Well, crap. I will be eternally apologizing for late posting, it seems. Well, that's why I imposed a regular posting schedule--to deal with the issues that prevent me from meeting regular schedules.
Anyway, this is another miniature essay developed in response to a query. I did one on atheism, so I suppose it's only fair I do one for religion as well.
Religion is an important element of culture, and an efficient instrument for disseminating values and ideas. It is a powerful group identity, like ethnicity or nationality. Like those, it is capable of great good (consider the statistics for Christian charity, for example) or great evil (the Inquisition, suicide bombing, sectarian violence). It is capable of smaller goods (e.g. whether or not prayer 'works', it's an extremely effective way to unload stress and negative feelings) and smaller evils (interference with the lives of homosexuals because of ancient proscriptions, or interference with scientific disciplines). Religion was a primary enabler of slavery and abolition both--and the same religion, at that.
Ideally, how we live our lives should have very little to do with whether there is or isn't a God. Is the Golden Rule less valid if its source is not divine? If it is divine? But in practice, anyone can see that belief in God matters very much to people. So the best I can hope for is a marketplace of ideas, where one can practice kindness and exercise reason according to his own doctrine.
And this is the sticking point I have with religion. When it comes to the marketplace of ideas, religion is often static, if not incarcerating. The most extreme example of this is the death penalty for apostasy in Islam, still practiced in some places; that tends to discourage independent thinking. The reliance on absolute truth as the foundation of doctrine hampers the evolution of doctrine in the marketplace. Once someone has taken up fundamentalist Christianity, it's nearly impossible to budge that position for ethics or practicality or what have you.
But then...that's true of many group identities, isn't it? At the end of the day, so many choices come down to my party, my ethnicity, my country, my leader, my faith right or wrong--and how could a population of six billion people avoid grouping up? How could we get anywhere if nobody ever banded together in common cause? It's simply how civilization works. And I cannot uniquely condemn religion for the problems inherent to any large group. So I must allow it, warts and all, and try to mitigate the associated problems. Society is damage control for humanity.