I was driving home tonight and listening to Drink Small on the radio - that's his real name, it's on his birth certificate and everything (or so he says), and with a name like that of course he grew up to be a blues singer. He had a gravelly voice and a great New Orleans drawl. He was in the studio being interviewed and also playing music, and he had the kind of confidence and joviality and down-home-ness that make you laugh along with all his jokes even though none of them make a whole lot of sense. He was talking about how he got his musical start playing gospel music in church, and at the interviewer's request he launched into one of his favorite gospel songs. It was really moving. It was easy to tell that he felt great joy and passion in what he was doing, really singing from the heart as he put it, and his musical talent was kind of secondary to that - a medium, but not a message. I feel indifferent at best toward Christian or gospel music in general, but it's not uncommon for me to have this feeling when I hear someone who's really into it. The interesting part is, it's never really about the religion - it's just about this person's talent and good-naturedness, and religion only comes into it when you see how it motivates them.
Religion is a tool, and like any tool, it becomes a weapon if you hold it right. It can be very different things in the hands of different people. Everyone knows there are endless examples of religion being used to justify prejudice and violence; the Crusades, the "war on terrorism," Fred Phelps, just to name a few. A subtler and more widespread purpose of religion is to inspire a sense of guilt in people if they disobey whatever laws the church sets forth. It's a very effective way to keep people in line. But even though this is my current, somewhat sinister view of religion, I can't help but notice and respect people whose religious beliefs motivate and inspire them to do beautiful things. As disgusted as I am by fundamentalist hatred, I'm equally awed by social workers, monks, or reformed convicts who demonstrate such profound hope, joy, and compassion as a result of their religion.
What causes some people to turn out "good" and others "bad?" The way we define morality is a really interesting question, and when you start to question whether ethics are absolute or relative, it all gets super spooky. But the point I wanted to make is twofold, or I guess one-and-a-half-fold. You don't need religion to see the importance of being moral. Arguably, those who don't believe in an afterlife might be more motivated to create a peaceful society in the world they can see. But (this is the half point), it is popular, and likely to continue to be popular indefinitely, because it works.
A couple years ago, when I was home visiting my dad for Christmas, I went back to my old church for the Christmas Eve service. It's a pretty standard small, non-denominational Christian church, not particularly hatemongering but not particularly tolerant. I pretty much considered myself agnostic at that point, but I was still wondering if I might feel some surge of religious impulse if I revisited my old stomping grounds. I was a little surprised to find that I genuinely enjoyed the service; I appreciated the ritual and the familiarity, and as they read the story of the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke, part of me was really engaged and enjoying it, but as I thought about it, I realized it was the same part that enjoys Neil Gaiman stories, or fairy tales, or roleplaying. It's the part that responds to mythology of all kinds, and seeks purpose and meaning and patterns, and likes to make things up. Everyone has this to some extent, and think what that means for religion: everyone gets wrapped up in an epic story, a classic struggle between good and evil, complete with heroes and martyrs and monsters, and it doesn't end until you die.
Personally, I think the world would be better off if we could all look more objectively at morality, and make decisions based on their practical results in the real world. Will that ever happen? Who knows. I also don't presume to tell people what they should or shouldn't believe, and I guess this train of thought opens up more questions than it closes. But that's my two cents, for what it's worth.