As I see it, there isn't one single thing that can be described as "religion". Instead, it seems to me that there is a very amorphous, trans-cultural phenomenon that manifests several very different, and often mutually exclusive, tendencies.
One line of tension occurs around the issue of whether one wants to accept people the way they already are versus whether or not they need, for want of a better term, "improvement". Consider, for example, the differences between Buddhism and Fundamentalist Christianity.
In Buddhism, the key issue is whether or not a specific person gains a specific type of wisdom known as "enlightenment". This insight is not granted as any special dispensation by a god, but instead is the result of specific, impersonal laws that govern the entire universe. Everyone is at least potentially able to gain this insight. There are a myriad of different systems for achieving this state, but ultimately everything boils down to a training regime aimed at dramatically changing the mental state of the individual believer. As a result of this emphasis, I would call religions like Buddhism "Wisdom Religions".
In Christianity, however, the issue is one of whether or not one accepts the "atonement" offered by Jesus.
"Atonement" has existed in a lot of different cultures who saw the concept in slightly different ways with a common outcome. In some societies the wrong-doing of an entire community was "transferred" in some way onto one particular being (sometimes an animal, sometimes a human being) which then suffered the consequences of that sin for everyone else (often a painful death). Another way of looking at it is to suggest that the sins of an entire group of people have amassed a "sin deficit" with the Gods. This deficit is paid, not be taxing each and every individual but by using up the entire life of one person. Yet another way of looking at it is to see the Gods as being annoyed with human behaviour, which means that they need to be "bought off" with a bribe. For example, supposedly the Gods of the Mediterranean area (Jehova, Zeus, etc) like the smell of blood and burning meat, so sacrifices were offered in order to get the "powers that be" to "look the other way" when the community screwed-up mightily (which, of course, was all the time.)
This atonement idea is very old and has manifested itself in many different cultures. In Iron Age Europe, for example, people used to murder individuals and bury their bodies in peat bogs as human sacrifices.
Christianity is an outgrowth of this atonement type of religion in that Jesus assumed all the sins of the entire human race, was tortured to death, and, as a result, members of the Christian community have their "sins washed away in the blood of the lamb".
On the face of it, this is a totally absurd idea in that it assumes that a person's misdeeds are something like a financial debt that can be paid off by another person. (I once had a fellow tell me that if Hitler accepted Jesus Christ on his death bed he would go straight to Heaven. In contrast, a man who lived like a complete Saint all his life but did not "accept Jesus" would go straight to Hell.) Obviously, most people do not see crime and punishment in these terms, or else we would settle all criminal cases through the payment of fines. Billionaires like Bill Gates would literally be able to get away with murder! If this idea is offensive to most people---why would we accept the idea that Christ on the cross as somehow making other people's behaviour "OK"?
But that is only if we look at it from a purely personal point of view.
More than anything else, atonement religions are about building a sense of community. The New Testament has a great many things in it, but one of the stronger threads talks about what the group of believers should be like. (Traditionally the translation is as "the Kingdom of God", but the Jesus Seminar chose to translate the term as "God's Imperial Domain" which I like a lot better because the "Kingdom of God" emphasizes the rulership of God whereas when I think of "God's Imperial Domain" I think more of the duties of citizenship.) This is the focus of several parables, such as the one that compares God's Imperial Domain to a mustard seed that grows into a tree and the other that says it is like yeast hidden in dough.
The important idea is that the small, insignificant, and humble becomes an important force in society---like a weed seed growing into a large tree or yeast making bread grow. The same sort of thing comes out of the "Sermon on the Mount". Consider the following:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
Christ is saying that the weak, powerless, insignificant are actually the real "players" in society. They are the ones who have the ear of God and who are on the "fast track to success".
This has tremendous implications for someone who wants to build a community. Before anything else, it means that a Christian church is not an elitist institution. It can open its doors to any and all who seek to enter. Moreover, because all the real "heavy lifting" of the religion is done by Jesus---through atonement---it means that the expectations for anyone joining are very minimal. Contrast this with a Buddhist Sangha, where the expectation is that the individual is psychologically prepared to submit to a very stringent set of monastic rules and undergo a very disciplined life of meditation. The Christian message is bound to attract more "bums in the pews" than the Buddhist one.
The second thing about an atonement religion is that it sets the members of that particular group at odds with "the Other". All atonement religions are, almost by definition, "chosen people". This is because they have entered into a contract with the powers that be through buying into the act of atonement. This is different from a wisdom religion, in that even though it has a stringent "entry price", the group itself doesn't believe that it is entitled to have any sort of privileged role in society. Buddhists seek wisdom, but are willing to accept that there are other paths to that same wisdom. Christians, instead, believe that Christ's atonement is the only way to achieve salvation. Wisdom religions, therefore, are cosmopolitan whereas salvation religions are parochial.
This stuff about "atonement" might seem a little hard to believe, but it is actually very powerful stuff for many people. The reason why is the same as why so many movies have violence in them. That is to say, when you see the depiction of violence (e.g. explosions, gun battles, fist-fights, etc) your nervous system kicks into action, your adrenal system kicks in, and you go into a heightened state of arousal (e.g. "fight or flight".) In an atonenment religion when the tribe dragged a human sacrifice to the altar and killed them in front of everyone, everyone felt a vicarious thrill as they participated in the act---even if as just spectators. The same sort of thing still has power in todays society as was witnessed when Mel Gibson produced a movie about the torture and execution of Jesus Christ. In a sense, the atonement religion makes sense because the heightened adrenal reaction is a type of "altered state of consciousness" which many people will crave.
There are, of course, other ways of creating a group venue for this sort of heightened awareness. A religious group can have an orgy. Or it can give its members hallucingenic drugs. Or it can have something far less drastic---like holding a series of exercises in bonding---like church dinners, musical events, work "bees", charity drives, etc. But either way, the point is that some sort of collective experience takes place where people's emotions are channelled in a way that allows the individual to bond with the group.
In my own case, because of my loopy childhood, a part of me has always been seeking a sense of "belonging". I remember when I started going to the Unitarian Church that I was profoundly moved by the way people honestly welcomed me into the congregation. After I joined the congregation, however, it eventually became clear to me that I have precious little in common with the other members of the community, which sent me back to being a hermit.
People are social animals. And the only way that our society is able to make progress is if people join together in groups to work together. And the only way I've seen to get people to do this is if we use emotional attachment to do so. And this, in a nutshell, is what I see organized religions doing. The problem comes when the content of the religion is counter-productive: people get brought together to build a community devoted to doing profoundly stupid things. I suppose what I would like to see is some sort of religion that was able to bring together people the way an atonement religion does but then went on to teach them how to better themselves like a wisdom religion does.
This has become a long, rambling post. I've already put too much time into it, so I think I'll just post it. This is supposed to be a diary, so I hope readers won't mind if some of the posts are not much more than thinking out loud.