Think back over the thousands of years of human history, over the continents that circle the globe. Think of all the hunter-gatherer tribes, all the early human settlements. Think of the rise of actual cohesive cultures and civilizations. Egypt, India, China ... each had its own beginnings of formal, organized religion. Babylon ... with the Code of Hammurabi. Ancient Israel, ancient Persia. The various "golden ages" of civilizations in the thousands of years since then have generally been united by an organized religion. Organized religion is the DNA that forms a civilization and keeps it coherent from one generation to the next.
For a people to be united enough to create something that endures, it is necessary to go beyond the everyday concerns, the divisive quarreling, and the self-destructive foolishness that so often describe human life, and to instead reach for something unifying and something enduring. Organized religion plays a civilizing role for the individual people; it also forms the people into united cultures. Religion shapes them by its sense of wisdom or purity or holiness or brotherly love, and encourages them to higher goals than they might think of by themselves. The general common experience of those who participate in organized religion is that it expands our horizons and enriches our lives. And when a religion becomes prevalent enough in a certain time and place, when it has the peoples' devotion and imagination, a united culture arises. When peoples' commitment to its vision of justice or beauty or wisdom or brotherhood are worked out in that many lives, these cultures make enduring achievements, and are remembered with respect.
For a thriving culture to form, it is not only necessary to have laws -- a code of right and wrong and social rules -- but it is also necessary that people generally agree on them. It is not enough to have laws when the people in power merely impose those laws on the rest; that's simply oppression. It is not enough that the ruling class has certain values and goals which are mandated to the peasants or workers; it is necessary for those workers to share those values, to take up the mantle willingly. The religion shapes the culture, what it can attain, what it can achieve, what it values. The culture in turn may give a certain shape to the religion: the Christianity of Russia and Italy show how beauty and art and scholarship can take different directions. The Catholicism of Mexico has a flavor of its own. The history of the world has shown that organized religion has enough breathing room for each culture to make it their own. And so while a culture or a golden age may be proud of its religion, a religion may in turn be proud of its cultures and golden ages.
For a culture to hold together across the generations, it is necessary that something should continue to unite it, and inspire it, and shape its identity. In the modern U.S.A., we are taught to despise organized religion -- usually by people who show no understanding of its benefits, and who make arguments that could as easily be applied to (say) organized government or (in some cases) organized education. While I hope our culture can be renewed or rekindled, there is a consolation for whenever the time comes for it to fall: the mechanism for teaching such hatred of religion will, given time, likewise fall. And after that hatred has gone, it is the achievements of the golden ages that will stand the test of time.