Religion and Human Organization
Humans are not solitary animals. They naturally organize into cooperative groups. It isn't so hard to see the advantages of social grouping, whether derived from evolution or by design of God or both. Early on in our history, the very survival of the species depended on this kind of behavior, and it is still to our advantage today.
A number of situations drove early social organization. Early in our history, humans were part of wandering tribes, held together by familial bonds with a hierarchy. As tribes grew and exchanged members, hierarchies began to require something more than paternal or maternal dominance. Tribal interaction was also an ongoing problem. In order to succeed, the tribe needed organization that both met the needs of its members and made the tribe successful compared to its competitors.
By whatever means this happened, what seems to have occurred was a specialization of authority: temporal authority and spiritual or mind/body authority. Chiefs and Shamans. Sometimes the two were combined in one head, but very often there were those who were good at leading the people to success, and those that were good at leading the people to some kind of understanding that made the world manageable.
As civilization matured, so did this system of chiefs and shamans. Religion had the role of outlining moral behavior and stabilizing a society even amid the upheaval of war, famine, governmental collapse, or any other catastrophe that could fall upon the society. Religion caused societies to transcend their original goals: that of gaining territory or resources. Instead, societies with highly developed religions tended even more towards cooperation.
It was something that temporal leaders learned to take advantage of. By utilizing this influence, leaders of groups from primitive tribes to empires learned that they could use religion to gain more power. It is a problem that has plagued the natural development of the relationship between the human and divine since the dawn of time.
In modern terms, it gives us Islamic Terrorists. It gives us religious pundits who use their followers to lift themselves up, gaining their self worth from worldly acclaim and using their influence to grow their membership, to increase profit, and grab power. It gives us plain religious bigotry, and other bigotries rationalized by usually misunderstood religious doctrines. In the history of western civilization, we have the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of heretics, the need to flee homelands in order to worship freely, etc. These are all evils that have the involvement of organized religion.
These are what secularists point to when they say that the true evil is organized religion itself.
What is not realized is that this problem with social manipulation is not inherent in religion, but is a flaw in the human character. It is the reflection of our primitive, natural past where our survival depended on our ability to acquire or maintain territory and resources. In all of the examples listed, the primary causes can be reduced to political figures using religion to gain power. Secondary causes would be fear of "other tribes" – a natural response that would increase the survivability of a local gene pool.
What happens when we take religion out of the equation? Exactly the same thing: The Great Purge in the Soviet Union where approximately 28 million people were killed*. Cambodia. China and Tibet. The systematic discrimination of religious views in many institutions of higher learning in the United States.
The fact of the matter is, when humans organize themselves, there is a high likelihood that they will pick a scapegoat group to act against. It is one of the most primitive ways to power.
The purpose of religion is to provide a check against those kinds of destructive behaviors by teaching people doctrines that call for civilized behavior. All moral laws that govern society today have religious foundations. All concepts of ethical behavior derive from philosophies that are either implicitly religious or originated from religious thought.
Religion is the sire of science, literature, ethics, and just about everything that elevates us above our natural origins. Religion is the Apple. It's Pandora's Box. It is the elusive meaning to the question that has haunted us since the dawn of intelligence: Why?
Without religion, we would still be living in packs, struggling for subsistence living, not thinking beyond the next day and not knowing our true potential.
Next: The shape of modern organized religions