I’m going to start with Mary Helena Basson’s definition of religion, because I think it is important to foreclose on the direction that would enforce on us. Here it is:
My basic definition of religion – a definition that I have previously articulated is:: Religion is our human capacity for spiritual values – however individually we might define our spiritual values. Spiritual values = non-material values. love, kindness, charity, compassion, empathy; meaning, purpose, depth, sense of life, spiritual as opposed to material values; joy, beauty, loyalty, integrity, dignity; a sense of what is does not have to be; hope, etc. The intangibles that give our species a sense of life as opposed to mere existence.
By that definition, everything is really religion, because everything significant about human beings is, in some sense, mental, and most of us think about the mental as, in some sense, non-material, though people like Dennett would (rightly I think) say that the brain and mind are somehow identical.
However, if the word ‘religion’ is going to pick out anything of importance, instead of waving rather nebulously towards “non-material values … [like] love, kindness, charity, compassion, empathy; meaning, purpose, depth, sense of life,” we are going to have to do better than this. Quite aside from this, I’m not sure that I understand what it is about values like “joy, beauty, loyalty, integrity, dignity” that is particularly material. [For a correction of this see the comments. There is what seems to me an odd break in MH's list, and it follows through with 'joy, beauty, loyalty, integrity, dignity', which are also spiritual.]
Those of you who are following this discussion may remember that the reason for our having gone in this direction at all lies in the fact that Mary Helena (very early in this blog’s existence) brought up her contribution to an earlier post on R.J. Hoffman’s “New Oxonian” blog. That post was a criticism of the New Atheism, and here is how Hoffman himself sums up his point:
Ms. Basson is right when she implies that Richard Dawkins missed a golden opportunity to highlight the complexity of religion and to distinguish between the theological axioms that are really the target of modern atheist critique and the less cooperative subject matter called religion.
Perhaps this puts into perspective what we are trying to discuss here, although, now that I have seen Mary Helena’s working definition of religion, I recognise why we have been at such cross purposes, for the definition is so broad as to make it unlikely that we will ever be able to account for anything by talking about religion as such, in these terms, for religion as such encompasses the whole of human creativity. If religion is merely our capacity for “spiritual values” as Mary Helena suggests (that is, as excluding things like joy and dignity — but why would we want to exclude those?), then the problem becomes: What is not religion?
From my point of view the reason for defining religion is to delimit the scope of what we are talking about or investigating, as when Scott Atran defines religion in this way (his rough definition limned at the very beginning of his book In Gods We Trust):
Roughly, religion is (1) a community’s costly and hard-to-fake commitment (2) to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agents (3) who master people’s existential anxieties, such as death and deception. 
Now that I have considered some of the proposed definitions, this seems to me one worth sticking to. This is what I mean by ‘religion’, and what I will continue to mean. It explains various things. First of all, religion is something adherence to which is a form of commitment (let’s call it faith). Second, it is commitment which is hard to fake, so it is a good test of whether the committed person really belongs. Third, it concerns things that are of central existential importance, summed up in ideas of faithful belonging to the group, as well as allaying anxieties about life’s most frightening and confusing realities, such as death and extinction.
Notice something very important about this rough and ready definition of religion. It captures what most of us intuitively identify as religion, and excludes such things as Einsteinian or Spinozist religion which are religions only by association. It concerns other worlds or conterfactual entities, such as gods, demons, angels, ghosts, spirits, jinn, and so on. It includes solidarity and belonging to a group, membership in which requires a sacrifice which is hard to fake. You either believe or you don’t, and people are very sensitive to whether or not you really do believe, and are ready to sacrifice intellect, and possibly even your sense of what is right and wrong, in order to claim membership of the group. And, last, if it works, it is going to provide some kind of resolution to your deepest fears and anxieties. It will offer comfort in affliction.
