Many people think about religion in a black-and-white way. Believers say that religion is the only way to save yourself and get to paradise. They believe that religion is wholly good. Atheists believe that religion is a lie, stymies thinking and poisons science. They believe religion is inherently bad.
After attending an evangelical church for a few years, seeing the worst of believer behaviour, then leaving the church and reading every anti-theist book I could get my hands on, I have come to one conclusion: Religion is both good and bad. Moreover, there is a short story that perfectly captures what is both good and bad about religion. It is not in the Bible, nor was it written by Christopher Hitchens. It was in a book of religious stories given to me by my grandmother to commemorate my first communion.
The name of the story is The Peanut Butter Hamster.
A little girl’s hamster, named Dusty, goes missing. She is upset and tells this to her Sunday school class. They then pray for Dusty to come back. She is comforted by them. Before church, she tells her plight to another church-goer who is a veterinarian.The veterinarian tells her to put out a plate with peanut butter and then she will find Dusty eating the peanut butter. Sure enough, Dusty turns up. The girl tells her Sunday school class and the story ends with them thanking God that Dusty came back.
If you’re skeptical of religion, you will notice the main flaw in the story. God had nothing to do with Dusty’s return. The real hero of the story is the veterinarian who used his knowledge about rodents’ affinity for peanut butter.
That is the problem with religion: its complete dismissal of scientific knowledge. But even as the hamster story showed, scientific knowledge broadens human understanding and helps people live better lives.
But the story also shows something else: that the girl was distressed about the loss of a beloved family pet. The other members of the church comforted her. She felt less alone and this alleviated her sadness. Also, another church member helped her in her time of need. This showed the good of religion that, oddly enough, is not really explained a lot by believers.
Religion provides a community of people that will help and comfort you in your time of need. I experienced the good parts of religion as well as the bad. I attended an emotional Bible study session where the topic of homosexuality came up. I told the others that I was bisexual and I was told to repent or else. I never went to church after that.
So The Peanut Butter Hamster lives on in my memory but not on my bookshelf. What happened? During my atheist, God-hating phase I re-read the story, realized that God got all the credit, and threw it out in a fit of rage. Now I wish I had it back as a reminder that sometimes things are so complex that they defy our attempts to fit them into neat boxes. I like to think if it were on my bookshelf it would serve as a reminder of both the love and hate that religion brings to the world.