"Religion might be described as man's attempt to explain the fact that we all know the difference between right and wrong and that we agree on the essentials. Some religions do this explaining better than others."
The meme is correct. We don't get our morals from our religions. We get our religions from our morals. I believe (When I use the word "believe" am I necessarily speaking from a religion? If so, then almost every opinion based discussion is religious.) that our religions are formulated by our observations of the moral truths we find inside of us. We either adopt the conclusions of others when we simply go to our parent's church automatically, when we follow our college friends without thinking, or when we drift into accepting untried ideas because they support, or allow for, the prosperity of our selfish interests; or perhaps we think and study and read and compare, and then settle with a set of doctrines that make the most rational sense. But in every case, we are each making value judgments on every event we see.
This work might take a person to some seemingly brand new notions that formulate a brand new religion (like the "pastafarian" guy who was allowed to have his driver's license photo taken with a colander on his head). Sometimes this process leads us to the same place many others have reached, and there we find ourselves, back in the same old pew, but now deliberately.
We are all essentially theologians. We study God. Every experience we go through leads us to one spiritual conclusion or another, and we are putting together a picture of God in the background of our thinking. Those abused by their drunken dads generally learn to resent a Father God. He is thought to be untrustworthy and hurtful. Someone with overly strict disciplinarian parents might end up resisting God's apparently onerous commandments with a rebellious fervor. The loving kind-hearted home produces children who are generally the same, and come to see God as a benevolent care giver. But here is THE POINT: Note that in each of these cases, the thinking child is evaluating his home by an inborn standard of right and wrong. They know when they are being wronged by lies, by abuse, by unfair treatment, or even by being spoiled rotten.
Most often, I think, people are impressed into the religion of their culture either by a strong peer pressure or simply by a dearth of real options (and lack of imagination). Which explains why there are really only a few major religions on the whole planet. Once something gets started, and establishes a hold on a community, it becomes hard to resist.
But it's time I try to answer the question: Which religions explain our common understanding of what is right and what is wrong, the best? And how?
Some don't even try. All religions recognize and admit that mankind needs help, but, in my opinion, the Biblical tale of the fall of man offers the best explanation for what we find today. To summarize: God created an original couple and offered them a brand new world to fill and to rule. He gave them a free will to choose how they would live for themselves, but also told them about where the parameters of safety stood. They chose to act out of self-interest, and disparaged trusting God's word. Their physical characteristics have been passed on to every human being since, and so has their tendency to disobey. Death itself was one of the continuing results, and falls on all of us even today.
Since we were made by God, "in His image" we know right from wrong. Since we follow in Adam's footprints, we practice more wrong than right. When we individuals recognize and repent from our sinfulness (and allow the punishment that Christ bore, to cover our own sins), God welcomes us back into His fellowship.
What is a religion except a systematized description of how we might hope for salvation from the doom we expect for our weak and corrupt habits? Whereas most of the major religions require incredible works to reconcile our faults, only one, Christianity, has made deliverance absolutely free and without any strings attached.
Hinduism suggests we be delivered from our suffering by attaining a mental state of removing the desire for peace with a God. That instead, we should seek a self repudiation and simply meld into god like a river joins the sea.
Buddhism suggests we can find enlightenment with a similar approach. But goes even farther; we should see even the desire for salvation as an illusion, and even come to realize that salvation is ultimately "the annihilation of the illusion of an existing self."
Taoism wants us to exercise a mantra (mind numbing, time wasting, life sucking hum of the magic three syllable word) in order to return us to "the primordial state of non-being." No thanks.
There may be some attraction to these esoteric notions, but it seems to me that they are simply too impractical and unreal to live with and still enjoy a true life. My day-to-day observations are more real and sensible than these non-sensible claims can handle. A Christian not only receives a solid promise of eternal life with a personal loving God, but begins to enjoy His company here and now, and in the thick and thin of real life.
Judaism is of course, the root of Christianity. Jesus was born Jewish and lived among the Jews. He was in fact sent to the Jewish people as their long-promised Messiah, but "His own did not recognize Him," and for the very reasons discussed earlier; Jesus did not appeal to the selfish interests of Israel's religious leaders. Since the acceptance of Jesus' salvation is dependent upon each individual, Judaism was bound to continue in its waiting for the Messiah status, even while so many early Jews found the Messiah in Jesus Christ and, as humans do, formed new associations and developed a new name for themselves. They began to be called "Christ ones" or "Christians."
Islam makes little sense to me because it was simply made up 5 or 6 centuries after Christ and is comprised of a hodgepodge of unfounded claims about Abraham, angels, Adam, Jesus, and of course, Mohammed. It claims that all other religions are false and adherents must be converted or die. That salvation depends on the works of the 5 Pillars of Islam, which are truly arbitrary and picayune. Islam teaches that our welcome into heaven (a whole different place in Islam, than one might expect) depends first of all on the 5 Pillars being accomplished correctly, and then, if that test is passed, upon the final tally of our good works exceeding bad, according to the count of the two recording angels we are each assigned.
The dependence on works seems to be carried over into most of our thinking. It seems natural to believe that we can earn our way into heaven, and so this appeal is found in many (even christian) religious belief systems. But it does not pass the critical thinking test. If we find by all observation that we fail to keep even the most basic (10) commandments, how can we overcome such a deficit by helping old ladies across the street? It is mere wishful thinking that creates such a religion. We claim to have some hope in the strength of our goodness, but must soon admit that we can not deserve eternal peace with a just God, all on our own power.
God's promise that He and He alone will save us from our sin first becomes clear in Genesis chapter 15. There He first makes a "deal" with Abram, later to be called Abraham. God has Abram set up a traditional contract type arrangement with split animals, but God "signs the papers" all by Himself. He in effect says, "I will provide salvation for you, and you will accept salvation from me." There is no quid pro quo in God's plan. No expectations, no demands, no requirements at all, unless you say that opening one's hand to receive a gift is a requirement.
But you are your own theologian:
What does your common sense tell you? Are humans corrupt? Do we need a help we can not give ourselves? Or can we somehow overcome the whelming tendency to hurt each other, and become perfect? Which religion makes the most sense to you? Can you imagine a way that such disparate ideas represented by the world's various religions might actually coincide with each other and somehow all lead to the same place?