One of the first things I learned, in my first ever meditation retreat where I heard my first Buddhist teachings (a 10-day Goenka retreat many years ago), was that we should not accept the teachings blindly, that they were intended to be used experientially. They only asked that we try it with an open mind and see for ourselves whether or not the teachings and practice were beneficial to us.
Many years later when I lived in Georgia and attended a monthly half-day retreat at someone's home for about 3 years, the host always ended the retreat with the above words (from the book Beginning to See, by Sujata), which always stuck with me because of their beauty as much as because of their message. But the message is the basis of what I follow and what we are asked to follow, and the explanation far better than any words I could put together.
For most of us who approach our Buddhist practice with this philosophy, we find that the path indeed leads to good and happiness for all creatures, including ourselves first and foremost. There is no 'idol worship' involved. I've been accused of that, among other things, from a preconceived bias of another person. For most of us westerners who practice Buddhism, the draw is Buddhist psychology, which simply teaches us how to train our own mind for our own benefit, which ripples out to benefit others we encounter. It's not a religious practice.
For me, this simple bit of philosophy from the renowned Thai monk Ajahn Chah, says it all:
The heart of the path is so simple. No need for long explanations. Give up clinging to love and hate, just rest with things as they are.
We learn to let go of unwholesome mental states such as anger, hatred, greed, attachment and judgment. We replace these with more wholesome mental states such as metta (loving-kindness), compassion, generosity, acceptance and goodwill. None of it happens overnight -- you can't simply decide to never be angry again, for example, and have that come to fruition. For most of us, it's a continual process, based in mindfulness and awareness (a relaxed, open state in which we can observe our thoughts, feelings, and behavior as they arise, without being overtaken by them), that releases the anger or other unwholesome state bit by bit until one day one becomes aware that yes, anger is gone! It comes from deep inside, not from a surface thought, and it's permanent. And it certainly does not come from believing that if we accept the principle as a dogma, the Buddha will then grant our wishes, or that some rite or ritual will be our salvation. WE are our salvation. The Buddha only taught the steps that lead us there. WE have to do the actual work to arrive at the destination, the goal, which is simply a state called true happiness.
You have to do your own work;
Enlightened Ones will only show the way.
Those who practice meditation
will free themselves from the chains of death.
As opposed to situational happiness, which comes from circumstances in our life that bring joy for a short while, true happiness comes from releasing unwholesome states, from replacing them with wholesome states. And until you try it for yourself, you'll just have to take my word (and the word of thousands of others who've tried it) that true happiness is far, far better than any situational happiness could ever be because it's steady and lasting and always with us. We don't need outside influences to bring happiness, we only need what's inside ourselves.
As to the subject of whether or not Buddhism is a religion, I leave that to more learned folks than I. From my experience and observation, and from my earliest teaching (at the above-referenced Goenka retreat), it was impressed upon me that the teachings were non-denominational and were appropriate and non-conflicting for people from any or no religious background. It's not at all unusual to see a Catholic nun, for example, at these retreats. There was one at my first retreat. The Church does not see the teachings as conflicting with their own teachings.
A few years ago at a retreat at the Bhavana Society in West Virginia, Bhante Gunaratana was speaking in the meditation hall and brought up the question of whether Buddhism is or is not a religion. He (a Sri Lankan by birth) said that it is indeed a religion, an old and respected religion, but he also acknowledged that most westerners don't practice it as such. A friend of mine, Bhante Cintita Dinsmore of the Sitagu monastery in Austin, TX is a western monk who has written extensively on the subject from a western viewpoint. He wrote of what he called 'folk Buddhism', which came about as the Buddha's basic teachings traveled slowly from India into the various countries and cultures of southeast Asia. Here, he said, the teachings were blended with the already-existing religious cultures and became part of those religious cultures. If you are interested in his writings, visit his blog Through the Looking Glass.
A student of Buddhism will readily see that there are still differences between Burmese Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, the Buddhism of Laos and Vietnam and Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia and others, all home to Theravada Buddhism practices. Most of southeast Asia practices Theravada Buddhism, as I do. Zen and Tibetan Buddhism have evolved into quite different and thus separate divisions of Buddhism, no longer under the Theravada umbrella. But as different as they may be, all of these follow the same core psychology and teachings of the Buddha. It's only the expression of these teachings that may vary from place to place. The Buddha himself said that he was not a god and that he was not to be worshiped. All he asked was that people follow the path to true happiness that he learned in his years of meditation and finally, his enlightenment. Meditation and a search for these things had been long-practiced in India even 2500 years ago, but he brought something new and profound to the picture and that's what made him The Buddha, as opposed to other buddha's or wise men who had come before him.
But, don't believe me, either. Try it for yourself, with an open mind and a willingness to trust that 2500 years and thousands of people who have benefited can't be all wrong. This much is required initially. A closed mind with immovable pre-conceived ideas will never budge. Give it time. Learn from people who know (don't make it up for yourself). If indeed you find that the path works, then and only then should you follow it, like the moon in the path of the stars.