All of us have models that we use to understand the world. There are religious models, scientific models; models given to us by our parents, and models ingrained in our culture. Models allow us to separate things into categories, then to attach rules to those categories: rules about how those things work, and about how we should act in response to them.
There are unlimited ways you can divide things up and categorize them. There are unlimited models. But they are not arbitrary. Some models are more useful than others: they are better at allowing us to understand how things work, and they provide better motivation for our actions.
In my grandfather’s generation, race was an important cultural model. It grouped people into races, and attached information and rules about those races and how to act in response to them. Some of those bordered on the complimentary, most were derogatory. We are learning that race is not a good model for human character and behaviour, let alone for how we should respond to people. Even using race as a functioning model can be an indication of racism, whether or not you are specifically denigrating any particular race.
Religions seek to build models of the world. They group phenomena together: people (who’s saved and not, who’s enlightened and not), practices (the sacred and profane), events (naturally caused, and miraculous), texts (divinely or humanly inspired), morality (commandments and prohibitions, or else divinely mandated duties) and so on. The question is, are those categories useful? Do they allow us to understand reality better, and act appropriately towards it?
This question, it seems to me, is at the heart of the atheist response to religion.
In the comments of previous posts, John has shown an instance where a religious model may be deeply useful: in Alcoholics Anonymous or other “12-step” programs, the model of a higher power can be directly useful to motivate and give strength to someone battling their addiction. To me religious models of sacred experience and ritual can be useful to organize myself around. To some atheists, I think, there are no useful models in religion. To others, any useful models are irredeemably tainted by their historic association with the vile models (the sectarianism, the misanthropy, etc): they are to be avoided on principle.
Does any of this resonate with you? Are there models that you think are useful and important?