I think the presence of most if not all of the following “characteristics” helps us clarify what we often (and perhaps should) mean by the term “religion” or religious worldview (these might even serve as criteria for identifying ‘religion’ for legal purposes). It is capable of encompassing both “Western” and “Eastern” religious traditions, theistic and nontheistic worldviews, as well as many new (although not necessarily ‘New Age’) religions. The assumption here is that there is no readily or agreeably identifiable “essence” to religion, even if we often focus on certain dimensions or characteristics, say, a core set of beliefs (as a central set of truth-claims), the “transcendence” of religion, certain sorts of religious experience: of the “numinous” or “mystical” or “revelatory” and so forth. Our next task would be to identify what it means to cleave to a non-religious worldview.*
1. Belief in supernatural beings (spirits, gods, etc.), God, or a supreme divine principle or force (in the latter case, comprehensive or ‘holistic’ in structure).
2. A distinction between sacred and non-sacred (or ‘profane’) objects, space, and/or time.
3. Ritual acts centered upon or focused around sacred events, places, times, or objects. This includes such activities as worship, prayer, meditation, pilgrimage, sacrifice (vegetable, animal, or human; literal or figurative), sacramental rites, lifecycle rituals, and healing activities.
4. A moral code (ethics) or “way of life” believed to be sanctioned by the gods or God, or (in an informal sense: logically) derived from adherence to the divine principle or force. (There is no assumption here that morality need be religious, indeed, morality is conceptually distinct from and independent of religion.)
5. Prayer, worship, meditation, and other forms of “communication” or attunement with the gods, God, or the divine principle or force.
6. A worldview that situates, through (usually mythic) narrative, the individual and his/her community and tradition within the cosmos, world, and/or history. It is a significant, if not primary source of one’s identity, both in its individual form and group aspect. The worldview articulates the meaning—makes sense of—the group’s cultural traditions: its myths, history, rituals, and symbols. This often involves treating questions of the meaning of life and death (and what, if anything, follows death for a human being), of suffering and evil, of what philosophers term questions of personal identity, of humanity’s relation to the cosmos and natural world, its relation to nonhuman animals and perhaps a “spirit” world or “other worlds.” The worldview articulates the fundamental values of a religious community so as to affirm its most important values and/or its “ultimate value.”
7. Characteristically religious emotions or attitudes associated with that thought to be of divine provenance or endowed with “spiritual” power: a peculiar form of awe and fear, “dread” or angst, existential anxiety, sense of mystery, adoration, reverence, love, devotion, hope, a sense of guilt or shame, serenity, compassion, bliss, etc.
8. A more or less total organization or structuring of one’s life or individual lifeworld based on an understanding (hence interpretation) of the religious worldview (the ‘lifeworld’ may include beliefs, values, and practices not directly linked to or associated with a religious worldview). This understanding does not necessarily coincide with the normative pictures painted by those with religious authority or the “official” worldview of the religion, indeed, it may be rather idiosyncratic or even cognitively crude or fairly sophisticated, psychologically and philosophically speaking. Prima facie evidence reveals the religious adherent believes in or is attempting to live in accordance with the worldview.
9. A social group wherein personal and collective—cultural—identity is forged by the aforementioned factors.
10. Artistic or creative expressions related to any of the above characteristics.
We might keep in mind that the sort of analytical clarity sought in philosophical circles or the desiderata of semantic legal precision may not be applicable if by that is meant a definition (or something very close to a definition) of religion. Why? The late B.K. Matilal provides one reason from the philosopher A.N. Whitehead:
“Insistence on clarity at all costs is based on sheer superstition as to the mode in which human intelligence functions. Insistence on hardheaded clarity issues from sentimental feeling, as it were, a mist cloaking the perplexities of fact.”
* This list of characteristics is inspired by and in part follows that first provided by William P. Alston in the volume he edited, Religious Belief and Philosophical Thought: Readings in the Philosophy of Religion (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963): p. 5.
Addendum: In response to a comment to this post, I thought the following might be of interest: There has long been a recognition among anthropologists, sociologists, and historians (and even a few political scientists) that nationalism is often intertwined with religion and that nationalist and political ideologies frequently possess religious or religious-like characteristics: the radical break with tradition sought in the French Revolution resulted in a new political culture filled with rhetoric, symbols, images, and festivals with mythological and religious precedent or resemblance. The cases are varied and widespread: Zionism in Palestine, Maoist Marxist-Leninism in China (which functioned like a state religion), and what Robert Bellah famously (or infamously in some quarters) defined as “civil religion” in this country, to cite several of the more conspicuous examples. In the words of my teacher and mentor in the study of religions, Ninian Smart, “It is a not uncommon observation that modern nationalism functions like a religion.” So too the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm notes in his work on “nations and nationalism,” the “links between religion and national consciousness can be very close, as the examples of Poland and Ireland demonstrate,” and as is often noted today with regard to Islam in the Arab world. Yet we should also point out, with Hobsbawm, “that the prevalence of transnational religions, at all events in the regions of the world in which modern nationalism developed, imposed limits on religio-ethnic identification.” Finally, again with Hobsbawm, and perhaps indicative of the complexities of the historical entanglement of religion and nationalism, sometimes religious conversion has led to the creation of two distinct nationalities: “for it is certainly Roman Catholicism (and its by-product, the Latin script) and Orthodoxy (with its by-product, the Cryllic script) which has most obviously divided Croats from Serbs, with whom they share a single language of culture.”