All the rest be damned.
There is room enough in Hell for you;
We don't want Heaven crammed."
As far as I can tell, there are three main aspects of the appeal of religion: an afterlife, purpose or direction, and community.
Man is the only species on earth that we know for certain is aware of their own impending death; although, I'm sure some supporters of PETA might challenge this. Religion in all its forms has some version of an afterlife, usually to build a case for living one's life in a particular way. Most religions adopt either the idea that living a good moral life will earn you better rewards in the afterlife; or, in the form of an ultimatum, threaten some kind of punishment for disobedience. One can easily see the reassurance an afterlife might give those who are about to die. Continued life is more appealing than enternal nothingness. This is wonderfully put in "The Invention of Lying" by Ricky Gervais (The Office). Living in a world where no one but him can tell a lie, he invents the idea of an afterlife of bliss with family and friends to comfort his dying mother.
But at what point does eternity become monotony? What do you do after you have learned and done everything imaginable? Do gods ever tire of songs of praise? Consider this excerpt from Mark Twain's "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" concerning some common perceptions of eternal bliss:
"I’ll set you right on that point very quick. People take the figurative language of the Bible and the allegories for literal, and the first thing they ask for when they get here is a halo and a harp, and so on. Nothing that’s harmless and reasonable is refused a body here, if he asks it in the right spirit. So they are outfitted with these things without a word. They go and sing and play just about one day, and that’s the last you’ll ever see them in the choir. They don’t need anybody to tell them that that sort of thing wouldn’t make a heaven--at least not a heaven that a sane man could stand a week and remain sane. That cloud-bank is placed where the noise can’t disturb the old inhabitants, and so there ain’t any harm in letting everybody get up there and cure himself as soon as he comes.
"Now you just remember this--heaven is as blissful and lovely as it can be; but it’s just the busiest place you ever heard of. There ain’t any idle people here after the first day. Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it’s as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive. It would just make a heaven of warbling ignoramuses, don’t you see? Eternal Rest sounds comforting in the pulpit, too. Well, you try it once, and see how heavy time will hang on your hands. Why, Stormfield, a man like you, that had been active and stirring all his life, would go mad in six months in a heaven where he hadn’t anything to do. Heaven is the very last place to come to REST in,--and don’t you be afraid to bet on that!" (pgs 11-12)
Perhaps life only has meaning because of the finality of it. How meaningful is eternal bliss without the contrast of pain? How much more precious is an Olympian's one shot at a gold medal, than an infinity of attempts? In the movie "Troy" the character Achilles beautifully illustrates the superiority of mortality over immortality, making humans the envy of the gods.
Purpose and Direction:
Atheists are accused of taking the easy way out. They are being selfish by chosing to do what they want instead of what god wants. This sounds very hedonistic coming from a theist. "You don't believe in god, so you can sin," and so on. Apparently, according to theists with this mentality, it is easier to think for yourself, consider and weigh all options, and make an informed decision (as P-Diddy would have you vote), than it is to follow the commands of someone you trust implicitly. This is absurd.
How much thought goes into following a command? What shows more personal character and intellectual honesty and understanding? Which allows for a person to learn how to make a good decision and for the right reasons? Mimicking someone else's good actions does not demonstrate learning. I submit that it is preferable to have a population of well-informed self-thinkers who discuss things and come to a concencus (aka Democracy), than a flock of believers blindly following a shepherd--no matter how infallible.
Following orders is not morality. You determine your own morality based on what you think is good. Don't just do something because someone tells you to. That is true selfishness and laziness--a copout in my book. It robs you of character development and integrity, and you may miss the whole point of being good in the first place--empathy.
If I can borrow a religious phrase: Be the "captain of your soul." You decide what is meaningful in your life and what your purpose will be. It is infinitely more gratifying to decide for yourself how to live, what to learn and adhear to, how and why to be good without the promise of an eternal reward or threat of eternal torture. If you want to be good, as I'm sure most people do, be good the best way you know how.
Humans are social creatures. We all benefit from eachother's goods and services, as well as offering support and help. It is easy to see the evolutionary benefits of a strong social network; a species which works together will be more successful in providing food, shelter and protection. We generally prefer companionship and comradery over isolation. It is inate in us.
Religion offers a ready-made social structure, complete with a heirarchy, support groups with (untrained) counceling, and weekly social events. It is quite easy for someone to slip into this smiley-faced social package, without exerting any personal effort or even thinking much about it. We like easy and comfortable things. It is much more challengeing to create this kind of social environment on our own. Even trying to duplicate one aspect of this structure, like social events, is harder without imposed comradery and church funds. And getting someone to let go of traditions, even when they are visibly harmful, can be near impossible.
This is probably the most difficult aspect of religion to dispute, given the apparent benefits of a large social network. For me it is a matter of personal integrity. I would rather sacrifice some community and interpersonal connections for principles. Integrity is more valuable to me than conformity. Some people call themselves social Catholics or social Mormons, etc., in an effort to benefit from both worlds or avoid alienation. I even considered this for while, since my social life has greatly diminished after leaving the church, but I would prefer to not be a hypocrite.
And now, Rev. Benny Hinn let's the bodies hit the floor.