It's appropriate that my thoughts should turn to religion; it is, after all, Easter.
I ran across a reference today to Rousseau and Locke and their belief that religion exists to encourage ethical behavior in the masses; it was Rousseau, I believe, who went even further and said that religion exists as a motivation for ethical behavior because without the fear of punishment in the afterlife, the average person would not see any reason to follow the rules of ethical conduct.
Marx dismissed religion as the opiate of the masses, but I have come to think see Marx as more and more off the mark in his analysis. Religion, regardless of one's beliefs, is a motivator for ethical conduct, which in turns allows society to operate in a civilized manner.
I am not a religious person, although I do hold spiritual beliefs (it's complicated, and not something I'll go into right now). However, even though I have been non-religious since I was about twelve years old, I recognize the value that religion brings to modern society, and I have a tremendous respect for most religions. As the basis for an ethos, I can accept many aspects of religion, whether I believe in the mythic and/or metaphysical aspects of the religion or not.
I think, though, that the existence of religion and religious beliefs is crucial in the formation of society. In many ways, I accept Rousseau's point; religion gives many people a powerful reason to do the right thing. And for that, even the most non-religious should be appreciative of the existence of religion...