Despite our obvious secularism, ours is still a society steeped in Judeo-Christian tradition and practice.
I have heard this argument used to validate the existance of religion and religions intrusion into the state. I would forward that this argument is equally as reductionist and and oversimplification of both religion and society.
To accept this argument we first must accept that religions primary purpose is as a moral guide, this devalues the spiritual and philosophical components of religions which I would see as equally strong motivators for religion.
It also devalues society because there is overwhelming biological evidence (as referenced in my earlier post - here is a good opportunity to read the Dawkins argument) and social evidence that humans do not need religion to create morals. Furthermore it is easily evident that we do not need Judeo-Christian morals as there are many societies past and present who are / were overall moral societies (no society today has been 100% violence free) and have other principle religions. For example most Asian societies had very intricate moral philosophies before Christianity was introduced in those societies.
A society dependent on the action of just and rational men will last until one's bored. Then all the nastiness resident in the beast will emerge. I don't for a second believe civil society is possible without some powerful agent of influence or force.
This is a very Hobbesian view of the world, if you have not read Leviathan, then you would likely enjoy it. It is a philosophical choice to view the world this way, I in particular reject the view point I lean much more towards the post-modernists or even modernists than the social contract philosophy which basically supports the necessity of monarchies and top down power. Historically I do not think that we have seen the best in society when people are rallied around a monarch or pope. The centralization of power in the hands of a few, usually supported by the Hobbesian argument that people do not their own moral compunctions has caused significant damage and bloodshed in the course of history.
This is why I begin with the Dawkins premise that religion which in most traditional forms is a corrosive force which bends masses to political purposes and encourages not morality, but violence in the name of faith. I then ask, if Dawkins premise is correct then religion is the root of all evil, but, if his premise is in error then how is it wrong?
This begs the original questions of if the negative effects of religion are from the religion itself or from the institutionalization of that religion, and if they are from the institutionalization of religion is it then possible to have religion without institutionalizing it?
We, humans, are the source of our values, rooted in our common needs and responses. What needs explanation is hypothesizing a higher law from a supernatural being. Thatís the end of understanding and the beginning of coercion.
I think this becomes the key issue of institutionalization of religions. In a gnostic sense religion is used to explore that which we cannot explain the philosophical "big" questions, like where do we come from, why are we here, what is our purpose, and so on. In a gnostic sense a myth is developed, so for the Christian gnostics this would be the creation myth, a very traditional myth of death, and rebirth signifying enlightenment, this is then repeated throughout the bible in the Jesus myth, the Johna myth, and many others. One very interesting book on this is the Jesus Mysteries the looks at the origins of Christianity as a gnostic religion. Jesus and the lost goddess explores the dualistic roots of Christianity.
Anyways the purpose of gnosticism was to allow myth to be a meditation point, to be illustrations and hypothetical applications around which to develop a common understanding about the unknown. (Think invisible hand for the economists out there).
But then we end up with mass religions and the mythical or gnostic myths become literal interpreted by priests and dictated to the people, where as gnosticism was supposed to encourage the the exploration of the spiritual, literalism translates the spiritual into practical and discourages exploration in favour of blind faith.
We now then have the dangers of a common shared myth that is now literally interpreted and believed and a top down group has control of the shape and direction of the myth and therefore control of the people, this is institutionalization, and the reason we can motivate large groups of people in the name of religion to fight for their beliefs instead of to explore and challenge them.
Fortunately we don't have to, the writer Theodore Sturgeon has done it for us and reports on it on pages 146-147 of his 1986 novel Godbody (though I did enough digging around myself to confirm, at least to my personal satisfaction, that he got it essentially right).
There was no house of worship. People met at some quiet, secret place, by choice or to hide from persecution.
There was no priest officiating.
There were no distinctions of age, race, wealth, poverty, or gender.
There was the 'kiss of peace.' Every person embraced every other person.
There was a meal, called the Agape.
Then they all sat around together feeling good and waiting for somebody to feel moved to speak. They called it theolepsy, which means 'seized of God.' That's the original 'speaking in tongues' experience, which the early Church looked for and welcomed, and the modern Church scorns and derides, except for a few fringe sects.
Sturgeon makes a very important point here, as late as the 18th century in England protestant camps were breaking from the Catholic Church, the church of England was despised by many protestant sects as a political grab for power, they saw it as a co-optation of their religion and failing to meet the purposes of the Christian religion which they widely viewed at the time as community centered not top down. This late in history these churches had no priests and the people actively rebelled against laws that forced them to attend the Anglican church and listen to a priest. Many people met in community homes to practice what they referred to as their true religion which was not mitigated by a priest or pope.
Further evidence of the community based roots of Christianity is the sentencing and execution of the translators of the bible. Translating the bible out of latin into a language that common people could understand removed the power (or so the theory went) from the institutions of the church.
A few hundred years later we know that despite people having the power to read the bible themselves that very few choose to interpret it themselves, and even those that try face the large challenge of having to read sometimes politically interpreted versions (i.e. King James version).
Doesn't sound very different from a lot of pagan and Wiccan ceremonies I've read about.
The community based religions give me the most hope that religion can exist as a spiritual and philosophical and moral practice without degenerating into dogmatism and institutionalization encouraging blind faith (and I do think there is a very important difference between faith and blind faith).
However considering the evolution of most religions from community sects to large institutions (which largely do not reflect the original religious purposes) I am still at a loss as to if a religion can exist and evolve uncorrupted by institutionalization.
If Wicca became popularised, could it maintain it's integrity over generations. I don't think there is a question that the original advances of the religion would strive to keep it as un-dogmatic as possible, but is it possible to pass that down through the generations when religion is such a powerful rallying tool for mass assembly?
There is a "religion" which I happen to like quite a lot, called the Unitarian Universalists (external - login to view). They basically believe... that the individual can believe whatever they like.
The UU and the Humanists are two organizations that truly intregue me, they seem to be attempting to go back to the gnostic roots on the principle of believing in the spiritual, but rejecting the literal interpretations of biblical studies and instead trying to build community. I think they could have a lot of potential, but they remain a very small relatively unknown group.
This becomes a powerful question for me in the sense of does religion only have mass appeal if it tries to deliver pragmatic dogmatic answers to the unknown? Are the UU and the Humanists not more popularized because they do lack the rallying point that a more literal interpretation demands of the congregation?