Central, of course, to religion so understood is the sacrifice of intellect. This is Philosophical Primate’s preferred way of identifying what it is we are talking about when we have religion, to speak in Palinesque terms, in our sights. This is faith. But faith includes so much more than just intellectual assent to propositions about conterfactual entities or events (such as the resurrection). Belief without evidence is certainly foundational to religion as I understand it, but faith also includes a mechanism of belonging, what most people who talk about faith call trust. “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” I’m not sure the words are right, but these are dredged up from a deep place in a fairly distant past — my past — in a time long before I became an Anglican. And I became an Anglican because I could not imagine not belonging, but at the same time, I could no longer sacrifice intellect to the degree that seemed to be expected, and Anglicanism was — or at least I saw it as – the thinking person’s version of faith.
One thing that faith never did for me, however, was to resolve the confusions and anxieties about personal identity, transience and death. Nor, in one sense, did it resolve problems having to do with sacrifice of intellect. So, though exhibiting outwardly all the costly signs of faith, and through them being bonded in community, I always felt, in a measure, on the outside looking in, because I could not surrender myself fully to the counterfactual beliefs which form the bedrock of religious faith. I will try to explain in the next few days why I think this means that liberal religion can never be entirely successful as religion, and why it is parasitic upon more ex anima types of believing. But I can say now that, during all the period in which I would have counted myself as religious — and that includes most of my life — I never, for one moment, accepted either (i) that Jesus rose from the dead, or (ii) that anyone survived death. Nor in any serious way did I think that prayer achieved anything in terms of what might be called external benefits. In other words, while prayer might be thought, in a Stoic sense, to transform the inner person, so that one accepted things as the inevitable outcome of transient and unstable conditions, so that one could face the vicissitudes of life with some tranquility, prayer was not answered in any positive sense.
I think that, in a general way, this is what New Atheism has had in mind when it sets out to criticise religion, and this is how I understand religion. It is also why I think religion is dangerous, especially in the populous earth of the present day and the enhanced ability we have to destroy each other with modern technology. We now have the power to destroy each other in ways that will make the Nazi Holocaust of European Jewry look like child’s play, but we are still functioning with moral commitments and types of social belonging that are embedded in religious traditions emanating from the bronze age.
I think it is fairly evident, observing the behaviour of religions around the world today, that religious belonging, though it has adapted itself in various ways and in varying degrees to modernity, is still fundamentally tribal. This derives from the costly and hard to fake commitment to belief in counterfactual worlds and entities, a commitment which varies inversely with the degree to which it has become self-conscious and theological. The more theological, the less unquestioning is the commitment. That is why the Qu’ran is full of warnings to those who do not submit unquestioningly to the authority of the Prophet and his message. That is why Jesus condemns Chorazin and Bethsaida, because they did not believe on the basis of the wonderful things that were done amongst them, why Thomas’ questioning belief is belittled in comparison to the faith of those who have not seen and yet have believed. This is why the pope keeps harping about relativism, because to his mind the only way to resolve problems of relativism is to have the whole world subject to the authority of Rome.
Now, this has already become longer than I had intended. Tomorrow, I will start discussing Philip Kitcher’s ideas regarding a possible middle way which would preserve what is valuable about religion, all the time recognising that the costly commitment to counterfactual beliefs is indefensible. It is, to my mind, the only criticism of the New Atheism so far that stands any chance of providing an alternative way forward. Religion, simply as costly commitment that binds people in community, has become too dangerous to preserve without massive change. It may be, as I suspect, too late to make the changes necessary. Our capacity for self-destruction has simply become so great, at the same time that people still regard primitive religious allegiances with respect and reverence, that avoiding a cataclysm seems to me to be fairly remote. The so-called “balance of terror” seems to me to have become treacherously unbalanced. Whether the present ferment in the Arab world will mean a growth of freedom or the triumph of fanaticism awaits the outcome. However, it is my belief that, if we cannot contain the forces of religion, the future will be very uncertain indeed. Here, the New Atheists are, in my opinion, certainly right. We must either transform our religions or defeat them.