1. community. the desire to feel part of a group, to be connected to others, to not be alone, is just above our brainstem instincts such as the desire to not be hungry or cold. it is so powerful.
2. ritual. it feels incredibly good to carry out rituals whether they be routine (daily, weekly) or intermittent (yearly, generational). these traditions take on additional value as we age and relate them to our youth, our parents, our ancestors.
3. reflection. a house of worship or a shrine in your living room is a place where you stop going about the business of living your life, and you think about your life, you think about life.
4. answers. what happens after I die is a particularly potent question that science cannot answer. the question why is there evil in the world is less perplexing but the magnitude of evil and suffering is enough to drive otherwise logical people to religion. the hardest is why are we here, how did we get here, or why is there something instead of nothing? that question still makes me anxious, I have no answer for that last one.
5. mysticism. most of us desire there to be unexplainable forces, higher powers, inscrutable connections between us and between humans and nature. kids are content to create these forces and connections for themselves; as adults we apparently need someone else to invent magical worlds for us.
all of these roles are not only valid, they are essential. unfortunately, at least in the major religions, these positive, crucial functions are tethered to untruths that cause adherents to make bad decisions. if you believe that your present life is a proving ground for an afterlife, you are going to live differently than if you believe this life is your only life. If you are taught that homosexuality is a sin, or if you are raised with women sitting in the back of the synagogue, or if you were circumcised, you are going to behave differently than if you had to make these value judgments for yourself.
the challenge for those of us who think most religion does more harm than good is to build structures that satisfy the needs I’ve listed above–spiritual needs–without the untruths. It’s ok to borrow the best parts of religion to accomplish this. For example, you could decide to have friday night dinner every week where you invite a dozen friends. You could make it a point, during such a dinner, to reflect and talk about spiritual matters rather than current events or daily tribulations. You could even incorporate rituals, like a group selfie, that don’t invoke imaginary forces and deities. Or you could even invent your own imaginary forces and deities that manifest your values, rather than the values of a group of men who sat down and wrote a series of complex fairy tales, thousands of years ago.