I would separate “religion” into two distinct categories or aspects, both of which can be found in almost all religions:
1) The esoteric, the mystical, the spiritual, the enigmatic, the intuitive, the acquiescent
2) The exoteric, the institutional, the dogmatic, the hierarchical, the rationalizing, the dominating
If there is a “spiritual” dimension of existence (even if it is exclusively part of our interiority), then aspect #1 is really just the sensitivity to, interest in, and exploration of that dimension. I would call this kind of religion an “openness to the infinite,” or spiritual curiosity if you will. I think most mystical traditions (Sufism, contemplative Christianity, Toaism, Kabbalah, Hindu mysticism, much of historical Buddhism, etc.) fall mainly in this category, and actually end up in conflict with traditions that emphasize the second aspect. This aspect of religion does not “live in denial,” because it is constantly questioning along deeper and deeper lines of inquiry. If you spend time with any of the great mystical traditions, it quickly becomes evident that they are attempting to penetrate truths beneath the surface of more superficial, materialistic presentations of reality.
The second aspect is all about control, power, orthodoxy, tribalism, and so on — also very common characteristics of human institutions. It is aspect #2 that tends to slip into greater and greater cognitive dissonance as it attempts to maintain its primacy over other social structures and centers of gravity in society — it perpetuates denial as a primary feature of its striving for dominance.
My 2 cents
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