Trying to define religuion is like trying to define art. Speaking generally, one could say that religion is the Belief in a God or Higher Power of some kind. But this is simplistic, because there are religions, like Buddhism or Jainism, that do not acknowledge a God or Supreme Being. There are other philosophies liek Humanism and Marxism that deny they are religions, yet their proponents act in every way as if they were following a religion!
To destinguish between religion and cult is also absurd, because every religion started out as a guru cult, and every guru cult is a (new) religion that has aroused the ire of the mainstream!
Ultimately, religion comes from man - it is in this sense a distortion of the teachings of the great spiritual founders like Jesus, Buddha, etc. But religion still in spite of the garbage contains a seed of truth and can provide hope.
I suppose you could say that religion means belief in some higher or transcendental reality (whetehr a personal God or impersonal Nirvana, or even abstract Dialectical forces of history or market foprces (as in the secular religions like Marxism and Economic Rationalism) or faith in human potential (Hamanism, Transhumanism). It means then orientating one's life to that, making that higher or greater or transpersonal reality central to one's life, having a relationship to that.
But religion also means following a bible, koran, torah, bhagavad gita, das kapital, or whatever, and seeing that as the revelation of a God and/or an absolute and dogmatic statement about how the universe works. In that sense religion restricts and limits the mind.
In this context religion constitutes a very potent meme, a "mind virus", a dogma that is carried on and perpetuates itself from generation to generation. But I think it is also more than "just" a meme. Because to say that religion is only a meme is to fall prey to another meme - the meme of rationalistic materialism.
At its best religion is a noble striving of the human spirit (albeit within a severely limited conceptual framework). At its worse it is the most disgusting hypocrasy. Those who are sincere about their own beliefs and practice, whether it be worship of Jesus, Allah, or whatever, and who do it in private from the heart, are far more noble then public figures like hypocritical televangelists (who talk about God but have gold ornaments in their houses and multi-million dollar bank balances) or fanatical fundamentalists of any persuasion. These latter are ugly and false, and represent all that is bad in religion. But that does not mean religion should be condemned, simply because so many extremists use it (and have used it throughout the centuries) to justify persucation, torture, acts of terrorism, religious wars (Crusades, Northern Ireland, etc etc), "ethnic cleansing", persecution of minorities, oppression, denial of education, and even socially-sanctioned murder of women (in some so-called "Islamic" countries), etc etc. (the list could go on and on...). It is not religion as such that is at fault, but human stupidity and ugliness that uses religion, just as it uses anything else at hand, to justify it's own "self-righteousness".. Because to be truely religious (as opposed to following sheep-like the socially-accepted religious conventions, "going to church on Sunday" etc) means to reject such hypocrasy.
Topics and Themes
Pagan and Ancient Religions
Western and Middle Eastern Religions
New and Alternative Religions
A Little Comic Relief
links to other sites on world religions
Monotheism | God | God With and Without Form | The Avatar | Mysticism | Faithful Translation of Sacred Texts | Hermeneutics | Religious Universalism | Esoteric and Exoteric | Memes
Shamanism | Ancient Egypt | Paganism | Neo-Paganism | Runic interpretations
Zoroastrianism | Manichaeism | Judaism | Christianity | Islam | Bahai'ism
Hinduism | Buddhism | Jainism | Taoism | Confucianism
some of these (e.g. Buddhism, Jainism) may not seem to be religions as such, because they do not affirm the existence of a Creator God). I argue however that they are religions because they constuitute a dogmatic attitude towards a transcendental or transpersonal reality. See also Eastern Philosophy
A Little Comic Relief