Is religion a crutch?

“What do you say to folks who wonder if ‘Religion is just a crutch’?”
As much as I had hoped to avoid DEEP questions like this for a while, I can’t ignore that this was (a) probably the very first reader-submitted question, (b) came from a dear and long-time friend of mine, and (c) is one of those foundational question whose answer makes more believable anything else we cover on this blog.
So here goes.
Before we look at whether or not Religion is a crutch, I think a word must be said about the nature of religion and whether or not the original question is even framed properly. It has certainly become vogue in the last generation to think of the world as being divided into two types of people: those ‘with religion’ and everyone else.  As far as I’m concerned, anyone who is seriously trying to make sense out of the world is, by definition religious. For, to me, ‘religion’ is nothing more (or less) than a meaning-making system. Some religions, have more formal rules and doctrines, some less. Some come with appendant heirarchies, organizations, holy texts, and rituals others don’t. Religion is the way we try to make sense out of a human experience that it ultimately larger than any one of us can understand.
So, I think better version of the question would read something like this:
“Do some religions – most folks who ask this type of question are looking to criticize so-called ‘organized religions’ with texts, and symbols, and rites, and hierarchies, and formal theologies and ethical systems – unfairly and/or un-necessarily assist the faithful in their journey toward meaning?”
Perhaps.
I’m likely not the best person to comment, since I’ve been a part of basically the same religious tradition for my entire life. But, I can certainly see how  the diversity of religious expressions in the world could lead one to believe that some traditions provide more, and ultimately unnecessary assistance to their adherents while others force their faithful into a more self-reliant, natural or unaided posture. However, not all tools, even those that unnaturally aid, the user are ultimately detrimental to the human experience. Neither, it turns out, is the unaided human experience always superior or more beneficial to humanity.
For a non-religious example, take cooking. Though it is clear that Humans can exist and even thrive to a certain extent on raw foods,  exposing many foods to heat unlocks essential nutrients in food that are otherwise inaccessible to the un-aided human gut. Moreover, the necessarily central role of cooking plays in communal food preparation and consumption is a second-order benefit for humans as it forms the basis for societal living.
So, can humans exist without cooking? Sure. And there is obviously some benefit to modern humans who reassess what might be an unhealthy relationship to cooking and eating by periodically experimenting with a “raw diet.” However, I don’t believe it would be accurate to describe cooking as a ‘crutch’ for humanity. Humans are brought closer to their full potential through cooking, not taken further away from it.
Likewise, though we would be well to always consider the destructive and hindering facets of our traditions, religion in general, in as much as it aids humans in making meaning and, perhaps exposes us to truths inaccessible in its absence, is an inestimable boon to humanity — not a crutch in the least.