I want to preface this little number by saying that my intent is, in no way, meant to suggest that those
who have faith in a particular set of religious values are somehow less intelligent for said faith. The ideas I am proposing may sound elitist on the surface, but I ask that my readers keep an open mind.
For all of its faults--for all of the innocent blood that has been spilled on the battlefield of the lord, or in the torture chambers of the most ardent inquisitor--religion has actually been a good thing for humanity.
Humanity, as a whole, has not always possessed the capability to engage in complex philosophical abstractions. In the state of nature, where early humans violently fought over scarce resources, someone had to stand up and ask the most burning question that is still hard to answer to this day: what makes an action "wrong"? And one can only imagine the lone philosopher, standing amongst the stinking heaps of his fallen comrades, asking such a question in the midst of battle. One has to wonder if anyone gave pause.
They probably didn't in the heat of the moment, but if that philosopher made it out alive, we have to imagine that he posed the question again in a more suitable setting. Sitting arby the fire with his fellow cohorts, caring for their wounds and enjoying a victory meal, the philosopher had to ask again with a harsh frustration in his voice: isn't all of this wrong? But what makes an action wrong?
No one had an answer. What does it even mean to be moral? Who gets to decide on morality? How can we say that one action is "moral" while another is "immoral?" Why do we have a right to be indignant? This is where religion comes in.
Because they couldn't develop a concept of morality based on logic and reason--and because no one could bring themselves to trust the logic and reason of another man--they had to construct a universally agreed upon raison d'etre for morality, existence, and everything else: it is so because the gods say it's so.
Getting the masses to believe in such a thing is quite powerful as it provides an easy basis for law that is not arbitrary. Why is it against the law to murder another human being? Because God says that murder is wrong.
But what about actions that are immoral but cannot are not against the law? It's not unlawful to lie to someone. If the purpose of law is to establish punishments for breaking the social contract, what could they do to stop people from committing wrongs against each other that fell outside the purview of the law? That is where divine punishment came in.
Go ahead, be an asshole to each other. If the law doesn't get you, then God will send you to Hell where you will spend an eternity painfully atoning for your sins. For a lot of people, that is enough to coerce them into moral compliance.
Many humans lack the capacity to reason the efficacy of moral goodness beyond the notion that the gods decide morality, but what about those who simply don't care or don't believe in divine judgment? There are people who will murder, steal, and rape without pause, and those types generally drive down the morale of the people and their overall satisfaction with the justice system. If a poeple feels as though its government is not regularly serving justice, they become restless. No one likes a riot, but it's impossible to prevent evil actions and, let's face it, not everyone gets caught.
Enter divine reward.
If you stick to the moral precepts of your god, then you are rewarded in the afterlife with eternal bliss. This actually turned out to be a dangerous concept, because it essentially gave the ruling classes license to do whatever they please. Have you ever noticed that the more you suffer, the greater the reward? That is the key to quelling the chaos, and it is essential to keep people working.
In my personal experience, when you determine that the traditional God probably does not exist, and when you face the very real possibility that there may not be an afterlife at all, you are at first filled with an intense sense of hopelessness. The only way to overcome that is to realize that time is precious, and one should live his life to the fullest. Few people are able to move beyond the hopelessness. The hopeless don't work as hard. They don't care about spending money, or getting married and having children, and some of them decide that living is altogether pointless.
"If an unexamined life is not worth living, then I patiently await the mass suicides." Religion exists to keep moral order and to prevent mass suicides. It gives people hope because they look forward to the reward due to those who suffer, and they also feel comforted by the promised punishment to those who sin. It's not so much an "opiate for the masses," as it is a security blanket for those who rule and those who are ruled.
If tomorrow we discovered that God does not exist and that there is no afterlife, the world would fall into chaos. There would be mass suicides because many people would not be able to bear the absurdity of life, and crime would assuredly rise since many people are only good because they fear punishment. It has nothing to do with the absence of God's grace: it is because humanity has not yet evolved to sustain itself on intellect alone.
Humanity still requires superstition to hold itself together. Religion saved us from self-extinction.