How's that for cherry-picking?
As funny as that is, I know that it is not exactly on point for a discussion about Buddhism. But here's an essay from everyone's favorite Buddhist atheist, Sam Harris, called Killing the Buddha. In it, he both gives me pause, articulating some of my concerns, and provides some measure of optimism for a fruitful engagement with Buddhism.
On the question of religion v. system of thought, Harris says that "[w]hile it may be true enough to say (as many Buddhist practitioners allege) that “Buddhism is not a religion,” most Buddhists worldwide practice it as such, in many of the naive, petitionary, and superstitious ways in which all religions are practiced." Harris's argument for this statement is persuasive, even setting aside his claim that "there are college-educated men and women who apparently believe that Guru Rinpoche was actually born from a lotus." There's no escaping that there's just a lot of this religion-y baggage attached to Buddhism.
Harris goes on to explain how, in his view, the methodology of Buddhism can be used to increase our understanding of humanity without needing the aegis of religiosity, and how, in fact, it would be more useful as a completely secular tool, "an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration." Harris refers to this application of meditation and other practices as contemplative science, which he calls "a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being" completely compatible with the empirical approach.
Contemplative science: now that sounds like something I could grab hold of without reservation. Maybe that's the just the little key I needed.