Greta Christina poses this question in the April/May 2013 Volume 33, Number 3 issue of Free Inquiry and I agree with the answer she gives below.
I would argue that there’s exactly one thing, and only one thing, that religion uniquely provides: a belief in the supernatural. Religion gives people a belief in a supernatural creator or creators, and/or a belief in a supernatural caretaker or caretakers, and/or a belief in a supernatural afterlife. Period. Everything else that religion happens to provide—social support, rituals and rites of passage, a sense of tradition, a sense of purpose and meaning, safety nets, day care, counseling, networking, activities for families, avenues for charitable and social justice work, events that are inspiring and fun, ongoing companionship and continuity—none of that is particular to religion. All of it can be gotten elsewhere.
She goes on to reframe the question thusly:
When we ask ourselves, “What does religion provide?,” I think we’re buying into the idea that religion does something special. I’d rather see us ask, “What do people need that religion currently provides?” … I’d like to reframe this question because I think it will help [the secular community] be better organizers. I think it will help us be more nimble and more flexible. What people need varies tremendously: it depends on their region, their culture, their subculture, their upbringing, their economic status, and just on the individual person. And what people need from atheist communities varies tremendously, depending on all those things … and also depending on how dominating a force religion is in their area and what religions are or are not currently doing for them.
In San Francisco, where I live, there’s lots and lots and lots of stuff available for people who aren’t religious. There are secular social events, political organizing, charitable work, social justice work, activities, and entertainment having nothing whatsoever to do with religion. So if people aren’t religious, they don’t have to turn to the atheist community to meet their various needs. And if people aren’t religious here, they won’t be treated as pariahs. There’s sometimes conflict between atheists and believers, but coming out as an atheist here isn’t a social death knell.
In the Bible Belt, that’s a lot less true. There, a huge amount of socializing, charity work, safety-net support, economic and political networking, family activities, and so on takes place through churches. You can’t turn around without someone asking you, “What church do you go to?” Religion there is a hugely dominant force in people’s everyday lives, and coming out as an atheist can mean becoming a pariah. It can mean losing jobs, homes, and custody of kids, as well as the love and support of family and friends.
So atheists in San Francisco are, on the whole, going to need something very different from their atheist communities than atheists in the Bible Belt.
As a lifelong resident of a small town in lower Alabama, she makes a very true and important point here and as an atheist/secular humanist I and hundreds of other freethinkers in the area are slowly but steadily creating these outlets for the local secular community through the Southeast Alabama Freethought Association.
That being said, I think that her conclusion that “we may focus too much on what religion already provides and overlook creative ideas that religion is generally missing out on.” has merit and that “if instead we ask ourselves, “What do people need?,” we may be better able “to meet people’s needs—the ones religion is currently filling, as well as the ones religion doesn’t have a clue about. And we won’t be giving religion credit that it hasn’t earned.”