Organized religion gets a bad rap these days.
"I'm spiritual, not religious" is a common refrain. Much evil is done in the name of various organized religions. Organized religion gives community leaders a "divinely ordained" bully pulpit, and power corrupts. And yet, organized religion persists. Young people reject their parents' congregation, only to seek one out ten or twenty years later. Sometimes in the same denomination, sometimes not, but seeking they (often) do.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I was one of those seekers. Having just given birth to my first child, I had a new vantage point. I found myself wondering what heritage I wanted to give my baby. I visited both churches and synagogues of various flavors, and read the sacred writings of several others.
They were all very similar. Religious services involve:
1. Reading from an old, revered text
2. Commentary applying the text to current issues
3. Performing various rituals as a community
4. Singing as a community
5. Eating as a community
Some of these elements appear in other types of gathering in various combinations, but any gathering which includes all 5 elements will come across as religious in nature. Certain political or social clubs can fit this description. In addition, there is the implicit expectation for religious services to
6. Inspire "spiritual" sentiment in the participants.
It is a common experience, though, that this element is frequently missing, resulting in the aforementioned exodus from communal worship.
What IS a "spiritual" sentiment? It is
* a feeling that the Universe makes sense
* that the Universe has a purpose
* and that one is an integral part of this purposeful Universe
Many spiritual retreats rely on beautiful natural settings to inspire this feeling. Many atheists experience this easily by contemplating nature, without relying on any deities. Most religions utilize deities in order to assign the "purpose" of the Universe to an anthropomorphic sentient being, but of course this is not strictly necessary, and is more of a convention of convenience.
Looking back to the five elements of organized religion, we see that the first two connect us to others in time (tradition) while the other three connect us to others in space (community). If we can extend this connection further, we can, in fact achieve connection with the Universe itself.
Connection is a pretty fundamental human need. Bullies often use fundamental needs as weapons against their victims. Organized religion is often weaponized, both against members and outsiders. However, people will return to it, over and over, as long as it fulfills this need.