I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian environment starting out at a very strict Baptist church and moving on to a Bible Church (basically the same with boring music). We were taught to disregard the word religion, because we had a relationship with Jesus Christ, unlike those other denominations.
The Catholics were a religion because of their sacrament and rituals. The Lutherans were a religion because they believed in baby baptism and good works. We true Bible believing Christians were not a religion, because of our true relationship with Jesus Christ.
Let's suspend our knowledge of the actual definition of religion as defined by the dictionary for a moment (a belief in and worship of a superhuman power, a system of faith and worship). Let's forget the fact that we had communion ceremonies, worship services, relied heavily on a holy book, and had a belief in a deity without evidence (because the proof is in the Bible, isn't it?).
We had a reason to feel superior to those false Christians who didn't subscribe to our way of faith. Those other people were still going to hell, because they didn't believe the literal Bible (or at least that was the assumption). We were also superior and saved, because (again) we had a true relationship with Jesus Christ.
This scared me out of wits for my neighborhood friends who were of other religions and denominations, or weren't religious at all. The pressure of witnessing, and saving souls was placed upon our shoulders, and if our friends didn't convert, we had to drop them as rejects of our one true faith. I wasn't particularly comfortable proselytizing, mainly because I was embarrassed about it, and the fact that I didn't really feel close to Jesus anyway (so elusive was his presence).
In my later teen years, my family started attending what I would consider a more mainstream, feel-good kind of Evangelical community church. The philosophy was more about letting the people come to us. Kind of refreshing. Very Y2K.
During this time I was drawn into a belief, that we don't worry about the Old Testament anymore, because Jesus took care of all that when he died. We have a personal relationship with him (again, not religion), his Holy Spirit guides us, and he helps us spread this love to others.
Much nicer isn't it? Not beating others over the head with it. More talk about love, and less about the consequence of eternal damnation (that was still there mind you, just not the focus of the message).
I believe that this seems to reflect the sentiment of more mainstream churches in many denominations today; "Loving God, Loving People" seems to be a pretty common motto. This softer approach certainly would encourage more converts, and comfort more souls. There's just one problem; the idea of original sin still pervades the ideology.
According to this more loving message, God created us and loves us. We screwed up from the start though, so God sent his son Jesus to die for us. All we have to do is accept him, and we'll be comforted and bask in this wonderful relationship that connects us to God.
What's the alternative? Since we're born rotten and sinful (one would think God would have seen this coming) , we will go to hell if we don't accept Jesus. Hell is eternal separation from God, who created us, has unconditional love for us, and wants to have a relationship with us.
How can anyone really have any self-esteem with a relationship like this? It's the same as having an abusive spouse who incessantly tells you that you're a rotten person. You start believing it after awhile (even if it isn't true), and then they tell you that you're nothing without them, and only through them can you care, love, and effectively connect with other people. If you reject them, don't do exactly what they say, or divorce them, they threaten to take everything away from you.
Never mind that Jesus isn't really the bright shining example of humanity that he's made out to be (read the New Testament for yourself, and you'll see this). Never mind that if the entire population followed his or St. Paul's example, we wouldn't exist as a species anymore. Never mind that Jesus never really claimed to abolish the law of the Old Testament (his words state the opposite in fact), and that he wasn't interested in saving anyone but the Jews.
How can anyone with a shred of self respect, engage in a relationship with someone who tells you you're no good, that he loves you in spite of this, will make you do good things, but if you reject him, you won't be able to do good, and you'll be damned to spend eternity without him (in flaming torture no less)?
We see people in abusive relationships all the time. That doesn't make them healthy or desirable. I rejected this relationship, just like I would reject any personal relationship of the same nature.
A lot of people claim that Jesus brings them a sense of love and peace. Unfortunately it's a sense of love and peace, grounded in a "realization" that you're no good to begin with. Even if one does good things through this relationship, it numbs one to their own goodness, and that certainly doesn't seem healthy to me.
Even if I did believe in some kind of deity (which I don't), I wouldn't be able to subscribe to this ideology, because it's so masochistic. I don't need another reason to beat myself up, and I think it's safe to say that nobody else does either.
It comes down to the importance of self-esteem and really, loving yourself. Once you love and feel good about yourself, you will naturally be able to love others. It doesn't take Jesus to make things all better. Now go out there and love somebody today!