Unlike what many people believe, religion is much more than mere adherence to the texts written in a holy book.
To be precise, since it's you I'm talking to
I would rather not use the term "religion" at all. Rather, I'd say that there are several things to distinguish:
- Religious text (e.g. the bible)
- Content (the descriptive - what is the case/what happened - and prescriptive - what should one do - stuff)
- Presentation (is it a translation? does it have pictures? Is it standardized or is every copy very different? ...)
- Interpretation of the religious text, that is specific beliefs about it, which feature as metabeliefs about its contents. E.g. the believe that the quran is the literal word of god or that the bible was written by many different authors over the space of about 700 years. Also beliefs that ones own beliefs are grounded or based on a text.
- Theological discourse, that is what is being said when people talk about god or the sacred
- Individual beliefs.
- beliefs that are publicly stated. (This is also part of the theological discourse, but I find it important to mention it here again, to point out the difference between this and the following points)
- What people believe according to how they behave.
- How and whether people rationalize the differences between the implications of theological discourse and their own behavior.
- Religious practice, either communal or private.
- Everyday behavior, which is interpretated in the specific religious context. E.g. caritative activities by christians. I would also place all manner of non-ritualized abstinences or fastings here.
At least, that is my preliminary pattern of analysis so far.
The main point here is that all of this does not have to - and usually doesn't - take the shape of a consistent set. People often profess one thing and do something contradictory, people believe that their beliefs are based on the bible, while they are really neoplatonic beliefs that appear nowhere in the bible. And so on and so forth.
In general, in my usage „religion“ tends to refer to „the official doctrine“ that is what the text says and what is the predominant voice in theological discourse, in so far as I can make one out. This is a very western and monotheistic use of the term and in other context I would have to speak differently. But then again, mostly these discussion turn around christianity and islam, with a bit of judaism thrown in as it relates to those two giants, and I think just saying religion, in particular on a forum such as this, makes discussion a bit easier. I certain don't want to reinterate the above ideas each time I talk about „religion“.
At the very least, if you do not buy into my scheme, I think one should distinguish religious practice, religious believes and religious text. And then, too, I hold that those things are not overly consistent with most people. And thank god for that.
Jews and Christians may adhere to the same book (the Tanakh/the Old Testament), but other than that, as Baby Kursch rightfully points out, their experience of religion is vastly different. To say that Christians and Jews adhere to the OT laws in a similar way is very far removed from Christian and Jewish religious practice.
Nicer than their holy books would suggest, yes. But nicer than their religions would suggest? I'm not sure. I don't think religion is, ultimately, nothing less or more than a set of religious practices, beliefs and experiences as shared by a community of people. In other words, the religion of rev. Phelps has very little to do with the religion of the average Christian living in your town, even though they may ultimately be based on the same book.
I guess what one should say is that religious texts do not provide reductive explanations for either religious practice, religious believes or religious experience (which I tend to subsume in the former two categories, which might be a mistake on my part. Not sure, though.). But this is itself a belief about religious texts, of course.
I don't think "I believe in God, but not in the Bible" is something people just make up by themselves. It's a position that has a history in our western culture since, well, I guess at least the days of Spinoza (don't mistake me for saying that Spinoza was an advocate of this specific position, but I do think his pantheism played a role in the development of this position), and in fact, it's a position generally associated with a set of shared beliefs beyond the literal content "I believe in God, but not in the Bible" (e.g. the goodness of God, and associated with it the concept of some spiritual justice, and the sense that, to a certain degree, 'God' is something that stands above the specifics of various religions).
I don't belief that a strong distinction between something being "just made up by someone" and something being a cultural artifact with an intellectual history can be made anyway. But there is a difference in saying e.g. that one beliefs in what the platonic dialogs say and saying that one beliefs in the existence of the forms but not in the dialogs. It is a bit like when writing a paper, there's the stuff for which you quote people and point at their testimony while other stuff you claim as your own, more original thoughts.
And when trying to understand what someone - such as oneself believes - it is always easier to just point at an existing, received text, if that is what someone believes. One can then take the text and everyone can read it and analyze it and it can then be talked about. Also, the burden of proof is generally thought to be lessened when one quotes or refers to another's testimony. It shifts in part to the quoted one.
If that is not the case, things are more complicated and more details must be clarified. Philosophers have written very long books trying to do just that, because they couldn't just point to the bible and say "That, there." when asked what they believed. But most of all, people must be made aware of the fact that their believes differ from "official doctrine" and that that carries some epistemic burdens.
But yes, regardless of the 'making it up by yourself'/'being made up by others' questions, I do think that a belief in a position such as this is more sensible, more civilized, and -- in a multicultural world like ours -- ultimately more beneficial than a belief in the literal truth of a book written 1400, 2000, or 3000 years ago.
Kudos. On the other hand, I have only been talking about epistemic justification and alluding to one's epistemic duty to inquire into where our important ideas come from, as much as we can, at least.
As for the God meme: it's most probably older than the concept of a big organized monolithic religion as many people understand it now. In that light, is it really surprising that it survives even when the concept of a big organized monolithic religion is becoming weaker in many parts of the world?
No. But then again, I have doubts that there is a uniform "god meme". It's more like a family of viruses, each one similar to at least on other member in some way, but not sharing in any common trait. But the point is mostly that there is a god meme out there in western society, that does not fit with any of the big religions. It is an independent hotchpotch of many different ideas from many different sources. And again, I think it is important to make people aware of that.