Some interesting points so far.. especially what Iniquitous Opheliac had to say.
What Lilias pointed out was exactly the sort of historical example I was hoping to hear about. In the meantime, I came up with one that I thought was worth mentioning. The Salvation Army. While they have a religious agenda, they seem to put taking care of people's needs first, religious conversion last. Since I was a kid, I recall seeing people standing out in the cold ringing the bell only to see a quarter or dime tossed in - sometimes a dollar rolled up.
Some might argue that a non religious group could do this, and rightly so, but I think that the values taught by groups like this encourage charity and care for one another. No, you don't need a religion be charitable, but maybe it does help to influence some people who might otherwise not be all that inclined to be charitable, naturally.
Some might argue that society would be stronger if we all treated charity as a crime and just let the weak die off due to their own failures, but I don't think this is natural or necessary. People who are ill, weak or poor can certainly make strong contributions to society (ie. Steven Hawkings ) and many people do tend to react compassionately, so I think being charitable is just part of being human... for many.
But when Religion is pushed upon a community. A society. A nation. A world of people, instead of leaving it as an individual choice. Well. Things get real icky.
I agree, and think this was part of I.O.'s point. Once we start dividing the population into "us" and "them", we start going down hill. Religion without the "they are inferior" bit or the "we must do X to be worthy" bit would be a lot more palatable. We are human though. We do tend to disagree on things.
Without bringing up or dwelling on the negative, I'll just be the first to say this: There need be no religion for any of these positive benefits to make themselves known to humanity. It can all be done, in many cases in a superior way, by purely secular means and with purely secular motivations. Bringing religion into things like this will not solve anything and ultimately, inevitably, only create more problems. Case in point: The world as it is today. This avenue, while superficially positive, is not the solution.
For starters, I am an atheist and dislike a lot of things about religions. I've shared those views quite liberally. No, religion is not needed for charity or morality to exist, but to be quite honest, I'm starting to think that throwing religion out the window is like tossing the baby with the bath water. I'm not fully convinced of this yet, but I think this may be true.
This, I have to disagree with:
"It can all be done, in many cases in a superior way, by purely secular means and with purely secular motivations."
People have mixed and changing motivations and tend to corrupt things over time. What works in theory does not always work in reality. People are anything but pure. We have corrupted our religions, businesses and governments. We corrupt our friendships and relationships with one another. Hell, we screw up good code too. o.O
With regard to religion and executive function ( I think that's the right phrase ), sometimes, you just need a basic sense of direction in order to start your journey. I can get from here to there without GPS coordinates or the most optimal route. Sometimes a road sign or pointed finger is sufficient for starters. Religion may have served as that pointed finger for the time being and might be replaced by something analogous to a GPS, but for the time being I don't think we are there yet. It seems like right now, religion works for some while science, philosophy, psychology or whatever works for others. Yanking the road signs down might do more damage than good for some at this point in time.
"Bringing religion into things like this will not solve anything and ultimately, inevitably, only create more problems."
You see, this is what I am questioning. DOES religion serve such a purpose. Bringing all the "religious division" into the picture certainly makes things worse, but is it possible that the act of believing in a dream or shared dream might do some good for the time being? I remember early on in my career, I wanted to be an electrical engineer and invent all sorts of wicked stuff. That motivated me in the very beginning of my journey, but thus far it has not been my destination. It was just a misguided dream, but one that got me to the next step in my path.