Last night, we watched the Bill Mahr pseudo-documentary Religulous. Mahr tends to fancy himself as an intellectual entertainer, from kind of a dark place, so seeing him tear down religion seemed like it might be funny. In parts, it certainly was, because as you well know from other movies of this genre, it's not hard to find people who say really stupid shit on camera.
Mahr's argument is that organized religion is essentially the root of all problems that keep mankind from moving forward, and none of the three big religions are too sacred to tear down. What surprised me is that he does actually make an attempt to be fair about it. He had two priests from the Catholic Church who were very frank about the problems with some of the things the church does. If anything, it paints the church as potentially progressive, if just the right people could have the right voice.
One of the things he doesn't really get into is the difference between religion and faith, as they're not quite the same thing. I tend to agree with him that the institutions of religion have been fundamentally central to the majority of conflict in recorded human history. Even within the borders of the US, religion has been the backer of everything from slavery to this bizarre anti-gay marriage thing. And perfectly rational people will get behind the causes of their religion.
Faith is more complicated. I'm not ready to dismiss faith outright, but it certainly has its problems. I think the true motivation for having faith has nothing to do with the religion, but more because it's a useful device for us to deal with things we can't explain. We can write off things we can't explain or that suck without having to prove anything. I'm not criticizing that arrangement at all... I admire anyone who can do it.
The bigger reason I can't outright write-off faith is that it's a double-edged sword. On one hand, it compels otherwise rational people to engage in really stupid behavior. While dismissing the logical "shit happens" facts about something tragic is a useful trait of faith, replacing it with "God's plan" or something, many people choose to dismiss logic to reinforce their biases or desire to control others.
Conversely, faith drives people to do a lot of great things as well. They build houses, give money to charities, volunteer at soup kitchens, etc. A lot of good occurs in the world because of faith. Of course, what others will argue to counter my point is that you don't need to be a God-fearing citizen to do good things, any more than you need laws to know that murder is wrong. See, it's never a black and white issue.
I still tend to agree with the original premise of the film though. Religion goes a long way toward making the world suck. It's not a reason to outright dismiss it, but trying to get people who subscribe to it to apply it for just the "good" reasons is hardly a doable solution.