My own personal definition of religion is this: a path to becoming better humans. But I recently asked a group of friends how they defined religion. Here are some of the answers:
1. A control mechanism.
2. Organized superstition.
3. Faith in a path longer than we can see.
4. A means of salvation.
5. A faith affinity community.
6. Spirituality with logistical structure.
7. An organized, often corrupt, attempt at connecting with the divine.
8. The opportunity to serve with those of like-minded spirituality.
9. "Us" vs. "them" tribal thinking.
10. Exploring that which is beyond our material perceptions.
11. The way to happiness.
12. A series of practices repeated over and over again to solidify ideas.
13. Assent to a series of unjustified propositions.
14. A toolbox to deal with God.
15. Planned social conformity
You can tell from the above list that many of my friends are atheists and are rather skeptical of religion. As always, I admire atheists who have formed ethical patterns beyond religion. I listen to them carefully when I think about the good and the bad in religion and religious institutions. But it's also true that I sometimes think that those who have no spirituality may be missing something that is part of many humans' experiences, whether you call it the divine, spiritual, or supernatural.
Of course, many of those who answered this question on the religious side come from the Christian tradition, but Christianity is not the only or the best religion. Christianity promises redemption through repentance in Christ, through resurrection, and through the promise of heavenly reward. Not all religions have an after-life or a belief in "sin" as something that can or should be overcome. Some religions are about solitude rather than community. Some religions are about giving up the idea that happiness is something we can or should achieve.
The most cynical answers above are about social control. I cannot deny this is one aspect to the history of religious practice across the world. Is it bad or good? Probably both. Without government, religion was for much of the history of the planet the way to control human impulses toward destruction and violence. Yes, of course, religion also used those impulses when it suited the institution or its leaders on a quest for power. Religion has been used as a means of telling stories about racial inequality and about gender roles that continue to be part of the ongoing dialog about "good" and "bad" and "right" and "wrong."
Still, I go back to my own definition of religion, that it is part of our quest to be better humans. Sometimes the institution gets in the way of the individual's search for a better self and this may be why many people in recent years have become "unchurched," because they find the institution is getting in the way rather than helping. Old forms are being given up as antiquated and detrimental to our new vision of what is best in humanity, what should be preserved versus what should be sloughed off.
Without a religious institution to tell us what the definition of the words "human" and "better" are, what compass do we use to move forward on the path? Ultimately, I think that there is a social component to this, that we find our answers in a group, as we are raised in communities and as we grow up to create them ourselves. Humans are social creatures. But it is also true that individuals come back to the group after time alone and can change our views of what we are meant to be from their solitary reflection. And this is a good thing.
Is religion just superstition? Maybe it has been in the past. Humans have needed to feel control over a world that is very much out of their control, and superstition does that. Superstition is a way for us to believe that if we do this, then this or that will happen. Stripping away our belief that we have control over our own lives can be disturbing. But we can also do better to see the ways in which we genuinely do have control rather than making up ways they we don't. And perhaps it's also true that religion has been used by many who want to control us and it's time for us to take back that control to ourselves.
Having a relationship with deity or with something beyond the visible, scientific world we live in is something many of us want to continue to hold to. I think it's important for those who are religious to see other religions as valid ways to do something valuable and to spend more time thinking about what looks ridiculous to us, with a mindset from one religious perspective, can be just as devoted and useful as our own. It's also important for us to see when religion turns bad and becomes a weapon, and to look into our own institutions for examples of this so that we can stand against it.
In the future, I hope that religion becomes less a tribal impulse, less a way to feel secure in a definition of "us" and "them," and more a way to be inclusive, to show love, to reach outside our own boundaries and find good in everyone, even in other religious practices that are very different from our own.