When the former leading head of the Catholic Church and a vocal opponent of gay marriage is forced to resign and apologise over his sexual conduct, and the Church of England’s attitudes towards women are currently stuck in the medieval era - as an atheist it is pleasing to feel completely detached from the world of organised religion.
Atheist is not a word I particularly identify with as it implies a lack of belief or faith when in fact most atheists believe in many things. In the 21st century it has also come to suggest zealots who aggressively hector believers and disprove religious hocus pocus while thumping their well-worn Richard Dawkins books. Let’s face it: most of us know nothing about who we are, why we are here or where we are going. We’re idiots, basically. We’re blips on bicycles. We’re amoeba with attitudes.
Like many people in the area I prefer to invest my belief in something tangible and visible: nature. Plants, animals, the elements, the changing seasons. All of that. My own feelings for these are as strong as believers’ devotion to their God and I can think of nowhere better in the world to observe nature in action during the arrival of spring than in the upper Calder Valley in March and April.
A farmer elbow-deep in an ailing sheep during a dawn storm might rightly disagree but round these parts I feel we’re lucky to live so close to nature. In an increasingly sub-urbanised country of congested ring roads and dire retail parks, here in Calderdale we are surrounded by fields and woods and moorlands. None of it ever feels far away; nature is always there to remind us of its existence and our own vulnerable position at the top of the food chain, whether in the virulent ragwort and Himalayan balsam perennially trying to reclaim the tow-paths, the badger that roots through your bins or the Calder flash-flooding.
Because nature is not something that happens beyond our doorsteps – we are a part of it. We are in it. Tuned into the inward-looking digital world we possibly don’t even realise it half the time but we are permanently engaged in a symbiotic relationship with the natural cycles of life. The mould in our cellars, the cobwebs in our corners; the nocturnal slug trails on our work surfaces or the mice nests in our compost. Nature is crawling all over all of us. It is scratching and rustling and scurrying and singing. Always.
Perhaps that’s why religion exists in the first place: to attempt to make sense of the devastating beauty of a fly agaric toadstool or the iridescent metallic blue blur of a rarely sighted kingfisher in motion. To find an explanation. Some of us prefer just to accept what is all around us – and enjoy it. Why try and interpret the word of God when something equally as impressive – and visible – is happening around us?
As the daffodils unfold and stretch and the birds of Calderdale busy themselves after a long, wet, dour winter the valley is reborn once again. It’s easy to idealise and sentimentalise nature but on a good day, in the right light, say from the top of Heights Road or up at Stoodley Pike or peering over the edge of Scout Rock, it can almost look like a paradise of sorts. And it’s one that you would hope is welcome to all-comers, regardless of who they are or what they believe. Nature is good like that. It doesn’t police anyone’s thoughts. It doesn’t discriminate – it just simply “is”.