Reposting from a comment on this blog.
Atheists believe that much of the problem with humanity lies in religion. They have many good reasons for so doing, as one can read in the intelligent critiques made by Chenna Keshavan in the discussion on the above thread. But even though religion is often seen as a culprit, I would like to say that it is not religion per se, but immature religion, that is the source of the problem. There is no reason to believe that mature individuals with a rational and scientific understanding of the world will still not be persuaded of things like God and the soul when they reach the limits of their rational outlook.
The answer lies in "mature" religion. Even Krishna in the Gita mentions four kinds of people who take up religious life--the suffering, the desirer of benefits, the curiosity seeker and the knowledgeable. Moreover, he distinguishes between knowledge and other kinds of religious activities in terms of sattva, rajas and tamas, which are three effective broad characteristics of phenomena.
The Gita, for instance, teaches that only through sattva can we find happiness, because only a sattvika person has the capacity to appreciate the immediate present. In fact, whatever happiness we have, even when we are dominated by rajas and tamas, comes from the vestiges of sattva that remain in our character.
A person who has a scientific attitude may also be rajasik or tamasik. So atheists like Mao or Stalin were supposedly acting is some kind of "rational" manner based on scientific realism, but were in fact being governed by baser motives. The psychological basis of action is also a matter for scientific research. And much of it is still shrouded in mystery. Even a scientific rationalist can be a complete idiot when it comes to human behavior. Like the Unabomber, for instance. a PhD in mathematics, but mentally unstable, or the latest shooter in Colorado, also a "brilliant science student."
There are different kinds of religion. The Bhagavata, for instance, talks of beginner (kanishtha), medium (madhyama) and advanced (uttama) kinds of devotee, which can roughly be equated with tamas, rajas and sattva.
Atheists believe that they are totally rational and above religion, but I think there is an honest debate possible here. Not necessarily by trying to prove the existence of the soul or God, but by reinterpreting these terms in ways that are more broadly meaningful. Indeed, through scientific analysis of the psychology of religion, we may be able to understand what "soul" and "God" are as psychological truths.
No human being can live without ideals. Ideals are formed through both the negative process (i.e., denying false gods, idols, neti neti, etc.) but also through establishing absolute values by which we can live our lives and find lasting happiness.
The natural tendency of human beings is to create language and symbols to establish social and cultural norms that enshrine these values.
But of course, there are degrees of maturity. The bane of the world is immature religion, which absolutizes the external shell, i.e., the symbols or words, without having truly delved into the meaning or realized the ideal. Which takes religion and puts it into the service of base motives, especially in the area of promoting ego strength and combatting ego weakness.
So, to use one example, the universal love preached by Christ becomes nationalist and sectarian zealotry, pitting one class or nation against another. The principles of purity lead to casteism. The principle of social cohesion become fanatic crusades or jihad. All because one's religion "makes one better than the other."
We can call this the work of "Maya" or the "Devil". After all, why not give it a name? The Christians say that the Devil is very expert in quoting shastras. Evil comes in many forms, and no form gives Evil more delight than that of piety and saintliness. Rationalism is clearly a great defense against tamasik religion because rationalism recognizes that the underlying meaning of a symbol is more important than the symbol itself.
However, I do not think that rationalism on its own is the ultimate key to finding the secret to happiness. Rationalism is what the Hindu tradition calls jnana. But the human being is more than reason. Hinduism's tripartite psychology also includes will and love. To reject reason is a dangerous path, but it is far from being the only secret to happiness.
The thousands of years of tradition, of research into religion through individual practice and rational discourse as it manifested within the parameters of those who followed the path of self-examination, should not be thrown aside without any appreciation of their value. This is to completely reject the intelligence of our forefathers. It is, in effect, saying that they had no wisdom whatsoever. This is truly irrational.
Rather, we must see ourselves as part of a single human tradition that seeks self understanding. The scientific age is only 200 or 300 years old. And we are seeing the disastrous consequences of our so-called scientific world as we plunder the world's resources, create a burden of overpopulation, climate change, and so on. Were these problems caused by religion? They may be exacerbated by it, but it is not the cause. We must look deeper into human nature for that.
Science is a means to help us understand ourselves more deeply, but it is only a late addition to the quest. Just as an adult may have increased wisdom without rejecting his past, it is necessary for humanity to understand and appreciate the discoveries of the past as well as to make use of new ones.
So though there is much of value, much food for thought, to be found in the atheistic critique of religion, you cannot cut yourself off from thousands of years of human development and evolution. There are also things of value there that need to be reconsidered, understood and perhaps implemented for the greater benefit of human society.
Sri Radhe Shyam!