have to depend on any other external source for getting these properties. Thus no further infinite regression will be there.
    H. S. Pal

  17. Whether one believes in conventional religion or not is really nothing more than subjective mental defense mechanisms. Just more tangents of our overall culture that distract us from focusing on a more sustainable path, and thus irrelevant unless we do.

    What is it about our thinking that is hindering our becoming a more objectively enlightened species—that is, one that isn’t intent on destroying the natural ecosystems that support our very existence?

    See “Natural World Consciousness” at:

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