I see religion as a viral meme. Its main function is self-preservation and propagation, and to achieve such ends it subverts the individual will and uses it as a host with which to spread itself. So its propagation is for the sake of the religion itself and not the individual.
People tend to confuse religiosity with spirituality. One is wanting to be part of a group that believes in the same thing, the other is being in touch with the part of oneself that questions the universe and one’s place in it.
That part is an inevitable result of sentience: because we are aware of our surroundings, we ask why. The answer depends on the individual: the more attuned he is to his own needs, the more ‘at peace’ he is with himself.
Spirituality is a personal awareness. A more empathic person would be able to extend such an awareness to an understanding of his fellow people, and would understand that what works for oneself does not necessarily work for another.
Religiosity is the desire to be part of group that practices its beliefs, and with it its rituals and customs. Personal awareness runs counter to it: the more aware the individual, the more he resists its dogmatic nature. Religiosity is a group practice: everyone must be doing the same thing as dictated by a certain set of rules. If you do not follow its rules then you are deemed as not faithful, and are subject to punishment (ostracization, condemnation, etc). Here the group is more important than the individual, and faith is a tool used to further the ends of the religion itself.
Not everyone believes in a god, or gods, or the same set of gods, or the same character traits of the same god/s. What religion does is to make their specific belief all-inclusive, and everyone who veers away from that inclusion is doing something wrong, or is making a ‘sinful’ act. The use of a god concept in religious context is to create a right way and a wrong way as means of commandeering individual will, ultimately to propagate religion within a group.
It is hard for someone who cannot stand outside of that belief system to see other belief systems as just as valid. Here again, we run into awareness. The more aware you are of what religion’s function is, the more you see how it is set up to protect itself and not its members.
As I see it the more adherent a person is to religion itself, the more closed the mind of that person. The more a person seeks to understand himself, the more aware he becomes of what religion does to the group.
We must make an important distinction here: faith is not religion. Faith is the set of beliefs that work with its own predetermined set of rules. Religion is the enforcing of a specific faith upon a specific group.
Faith can be within one person. Religion can only be in a group.
On the subject of sin, one of the things that helps me see how much a person can stand outside of his normal frame of mind (i.e. religious confines) is to tell this:
I do not sin, nor am I capable of sinning. Stated as a fact, without malice or conceit.
I do not believe in the concept of gods, and sin is a violation of a moral law as decreed by a divine entity or entities.
In other words, I can make mistakes, but those mistakes aren’t sins. The same way a Catholic does not sin against a Hindu god, or vice versa, or any other cross-referencing of various belief systems. It is not a logic play, but a largely overlooked fact.
For a devout (Christian, or otherwise), it is a hard concept to grasp. There are several responses here: “just because you don’t believe in god, doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in you”, etc. But what such a person does not realize is that religion forces him to think in an us-and-them mentality. Religion cannot work without members. As such, religion–by its nature–must be inclusive: “If others are also right, how can we be absolutely correct?”
But it is not about being who’s correct. And here is where religion fails as a system: because it is group-centric and not individual-centric. Ultimately, we all try to find what’s best for our individual selves. We are not a hive mind or a collective consciousness. Inner peace is something that only individuals can have.
And what works for one person does not always work for another.